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Design Your Own Functional Programme

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Dedicated to the memory of Peter Gzowski*

Reference Document

Do not copy methods or content from school; that did not work for illiterates; build from these basic principles; design a relevant programme

1. Do Not Copy Orthodox and Traditional Methods and Content

You will be more effective a literacy trainer if you abandon the notion that there is one correct way to do things, and that way is to be found in the standard text books. If you devise your own methods and your own content, based upon local needs, interests, characteristics and conditions, (ie functional) your approach will be more meaningful to both you and those learning literacy. Maintain the principles listed here rather than copy what others have done: both content and method.

The principle invoked by orthodoxy is "This is the way it has always been done," or "This is the ‘proper’ way to do it," is merely that it is based upon tradition rather than on function. In your search for identifying words and sentences that are immediately useful, you must abandon standard text books which list words and sentences that may have been relevant to other communities.

Every community is different, so your content should be different for each community.

As for orthodox methods of learning, most of those have been devised for school children. Your clients are illiterate or semi-literate adults.

Many of your participants might have experienced a few weeks of orthodox school, and left school because they found it uncomfortable or meaningless. They would therefore be unlikely to get much out or your approach if you imitate that of schools. For those who have never gone to school, they will find nothing attractive if you set up a "school-like" atmosphere.

Look at the module on training methods. It is aimed at training mobilisers. Many of the principles listed in it are applicable here. Avoid setting up an imitation school. Emphasize "doing" rather than "listening" as the most important way of learning. Encourage discovery rather than conformity. Encourage exploration rather than discipline..

Let your participants struggle a little bit; what they learn will stick better. Do not force them to struggle so hard that they will give up; but find ways to let them say, "We did it ourselves." (See "Go.") Empowerment.

2. Develop Your Own Methods and Content Based on Empowerment Principles:

The two main questions you must ask when planning, devising or designing a literacy curricula, are "What is to be taught (content)?" and "How is it to be taught (method)?"

The content of your training should be words, phrases and sentences that are relevant to the situation of the participants. Knowing how to write the names and prices of various sea fish may be very relevant to people in a community next to the ocean which is mainly engaged in fishing, but not so useful to a nomadic cattle community on the savannah. That community would be more interested in names of different kinds of camels or cattle, depending upon what is in their herds. Residents of an urban slum would be interested in local markets, costs of local transport, or inexpensive entertainment, rather than the details of either fishing or herding.

Since we all learn better by doing that listening, find ways to get your participants to participate in an exercise in identifying words that are most relevant to their lives and conditions.

In a fishing community, for example, a good exercise, with four to eight participants, might be to make a field trip to the shore where the fish is brought in and sold, and prepare a list of different names of fish species, sizes, and prices. This could be made into a poster or booklet by the group, and it could have obviously practical uses. Use your imagination.

An urban group might make a different type of field trip, identifying different signs: store front signs, traffic signs, directional signs, street name signs.

Note that the method here is a form of "doing," where the participants participate in doing something practical or useful, rather than listening to lecture or watching a presentation. As in the gym, exercise (doing) produces strength.

3. Adults Are Not Children – Different Approaches Are Needed:

It is easy to think that we, when we are teaching people, are the adults, while those being taught are children. After all, that is the situation in a school, isn’t it?

Then we would be in error. When we are teaching literacy, those being taught are adults, not children. Because they do not know how to read and write, does not mean they are in any way less than us.

We must make sure we do not give them the impression, by our body movements, tone of voice, or phrasing of our sentences, that we are some how better (senior, superior, more powerful) than they are. To do so will "turn them off" (discourage them) so that we might lose them, and fail in teaching literacy.

When teaching adults, we must consciously remember that they are not children and we must avoid the easy imagination that they are. As adults, they must be – and must be treated as – our equals. We do not have to spend a lot of our effort and time in doing what we do when we teach children.

Children are learning many more things than the subject matter; they are learning about power, about getting along in the world, about community, and how to discipline their random desires. Adult literacy participants are not, and we should avoid automatic and thoughtless behaviour that implies to them that they are children. Much of the effort, time and thought of the teacher at school is spent to ensure the children are well behaved, and that they listen to the teacher. None of your time should be spent that way. To do so will be quickly detected by the adult participants, and they will respond by not learning what we have to offer.

