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 (

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.