Remembering Lalage

“I was left [after spending several years in Africa] with the huge conviction that even the simplest acquisition of literacy can have a profoundly empowering effect personally, socially and politically. When it comes to women, there is a huge change in their self-worth and confidence.”

Lalage Bown, in an interview with Mary de Sousa in 2009 for the UNESCO Education Sector Newsletter


The death of Professor Lalage Bown after a fall at home on 17th December 2021 was a great blow for everyone in the world of Adult Education and beyond. She was a passionate and hugely effective proponent of empowerment through education, and especially the education of women. And within that vision, she always saw literacy as an essential, fundamental component of development.

Two of Lalage’s endearing characteristics were her generosity to one and all, and her supremely effective communication. Her writing and her oral delivery were clarion clear. She never minced words. She said it as it was, however difficult the message. 

Lalage was an ardent and faithful supporter of BALID throughout its existence, contributing to many events over the years.  BALID benefited enormously from an Informal Literacy Discussion that she led at Redcliffe College, Gloucester in 2015, entitled Adult literacy: Policies and structures. This focused on the need for us to educate ourselves in political literacy and not think of literacy only in the traditional sense. She turned the tables on us! Here is a significant truth extracted from a summary of her presentation:

Convincing those in power, whether in central or local government, in some NGOs or in important companies, is just one step. There have to be structures to enable those learners to gain access to useful literacy tools. In the 20th century, there were mobilisation societies, where the whole population was involved, in the USSR, Cuba, Guinea Bissau (the President Amilcar Cabral phrased it: “All those who know should teach those who don’t know”) and Tanzania. But in the 21st century, globalisation has (paradoxically) fragmented societies.

The challenges we face are: why are we relatively unsuccessful in conveying to governments our conviction of the significance of adult literacy and adult learning more broadly? Why are we relatively unsuccessful in persuading politicians and civil servants to translate policies into action? And do we have practical prescriptions for structures to ensure action? These apply to any country’s internal situation and to the work of aid-giving nations.

. . .

We have to find more ways in which participants in literacy programmes can bear witness to their experience and express their views. Academics and practitioners often publish case-studies, but they are read by the converted. Our predicament is how to get access to the media, particularly new media. The story of Malala [Yousafzai] gave a powerful witness to the problems of school-girls in Pakistan; can we find an adult woman’s story and disseminate it? And how else can we get the message out?

There have been obituaries and many tributes to Lalage in the national press and in the academic world. But perhaps it is appropriate for us in BALID to share personal and professional memories of this amazing woman.

Mary Anderson, former Secretary of BALID, recalls: I first met Lalage through her brother and sister-in-law. She invited me for a sumptuous lunch in her beautiful home in Shrewsbury (near the border between England and Wales), where I felt enveloped in the riches of her wisdom and experience. Every part of her life and being were represented in art, textiles, papers, books, and journals. On a subsequent visit, I helped her to sift through family memorabilia – what an honour! Then, every Christmas, I received the most wonderful letter regaling me with stories of her endeavours, her achievements, visits with family and friends, and much more.  As one friend put it, ‘what a lovely, powerful and kind woman – and what a life to have lived!’ What a woman indeed. 

It might sound trite to say that she embodied the best of colonial existence: much of her life’s work was, after all, spent in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia. But she was emotionally as well as professionally involved, and this is most poignantly obvious through her adoption and devotion to her Nigerian twins, Kehinde and Taiyo, whose lives she transformed, and who regularly came to visit her in Shrewsbury. As others have said elsewhere, she was also deeply involved in the life of the town and will be sorely missed not just on the international stage.

Ian Cheffy, Treasurer of BALID, writes: I first met Lalage over twenty years ago when she was a very valuable member of the advisory committee supporting SIL in making connections with the wider field of literacy outside of our own organisation. Her commitment to literacy and education as a key element in development for marginalised people and places was abundantly clear both then and in the years that followed. Her insights were always much appreciated, expressed as they were in her unique style of passion combined with sensitivity and gentleness.

Katy Newell-Jones, former Chair of BALID, recalls three recurring themes from conversations with Lalage over the years, often over tea and cake.  Consistently, raising awareness of literacy as both an individual practice and also a community asset, intimately linked with voice, identity, status, aspirations and power.  Challenging literacy practitioners and researchers demanding a higher profile for adult literacy, to change our message, not just shout louder whilst complaining about not being listened to or understood. And finally, reminding us that it’s ok, in fact it’s imperative, to keep raising gender again and again and again.  

Despite the downbeat tone of her essential message to the literacy community, Lalage never lost hope. Her belief and her passion were so strong and deep, based on a lifetime of shrewd observation and service, she would never let go. 

During her life, Lalage made the world a better place. May her vision and her legacy live on.

Some references about Lalage and her life


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.


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 .

[Decolonising literacy blog series] Literacy as social practice: a view from policy and practice

Mostafa Hasrati and Mohammad Yasin Samim with Suzan Voga-Duffee

BALID and the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation have been hosting a series of blog conversations following up on the discussions at the 4th Brian Street Memorial Event on the theme ‘decolonising literacy’. Taking ‘decolonising literacy’ as our starting point, we will explore and extend some of the questions raised by Brian Street around power, voice, identity and literacy: ‘Where are people going if they take on one literacy rather than another literacy? How do you challenge the dominant conceptions of literacy?’

Read the introduction blog here. The second instalment of the series is here, third instalment is here, the fourth instalment is here

Mostafa Hasrati and Mohammad Yasin Samim engaged in a discussion around the concept of literacy, analysing it from the point of view of policy and practice. This conversation, moderated by Suzan Voga-Duffee, was an extension of Mostafa’s and Yasin’s responses during the Brian Street Memorial Event.

We began the discussion by referring to a categorisation of literacy approaches as “literacy acquisition, consequences of literacy, and literacy as social practice”. Based on Mostafa’s experience, “policy holders mainly take an interest in ‘literacy acquisition’ by developing literacy programmes for all age groups. Ordinary people often focus on ‘consequences of literacy’ as they believe literacy will provide them with material and social benefits. And finally, academics often study and focus on ‘literacy as social practice.

Mostafa: Coming from Iran, I know policy makers often take pride in reporting the strides they have made to provide ‘literacy acquisition’ possibilities for the public, but these have not necessary led to tangible ‘consequences’ for the individuals and society at large. While this substantiates Brian Street’s argument against the ‘autonomous’ model of literacy, I would like to ask you:

Do you have the same experience in Afghanistan?

(آیا شما تجربه ی مشابهی در افغانستان دارید؟)

Why do you think there is a disjunction between literacy development and social development?

