Honouring BALID founding member, Dr Juliet McCaffery


Dr Juliet McCaffery, a founding member of BALID and respected specialist in literacy, gender and development, died in June 2024.

Juliet was an active member of the BALID committee. Along with Brian Street, Alan Rogers and others in BALID, Juliet saw literacy as social practice, intimately linked with people’s lives and livelihoods. She was involved in many of the core activities of BALID over the years, including teaching on the Easter Vacation Courses for overseas literacy facilitators, contributing to the Department for International Development (DFID) literacy consultation (2008) and the Global Monitoring Report (GMR 2010), participating in the conferences in Sierra Leone (2010) and South Africa (2011), co-editing Theory and Practice in Literacy and Development: Papers from the BALID Informal Literacy Discussions with Brian Street (2017),  and serving for many years as BALID secretary.

Ian Cheffy, Balid treasurer writes:

I first met Juliet nearly 25 years ago when, coming back from several years working in literacy in Cameroon, I joined BALID. I very much respected her for the breadth of her experience internationally and for her long standing commitment to the marginalised, expressed in her political involvement both locally in Brighton and nationally as a founding member of BALID, who had shaped its ethos as a body promoting literacy and lobbying for greater efforts to be directed towards improving literacy and education worldwide. BALID was very close to her heart.

Teaching courses in literacy at the SIL training centre in the UK as I was, I valued her book “Developing Adult Literacy” (Oxfam, 2007), written with Juliet Merrifield and Juliet Millican – the “three Juliets” – which was an ideal introduction and resource book for my students preparing for work in other countries. I was grateful to her also as a visiting speaker, sharing her experience with the students.

Juliet was a significant figure in the literacy community in the UK. In her passion and commitment, she will remain as an example to us all.

Katy Newell-Jones, former BALID chair writes:

I got to know Juliet 25 years ago, as a member of Education for Development when we worked together with community-based organisations in Sierra Leone and later South Sudan on Literacy and peacebuilding: a guide for trainers and facilitators. She encouraged me to join BALID and later we worked together on Learning together across generations: guidelines for family literacy and learning programmes.

I remember Juliet fondly as someone who was active in both academic and community settings, drawing from her experiences in each to inform debate in the other. She was a committed supporter of the BALID informal literacy discussion (ILD) programme, presenting and participating whenever she could over the years. Just as importantly, she actively encouraged others to share their work, often for the first time.

Juliet was passionately committed to the on-going support and development of literacy facilitators and generous in sharing her knowledge and experiences. When facilitating she took time to get to know every participant, encouraging each person to tell their story, enabling them to feel a valued participant in the group.  She is warmly remembered by those with whom she worked.

Chris Millora, BALID Chair writes:

Juliet has always been a supportive colleague and mentor, especially for early career literacy researchers such as myself. As a scholar who works with concepts such as literacy as social practice, I have been influenced by Juliet’s earlier work and writing. When I first took on the role of BALID Chair, Juliet was always so generous with her ideas and statements of support. I remember she would send me personal emails congratulating me for chairing a meeting so skillfully or expressing that she enjoyed our discussion. This meant a lot and has made my experience with BALID extremely positive. Juliet will be missed, and we will remember her warmth, influential scholarship, and collegiality.

Mary Anderson, former BALID secretary writes:

Juliet was incredibly generous, loyal and passionate. She was an inspiration for all of us. In the last few years she developed an endearing quirkiness. She is already sorely missed.

Why do the New Literacy Studies struggle to influence policy? Considering Phonics

Uta Papen (University of Lancaster), Ahmmardouh Mjaya (University of Malawi), Vicky Christoforatou, Mohammad Naeim Maleki, Catherine Jere and Anna Robinson-Pant (University of East Anglia)

The New Literacy Studies (NLS) emerged in the 1980s (Street, 1984) as a response to the growing recognition that literacy is used and learned, not only within classrooms, but within everyday life. Based on in-depth ethnographic research conducted in different contexts such as religious institutions, markets, health centres and homes (Barton, 1994), the NLS have informed sociocultural and practice-based approaches to literacy and still have much to offer to teachers and policymakers. And yet this impressive body of work has had little impact on policy (Papen, 2023).

On the 18th of January 2024, the UEA UNESCO Chair for Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation kickstarted the new year with a thought-provoking and engaging literacy forum, raising the question ‘Why do the New Literacy Studies struggle to influence policy?’ Posing this question was Professor Uta Papen from the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre, University of Lancaster.

Uta Papen’s insightful presentation explored the interface between literacy research and policy, focusing on primary education in England. It addressed three factors that have hindered the influence of sociocultural and practice-based literacy approaches on policy: the policy environment itself and how it has changed; the wider economy of literacy research and what knowledge counts in the interface between research and policy; and the role of the media and public discourse in the relationship between research and policy. Uta shared her reflections on the use of phonics in early years literacy education to illustrate these constraints.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a substantive rise in the use of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) in primary schools in England. The centralised policy system emphasises daily phonics instruction using specific government-approved programmes. Additionally, the Phonics Screening Check, where pupils’ decoding abilities are tested through 40 words (20 of which are pseudowords, phonetically regular combinations of letters forming a word that, however, have no meaning) is a nationwide assessment tool and has reinforced phonics teaching. These policy developments have made it challenging for teachers to incorporate diverse literacy practices and ideas from sociocultural approaches, as the focus is on promoting a uniform approach to literacy teaching.

The audience also heard that, in terms of research evidence, the policy move to SSP has been influenced by a limited number of studies which were consistently referenced in DfE documents, with Pearson’s “Clackmannanshire study” as the ‘darling’ of the English Education Minister’s phonics programme being consistently referenced. Uta argued that research critical of SSP has been largely disregarded. Recent policy papers continue to reference psychological studies, emphasising evidence-based practices and randomised-controlled trials (RCTs). The preference for RCTs in policy making suits the sector-wide reform agenda desired by policy makers, as they offer easily identifiable and defined knowledge, while excluding studies adopting other methodologies, such as ethnography which is frequently used by New Literacy Studies researchers.

The presentation concluded by exploring new pathways to policy impact, including proposed alliances with teachers, a focus on creating evidence and pedagogical models, drawing in ideas from the New Literacy Studies that can be implemented on a larger scale.

Vicky Christoforatou (Lecturer in Education on the Secondary PGCE course (English) at the University of East Anglia) offered important context to the discussion. She argued that policy, including the Education Inspection Framework in the UK, foregrounds one kind of knowledge only: schooled, academic, and ‘true’ knowledge; knowledge that must be learned and remembered.

Within the context of secondary English Language and Literature Education in England, this is problematic when engaging pupils with reading and responding to texts as well as producing texts. For example, in reading, different interpretations of texts are possible and, in writing, pupils, like authors, make choices. Manufactured responses that meet assessment criteria are privileged, whereas authentic responses and pupils’ own experiences with texts are not valued.

