[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 (www.sil.org).

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 https://uil.unesco.org/literacy/global-alliance


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.

BALID leading research exploring the impact of COVID-19 on adult literacy provision

Chris Millora and Katy Newell-Jones




As well as causing deaths and damaging economies, the current COVID-19 pandemic is triggering increased inequalities in education in low- and middle- and high-income countries. As governments and other institutions all over the world are now trying to develop frameworks to ‘recover’ and ‘emerge’ from the pandemic, education has, rightly so, taken a place in the agenda.

However, we note that discussions have focussed on mitigating the pandemic’s impacts on formal schooling and higher education, with less attention being given to adult learning and education (ALE) provision (which includes adult literacy). The Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) recognised early in the pandemic that marginalisation of specific groups including adult learners, ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities is being amplified by the pandemic. Daniel Baril, Chair of the Governing Board of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, has argued that adult learning has been largely forgotten in the ‘emerging post-pandemic political agenda’ and the next normal ‘could be a perilous time for ALE’. This is despite current statistics putting the global number of ‘illiterate’ adults at 773 million, the majority being women (http://uis.unesco.org/en/topic/literacy).

Conversations among BALID’s network suggest that ALE is being hit hard globally. Closure of adult and non-formal provision came before the closure of formal provision and their re-opening is expected to be considerably later than schools, colleges and universities. ALE providers and learners have less access to online learning resources than those in formal education. Although more men are dying from COVID-19, the impact on women is complex, with increased domestic violence, and increased poverty and food insecurity, which in turn is impacting on the ability of women to access ALE. The impact of the pandemic has been felt in ALE programmes all over the world and many have developed innovative interventions to respond to these situations. In Colombia, for instance, Camacol’s Obras Escuela programme, that provides opportunities for construction workers to learn literacy in their workplace, has moved its service delivery to mobile phones, still maintaining the strong relationship built between the facilitators and the learners.

According to the latest Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE), the delivery of ALE provision is dependent on the priorities of both governments and civil society working in partnership. In low and middle-income countries, this commitment is fuelled by a shared understanding within academia, policy and practice that ALE has a strong role to play in community strengthening and redressing inequalities, even more so post the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s International Literacy Day, for instance, have asked important questions such as ‘How can we effectively position youth and adult literacy learning in global and national responses and in strategies for the recovery and resilience-building phase?’.

Recognising the importance of understanding how ALE programmes have been affected by the pandemic, BALID is delighted to have just secured seedcorn funding from BAICE for a scoping study of the ongoing and potential impact of COVID-19 on adult learning and education programmes in the contrasting contexts of Afghanistan, the Philippines and the UK. The research will be conducted in partnership with the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation at the University of East Anglia (UK), Transformare in the Philippines and the Afghan National Association for Adult Education in Afghanistan (ANAFAE) and Research and Practice in Adult Literacy (RaPAL).

This scoping research has the following aims;

  1. To develop an overview of the current policy and programme provisions relating to ALE in the various countries through a review of relevant documents and materials,
  2. To understand various actors’ perceptions of how (and to what extent) COVID-19 is affecting ALE programmes in its various aspects such as programming, finance, participation, pedagogy, curriculum and innovation,
  3. To develop policy and practice recommendations, based on the research findings, on how ALE programmes/policies could better cope with the challenges of the pandemic and its future effects.

It is intended that policy and practice briefings, arising from this research, will stimulate debate among stakeholders in each of the three countries.

Policy makers, in each country, will be encouraged to review and amend existing policies on ALE in the light of the findings from this research.

Practitioners will be encouraged to adapt curricula, adopt alternative learning techniques, and explore the use of new technologies, thereby enhancing existing ALE programmes.

The outcomes of this research will be disseminated through the networks of BALID and the research partners and also in 2021 through publications in by RaPAL and the BAICE journal Compare.