(با این که برنامه های سواد آموزی بسیار گسترش یافته است، این برنامه ها تاثیر چندانی بر توسعه ی اجتماعی  نداشته اند. به نظر شما چرا این گونه است؟)’

Yasin: Considering the concepts put forward by late Brian, Literacy experience in Afghanistan is mainly focused on “acquisition” as you experienced in Iran (under the: نهضت سواد آموزی Nohzate Sawaad Amozi, Literacy Movement). Afghanistan hosts about 12 million non-literate and semi-literate populations of youth and adults placing this country after India, BBangladesh and Pakistan in fourth place in South Asia. The literacy rate stands at 43.02%[i] and there is a major gap between men and women literacy, for instance men literacy rate is calculated at 55.5% while the literacy rate among women stands at 29.8% signaling a major gender gap.

With this literacy situation in Afghanistan, policy makers focus mainly on acquisition because expanding access will be a top priority for them. However, acquisition is also focused mainly on early primary (grade 1-3) and the concept of literacy as the foundation of life-long learning is not institutionalised enough even though recently it has been recognised in the National Education Strategic Plan 2030. In addition, the concept of Alternative and Non-Formal Education (ANFE) is not fully conceptualised and it is almost a new agenda in the Literacy Sub-sector. In the recent National Education Reform Plan (NERP), the literacy department found the opportunity to look at the regional and global experiences and propose a module of ANFE, called Literacy and Adult Basic Education which comprises of three levels: 1-3, 4-7 and 7-9 with a distinct curriculum and learning/teaching materials focused on youth and adults who have missed schooling.

Academic debate about literacy and ANFE is still young or non-existent in Afghanistan. Conducting research about the literacy outcomes and impacts is not a common practice. Since 2001, only one analytical research has been conducted by UNESCO and Literacy Department[ii]. Therefore, policy makers’ understanding about the wider concept of literacy and the need for adapting a holistic approach is either weak or it is not considered a priority to them. With this, literacy is not understood as a social practice. There are no studies conducted about its transformative function. Understanding literacy as a social practice requires that policy makers and practitioners link literacy and ANFE to development and community empowerment. This discussion is still at its very initial stages. However, there are a number of experts in the NFE sub-sector who are still trying to institutionalise the concept of literacy as the foundation for lifelong learning.


Beyond top-down approaches to policy-making?

Mostafa: Many thanks for this very interesting account of literacy policies in Afghanistan, but this seems to reflect a top-down approach. If you remember from Brian’s 4th memorial papers; both Ahmmardouh and Helene criticised top-down literacy policies, where policy makers and literacy experts determine the content of literacy materials and approaches to learn literacy. They both believed that literacy learners, too, should have a voice in what counts as literacy and what is important to them to learn. I know this is often not the case in Iran, and I suspect it is neither the case in Afghanistan. I understand this would be a formidable task from a policy perspective, but I would be interested to know if any attempt is being made in Afghanistan to factor in the voices of literacy learners in what they perceive to be their needs.

Literacy programme in Afghanistan (c) USAID Afghanistan

Yasin: Since 2015 a number of initiatives have been made by the literacy department in Afghanistan to decentralise the delivery of services. As a result, a national literacy committee has been established and led by the Vice President which coordinates overall efforts and policies of literacy and non-formal education. Similarly, provincial and districts’ literacy committees have been established and led by provincial governors and district governors that coordinate the literacy and NFE activities at sub-national levels.

Mostafa: Is this perceived to be a useful approach from a policy perspective?

Yasin: The Literacy Department developed the national mobilisation strategy with a number of supporting documents including guidelines, mechanisms and operational plans focused on expanding the concept of community mobilisation, community engagement, awareness raising and partnership. Under the strategy, more than 50 MoUs have been signed and operationalised with government agencies, civil society and the Media to coordinate efforts on literacy and NFE.

Mostafa: What obstacles are there in order to make this possible?

Yasin: Recently under the Accelerated Non-Formal Education Programme (ANEP), we have planned to establish village literacy committees in partnership with Citizen Charter Programme and the Rural Women Economic Empowerment Programme (WERDP). The aim of the initiative is to increase the participation of rural communities in literacy programme implementation.

While the development of the Youth and Adult Basic Education curriculum framework, a number of consultation meetings were held in provinces and also in Kabul to get their comments, feedback and insight about the structure, content and syllabi of the curriculum. This curriculum framework is comprised of three levels (equivalent to grades 1-9) and consists of three syllabi: 1- Language, 2- Mathematics and 3- Life skills.

Despite those efforts, still long way needs to be paved so that the voices of literacy learners are truly reflected in non-formal education in Afghanistan.

Young women who are youth volunteers learn computer skills at a UNICEF-supported computer and literacy training centre run by the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS), in the north-western city of Heart, capital of Herat Province. (c) UNICEF Italia


Literacy and Development

Mostafa: Thank you again for your detailed account of literacy policies in Afghanistan. An important issue that was brought up in Brian’s 4th memorial event was his ideological model of literacy. This model basically argues that causality assumptions of the role of literacy in development are faulty. In other words, we should not assume that literacy can necessarily bring about social and economic development[iii]. It would be interesting to see what views policy holders have with regard to the role of literacy in social and economic development.

Yasin: Despite longer history of literacy and functional literacy in Afghanistan, there is lack of a clear understanding on the role of literacy and NFE for socio-economic development. Usually, literacy is understood as a means of learning rather than a driver of socio-economic changes. However, since 2001 a number of interventions have been implemented with this goal, such as the Literacy and Community Empowerment Programme (LCEP I&II), Learning for Life (LFL) and Skills-Based Literacy.

Unfortunately, the concept of literacy as a foundation for life-long learning has not been institutionalised and in most cases literacy strategies/interventions are not fully aligned with the overall development goal of the government. Despite this, recently there has been a change in the policy debate. In the National Education Reform Plan (NERP), there is sufficient information on the need for linking literacy with economic and social development. This thinking came after the technical committee in the Literacy Department conducted case studies and reviews on the regional experience and this thinking was also strengthened by the Anne Bernard study on Literacy and Adult Education [In the NERP and National Education Strategic Plan (NESP 2030), learners are prioritised and special focus has been given to age categories between 15-45, with the aim of aligning literacy and NFE to development and to development and peacebuilding. However, it will take time to institutionalise this thinking.


Mostafa Hasrati works at Seneca College, Canada. Since completing his PhD with Brian Street and Peter Skehan as joint supervisors in 2003, Mr. Hasrati has worked in Iran, the UK and Canada. His research revolves around socio-political aspects of academic literacy in higher education, greatly influenced by Brian’s academic literacies approach and Bourdieu’s social theory. In two joint papers, Brian and Mostafa showcased how non-linguistic issues shape the use of language in higher education (Hasrati & Street, 2009; Hasrati, Habibi & Street, 2016). Mr. Hasrati’s most recent joint paper, “The rise of non-dissertation track master’s programmes: an academic literacies approach” (Hasrati & Tavakoli, 2019 ), is an investigation of how market-driven policies are affecting universities to drop dissertation writing from TESOL master’s programmes, which is an interdisciplinary work on language, education, and socio-politics of academic writing.