In another context with its own fabricated crisis, Initial Teacher Training, a mandated curriculum (ITT Core Content Framework) is a reductive list of ‘what works’ statements that pre-service teachers have to consume and then implement in their practice. All, irrelevant of phase or specialism, must also learn that SSP is the best way to teach reading.

In the two contexts above, it may seem that there is little space for sociocultural approaches. But there is space for creative compliance, for teachers participating in small or larger action research projects. Vicky concluded her contribution to the forum by bringing to mind Lawrence Stenhouse and calling for ways to celebrate teachers’ voices, create opportunities for teachers to collaborate and share their findings in accessible ‘platforms of knowledge’.

Responding to Uta’s presentation and presenting a perspective from Sub-Saharan Africa, Dr Ahmmardouh Mjaya of the University of Malawi, noted that an emphasis on valued, functional skills overshadows the socio-cultural and practice-based understanding of literacy.  And that reconciling functional skills and ‘literacy as social practice’ perspectives is an ongoing dilemma; a skills perspective that values assessment and its associated metrics is more easily accessible to policymakers.

Unfortunately, literacy measurement and assessment processes, in their current form, contradict the very spirit of the socio-cultural understanding of literacy and the contribution of the NLS. By contrast, the practice approach is learner-centred, focusing very much on what the learners do with their literacy and not on how much they have learnt after a programme.

However, Ahmmardouh argues, objection to current forms of literacy assessment without providing an alternative approach does not help to make a case with policy makers.  He agreed with Uta and Vicky about the importance of working with teachers and keeping conversations regarding the practice approach to literacy alive. He raised significant concerns that working with teachers, instead of policymakers, might appear as if we are pushing the approach through the back door. And that literacy learnt through the socio-cultural approach could appear as secondary or less important; while the phonics approach would be deemed the ‘real’ literacy.

Ahmmardouh also spoke of how, in certain contexts, alliances might raise ethical issues.  In Malawi, the curriculum is centralised and teachers are regularly monitored by education advisors to ensure that they are teaching the stipulated content. In this regard, there is a possibility that teachers found to be teaching ‘unsanctioned’ content could be disciplined. Related to this point is the issue of the purposes for learning literacy in preschool and lower primary and how the socio-cultural approach to literacy relates to these aims. In a Malawian context, at this level, literacy is mainly taught for academic advancement. So, it may be difficult to convince even teachers to forge these alliances in a context where the education system expects all learners to move in one direction.

The suggestion about producing a synergy of empirical evidence that may help in convincing individuals outside our circles is plausible. Perhaps, what is critical is the development of clear pedagogies of the socio-cultural approach to guide teachers, and to provide an operational outline of how learning through this model can be accounted for and by whom.

Uta Papen’s reflections on the links between the NLS and policy contexts, combined with the respondents’ ethical and political perspectives from Malawi and England provided a stimulating discussion at our UNESCO Chair Forum. We are looking forward to hearing about your ideas on literacy, research and policy in the contexts where you work – do share your comments!

About the UEA UNESCO Chair

This partnership between UNESCO, the University of East Anglia and six universities in the Global South was established in 2016. We aim to develop understanding about how adult learning – particularly for women and young adults – can help address inequalities in the poorest communities of the world. Through investigating how or why adult literacy might facilitate or respond to processes of social transformation, including women’s empowerment, this UNESCO Chair programme sets out to strengthen the interaction between formal, non-formal and informal learning in research, policy and programmes.

See: https://www.uea.ac.uk/about/school-of-education-and-lifelong-learning/research/international-education-and-social-change/unesco-chair-programme

Contact: UNESCO Chair unesco.chair@uea.ac.uk


Barton, D. (1994) Literacy: an introduction to the ecology of written language, Oxford: Blackwell

Papen, U. (2023) Literacy Research and Its Relationship with Policy: What and Who Informs Policy and Why Is Some Research Ignored? Research in the Teaching of English, 58/1, August 2023

Street, B.V. (1984) Literacy in Theory and Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Unplugged vs. Connected: A Comparative Observation of Urban and Indigenous Students’ Learning of Their Self-Identity

Shaida Salwi

Victoria International School, Malaysia

Over the next few months, BALID will host a series of blogs exploring the role of informal learning and literacies in young people’s everyday lives. The series hopes to feature young people’s work and ideas, inspire intergenerational conversation and become the basis for future action / research in these areas. Learn more about the series here and how you can contribute. More blogs in the series can be found here.

In this post, we hear about reflections from Shaida Salwi, an English teacher of an international school in Malaysia. She writes about her observations of the challenges and potentials of digital technology in the classroom and beyond – particularly among young people.

In today’s digital era, specifically looking at Malaysia, the learning landscape is moving (albeit at a snail’s pace) towards the transformation that we desire. Students who are living in urban areas are increasingly reliant on technology for various aspects of their lives, including education and identity exploration. In contrast, indigenous students draw on their community-embedded traditional knowledge for experiences. As a young educator who teaches students who live in urban areas whilst also volunteering my time teaching in rural areas, specifically the indigenous communities, I’d like to open a conversation on the different ways students from urban and rural areas learn informally through technology and indigenous practices and how it can impact their self-identity.

Volunteering at a camp for indigenous students: students’ teamwork effort in building a caterpillar train using newspapers

Digital platforms, educational apps, and various online resources have been growing lately in schools in Malaysia. It not only benefits us educators, but also helps students in urban areas who have seamlessly integrated technology into their lives and have been using these tools to expand their knowledge and skills. The digital divide in Malaysia is evident when I compare students who reside in urban areas to students who live in rural areas especially those of indigenous communities. While students in urban areas often have greater access to technology and digital resources, students from indigenous communities face barriers to technology access, resulting in a disparity in digital literacy and opportunities for self-directed learning. From educational YouTube channels to interactive learning applications such as Kahoot or Quizizz, students in urban areas have access to a wealth of information and engaging learning experiences. The benefits of technology-enabled informal learning include personalised learning opportunities and the ability to explore a wide range of subjects beyond the confines of the traditional classroom.

My students in an urban school working on their self-identity project while accessing the Internet

In our school, we teach Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) as a form of self-directed learning to prepare the students for the reality of life outside of the classroom. In the above picture, I brought the students to the school’s computer lab to work on their project which is related to their self-identity. There are three parts to the activities which include creating vision boards, personal narrative writing, and engaging in self-reflection exercises. These activities aim to empower students to explore their unique identities, build self-confidence, and cultivate a sense of authenticity and self-awareness. Being a Malaysian means you are part of a melting cultural pot. For these students, their identity is very important to them and they understand that it is crucial to learn how to navigate life based on their identity as their choices can make or break society. The autonomy and flexibility of technology definitely helped my students to achieve their goals but my concern lies in their increasing dependency on technology which may cause more harm than good.