Problematizing the ‘Solution’ of Printed Materials

Gina Lontoc, Camilla Vizconde and Belinda de Castro
University of Santo Tomas, Philippines

The family literacy research team of the University of Santo Tomas (UST), Philippines is exploring the role of local and indigenous knowledge systems in promoting family literacy and lifelong learning. This project is part of the Global Research Translation Award (GRTA) project which investigates how family literacy can build on indigenous learning in order to contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is based on participatory action-oriented research on family literacy and indigenous learning in the four partner countries (Ethiopia, Nepal, Philippines, Malawi) of the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation.

Women farmers on rice fields in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, Philippines

Pinili, in the city of San Jose, Nueva Ecija province, is one of the focus areas of this project. In this rural community, literacy is an important part of their everyday livelihood practices. When our team visited the houses of women farmers, we observed that participants’ engagement with written texts is driven by what is useful for them in terms of daily survival of their families and their participation in community activities. We expected that a lot of these texts would be coming from their main livelihood – farming.

Being in the so-called ‘rice granary’ of the country, we expected to see how participants utilised written information to enhance their farming technology, to increase their farm production, and to market their farm produce. However, there seemed to be a lack of availability of texts where they could access information that concerns their livelihoods.

Ate Zoria, for instance, when we visited her, was busy sorting out documents as part of her role as parent leader in the barangay (village). She keeps records of members and papers of the association. Her activities revolve around three aspects – association work, learning support for her grandchildren (she acts as their tutor), and agricultural activities with her husband and son.

Ate Rosalia handing out flyers of a local bank’s motorcycle loan programmes

Another farmer, Ate Rosalia, is engaged in backyard gardening, which is the major source of the family’s livelihood. Since she lost her husband a year ago, her children have been helping her with planting and selling vegetables such as squash, string beans, gourds and tomatoes. Each time she goes out to sell vegetables, she carries with her a blue bag filled with flyers and brochures. These printed materials are not agriculture-related but promotional texts which she distributes in her new job as an agent for motorcycle loans. The income she earns from sales’ commission is of a huge help to her family as she also took the responsibility of raising her grandson who lost his mother (Ate Rosalia’s daughter) while giving birth to him.

Women farmers taking notes during a literacy session

There are government agencies that provide livelihood trainings to their community. However, we found a scarcity of printed materials that participants could use to supplement their learning. According to one agency, the government spends a lot on the production of printed materials but these papers are just used by people to pack smoked fish. Most of our participants rely on oido or self-taught skills. We learned that intergenerational learning takes place through observation and hands-on participation as members do not document their livelihood practices.

UST family literacy researcher during home visitation

So, is academic or ‘school’ literacy the key to improving livelihoods? Does it recognise people’s traditional practices which might be more relevant in fulfilling their tasks? Or does it devalue people whose existing everyday literacies escape the mainstream livelihood know-how? In the eyes of rural communities, reading leaflets could be considered a waste of time, and information may also be obtained through observation or simple consultation with local experts. Instead of using materials written in an unfamiliar language, they tend to resort to tantyahan practice or the art of rough estimation.

People learn by doing but they could also explore other ways to support and sustain their learning and their everyday application of new knowledge. One way is through mobile devices. Families we visited have access to mobile technology and we have observed that the younger generation, as digital natives, assist their parents in processing digital information. Moreover, community workers could utilize indigenous ways of passing on information which include oral tradition such as storytelling or narratives, songs and performances. People could also build on information shared by elders and key figures in the community. Lastly, instead of using primers or manuals in literacy learning programmes, realia or real objects, texts, and real scenarios can be used. This creates a learning experience which is more interesting and relevant to participants.

The authors:

  • Belinda de Castro, Ph.D. is a professor at the Graduate School of the University of Santo Tomas and the Director of the Research Center for Social Sciences and Education (RCSSED).
  • Camilla Vizconde, Ph.D. is the Vice Dean of UST Graduate School and her research interests include digital literacy, teacher education, and language education.
  • Gina Lontoc, Ph.D. is a faculty member from the Faculty of Arts and Letters , University of Santo Tomas and the Project Lead of UST team for the GRTA funded project on family literacy and indigenous knowledge system.

