ADULT LITERACY – TO LEARN OR NOT TO LEARN? That is the question

Alan Rogers

BALID President

When talking about adult literacy, we almost always talk about people who are non-literate or have difficulty with literacy as having to learn literacy.  This is the default mode for adult literacy for most people. We can see this when we look at the illustrations chosen for almost any report on adult literacy (including some BALID reports):  they almost always consist of one or more adults learning literacy rather than people using literacy in their everyday lives.

But this may be the wrong way to think of literacy for two reasons:  a) it assumes that the ‘learner’ does not know or is not able!  It is a deficit approach – and if there is one thing the ‘literacy as social practice’ view has taught us is that everyone – including the non-literate – do know a good deal about literacy (they have experienced it, often for many years) and most of them are able to cope with literacy activities in one way or another.  To deny all this experience,  all these capabilities is to demean the people we work with;  they are worthy of much better treatment than that.  And b) it suggests that we need to ‘teach’ them, using ‘teaching-learning materials’ (which some programmes base on what they believe are the everyday literacy activities of the ‘learners’).   Such situations call for a very unequal relationship  of ‘teacher’,  the knowing and the capable, and ‘adult learner’,  the not-knower and the not-able.

A woman who participated in a women’s business skills literacy programme in Ghana celebrates the first year of selling her own produce directly in local community markets. All the women kept their own records and managed their own money. (c) Katy Newell-Jons

And such an approach is unnecessary, for there is a much better way easily available.  And that is to rephrase the aim to read simply  How can we help them with their literacy?  Not ‘teach’, just ‘help’ in any way we can.  But notice – it is not to help them with literacy but with their literacy – and that is key.  Not to help them learn a generic literacy but to help them day by day with the daily tasks they are dealing with or wish to deal with.

There are two well-tested models we can build on to implement this.  The first is old – Laubach’s ‘Each One Teach One’ – but rephrased as ‘Each One Help One’.  Why not get an army of volunteers to adopt one or more adult with literacy aspirations (volunteers are the ‘in-thing’ at the moment),   simply to sit down, one by one and help.  The importance of this approach is that the so-called literacy ‘learner’ will feel they make much more progress than if they sit in a class being taught something which the teacher or the programme feel they should learn.

The second is more modern but more widespread and that is the extension model.  In this, someone who has experience joins up with one or more adults to help them with their tasks,  to share their different experiences.  They do not treat them as ignorant and inexperienced – they explore what knowledge and experience they already possess, and they explore what are the existing practices and aspirations of the adult participants.

Engaging in literacy tasks together

The two most complete models are farming extension workers who go to the farmers (they do not always expect the farmers to come to them as to a literacy class) and help them with their farming,  not just to learn the extension worker’s farming techniques. The agricultural extension worker does not start by saying, ‘You cannot farm;  I will teach you’;  rather, they acknowledge the farmers have been farming for many years (even generations) and have built up a good deal of experience of what works in their situation. The extension worker learns much from the farmers.  The other model is that of the health and nutrition extension workers – who again go to the adults (mostly women) and share knowledge.  At their best, they realise the participants have been engaging in food and health practices for many years and know what works and what does not work. They explore what are the existing health and food practices (in context – i.e. what is available and what the participants can afford  etc) and humbly suggest there may be viable alternatives.  Both approaches take into account local customs and preferences, even if these are not always scientifically justified;  they share different approaches.

So what about a literacy extension programme? All that is required is to help every adult literacy facilitator to change their ideas from being a teacher to being a personal helper – an extension worker.

It may seem strange that I – who have for years been researching and teaching about adult learning – should say that we should stop talking about learning and teaching and instead talk about helping.  But let me assure you that, if you really sit beside someone and with their willing assent help them with their tasks (like helping a child with their homework), the adult will learn much more than if you try to teach them.  It is a very simple change to make but it starts with us, not with the facilitator or the ‘learners’.  No more ‘teaching’, just helping.  And helping people with their tasks is so much more rewarding than teaching them something we think they should learn. At least, it is worth a try.

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Alan Rogers is a Visiting Professor in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia.  He is engaged in a number of studies of adult literacy programmes in Africa and south Asia in association with academics in a number of universities.  His studies with others of adult literacy facilitators in various countries continues, and he is co-editing a volume adult education and social change in the UK .

One Reply to “ADULT LITERACY – TO LEARN OR NOT TO LEARN? That is the question”

  1. You make very good points Alan.
    I have worked with local (settled)‘Travellers’ and it is usually something they just need some ‘help’ with – names, a card, a thank you note

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