When students in urban areas become solely and too dependent on technology, I believe, this may limit their exposure to real-world experiences which includes physical interaction with the environment, hands-on activities, and practical learning opportunities that are crucial for holistic growth. Relying excessively on virtual simulations or digital resources may restrict their understanding of the real world.

Let’s have a look at the other side of the story: in contrast to the technology-driven approach, I have observed some students who live in rural areas, specifically the Malaysian indigenous students, draw on community-embedded traditional knowledge and values for their experiences instead of relying too much on technology. Within their communities, intergenerational knowledge is often transferred to them via their elders who play a vital role in shaping their self-identity. Plus, students from indigenous communities actively engage with their environment, connect with their heritage, and immerse themselves in the cultural fabric of their communities. Thus, compared to their urban counterparts, I observe that the apparent stronger emphasis on experiential and hands-on learning, oral traditions, and observation of cultural practices majorly contributes to their holistic understanding of the world.

Students from rural areas and those from indigenous communities having fun learning with volunteers in a village in Kapit, Sarawak
(Pictures taken by Shaida and her team)

In my view, students who live at a distance from the internet have the best of both worlds in the sense that they are not totally dependent on technology, unlike some of those who live in urban areas. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be room for expanding the usage of technology in indigenous students’ lives. In fact, there are students who live in rural areas and those who come from indigenous backgrounds who are savvy in using social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and the like. Thus, I’m positive that digital tools can be employed to preserve and share traditional knowledge, ensuring its transmission to future generations. I can imagine that digital storytelling, multimedia presentations, and online platforms may provide opportunities for indigenous students to showcase their cultural heritage and further engage with wider audiences as per my observation while volunteering in the indigenous communities. Outsiders who are assisting members of the indigenous communities in this must take care to respect the unique cultural contexts and ethical considerations of the indigenous communities, in line with the policy of the Malaysian government.

Indigenous students using technology to learn about ASEAN during my volunteering sessions

Based on what I have seen in Malaysia, I think that students in urban areas need a breath of fresh air like their indigenous peers. There’s definitely a need for balance. I believe young people in urban areas should get out into nature to avoid overstimulation by technology. Meanwhile, students in rural areas should be given great access to digital resources, while taking care that their community values are not jeopardised. Cross-cultural exchanges and collaborations would provide opportunities for mutual learning and understanding, bridging the gap between urban and indigenous learning acquisition. Both paths have their merits and should be respected and fostered. By recognizing the strengths of each approach, we can create inclusive learning environments that honour diverse learning.

Shaida Salwi is currently the Head of Department for the Primary Unit, and an English educator at Victoria International School, Malaysia. She is also studying for an MA in English Literature at the University of Malaya. She is very passionate about female empowerment, children’s education and folklore. You may find her on Twitter @shaidaslwi


Rwandan Youth Peacebuilding by Learning

Yeonhee Sun

The Prince’s Trust (UK)

Over the next few months, BALID will host a series of blogs exploring the role of informal learning and literacies in young people’s everyday lives. The series hopes to feature young people’s work and ideas, inspire intergenerational conversation and become the basis for future action / research in these areas. Learn more about the series here and how you can contribute. More blogs in the series can be found here.

Yeonhee Sun of The Prince’s Trust (UK) pens this inspiring piece on the role of young people in peace building in Rwanda. In conversation with three youth peacebuilders, Yeonhee unpacks the various learning spaces and practices of young people to promote peace and build a more harmonious society.

The importance of young people

Young people have played an essential part in promoting a story that supports peace, reconciliation, and social healing in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide. Therefore, the role of young people as peacebuilders in the present and the future in their society’s recovery from conflict is critical. In 2014, while working as a project assistant in Rwanda’s eastern province, I became curious about how young people develop and maintain relationships and solidarity with neighbours who might have played a role in perpetrating the genocide. I was also interested in whether and how they can build peace through literacy learning. Recently, I had the opportunity to be in conversation with three youth peacebuilders in Rwanda to explore questions such as:

  1. What kind of learning occurs when people engage in their daily activities online and offline at home, school, and in the community (Government, NGOs, church, groups, Individuals)?
  2. How do young people use texts, words, and other forms of literacies in their everyday lives and in engaging with peacebuilding?
  3. What kind of knowledge or skills do young people improve and value through peacebuilding activities or programmes?

The young people (pseudonyms have been used in this article) were aged between 25 and 30 and they currently work as peacebuilders for local NGOs and study peacebuilding at university. I found them through LinkedIn by searching for peacebuilders in Rwanda. They all share a common goal of promoting peace in Rwanda. Two of them are Rwandans: Mahoro is a founder of a local NGO and Bosco is an Executive Director of a local NGO in Rwanda. Gatete is a South Sudanese who recently trained Rwandan university students on transforming power and conflict resolution communication in Huye, Rwanda’s southern province. Gatete is currently pursuing a master’s degree in international studies, specifically Peace and Conflict Studies, at university in East Asia. 


Peacebuilding Learnings and forms of literacies 

Different kinds of formal and informal learning for peacebuilding occur in person and online in Rwanda. Mahoro and Gatete said that the media is the main source of learning because it communicates about peacebuilding. Some young people also use different channels like newspapers and television. Also, many people in remote areas have limited resources so they have to turn to more traditional forms of media like radio. Mahoro addressed that ‘young people learn more through online platforms like YouTube, social media, and websites. Additionally, not many people read books, but many people learn a lot through storytelling in their community. Young and old generations are learning through their conversation in their area, whether through their local government offices, local meetings, school, restaurants, or markets’.

A peace building graphic

Mahoro asserted ‘home learning is important for peacebuilding because young people can listen to history and their individuals’ experience and stories in the past from their grandparents and parents during the genocide. These conversations are easier to have between families. For instance, there is no judgement whether they are Hutu or Tutsi, when you see their appearance. We should know “Ndi Umunyarwanda!” (I am a Rwandan) and we should respect others and embrace “Turi Abanyarwanda” (we are Rwandans). Therefore, it is helpful to make a relationship with their peers and neighbours and think with a more positive perspective post-genocide’. His examples show that young people are informally learning national identity, respect, tolerance and a positive mindset.

In addition, Bosco said that sometimes the government invites guest speakers (local leaders and genocide survivors) to promote peace among Rwandan citizens. They talk about their experience and why peacebuilding is important to communities in their daily. Bosco mentioned that ‘I have lots of experience in high schools when I was a student as a survivor. I visited memorials with students to learn about our history and then we discussed how we can be together and how we can protect our country and our future as far as peace is concerned’.

Mahoro and Bosco responded that as citizens of the new generations, this younger generation thinks Facebook and Instagram are important to communicate what they feel or what message they want to convey to people in the commemoration period. Rather than giving speeches, they prefer to share their message through social media, addressing a larger audience through their Twitter or Facebook accounts. Additionally, they use Instagram to share their thoughts on peace through visual content. For example, The Rwandan government posted one image of fire with “Kwibuka 29” (Kwibuka is a Kinyarwanda word that means “To Remember” and 29 is that the 7th of April marks the 29th anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. The Flame of Remembrance symbolises the courage and resilience of Rwandans over the last 29 years.) Also, media shared quotes about the genocide, from the President or from Rwandan celebrities, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Young people shared trending media and tagged “Kwibuka 29”.