Mohammad Yasin Samimis Director National Mobilization and Assessment, TAGHIR/IARCSC, Ministry of Education, Afghanistan. He holds two master degrees in International Relations and Public Administration. Mr. Samim worked for National and International organisations for more than 10 years in Education Planning and Management, organisational reform, policy development and strategic communications.  He has been a core member of the education reform team at MoE Afghanistan that produced the Afghanistan Education Reform Plan (2021-2030) and the National Education Strategic Plan 2030. In his articles and research, Mr. Samim has focused on institutional reform, barriers to programme implementation and educational management.

[i] UIS 2018

[ii] Literacy and Adult Education Sub-Sector Analysis, Bernard Anne

[iii] This has also been corroborated by Cipolla (1969) and Graff (1979; 1986). Cipolla, C. M. (1969). Literacy and development in the West. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

[Decolonising literacy blog series] Texts in context: Speaking ‘literacy’ to power

Malini Ghose and Theresa Frey

BALID and the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation have been hosting a series of blog conversations following up on the discussions at the 4th Brian Street Memorial Event on the theme ‘decolonising literacy’. Taking ‘decolonising literacy’ as our starting point, we will explore and extend some of the questions raised by Brian Street around power, voice, identity and literacy: ‘Where are people going if they take on one literacy rather than another literacy? How do you challenge the dominant conceptions of literacy?’

Read the introduction blog here. The second instalment of the series is here and the third instalment is here

At the Brian Street Memorial Lecture Malini Ghose shared and reflected on the LETTER Writing project conducted in 2005. Malini and Theresa Frey (PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia) discussed the LETTER Project and how it still resonated with Malini today personally and as a practitioner and a researcher.

Malini: In 2005, I observed during the LETTER Project that literacy is closely tied to the complexities of everyday lives and the complicated nature of how we articulate aspirations.  Women want to be schooled in dominant literacies even when they know they may not be able to use their skills. Saying they want to learn how to read the bus number when there is only one bus that passes by their village. A “surface” reading does not allow you to delve into the inner working of literacy and the meanings they hold for people.

Literacy is always a matter of power. Our research and practice should interrogate the larger field of power relations within which literacy may be embedded. We should expect to be surprised at the different meanings people ascribe to literacy(ies) as these are continuously being constructed and re-constructed. We need to go beyond the binaries that we tend to create in our literacy research, policy, and programme frameworks, such as Literate vs illiterate, Dominant vs local literacy practices, Oral vs written or text vs visual literacies.

I still see a value in training practitioners, facilitators, advocates, and policymakers to “see” and understand the power relations embedded in everyday lives and validating local practices. And more importantly, to try and bring those into the classroom through the pedagogies they use and the materials they may develop.

Theresa: I appreciate your reflection on the LETTER Project and the continued work on challenging literacy(ies) practices. How do you use a feminist lens in these literacies practices/events?

Malini: As a feminist practitioner, I am concerned about negotiating and realigning unequal gender relations through literacy teaching and learning. Let me give you one example.

Playing cards during class

During our research, we would often walk around the village just observing what texts were available in the environment, what men and women were doing etc. In the afternoons, we would inevitably come across groups of men playing cards. This observation became a point of discussion with the facilitator-researchers. Was “card playing” a numeracy event, and if so, what broader field of power relations was this located in? Many facilitators said that this was a “bad habit” that only men engaged in. Women were essentially “good” and therefore did not play cards. But we probed further ¬– could it also be that only men played cards was because women were systematically excluded from the public sphere? Or at best they could participate in ways that were prescribed and socially sanctioned? Playing cards or publicly having fun was not one of these. Many of the facilitators then revealed that they had secretly desired playing cards but were too scared to express this.

However, when we (researcher-curriculum developers) suggested that we include a card-playing session in class as a way of learning numeracy, this was met with incredulity and resistance. But we went ahead. And it proved to be not just a way of teaching a range of numeracy skills but simultaneously challenged several gender norms. This was not to suggest that women should start playing cards or that gambling was not a very real problem that women encountered, but it did open up discussions on a range of other gender issues. It helped to transgress entrenched gender norms in a non-confrontational way. Occasionally playing cards did not make you a “bad woman”, and girls could occasionally have fun, even as they learnt to read and write.

For me, a “feminist lens” means putting women’s experiences and their perspectives – their ways of being and seeing — front and centre while documenting and analysing the larger field of power relations within which literacy is located.

Theresa:  I remember you discussing your work utilising the ‘empowerment’ approach. How did you use the ‘empowerment’ approach to ensure you did not lose the learners voices?

Worksheet – column 1 – part of the body – column 2 – different types of jewelry worn

Malini: Working with an “Empowerment” framework, even though it is believed to be a progressive and a “critical approach” to literacy, comes with its own challenges. This comes back to the binary issue of empowerment vs disempowerment.

There is little recognition that women, even if they are economically “poor”, actually lead “rich” lives. There are songs, music and stories in their lives as well. They have knowledge that they can teach the experts. Interaction with learners about rituals and traditions led to a discussion about jewelry. Soon there was an outpouring of different types and names of jewelry that women wore on different parts of their bodies. Each piece of jewelry was linked to stories, rituals, aesthetics, designs, and who could wear what jewelry, which was related to social issues of caste discrimination, debt and widowhood. This was eye-opening for me. However, a discussion on jewelry would never find a place in a literacy primer.

What I learnt was that as so-called experts, we needed to step back from our own affirmed positions, observe, listen and not accept simplistic “assessments” of learner needs. We needed to continuously relook at our approach and materials to try (it is not easy) and ensure that women learners are speaking for themselves.

Malini Ghose is one of the founder members of Nirantar. She has worked in the field of education and women’s rights for nearly 30 years in various capacities – as a grassroots practitioner, trainer, material and curriculum developer, researcher, and activist. She has helped design and implement various innovative education programmes for women, and reviewed and provided technical inputs to government, NGO interventions and international projects. Her articles have been published in various journals. She is presently completing her PhD at the University of Göttingen, Germany.

Theresa L. Frey is a PhD student at UEA whose research aims to examine ‘Education Experiences for Asylum Secondary Students Resettled in New York City, United States’ through an ethnographic study using participatory approaches. She has 17 years of higher education and international non-profit experiencesincluding director of education abroad, an elementary teacher for refugee children, international faculty director, art-based learning for children, international prestigious fellowships advisor, global health and safety trainer, and intercultural communications facilitator. She has research experience in Afghanistan, Jordan, Greece, and Italy and teaching in Costa Rica and the United States.




[Decolonising literacy blog series] Who owns the text? Meaning, literacy and power in development

Hélène Boëthius and Abass Isiaka

BALID and the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation have been hosting a series of blog conversations following up on the discussions at the 4th Brian Street Memorial Event on the theme ‘decolonising literacy’. Taking ‘decolonising literacy’ as our starting point, we will explore and extend some of the questions raised by Brian Street around power, voice, identity and literacy: ‘Where are people going if they take on one literacy rather than another literacy? How do you challenge the dominant conceptions of literacy?’