Literacy friendly approaches in Samburu

Katy Newell-Jones

In community development projects, people’s level of formal education often dictates their participation. I am interested in ways of creating learning spaces where these barriers are reduced.

 I recently co-facilitated some knowledge sharing workshops on female genital cutting (FGC) in Samburu, Kenya. There were 20 participants from communities, local community-based organisations, two national NGOs and the local authority.

Participants spoke a combination of Samburu, Masai, Swahili, English and French with no single, common language.

Some participants read and wrote with ease in more than one language. A handful, mainly men, had completed higher degrees. Most of the women and elders did not write at all.

The challenges

Initially, people deferred to those who spoke English confidently. Achievement in education was valued more than community experience. In groupwork, ‘educated’ participants wrote in English with complex sentences using development jargon.

As facilitators, we wanted all voices to be heard equally, to draw out the local wisdom, and to enable the voices of the women and elders to be heard. Two techniques helped achieve this, both required significant changes in the way the group worked.

Firstly, participants were encouraged to use whatever language they felt most comfortable with. This was particularly important as FGC is a sensitive topic, deeply embedded in local culture. I let go of my desire to understand the detail of the conversations. Translation became fluid with different people chipping in to help others, including me.

Secondly, pictures, diagrams and symbols were used on the flipchart, instead of text. Multiple coloured pens were available and creativity encouraged.


The discouragement of text was transformative.  The power within the groups changed. Those who were most comfortable writing were hesitant. Others, with some encouragement, came forward to sketch and draw, or to suggest images to illustrate complex ideas. Others added arrows, indicating the driving forces for and against change in their communities. There was no longer a right way of writing, or even a right way up for the flipchart paper, the communication of the ideas was what mattered. The discussion became less theoretical and more grounded in the complexity of FGC in the community. The groups became more chaotic with all involved, more disagreement and individuals arguing for their opinions to be portrayed.

When the groups gave feedback, participants were invited to interpret and discuss each other’s drawings. Plenary sessions were lively and participative. The women were more vocal and assertive. Participants took photos enthusiastically of each other’s flipcharts.

As the week progressed, the groups introduced a few key words on their flipcharts as well as images. These were written in different languages, often used alongside symbols and emerged organically.

Several of the participants who had originally avoided writing began writing individual words or names. Some copied them into their notebooks and a few began writing their own notes.

The range of literacy practices which were seen as ‘acceptable’ had been widened and more people felt able to contribute. Participants who had initially avoided any engagement with text had begun to feel sufficiently confident to experiment with their literacy practices and share them with others. Consequently, they felt heard and valued and in turn contributed more, both orally and using text.

During the evaluation participants said:

‘. . . it is right that pictures speak a thousand words. Drawings make us think more about what we mean. We do not just write but we have to discuss what we really mean first.’

‘Drawings are more important than writing. Even me who has not gone to school can draw. The community themselves can even do drawings.’

Several participants expressed their personal satisfaction at having written a few words, or having found they could read a few words. They said their self-confidence and self-esteem had improved, and they felt more able to engage in the dialogue around ending FGC in their communities.

Enhancing literacy practices was an unintended outcome. Two female participants said that they intended to continue to practise their reading and writing after the workshops.

In conclusion

Usually, when literacy is mentioned in community development projects the focus is on activities to improve literacy skills / practices. In this instance, the key was in recognising the barrier that formal literacy practices imposed on the knowledge exchange process. By reducing this barrier, and widening the range of literacy practices which were acceptable to, and valued by the group, more of the participants felt able to actively contribute, thus enriching the dialogue and in turn, the impact of the workshops.

With thanks to the people of Samburu and the Orchid Project which funded the workshops. You can read more on literacy friendly practices here.

The author:

Katy Newell-Jones has been actively involved in literacy since 1982, with a specific interest in working with NGOs in conflict and post conflict situations.  She holds a National Teaching Fellowship from the UK Higher Education Academy and an honorary research fellowship with the Nuffield Department for Medicine, University of Oxford. She has been chair of BALID for over a decade and is about to hand over the role to Chris Millora.