Examples of instagram posts

However, Mahoro asserted that ‘some people can’t use smartphones or computers due to lack of equipment and digital skill. Therefore, they never use the Internet. They use their voice to talk about their ideas, thoughts and feelings of peace in person and also, they share flyers or brochure with text’. According to them, young people utilise different forms of literacy in various locations to share their ideas about peace and conflict.


Valuable knowledge and skills for peacebuilding

Everyone addressed that young people should know about their history and culture in Rwanda so, they should keep learning and listening to others. Therefore, they think that literacy skills (Reading, Writing, listening, and speaking) are the most important to access lots of information. They agreed that people should go to school for education when they are younger. Especially, young people use their computers or smartphones, so IT skills are crucial to get information and different perspectives about issues.

Mahoro and Bosco trained young people to improve their literacy and digital skills through their projects. Through the project, they were also exposed to different genocides in other countries, took online courses about peacebuilding, and shared their ideas with others by posting or discussing issues on the communication channels. As a result, they can see political leaders and elders through a different lens with the aid of critical thinking. Mahoro said that ‘I support youth to read books through my project in rural areas and we provide them with some stories. They learn how to communicate with others and make relationships and also, they can speak to others and share with us. This is important to know what they want to do or what kind of people they are. Peacebuilding is important to engage people, grow a positive mindset of living and a more inclusive society where we can live without harm’.

Local NGO youth library

Gatete asserted that ‘the more informed young people are the more they have the capacity to inform others. Young people who are not well informed about the situation, the less likely they are to make a difference in their local communities. One ingredient of conflict in Africa is that some young people are non-literate and therefore, don’t have the capacity to access other ideologies and investigate information for themselves’.

He also mentioned about communication skill by sharing his peacebuilding programme. Providing basic concepts on how communication can also cause conflict, therefore young people learn how other people can communicate effectively through things (For example, I-messages instead of You-messages, transforming power, and the violence and the non-violence tree).

You-messages (suggesting blame and encouraging the recipient to deny wrong-doing or to blame back) can cause conflict so this programme encourages the I-messages (simply state a problem, without blaming someone for it) in terms of communication and to ensure that the learners will be able to use nonviolent ways of communication to reduce conflict. His programme includes a key element called “transforming power,” which serves as the foundation of their alternative violence approach. This approach is based on the belief that everyone possesses an innate power, and that by tapping into this power, individuals are able to resolve conflicts in an effective way. This power can be expressed in a variety of ways, including humour, and can be used to transform difficult situations into positive outcomes. He asked young people to create two trees: one for violence and one for nonviolence. The violence tree shows the effects and consequences of violence, while the nonviolence tree explores the elements and impacts of nonviolence. By comparing the two, learners can better understand the concepts and why violence should be avoided, and how nonviolence can be used instead. This helps them reflect on the history of violence and consider nonviolent solutions.

Alternative to Violence Programme (AVP)

One of his main priorities was promoting civic education, which is considered essential for achieving stability and peace in any society. Investing in young people through knowledge and skills transfer, both transferable and soft, can help them become agents of positive change. This includes not only knowledge of peacebuilding, but also entrepreneurship, which can create more employment opportunities for young people. Therefore, engaging them through conferences and training programs can be an effective way of changing their lives and making them feel valued by involving them in organisations that work towards change. As the majority of society can be made up of young people, investing in their development can go back to their district and lead to a better future for all.


Closing Reflections

I had a wonderful experience having a conversation with young people in Rwanda who are dedicated to promoting peace in their communities. I was impressed by their journey of learning from others through projects, and now they are leading local NGOs and training other young people in peacebuilding. Despite their different backgrounds, they all share a strong desire to create a more peaceful world and recognise the important role that young people play in shaping their country’s future.

I would like to have a group discussion with more young people or people who attended the same or similar peacebuilding programmes because I am excited to see different aspects of issues. Additionally, I would like to engage with women next time because I found only men participants through social media. I am sure that if I worked with women, I could discover different learnings, valuable knowledge, skills or forms of literacies on peacebuilding. I am sharing this blog to demonstrate that Rwandan young people are currently contributing to a peaceful atmosphere and every day they engage in different forms of literacy to promote peacebuilding in various areas of the country.

Yeonhee Sun is currently working as Youth Development Lead at The Prince’s Trust in the West Midlands, United Kingdom. She completed her MA in Education and Development from the University of East Anglia and has been involved in Rwandan adult literacy education through the Bridge Africa Project from the Korean National Commission for UNESCO. She also coordinated educational programmes with volunteers in Rwanda. Email: Yeonheesun1@gmail.com; Twitter: Yeonhee_Sun

Step up, Speak out: A participatory research project involving young people from North East England in addressing sexual violence

Janelle Rabe

Durham University

Over the next few months, BALID will host a series of blogs exploring the role of informal learning and literacies in young people’s everyday lives. The series hopes to feature young people’s work and ideas, inspire intergenerational conversation and become the basis for future action / research in these areas. Learn more about the series here and how you can contribute.

Janelle Rabe of Durham University opens this series by sharing an exciting approach to engaging young people in conversations around sexual violence. Drawing from participatory research co-designed with young people, Janelle’s blog gives an insight into the importance of recognising young people’s voices and experiences when designing sexual health programmes.

WHY should we involve young people?

“Speak out! You are not alone!” – the young people in my project had this to say to their peers about sexual violence. Young people’s views are vital in effectively addressing sexual violence. However, they are rarely involved in programming and research on sexual health and sexual violence in the UK and globally . Young people think they should be involved because hearing from them will help their peers feel that they are not alone, and they can talk about their experiences. They are uniquely qualified to provide grounded perspectives on what works best for them .

I’ve always highly valued working with and learning from young people. I think they have fantastic ideas that we should listen to and act on. This prompted my ongoing Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded PhD study, a participatory action research (PAR) project led by young people on addressing sexual violence. PAR is considered an effective strategy in providing spaces for young people to shape the research process, such as identifying their topics of interest and their preferred methods of communicating.

WHO were involved?

Two groups of young people (13-18 years old) from a youth group and a school in North East England joined the project. The youth group comprised 15 young people (13-18 years old), 8 girls and 7 boys (two who identify as gay), while the school group involved 11 young people (16-17 years old), 8 girls and 3 non-binary.

Safe spaces agreement. Balls are part of the calm box young people can use when feeling anxious.

HOW did we work together?

Both groups co-created safe space agreements by deciding on the values that were important to them in working together such as respect, trust, and understanding.