Read the introduction blog here. The second instalment of the series is here.

At the Brian Street Memorial event, ALEF founder Hélène Boethius reflected on the power relationships created and challenged particularly in ‘top-down’ literacy development programmes. With a special focus on the role of texts, documents and other communicative devices in these relationships, Helene emphasises that to decolonise literacy programmes, there needs to be greater recognition on ‘who owns the text?’.

Hélène virtually met up with Abass Isiaka (PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia) to discuss these insights further.

Abass: ALEF has been collaborating with local agencies around the world to use adult literacy as a tool for economic and business development. What would you say ALEF has done differently to decolonise literacy? or what does decolonising literacy mean to the overarching goals of ALEF?

Hélène: ALEF has partnerships in Uganda, DR Congo, Togo and Ethiopia, and indirectly in Iraq through a Swedish NGO. One thing we do differently is that topics and texts in the courses are created in the field situation by a team of local literacy workers familiar with the local context and language. ALEF does not come into the partnership with an agenda about what texts and discussions should cover. Whether the partner wants to focus on women’s rights, cattle breeding or soil erosion or something else, it is up to them.

One implication of this is that ALEF does not set the specific goals of what kind of change should take place through the learning process.  It is also essential to our approach that ALEF is an external visitor. We come in, assist the partner in understanding and applying the method in their local context, and then we go away. And the going away is as important as the coming.

Abass: This reminds me of the principle of interpretative prerogative you talked about in your presentation. How did you come about this concept and what does it mean for the agentic capabilities of adults you have been working with?

Hélène: It is originally used as a legal term in Swedish in connection with conflicts at the workplace. But it is also often used in public debate to question who has the right to interpret a situation and to decide which perspective is the correct one. I find it very applicable in development and in working with poverty reduction.

The concept helps me to question the way in which the development industry tends to see people living in poverty as victims in need of help. The “helpers” define the problems and the actions needed to be taken. We use terms like “target group” (as if we wanted to shoot them!) and draw up proposals with a matrix full of carefully planned outcomes and indicators decided on by the helpers. In the development industry, as I have come to know it, it is the donor, who holds the money purse, who decides on what development is and how it should happen. If the donors change their ideas, the whole development industry changes its’ focus.

What if we instead see ourselves as facilitators who assist the “victims” in becoming actors, who can set their own agenda and create changes and results for themselves? What if they already have goals that we don’t know about or which we may not even understand?

A photo from an ALEF study group

When we first started applying ALEF’s method of non-directive open discussions on topics relevant to our participants, I was overwhelmed when I realized that after having discussed together what can be done to handle everyday life challenges, the participants went home and did what they said they would do. And it works. People rise up and take responsibility and move out of poverty, one step at a time. When they are handed the interpretative prerogative, they take it and run with it.

Abass: Texts are said to be ‘speakers in conversation’ with standardising and generalising effects on our everyday lives. In the case of adult learning, you have requested practitioners and donors to see learners as ‘expert knowers’ of their own actualities.  How would you describe the role of text in adult literacy development? From your experience, what strategies or methods do you think we can use to make sure we are not primitivising adult learners via textual relations?

Helene: Reading is always about relating to text. Letters, syllables and words only acquire meaning in texts. I believe that learning to read – and write – from the very start should happen by relating to meaningful and interesting texts, not by drilling letters, syllables or lists or words. The owners of the texts should as far as possible be the learners. In the ALEF approach group of learners create their own texts on a topic presented and discussed. As they see the text grow on the blackboard, and hear it read back to them, or later as they read their own words, they realize that they are the “owners” of the text. They can express their ideas, thoughts, claims, advice, experiences etc. in writing. The dynamics of this creative process is so much more than just practising reading and writing. It is about stepping out and making one’s voice heard, about becoming confident in expressing one’s thoughts, about learning to work together, and about creativeness. It’s about being the owner of your own problems and their solutions – becoming the main actor in the story of your own life.

Abass: What would say are the challenges of decolonising adult literacy as you have experienced it?

Helene: I believe that it is fundamentally a question of the mindset of the donors and of the cooperating partner organisations. Do we view the learners as victims or as active subjects in a change process? Do we view them as ignorant or as experts on their own life challenges, and potential owners of their own strategies for resolving them? And do we view literacy as the skill of reading what others have to say or the skill of expressing one’s own agenda in writing?

Hélène Boëthius, is the creator of ALEF’s approach to adult literacy and empowerment. She has over 30 years’ experience in adult literacy and development, including a decade of field work in Togo with SIL. She has worked with several Swedish NGOs in materials development and project design and as trainer of trainers. Being convinced that extreme poverty is closely linked with illiteracy, she founded ALEF, Adult Learning and Empowerment Facilitators in 2010.  Through ALEF she could implement her vision for a learner oriented approach to literacy, based on self-expression and the learners’ capacity to initiate change through reflection in groups. ALEF’s approach is used in Uganda, DR Congo, Benin and Togo, with three consecutive level courses: 1) initial mother tongue literacy, 2) numeracy and continued MT literacy 3) reading to learn and learning a second language; 9,300 learners have participated in the program to date.

Abass Isiaka is a PhD student in the School of Education at the University of East Anglia. Working on an institutional ethnographic study of institutional cultures from the standpoints of students with disabilities in Nigeria Higher Education using a decolonial lens. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Glasgow where he completed a master’s degree in Education, Public Policy, and Equity. During his stay at the university, he worked on colonial modernity and the experience of international Black and Asian students. He is interested in inclusive education, higher education policy, decoloniality, and development. He is a member of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. He is also currently representing UEA at the British Association for Literacy in Development (BALID).

Literacy as a toolbox for change

Michael Agyemang

Programme Support Officer at Feed the Minds

Around the world, over 750 million adults cannot read and write, and two thirds of those are women. Literacy skills are quite separate from intelligence or hard work. They are mostly centred on whether people have opportunities or not. Often, people with no literacy skills live in poverty. They are also often people who have been marginalised within already marginalised communities.

At Feed the Minds, we see education as key to tackling poverty, improving health and building brighter futures. Our focus on education and literacy is not just about learning how to read, write and count – although this is an important aspect of all our projects as it facilitates further education. For us, our adult education projects enable women and people who have been marginalised to gain the resources they need to lead a healthy and fulfilled life. Through our projects, people are able to learn practical and vocational skills to increase their income; they are able to learn about human and civic rights so that they can better protect themselves from discrimination; and learn life-saving health information so they can take better care of themselves and their family. These are the sorts of positive, domino effects that our education projects inspire.