Each group brainstormed and ranked its priority topics for the workshops. These included understanding sexual violence, young people’s education about sexual violence, and the effects of sexual violence on young people. Through a series of participatory workshops per group, we engaged in interactive activities such as body maps, vignettes, sorting and ranking, games, and discussion groups.

Icebreaker games and feedback were crucial parts of each session. Icebreaker games made young people feel comfortable and relaxed before we started the discussions. Meanwhile, their feedback were helpful in guiding me to adjust the activities to suit their needs. I aimed to be as open and flexible as possible. For instance, in a previous session, some of the young people said they preferred to do a role play but in the following session, they didn’t feel like it. I improvised a game on the spot which they enjoyed. Even in the icebreaker games and the snacks, I asked them for their preferences or provided them with options.

Young people’s workshop feedback

Their positive feedback about the workshops reinforced why working with young people is incredibly meaningful to me. I wanted to open spaces for them where they can freely express and enjoy themselves, even when dealing with sensitive topics. I’m pleased that the workshops have been safe spaces where they can learn from one another. Some of their feedback can be seen below.


Providing safe spaces

“Feeling safe and understood, we can all have input.”

“Janelle made me feel comfortable to share my thoughts and reminded us we can leave if we had to, this is a safe space etc.”

Learning from one another

“I liked how we were able to put forward our own opinions so I could understand other people’s points.”

 “Group work allowed for more opinions to be heard (and a contrast in opinions).”

Highlighting young people’s feelings

“I like it because it makes me feel acknowledged about the topic.”

“The sessions make me feel smart, educated, amazing, and lush.”

WHAT did we find out together?

Emerging findings from the research project include a co-developed understanding of sexual violence and young people’s recommendations for improving relationships and sex education, and school responses to sexual violence. Young people felt they were not supported enough to recognize and respond to sexual violence in various contexts. They were disappointed with the limited discussion of sexual violence in their lessons. They thought their schools were not doing enough to show that they were taking sexual violence seriously. They also felt discouraged from disclosing, reporting, and seeking help after experiencing sexual violence. They recommended more targeted training for teachers to better respond to their concerns and in teaching the lessons. They also wanted to see concrete actions from schools to reassure students that speaking up about their experience would have a positive outcome for the young person affected by sexual violence. They wanted consistent support for these affected young people, such as mental health counseling, if necessary.

WHERE are we going next?

Working with and learning from the young people has been such a fulfilling experience. I am always amazed by their brilliant ideas and their passion for change. They have led the project in exciting directions that I didn’t anticipate. I am glad I decided to follow their lead.

Challenging the norms of adult-children dynamics was vital along with negotiating working relationships with the young people. I respected young people’s views and I didn’t want to impose my plans or decisions as the adult researcher. I consistently showed that I valued their insights in various aspects. I wanted to make them feel that we were doing a joint project together rather than it being just my project. I committed to this approach from the start because young people are rarely listened to, much less given a chance to lead discussions related to sex or sexual violence. There is often a stigma and a culture of silence even when young people want to learn more and do something about the issue. Through our project, I wanted to show the benefits of an alternative approach of involving young people that can be explored by other researchers and practitioners in the future.

Creative reflection activities

Moving forward, I am eager to engage more young people in the UK and my home country, the Philippines. I will also apply young people’s recommendations of involving diverse groups of young people such as those from ethnic minority communities, those with disabilities, and those with different sexual orientations. I intend to boost the impact of the project by disseminating young people’s insights and recommendations to policymakers, teachers, schools, parents and other young people.

Overall, young people’s feedback on the workshops emphasised their appreciation and clamour for having safe, non-judgmental and open spaces to discuss and learn about the issue of sexual violence together with their peers. It’s about time we listened to them and gave them the spaces they deserve.

Janelle Rabe is a doctoral researcher at the Durham University Department of Sociology and a member of the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA). Her PhD project is funded by the Northern Ireland and North East Doctoral Training Partnership (NINE DTP) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). She has a decade of experience working with non-governmental organizations and policymakers in the Philippines on child rights and development issues. She has contributed to policy advocacy campaigns leading to the passage of laws on raising the age of sexual consent, child nutrition and child protection.

Email: anne.j.rabe@durham.ac.uk

Twitter: janelle_rabe

Call for Contributions: Blog Series on ‘Learning and literacies in young people’s everyday lives’

Learning and literacies in young people’s everyday lives: A blog series

Young people are navigating an increasingly complex world. They face intersecting crises such as the climate crisis, rising unemployment, deepening inequalities and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, young people are often also at the forefront in responding to these issues in many communities – learning various repertoires of social action that constantly change. Against the backdrop of ceaseless flow of information, young people need to sift through a multitude of information both in ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ media.

BALID is curating a blog series to explore the role that learning (particularly informal learning) and literacies play in young people’s lives (beyond formal schooling), livelihoods and social action. The series hopes to feature young people’s work and ideas, inspire intergenerational conversation and become the basis for future action / research in these areas. We invite academics, practitioners, youth-involving organisations, activists and young people themselves to join us in conversation around the broad theme above and/or to explore the following questions:

  • What sorts of learning occur when people engage in their daily activities online and offline (e.g. at home and in their wider community)?
  • What kinds of knowledge do young people have and value? And, in turn, what are some of the best practices or programmes that value young people’s knowledge and skills?
  • How do young people use texts, words and other forms of literacies in their everyday lives and in engaging with issues that are important to them?

If interested, please email Yeonhee Sun (yeonheesun1@gmail.com) or Chris Millora (c.millora@gold.ac.uk) with a brief description on what you plan to write. We welcome various blog formats such as video-based, animations, conversations and others. BALID blogs are around 750 words long and include 2-3 photos/visual media.

The Torwali Literacies

Zubair Torwali

Idara Baraye Taleem wa Taraqi, Pakistan

Torwali children enjoy reading Torwali text at the public higher secondary school in Manikhal (Mankiyal) Bahrain Swat

Twenty years ago, in November 2002, a symposium was held in Kyoto, Japan, under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) where a group of experts named as UNESCO’s Ad Hoc Group on Endangered Languages worked on a document entitled ‘Language Vitality and Endangerment’, which was published by UNESCO in 2003. This document lists nine factors in language vitality including:

 1) Intergenerational language transmission,

 2) Absolute number of speakers of the language,

3) Proportion of those speakers within the total population,

4) Trends in use of the language in existing language domains,

5) Response to emerging domains and media,

6) Materials for language education and literacy,

7) Official status and use including institutional and governmental policies,

8) Community members’ attitude toward their own language and;

9) Amount and quality of documentation.

A Torwali student reads the Torwali Alphabet primer at a high school in Kamal (Kedam) Bahrain Swat

All these factors are integrated and related to each other. Government and institutional policies affect the community’s attitude toward their own language, which further impacts intergenerational transmission, community response to new domains and media including the production of materials for language education and literacy. Government policies greatly impact the availability of materials for language education and literacy directly as well. The quality and amount of documentation influence literacy materials in a direct way, too, for no literacy materials in a language can be produced without documentation. Traditionally, documentation is text oriented as suggested by Prof. Himmelmann in his work on documentary linguistics. Many linguists follow the contrast he makes between language description on the one hand and language documentation “characterized as radically expanded text collection” on the other (Himmelmann, 1998, p. 2)

In a society like ours in Pakistan, where education is limited and mostly held as writing and reading of a certain language – in other words, conventional literacy – text still dominates, and great prestige is attached to it. In our Pakistani context a ‘language’ is what is written whereas the general perception holds that any language, not in writing, is a ‘dialect’ meaning speech but devaluing the language.

Given this particular educational and social context we had to first bring our languages into writing and promote their literacy with primary focus on its writing and reading. The writing systems of most of the indigenous languages in North Pakistan including my language , Torwali,  were developed after 2000 CE.

The Torwali Reading Stories used at the Torwali MLE schools for pre-primary 1

I began to develop the first ever alphabet book of Torwali in 2004 and after two years I, along with a team of other Torwali activists, started to develop a curriculum and course books in Torwali for the multilingual education (MLE) schools which started in 2008. This was after we had developed the course books for the literacy and non-literacy subjects. We got our preliminary training from the Frontier Language Institute , which is affiliated  to SIL International and is now named the Forum for Language Initiatives (FLI), based in Islamabad, Pakistan. Since 2008 our Torwali MLE schools, now called the Innovative Learning Model Schools, have grown to four in four different locations and the higher grade now is grade four.

Forced and motivated by the interplay of all the language vitality factors, we have tried a holistic approach to overall language literacy and development. Our organization, Idara Baraye Taleem wa Taraqi (IBT) which we established in 2007 has since then undertaken many integrated activities along with the MLE schools which include holding cultural and musical festivals, producing materials in Torwali for adults, developing literacy among the Torwali women, advocating for the cultural and other rights of the community, conducting research in Torwali people’s history, reclaiming and strengthening the ‘Torwali’ identity. These activities helped in changing the community’s attitude toward their language and culture, built their self-esteem, fostered greater self confidence among the youth and made the community recognized among the dominant communities. We also made greater use of social media and conventional media to promote Torwali, its culture and identity.

Torwali singers and musicians play and sing Torwali songs at IBT office
Torwali youth in a meeting discussing how to revitalize their language and culture. The plan for a cultural festival.

The Torwali language revitalization program is greatly acclaimed in Pakistan and internationally by academics, activists and the media. Our model fits into what Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope suggest in their book ‘Literacies’ (2012) as a ‘Multi-contextual and multimodal’ approach to literacy instead of the conventional literacy which focuses on the ‘textual formalities such as correct spelling and grammar’.

We have also been facing many challenges including the use of digital media in enhancing the Torwali language. Our current donors have also refused to extend funding our program beyond June 2023. This is undoubtedly the biggest challenge we now face: how to sustain our Torwali MLE program for the children as well as continuing the overall Torwali literacies and language development work.


Zubair Torwali is a writer and activist for the rights of all the marginalised linguistic communities of north Pakistan. He is the founder of the civil society organisation Idara Baraye Taleem wa Taraqi, and the author of Muffled Voices: Longing for a Pluralist and Peaceful Pakistan (2015), among others. He lives in Bahrain, Pakistan. He has been working for increasing literacy of the endangered languages of North Pakistan.



  1. Himmelmann, N. (1998). ‘Documentary linguistics and descriptive linguistics’. Linguistics, 36, 161–195.
  2. Kalantziz, M. & Cope B (2012). ‘Literacies’. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[Visual and Sensory Literacies Series] A reflection on building community, belonging and identity through music practices

Arianna Berardi

Musician and music therapist working for Nordoff Robbins

Over the next few months, BALID will bring you a series of blog conversations following BALID’s last interactive Informal Literacy Discussion (ILD) on the theme of ‘applying visual and sensory literacies in refugee research and practice’. Taking some definitions of visual and sensory literacies as a starting point, the blog series will look at further examples of its use in research, teaching, and arts practice, as well as raising important considerations around ethics, voice, and agency.

The first post in this series could be accessed here. The second post is available here.


This blog follows my participation in BALID’s Informal Literacy Discussion (ILD) on ‘Using Visual and Sensory Literacies in Refugee Research and Practice’. In the ILD I talked about my sessions at a community refugee organisation where I have been working since October 2021. In this blog I share in more depth the nature of my music wellness sessions and reflect on the way in which these sensory practices support the building of community, belonging, and identity.

Arianna presenting during the ILD

The music wellness sessions at the community and refugee organisation have now been running for seven months, and they have taken different forms and shapes: depending on the attendees, the type of music, and the various group dynamics. For example, this could include 1:1 sessions or larger open group sessions. At this particular setting, I work with people seeking asylum as well as people who are local to the area and I strive to create a safe and open space for all.

Most of the sessions at the refugee organisation have been in the format of an open group, which allows people to join and leave without a strict schedule, and this often creates a sense of flow and freedom in the group. More often than not, most attendees end up staying for most of the session.

These sessions aim to foster connections amongst participants and support the creation of a musical community where participants can share music from their own culture and background as well as learn new music. This process creates a unique sense of togetherness based on the rich and varied cultural and social experiences that everyone brings to the group: ultimately cultivating cross-cultural collaboration through music.

In the open group sessions, I encourage participants to experiment with playing various instruments, and participants are also given the opportunity to facilitate and lead musical interactions and activities. This supports a sense of shared agency and co-creation of musical material and the co-creation of a space where people can feel heard and acknowledged musically. Often, participants have commented on how empowering it has felt to be able to teach the group a song from their culture, and to hear and see everyone else being really interested and curious to learn. In this context, music allows the building and co-creating of a community that thrives because of its diversity, which can be a powerful message in a society that consistently aims to divide and separate people based on cultural, religious and socio-economic differences.

A word cloud of Arianna’s blog

In this particular musical community, participants have also been able to re-shape and re-appraise their cultural and musical identity in a different context and under a different light. By playing, singing and re-creating songs from their cultural backgrounds, participants have, to various extents, re-shaped and re-defined their identity in connection to other participants’ identities. Through this process they have negotiated a broader, inclusive group identity which encompasses the nuanced and multi-faceted nature of the group.

Through the musical practices we have been engaging in in the sessions, participants have explored building a unique sense of belonging to the group: that is a belonging which is not merely the sum of each individual identity, but rather a communal identity which is fluid and constantly being shaped and redefined by those who are part of it.

I look forward to seeing how the sessions keep evolving and taking different shapes and meanings.

Arianna Berardi. I am a musician and music therapist working for Nordoff Robbins, the largest independent music therapy charity in the UK. I have a background in Psychology and in the performing arts, and I began working as a music therapist in 2021. I am currently working in a variety of settings including special needs education, adult mental health, and refugee organisations.