Femmes et Education des Adultes, Democratic Republic of Congo

Here is one example of an inspirational and life-changing project we delivered in the Democratic Republic of Congo. From 2015 – 2018, Feed the Minds collaborated with our local partner organisation, Femmes et Education des Adultes (FEDA) in South Kivu, near Lake Tanganyika and the border with Burundi. This was an educational project to enable women in very hard-to-reach and conflict-affected regions to access literacy classes and vocational skills in soap production in safety.

South Kivu is characterised by armed conflict and deep-rooted gender inequality. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO) documented 1,049 cases of conflict-related sexual violence against women and girls in 2018 alone. Most of the incidents recorded were of women and girls being targeted while walking to school or collecting firewood or water.

Women taking part in a home-based literacy class as part of the project in Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo taken in 2017

To help improve the quality of life for women and girls at risk, Feed the Minds and FEDA used a home-setting to deliver literacy classes for 700 women. These Home-Based Literacy Centres provided a safe space for women to improve their literacy skills, health awareness and knowledge of their rights. To support their smooth running, FEDA worked with the community to elect 90 women to become literacy training facilitators. The 90 women were provided with training in adult literacy learning techniques and then supported to set up Home-Based Literacy Centres in their villages, which were attended on average by seven women who met three times a week for four months. Soap-making training was also integrated with the literacy classes to ensure women could apply their literacy skills to improve their income. The soap-making training provided financial support to 210 of the participating women who were identified as needing the training most. Six soap-making cooperatives were also set up to ensure participants could continue their businesses after the project concluded. Profits earned from the soap production enabled women to earn their own income and contribute to, making it more possible to buy school materials for their children, send their children to school and keep their children well fed.

Over the course of three years, our project supported women to become healthier, earn a higher income and exercise greater decision-making at community level. Our Home-Based Literacy Centres improved the literacy skills of 700 women by at least three levels e.g., from writing words, to sentences, to paragraphs. Additionally, 239 learners and facilitators became skilled in literacy and reported that the literacy education had provided them with self-esteem and self-determination to participate in civic processes such as self-representation at community meetings. Our project also led to the creation of six worker-owned cooperatives producing quality soaps for sale in their villages. It will be worth to also mention that 2018 was a challenging year in South Kivu. Parts of South Kivu became occupied by rebel forces leading to localised clashes. Affected communities fled to neighbouring countries for protection, including many of our project participants. During the clashes, our soap making materials were looted by rebel forces. We suspended project activities until relative security had been restored. Once it became safe to restart, we fundraised to cover the costs of replacing looted soap-making materials. We also conducted sensitisation and mobilisation sessions to recruit for the soap-making training and ensure the effective functioning of cooperatives.

Sudan Evangelical Mission, South Sudan

Naomi, a project participant in Mundri, South Sudan, at her riverside garden farm with the instructions for planting short term crop seeds provided in emergency food packs

Our most recent project in South Sudan, which was awarded a UK Aid Direct grant to directly respond to the impact of COVID-19 in South Sudan, is also an inspirational and life-changing project. It is another example showing how all our projects support people with no or low literacy. This project is responding to the economic shock in market prices caused by Covid-19 which is likely to exacerbate food insecurity at a time when household stocks have generally been exhausted. Increased food prices as well as a reduction in income has led to people eating cheaper and less nutritious foods.

We are working with our local partner, Sudan Evangelical Mission (SEM), to deliver emergency food packages and short-term duration crop seeds to 1,500 people living with disabilities, as well as pregnant or lactating mothers and women-led households. Usually, our agriculture training projects will work extensively with farmers on demonstration plots. However, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections on this project, we have limited farm training on demonstration plots to only three days and implemented safety measures such as social distancing and handwashing.

Sample Agricultural keycards in Moru and English

These key cards provide pictorial images and simple written statements in the local language (Moru), with clear step-by-step instructions on farming. They have been designed to help farmers with low literacy to self-learn how to manage their crops safely from home. Futhermore, they are vital resources to help farmers recall crop management techniques learnt at the demonstration plots. They provide instructions on preparation and planting, crop management and harvesting and crop diseases to aid farmers in their own remote learning. This is an important tool that will support vulnerable groups with low literacy in accessing more nutritious diet.


Both of these projects highlight that literacy is at the heart of our work; it guides all our projects. When designing a project, we determine whether it includes a specific literacy component and whether it is literacy aware. We have a robust Literacy Guide that provides us with strategies for both types of projects. For example, when we work on a project that suggests low literacy levels could have a negative effect on project outcomes, we include a literacy component. This means incorporating activities in the project designed to improve literacy levels. For projects that are literacy aware, we take into account low levels of literacy when designing and implementing activities to ensure no participants are excluded or marginalised.

At Feed the Minds, we believe literacy is an important toolbox to lead to positive change. Our focus on practical education and literacy supports women and groups who have been marginalised; we thus support people who often missed out on school or training opportunities due to extreme poverty, conflict or gender discrimination. Through our projects, people can learn new skills to earn more, increase their knowledge to lead healthier lives and improve their confidence to stand up for their rights.

Feed the Minds is a UK based international development charity with 50 years of experience delivering education projects in rural and marginalised communities. We enable people to gain skills and knowledge so they can have a new start.

For the project mentioned in this blog, Feed the Minds was awarded a UK Aid Direct grant to directly respond to the impact of COVID- 19 in South Sudan.

[Decolonising Literacy blog series]: Returning to the ‘Savage in Literature’

Maria Lucia Castanheira and Anna Robinson-Pant

In the next few weeks, BALID and the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation will bring you a series of blog conversations following up on the discussions at the 4th Brian Street Memorial Event on the theme ‘decolonising literacy’. Taking ‘decolonising literacy’ as our starting point, we will explore and extend some of the questions raised by Brian Street around power, voice, identity and literacy: ‘Where are people going if they take on one literacy rather than another literacy? How do you challenge the dominant conceptions of literacy?’

Read the introduction blog here.


At the memorial event, Maria Lucia Castanheira (Lalu) gave a presentation on Brian’s early work, The Savage in Literature, reflecting on the connections with his later ethnographic writing on literacy, culture and inequalities. She explored how he had drawn on his background in English literature, including his study into how theories of evolution were presented in popular Victorian novels.

Anna Robinson-Pant met with Lalu afterwards to talk about Brian’s influence on how we think about ‘decolonising literacy’, the theme of our memorial event.

Anna:  I was really interested how you brought together the different ways in which Brian challenged inequalities and harmful stereotypes, not only in literature but in life.  I know you have recently been reading the Savage in Literature and some of the early sources he drew on there.  Why do you think he became so interested in those popular novels, the ‘penny dreadfuls’?

Brian Street’s 1975 book The Save in Literature and a reprint 40 years later (2016)

Lalu: I believe that his interest grew out of recognizing the potential power of this type of cheap mass-produced fiction, read by thousands of people, to create and represent visions of the world. His expertise in literary studies and his developing studies in anthropology led him to identify an intersecting point between a particular set of this popular fiction and scientific works of the 1870’s. That was the period in which ‘ethnographic novels’ became mass-produced, and it is this set of novels that he studied. They were similar in style and content, and as Brian would demonstrate, they shared similar assumptions regarding people from other cultures, that is, positioning them as ‘primitive’. I believe that his curiosity was triggered by and reflected the social and linguistic turn in social sciences that put into question the ‘scientific’ theories erected on ethnocentrisms. Thus, he became interested in seeing how scientific thought of the period – evolutionary and racial theory – political forces related to the concern with overseas territory and the eventual emergence of an Empire were played out in such novels.

Anna: As a PhD student of Brian, I remember how he encouraged me to explore my assumptions around culture and literacy. Not through arguing directly with me, but by sharing different ways of looking at and asking ‘what’s going on here?’  I had been working in development organisations and been busy implementing what Brian referred to as the ‘UNESCO’ model of (Western) literacy Thinking back now, I am struck by his unique approach to ‘decolonising’. It did not seem to be about removing specific works of art or literature but about finding ways to facilitate reflexivity.  Lalu, how do you think Brian would respond to the ‘decolonising’ movements today – in universities (decolonising the curriculum) and in society? Was ‘decolonising’ a word he ever used himself?

Lalu: Anna, I agree with you – his way of facilitating reflexivity was a way of engaging in decolonizing, in challenging any representation of marginalized, colonized, non-white and ordinary people as inferior to the dominant society of white, European and of western heritage.  I believe that what you described as the way he encouraged so many of us to explore our assumptions around culture and literacy is at the centre of any kind of educational agenda committed to social justice and equality. Reflexivity is quite powerful in helping us to understand how social inequality and discrimination of any kind are culturally produced. I think that what you pointed out is key for understanding Brian’s conceptualization of culture as a verb, for examining not what culture is in a given time and space, but what it does.

Lalu: Anna, you said that you have been working in development organisations and been busy implementing what Brian referred to as the ‘UNESCO’ model of (Western) literacy. That made me curious about how you would describe the ways in which Brian’s view of literacy as social practice is present in the work you are doing?

Anna: Yes, you are right that my initial challenge of ‘straddling two worlds’ – academia and international development organisations – has continued to this day. I always remember Brian saying that an ideological model of literacy is not just about recognising cultural difference but primarily about exploring relationships of power, often constructed through literacy practices and texts. In my work at the university, this lens has helped me to understand how academic literacies can influence unequal relationships, whether between teachers and students or managers and faculty. Our current research on family literacy and indigenous learning grew directly out of discussions on literacy as a social practice with UNESCO Chair colleagues  from Ethiopia, Malawi, the Philippines and Nepal. They shared their frustration at the ways in which a ‘Western’ approach to family literacy was being promoted. So we  are now working with UNESCO on how to develop a more ‘situated’ approach to family literacy.

Ms. Asiyatu and her son finding out together whether a mushroom is edible. This is a photo from the fieldwork activities in Malawi as part of the Family Literacy project (credit Ahmmardouh Mjaya)

Lalu: Brian had great interest and would be an advocate of the need to work with those engaged in defining literacy policies and programs. Many representatives of international development agencies participated in the Brian Street Memorial Lecture held at the University of East Anglia, organized by you, Alan Rogers and colleagues in 2019. I know that you have been working with international development agencies on research and policy initiatives in the Global South for many years. So I wonder in what ways do you think that the work with adult literacy, gender and sustainable development movements continue Brian’s work in challenging deficit approaches, and what kind of challenges are still there in bridging connections with the policy world?

Anna: That’s a very difficult question, Lalu. Looking back, I can see that over the years Brian’s ideas have to a certain extent become more ‘mainstream’ in international policy discourse. For instance, the idea and use of ‘literacies’ in the plural is very widespread – especially now so many of us are grappling with such a diversity of digital literacies. But there remain real challenges in working out how to move beyond policy rhetoric. Though Brian’s attack on the concept of the ‘great divide’ between literacy and illiteracy, literate and illiterate, has been accepted by many in the policy world, this binary distinction is still central to most measurements of development. So I think there is now a real tension between how we talk about literacy and development and how we do it!

It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Lalu. Our conversation has brought back lots of memories and the feeling that Brian is still very much present through his words and ideas.


Maria Lucia Castanheira is a professor in the School of Education, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. She is also a researcher in a literacy research center in the same institution – Centro de Alfabetização, Leitura e Escrita (CEALE). Her research interests focus on the examination of literacy practices in and out of school and university. She is particularly interested in examining the social construction of opportunities for learning through exploring discourse analysis and interactional ethnographic approaches.

Anna Robinson-Pant is Professor of Education at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of East Anglia, UK, and holds the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation. She began her career in Nepal, working in adult literacy with a range of NGO and Government programmes. She received the UNESCO International Award for Literacy Research in 2001. Since moving into UK higher education, she has been active in developing methodological approaches to researching across languages and cultures, and received the BMW Group Award for Intercultural Learning (Theory Category) 2007 for her contribution in this field. Her current research focuses on adult literacy, gender and sustainable development; the geopolitics of academic writing and the internationalisation of higher education. She was President of the British Association of International and Comparative Education (BAICE) for 2018-19 and is currently an UKFIET trustee.

[Decolonising literacy blog series] The 4th Brian Street Memorial Event

Chris Millora and Katy Newell-Jones


In the next few weeks, BALID and the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation will bring you a series of blog conversations following up on the discussions at the 4th Brian Street Memorial Event on the theme ‘decolonising literacy’. Taking ‘decolonising literacy’ as our starting point, we will explore and extend some of the questions raised by Brian Street around power, voice, identity and literacy: ‘Where are people going if they take on one literacy rather than another literacy? How do you challenge the dominant conceptions of literacy?’

 In this introductory blog, Chris Millora and Katy Newell-Jones summarise key insights from the presentations and discussions during the 4th Brian Street Memorial event which inspired this series.


On 18th November 2020 the British Association for Literacy in Development (BALID) and the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation co-hosted the 4th Brian Street Memorial Event exploring the theme Decolonising Literacy. In this event, academics, policy-makers and practitioners gathered to engage in a conversation on decolonising literacy research, teaching and practice. Over 100 people participated from 26 countries (33% Europe, 29% North America, 14% Asia, 13% South America, 10% Africa). Two thirds were academics, with the remainder from NGOs (29%) and Government departments (5%).

Participants were encouraged to be actively engaged throughout the event, initially posting their hopes to the group through Mentimeter which demonstrated the diverse experiences and background of participants and the wealth of knowledge they brought to the debate.

Literacy, power and inequalities: inspiration from Brian Street’s work

Anna Robinson-Pant, UEA UNESCO Chairholder, opened the event by drawing from significant works of Brian Street that make visible issues of power and voice within/through literacies. Maria Lúcia (Lalu) Castanheira followed with a brief reflection on Brian’s earlier work – The Savage in Literature – and how this shaped his influential writings around literacies, culture and inequality. Listening to Anna and Lalu, we were struck at how decoloniality is deeply embedded in Brian’s writing and thought.