[Visual and Sensory Literacies Series] The Linguistic Landscape of Sanctuary and Solidarity

Katie Blair

University of Birmingham

Over the next few months, BALID will bring you a series of blog conversations following BALID’s last interactive Informal Literacy Discussion (ILD) on the theme of ‘applying visual and sensory literacies in refugee research and practice’. Taking some definitions of visual and sensory literacies as a starting point, the blog series will look at further examples of its use in research, teaching, and arts practice, as well as raising important considerations around ethics, voice, and agency.

The first post in this series could be accessed here.


Protest placards and paintings in one of Riace’s squares (photo Dario Condemi)


Arrival of the Ararat

The first refugees to be given sanctuary in the small town of Riace, in Calabria, Southern Italy, were Kurdish. Their sailing boat (named Ararat, an ironically apt name for people seeking sanctuary*) washed ashore in 1998, an event that marks the beginning of a period of unprecedented refugee hospitality in Riace, that subsequently extended its welcome to people fleeing Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Twenty years on, in October 2018, a change in Italian law, motivated by the government’s increasingly hostile anti-immigration policies stripped many refugees of their humanitarian status in Italy, and the majority of those resident in Riace were forced to leave. However, left behind in the now quiet streets is a valuable archive of street art, that reveals the impulses that underlie the town’s extraordinary openness and generosity to refugees, and which connects Riace’s recent story to its long history.


Ghost Town

Up to the end of the 1990s, Riace had experienced constant poverty caused by drought, economic decline, isolation, and organised crime, that resulted in successive waves of emigration to northern Italy, northern Europe, the USA, and beyond. Its medieval historic centre, with its remaining population aging and many of its houses abandoned and dilapidated, seemed destined to become a ghost town.

In 1998, to accommodate those first refugees, town councillor Domenico Lucano, who later became mayor, proposed and spearheaded an innovative humanitarian solution: by providing sanctuary, homes and jobs for the refugees, the town could be physically rebuilt and demographically and economically rejuvenated. This reciprocal exchange grew over the following twenty years into what became known as the ‘Riace Model’ of hospitality and integration, welcoming many thousands of people originating from more than 20 different countries, who brought with them a repertoire of many languages. The nearly-abandoned medieval town, previously isolated and remote, became a place of contact, connection and change, with the exchanges of ideas and cultures creating a new globalised community brought together under, or in solidarity with, the Riace model.


The Solidarity-Scape

As Riace developed a new identity as an open and welcoming ‘global village’, a distinctive multi-modal linguistic and semiotic landscape, comprised of signage, public art and murals, was simultaneously created through civic participation and the sponsorship of professional street artists. This ‘solidarity-scape’ became the backdrop to local life and an integral part of campaigning and activism, locally, online, and in the news.

Despite the termination of the Riace Model in 2018, its traces remain woven into the fabric of the town. The public art, and its reproduction in digital images, act as metaphors or metonyms for the Riace Model’s philosophies of solidarity, progressive politics and positive refugee inclusion, and it is these elements that interest me in my research. Using the methodological approach of linguistic landscapes to look at multi-modal forms of communication (signage and visual images, both with and without text), I aim to understand the ideology underpinning their creation, and their subsequent digital deployment.

Notable in Riace’s street art are the many recurring themes that I believe fit under a broader thematic umbrella of solidarity. From welcome signs greeting you in various languages, the use of flags (e.g. the representation of many nations within numerous artefacts, the recurring use of the ‘peace’ flag’s rainbow colours, and the colour-palate of Pan-Africanism), anti-mafia sentiments and commemorations of mafia victims, to naïve or folk art representations of global figures of resistance or revolution – the art and artistic expression in Riace all appears to have been created through an expression of solidarity. This language of international solidarity, encompassing progressive, pro-immigration and anti-mafia philosophies, and a recognition of the unequivocal correlation of southern Italy’s history of emigration with contemporary immigration has, in my view, been the principal inspiration underlying Riace’s extraordinary refugee welcome project.


Section of Porte di Riace (Gateway to Riace) mural created by street art collective Guerrilla Spam. The arches, entitled Porta Europa, Porta Asia, Porta Africa, are decorated with symbols depicting arrivals from early antiquity (Source Guerrilla Spam).


Left section of Porte di Riace mural. The top half shows a compass rose and timeline of immigration to Riace, connecting the arrival of the Greeks in 8th Century BC, to later arrivals from the Middle East and Africa (Source Guerrilla Spam).


And finally …

Here’s the word cloud generated during March’s Informal Literacy Discussion in response to our digital walking tour. It shows reactions and sentiments inspired by some of Riace’s artefacts, such as “welcoming”, “inclusivity” and “solidarity”. It was lovely to see that “warmth” appears at the centre and in larger font, indicating that this response was chosen more than once. 😊



Like to see more on Riace’s solidarity-scape?

If you would like to see the creative process in action, I recommend two videos available on YouTube:

  • This short video beautifully evokes the day in 2009 when artists arrived in Riace from all over Italy for a collaborative artistic event called “The Colours of Memory”. (There are no English subtitles. The film begins with an Afghan child narrating the bombardment of their town by the Taliban and how they prayed for survival. Later the mayor talks about how the event commemorates those murdered by the mafia and calls for a fight for just world.)
  • I highly recommend this time-lapse video of the creation of “Il Sogno del Guerriero” (The Warrior’s Dream) (2018), by Peruvian street artist, Carlos Atoche. The warriors’ dream, according to the artist, is the realization of the Riace Model of refugee integration. (Watch the video to the end to see the fully completed piece.)

For further information on Riace or linguistic landscapes research in a refugee context, please email me on cbb711@student.bham.ac.uk.

*The mountains of Ararat, located in the east of modern-day Turkey, were (according to interpretations of Genesis 8:4) believed to be the landing place of Noah’s Ark once the flood waters began to recede.

Katie Blair is undertaking a PhD in Modern Languages at the University of Birmingham, researching the ‘Riace Model’ of refugee resettlement. Her study looks at identity, inclusion, and activism in multimodal solidarity-themed street art through digital linguistic landscapes analysis.

Tributes to Alan Rogers from BALID


Professor Alan Rogers served BALID as President from 2020 but before that he had been an outstanding supporter and ‘critical friend’ for many, many years! We will miss Alan’s enthusiasm and energy not only on literacy and development but adult learning in general. In this blog post, BALID committee members share their memories and tributes to Alan – celebrating his impact on many of us over the years!

Chris Millora, BALID Chair

Adapted from a tribute Chris read during Alan’s funeral service on 22 April 2022 at Southwell Minster.

Alan once told me a very useful analogy when I was having a hard time writing my thesis. He said that I could imagine my thesis as exploring a house. Now, I am going to discuss the kitchen and the dining room and their relationships, not the whole house, because I do not have enough space to write about the whole building. When I was writing this tribute and reading the many good words from colleagues about Alan, I was once again reminded of this analogy. I can certainly not capture the vastness of Alan’s impact to me as his former PhD student and to us at BALID. We at BALID greatly benefited from Alan’s incredible support, wisdom and commitment as a colleague and friend. As a tribute, I can only share some of this impact – just a couple of rooms in the big, beautiful house that Alan has helped built over the years.

Alan was a long-time supporter and critical friend of BALID. He served as committee member for many years and in 2020 was elected President. Many of us at BALID remember Alan’s intellectual energy. He often challenged our fundamental thinking around literacy – especially at a time when we were expanding our membership to include international partners in the Global South, some of whom such as our colleagues in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Uganda, drew from Alan’s scholarship. I can also remember how Alan spoke so enthusiastically about a fantastic programme BALID used to conduct for many years during the Easter university vacation – gathering students from the Global South doing PhD research in the UK for a week of engaging with each other and with literacy scholars and experts in the field. When I heard this, I knew his heart had always been in supporting future scholars and facilitators in the field.

I knew Alan personally as my PhD supervisor. Having read much of his work, I was in awe of his wisdom and his humility and commitment to supporting young scholars. I can still remember vividly our first meeting. Anna, who was my primary supervisor, explained that she would be giving 80% of the supervision and Kate, my second supervisor, would give 20%. Alan, who was part of the team on a voluntary basis, remarked something like, “And I will be giving another 100%. So, you have 200% of our support!”. And it did feel that way – mentorship that went over and beyond the writing of a thesis. A year before I finished my PhD, Alan encouraged me to accept the invitation to be BALID Chair – a change in their leadership after 15 years and a decision that has helped me grow personally and professionally. In fact, I was unaware of his declining health because he had been so active giving comments to my book proposal for a series which he and Anna Robinson-Pant were co-editing. I signed the contract last month and it is a great pity that Alan will not be around to read the final product.

I’d like to think that Alan did not only ‘teach’ us something, but he ‘helped’ us. He was always generous with his time and ideas – and was very open to listen and give advice. Last December, Alan wrote a thought-provoking piece in the BALID blog which powerfully explained his distinction between teaching and helping. And I’d like to close my tribute today by sharing part of Alan’s blog:

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.

Katy Newell-Jones, former chair of BALID

Alan generously planted seeds, showed people opportunities and threw out challenges.

I first met him in 1992, when he was coordinating the NGO Education for Development and needed free space for some workshops for literacy practitioners from Egypt. At the end of an inspiring week, Alan asked if I had ever thought of supporting literacy overseas. No, I hadn’t, but he planted the seed, showed me the opportunities and threw me the challenge.

As well as supporting early career researchers, Alan also supported early career facilitators. He promoted participatory approaches, actively encouraged participants to discuss in languages in which they felt most comfortable, and questioned facilitators’ motivation behind needing to follow every conversation.  Again, seeds, opportunities and challenges.

During my time as chair of BALID, Alan provided valuable links to early career researchers and input into key events. I am reminded particularly of December 2019, when he gave the closing comments at the Brian Street memorial event Literacy as Social Practice, hosted by BALID, the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Transformation, and King’s College London (See here for the report of the meeting.) The room was buzzing with energy. The event had been highly engaging and interactive.  Alan had three points which he shared in characteristically clear, direct language, referring back to seeds planted long ago, like “literacy comes second”[2] (see Alan Rogers, 2000, “Literacy comes second: working with groups in developing societies”, Development in Practice 10.2, pages 236-240).

  • I came to wonder if sometimes we are as much part of the problem as we are the answer to the problem.
  • What matters?
  • ‘Them’ and ‘us’

I am grateful for the immense learning which resulted from opportunities to engage with Alan, and the legacy he has left for us all to continue to develop and learn in the future.

Ian Cheffy, SIL International, BALID Treasurer

Although Alan was a committee member I recall that it was difficult for him to travel to London for our face-to-face meetings which were the norm in those pre-Covid days so his contributions were largely by email. He was certainly keen to keep us on track, and I recall that he could be quite challenging at times! The phrase “critical friend” comes to mind!

He was certainly passionate about adult education, and it was interesting to see how his interest in adult literacy in development led to him collaborating with Brian Street on the LETTER project, introducing literacy practitioners in several countries to the approach to literacy as a social practice. I very much appreciated his desire for adult literacy teachers and facilitators to recognise the actual uses of reading and writing which were important to people and to design teaching programmes around those. Such an approach is vitally important but I regret that it has not made the impression that it deserves.

Alan was committed to helping people grow. I was particularly glad of his support which was instrumental in the publication of the BALID book “Theory and Practice in Literacy and Development” edited by Juliet McCaffery and Brian Street (see McCaffery, J and Street, B (2016) Theory and Practice in Literacy and Development: Papers from the BALID Informal Literacy Discussions BALID and Uppingham Press)

Alan was a pioneer with a deep commitment to the study and the practice of adult education. He was an initiator too – here I am thinking of his Uppingham Seminar series, which he organised and which were held in a thoroughly collaborative manner. I attended only the one in 2016 but it was fascinating to see how he had been able to bring together a number of significant people in our world of literacy and development including some from UNESCO as well as literacy leaders from other countries.

We will miss Alan in person but his influence on our thinking and practice will not disappear.

Suzan Voga-Duffee, Rift Valley Institute, South Sudan

It was Katy Newell-Jones who introduced Alan to me. At the time he was trying to get in touch with a group of South Sudanese who were conducting research for him. Katy put us in touch hoping I might know some of the students and could let them know that Alan was trying to contact them. It so happened that the same students got in touch with him while we were still emailing back and forth.

I immediately knew Alan was a good man with a golden heart, because he started to ask me what my interests were and if I was interested in academia, to which I said I was. He wanted to know my educational inspirations and asked about my work and we ended up discussing my Master’s thesis. He suggested I publish it, with his help of course. We had planned on how to do this, with him sending me guidance on how to rewrite the thesis. I am now in the process of editing it…and then came this news of his demise. May his gentle soul rest in peace.

Mary-Rose Puttick, Birmingham City University

Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to meet Alan in person. However, I feel lucky that I have had email correspondence with him over the last year when he gave me the opportunity to write a chapter for his forthcoming book with Jules Robbins. Alan was very kind and supportive to me throughout this process.

Gordon O. Ade-Ojo, University of Greenwich


Really devastated by this news, as I have only this week realised that Alan had invited me to contribute a chapter to a book he was editing but somehow the email had been ‘junked’. On Wednesday, I was just going to delete all the mails in my ‘junk’ and, for some reason, decided to take a quick look and found the email he had sent to me back in 2021. I now feel that I missed the opportunity of associating with greatness.

Talking about greatness, that exactly describes Alan. I had recommended his books and other contributions to my students for decades and was totally in awe when I finally met him in person. For such a great man, so much humility and readiness to interact with mere mortals like me. A sad day for the academic community in general, and for those he has admitted into his academic family.

True greatness in academia is never transient. It endures forever. Rest in peace, Alan