Research and experience tell us that literacy has been dominantly framed as an inescapable prerequisite for individuals and communities to develop, progress and modernise. Resources and policy responses, often coming from and modelled on approaches in countries of the Global North, have therefore been dedicated to the ‘literacy challenge’ in the Global South. Yet Brian Street’s pioneering work on literacy as a social practice illuminates how this transfer of literacy is not only a straightforward and politically neutral transmission of reading and writing skills but it is rather a series of complex social processes that are always involved in relations of power. From his perspective, “literacy can be seen as ideological: it always involves contests over meanings,, definitions, boundaries, and control of the literacy agenda”

Challenging dominant views of literacy: insights from Malawi, India and Sweden

Ahmmardouh Mjaya, Malini Ghose and Hélène Boëthius

After Anna and Lalu, three keynote speakers reflected on and extended some of Brian’s ideas in the context of their work. Ahmmardhouh Mjaya (University of Malawi) found Brian’s work useful for his study on adult learning in a rural town in Malawi. Through his ethnographic study, Ahmmardouh saw the disparity between what the National Adult Learning Programme (NALP) of Malawi emphasises compared to what some of the learners wanted to learn – for instance, signing their name or learning to welcome guests in English to help their business. Ahmmardouh quotes Brian saying that researchers need to “suspend judgement as to what constitutes literacy to the people they are working with until they understand what literacy means to the people themselves.”

For her presentation, Malini Ghose (Nirantar, India) reflected on the limits of the literacy-illiteracy binary that is often common in development programmes on adult literacy, especially those targeting women. After sharing findings from their LETTER action-research project with Brian, Malini shared that “Literacy was always a matter of power but it was also always shifting. Therefore, even if they had learnt literacy skills and teaching those were important but equally important was to teach how the relationship between literacy and empowerment could be negotiated.”

Hélène Boëthius (founder of Adult Learning and Empowerment Facilitators (ALEF). Reflecting on her experience as a development worker, she noted the popularity of ‘top-down’ approaches in developing adult literacy materials. She explained, “it must be possible to design adult literacy courses based on the assumption that the adult learners are the experts of their own lives; that they don’t need to be told what to do, or seen as ignorant and incapable”. This thought has inspired her in developing their own approaches to literacy at ALEF where the adult learners are at the centre of the design of literacy materials.

Moving discussions forward…

Two quick fire responses followed from Parviz Hasrati (Seneca College, Canada and former PhD student of Brian Street) and Mohammad Yasin Samim (Ministry of Education, Afghanistan) reflecting on the presentations and also on how to move discussions forward from the academic and policy perspective. Parviz, for instance, commented “it seems that the domination of policy holders has superseded the practitioners’ training to reveal hidden literacy ideologies defined and imposed by policy holders. I assume this is where Brian’s work on literacy could be extended to enlighten not only the masses and practitioners but also policy holders and government officials”

Following the inspiring presentations and responses, participants shared their own experiences and perceptions of the need for decolonising literacy in diverse breakout rooms, using Jamboard. Some of the insights from the group include:

Participants’ insights on Jamboard
  • Questioning how much agency learners can have when the focus is on technical aspects and exams in a formal system
  • Recognising the additional challenges posed by language
  • The importance of recognising the expertise of the community as well as learners – perhaps more of a community voice than an individual voice
  • Need to look at the whole structure, at macro- and micro levels and for practitioners to be at the front line to make the changes

In terms of actions moving forward, they shared:

  • Starting where people are, what do learners want from text, from literacy
  • Recognising who are learners and what are the different communicative repertoires they access
  • Adopting an ASSET model rather than a DEFICIT model; avoiding binary divides
  • Engaging literacy learners and their communities in the planning processes
  • Engaging in dialogue and interaction – in appropriate languages – breaking down to the district and village level to listen to the learners and facilitators (and the community)
  • Recognising the place of language and the associated power dynamics – consider translanguaging pedagogies
  • Moving away from assumptions about the ‘medium of instruction’ and being more flexible about language

This blog is the beginning of a set of further blog conversations exploring the complex theme of decolonising literacy. We invite you to discuss with us, give feedback, share experiences and ask more critical questions! ‘See’ you on the next one!

In the next blog…

Anna and Lalu share with us their fascinating conversation about Brian’s work and how they continue to be relevant to their work today

Adult Learning and Education in the era of Covid-19: the view from the UNESCO Global Alliance for Literacy

Ian Cheffy

SIL International

How well have the countries with the most pressing literacy needs responded to the Covid-19 pandemic? What impact has the pandemic had on literacy and what are the likely implications for adult learning and education (ALE) in the years ahead?

These were some of the questions discussed at the latest online meeting of the Global Alliance for Literacy, a forum of 29 member states of UNESCO focusing on stimulating action on ALE, which I attended in October 2020. I represented SIL International and was invited to speak on the linkages between language, literacy and health. I pointed out how the effectiveness of messages around Covid-19 or any other health issue depends on them being communicated in the language which the intended audience knows best. SIL International is deeply committed to this and provides access to a collection of information on Covid-19 in over 1,000 less widely spoken languages on its website (

Current issues

From left to right: SIL Colleagues Marcelle Tanga, Ian Cheffy (author) Lydia Teera and Tatchum Noussi attending the UNESCO General Conference in 2019.

If ALE was identified in the Sustainable Development Goals as a key priority for development around the world in the coming years, with SDG4.6 seeking to ensure that by 2030 “all youth and a substantial proportion of adults achieve literacy and numeracy“, its vital role has now become all the more apparent given the widespread and multiple impacts of the pandemic. I was not surprised that UNESCO estimates that there will be a further increase in the percentage – and numbers – of non-literate youth and adults in countries where this is already unacceptably high. These are among the poorest countries in the world (see table below).

The need for ALE is going to increase. Because of the disruption to schooling everywhere, it is expected that many children and young people, especially in the poorest countries, will drop out of school altogether and that the majority of them will be girls. There will clearly be a greater need for ALE programmes to compensate for the lack of education of today’s young people. But will the necessary resources be there when needed?

In policy and provision, ALE often comes a poor second to formal education for children. It was not very encouraging to hear that only a quarter of the countries involved in the Global Alliance had included ALE in their initial Covid-19 educational response plans. Clearly even those countries which already recognise the literacy challenges they face need to do more to address the situation!

It is in order to draw attention to the value of ALE in national education provision that I and other colleagues in BALID are currently engaged in a research project funded by the British Association for International and Comparative Education (BAICE) exploring the impact of the pandemic on ALE provision and learners in Afghanistan, the Philippines and the UK, and the possible contribution of ALE to the post-pandemic recovery.

Looking ahead, much of the discussion in the Global Alliance meeting revolved around the potential of digital technologies to provide learning opportunities when face to face contact is not possible or indeed because of the advantage of this medium in facilitating engagement in learning, especially for those who cannot otherwise access it. But I was pleased to see that there was full recognition that this is no silver bullet, and not simply because the necessary infrastructure is lacking in many places and learners do not have the devices necessary to benefit. There is also the reality that many ALE facilitators themselves lack expertise with distance modes of learning and that training them in the necessary expertise will be an urgent priority, just as much as providing low-cost solutions to the technical challenges.

Once again, there was recognition of the value of education in the languages which the learners understand best, and not only because of the comments I made in my talk. Given the pressing need for ALE in the future, it is essential to respond in the most effective way with programmes that maximise the learning of the participants through using the languages that best convey meaning for them and through which they are most able to contribute to their own learning. But so often there is a yawning chasm between the acceptance of this in principle and the actual implementation in practice. I strongly hope that a positive outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic will be that educational authorities build more learning programmes around the languages that the learners actually speak. The impact will be obvious!

The Global Alliance for Literacy

By way of background, the Global Alliance for Literacy within the Framework of Lifelong Learning (its full title) was formed in 2016 in response to SDG 4.6. It specifically exists to promote action in the countries facing the most severe challenges in youth and adult literacy. It is managed by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning in Hamburg.

Screen shot from the GAL website

The Alliance consists of 20 countries where less than 50% of young people and adults are literate and

nine countries known as the E-9 group, identified by UNESCO as being priority countries in view of the large numbers of non-literate people in their populations, even if their literacy rates are above 50%. According to UNESCO, some 75% of the world’s non-literate youth and adults live in these 29 countries.

The members of the Alliance are:

  • Countries with adult literacy rates below 50%: Benin, Burkina Faso, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Sudan (Africa); Iraq (Arab States); Afghanistan (Asia and the Pacific), Haiti (Latin America and the Caribbean).
  • E-9 countries: Nigeria (Africa), Egypt (Arab States), Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan (Asia and the Pacific); Brazil, Mexico (Latin America and the Caribbean)

Africa remains a major focus of international attention for literacy, even if there are significant literacy needs in other countries with large non-literate populations elsewhere in the world.

Alongside the member states, the Global Alliance also includes 14 non-governmental Associate Members. Among them are the African Union, the International Council for Adult Education, the International Labour Organisation, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization, the UNHCR, and SIL International.


Even in 2015 when the Sustainable Development Goals were drawn up, youth and adult literacy was recognised as a challenge of daunting proportions. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. I very much hope that the Global Alliance for Literacy will not only draw attention to this issue but also stimulate the action which is so desperately needed.

For further information, see


Ian Cheffy is an SIL International literacy and education consultant who has worked in the field of literacy in development for over 30 years. After 10 years working in Cameroon, supporting training programmes and literacy materials production in a number of local languages, he returned to the UK where he developed an accredited MA course in literacy. He represents SIL in networking contexts within the UK and internationally. He is particularly interested in the transformative effect of literacy in African contexts and how literacy can empower adults at the fundamentally important level of personal identity.

Adult Learners as Decision-Makers: how much do we know about them?

Mohammad Naeim Maleki

University of East Anglia, UK and Herat University, Afghanistan

We as human beings are given the wisdom to live the way we prefer for our wellbeing. This enables us to choose what is best or reasonable for us. Under certain circumstances, this ability has placed us in a superior position compared to other creatures on the earth. Having this power and freedom of choice, we start preferring one thing over another from early childhood (e.g. children prefer candies to vegetables). We grow up facing many different circumstances that require us to decide; however, our decisions could be influenced by other factors around us. Therefore, as we age, we may become better decision-makers regardless of our education level. Although ‘non-literate’ people might not be able to read or write properly, research has shown that they come to class with plenty of life experiences as decision-makers which should be recognised by educators and facilitators.

Researching decision-making dates back many decades.  Many research studies have focused on decision-making in critical situations such as in the military, medicine and in the firefighting contexts[1], with some studies in educational contexts as well. For example, Cox and Robinson-Pant (2010) explored school children as decision-makers and Seo et al. (2016) investigated adults’ decisions considering their health literacy.

Adult literacy students in Herat decide to ask the teacher for a class outside because the caretaker is sick, and the classroom is locked.

It cannot be ignored that adults are decision-makers in their everyday life. Depending on their different roles and identities in their daily interactions, they have been deciding on a variety of matters at different levels both for themselves and for their family members and friends around them.  For instance, parents decide which schools their children should go to; a father/mother decides how much of his/her income should be spent on what and how much should be saved; a mother decides whether to breastfeed her child or not; a shopkeeper decides what products he/she should put on sale. When these adults come to an education context such as literacy classes, they still hold their identities as a father, a mother, a shopkeeper etc. and are still decision-makers outside the classroom. However, in my research I found that some facilitators forget the fact that their learners are decision-makers at home and treat them like school children in the adult literacy classroom.

On the other hand, we should not ignore the limitations to our decision-making as well. Although at the end it would be the father, mother, shopkeeper and so on who takes the final decision, they are bound by their surroundings, their personality, their context and culture. For example, a breastfeeding mother’s decision might be influenced by the local customs, by her husband’s/family’s decisions or even by the child. This inter-dependency determines the freedom of choice for adults.

Decision making has been explored in many different ways. Kabeer (1999) relates the use of choices in decision-making to individuals’ agency and sees it as “people’s capacity to define their own life-choices and to pursue their own goals” (p. 438). But can decision-making be summarized as having or not having choices? In real life situations, for example, Oraranu and Connolly (1993) mentions “decisions are embedded in larger tasks that the decision-maker is trying to accomplish” (p.6). The tasks may constitute the goals which could be achieved if the person has access and control over those choices.

Furthermore, these circumstances and experiences may make the adults better decision-makers. As Moll et al. (1992)states, adult learners come to class with ‘funds of knowledge’ which they have developed unconsciously and unintentionally; it could be, as Rogers (2015) says, “like breathing, something we all do without thinking about it except occasionally” (p.261).

Coming to a class with ‘funds of knowledge’ adult learners have some degree of control over the programme either consciously or unconsciously. For example, it is the adult learners who decide to come to the class late or leave early, to write their assignments or not, to do the drilling activities or not which could have an influence on the flow of the lessons. So, they decide on their own (with the influences from the context or others) to do or not to do certain tasks related to their learning process. Therefore, considering their choices in planning and delivering literacy services is prominent in designing these programmes. The other significant point is the implication of learners as decision-makers on policy and practice. This requires another blog; it could be also discussed in the comments below.


[1] See Klein, G. A., Calderwood, R, & Clinton-Cirocco, A. (1986). Rapid decision making on the fire ground. Proceedings of the Human Factors Society 30th Annual Meeting, 1 , 576-580.