If we can show the participants that we know them as adults and as our equals, they will respond better to our methods in guiding them towards literacy

4. Models For Teaching Should Not Be Taken From Schools For Children:

When we do things, like teaching, we often use models of behaviour. Sometimes we deliberately obtain these models from role models, older or other people we respect and consciously want to emulate. Other times we are not even conscious that we are using models, and just do things that intuitively seem "right" to do. These are based upon our and other people's assumptions about what is, and what we should do.

There is a danger, therefore, if our only experience with learning, and especially with learning how to read and to write, is school. The danger is that we may be using school as our only source of models for teaching literacy.

We need to make an effort to recall how things are done at school, and carefully discard those things which are not appropriate to adults, and those things which will hinder adults from learning literacy. These include but are not limited to: insisting upon discipline, ordering students about, assuming that the teacher is always right, acting as fountains of wisdom and knowledge.

In some, but not all, schools, teachers insult students in front of other students, they physically punish students, they verbally punish students, they speak in an arrogant and superior manner to students, they criticise students, and they belittle students. While today many of these behaviours of teachers and officials are fortunately being removed from schools around the world, they must be avoided meticulously when teaching literacy to adults.

Consider alternative ways of interacting with the literacy participants. Do not hold classes; instead hold workshops for discussing suggestions and planning activities, and organise field trips and projects for carrying out those activities. The pattern suggested here is to have two types of sessions.

The first kind would be like a meeting. It should not be called a class, although you may be using a classroom as a venue. A "meeting" can be used to identify needs, to identify levels of literacy already attained by the participants, to generate ideas for learning projects, to plan those project, and to follow up with activities after the field trips for those projects.

The second kind of session would be a "field trip" or "project" that the participants designed in a group in the first kind of session. This could be a trip to the shore to write names and prices of fish as they are brought in. It could be a trip to a market to do the same with items sold in the marketplace. It could be a trip to a kraal (coral) to identify cattle. It could be a trip to a farm to identify crops. It could be a trip to a kitchen to identify utensils or recipes. It could be a trip to a building site to identify tools, workers or the building process.

Encourage your participants to be creative, remembering that the content should be appropriate to their situations.

All of this requires a high degree of participation among your participants. Their "doing" of these things – ie planning, implementing, and following up of an activity (field trip, project) – is the effort (they must make) needed to empower them. Do not make decisions for them; when they make decisions, they become stronger in making decisions. They become more empowered, stronger.

Your participants are not pupils and are not children; they are equals and partners in an honourable and challenging endeavour. Never forget that, and always behave towards them like that.

5. Respect Is Very Important:

Consider the life experiences of a person who can not read and write.

That person may have been teased and/or insulted for not knowing how to read and write. S/he may be tempted to hide her/his illiteracy. By attending your workshops and field trips, s/he is admitting to the world that s/he can not read or write. If s/he does not find rewards and benefits in attending, and is not respected when attending, s/he will drop out. It takes courage, therefore, to attend your literacy sessions, and you would be wise to acknowledge and praise that courage.

Again, you must consciously avoid behaviours that may be practised in school towards pupils, and respect your participants. Also insist on their respecting each other and each themselves. Build self respect.

Do not give yourself a title (Mr. Ms. Dr. Mrs. Miss, Rev.) unless you give every participant a title. Either everyone, you included, should be called by their first name, or everyone should be called by a title and family name. (Call me Dr. Phil).

You should not only respect every participant, you should go out of your way to ensure that every participant knows you respect her or him.

6. Learning by Doing Is More Effective than Learning By Watching or Listening:

We learn skills in many ways, listening to lectures, listening to recordings, watching videos and films, watching live presentations or performances, and by doing. See the training methods module. Many methods that are effective for training mobilisers are also effective for training in literacy.

Note that "doing" covers a wide range of activities, from practice and simulation sessions in the class room, through supervised and unsupervised activities in the field. Generating interesting, relevant and useful ways for the participants to learn by doing is an important responsibility for you. Planning such sessions will benefit by involving your participants in designing and setting them up.

Here is an example. You do not have classroom teaching. You have planning sessions and field trips. In the planning sessions you have done a needs assessment with the participants It is a fishing village. As a group, you decide on a project to prepare a booklet listing all the types of fish, and their sizes, and their prices, brought in to the village. You set aside two hours for a field trip and, as a group, go to the shore where the fish are brought in, and write down the names of the fish and their prices. You take the list back to the planning room, and from the list, you prepare a booklet listing all the prices. ll the members of the group are given an opportunity to write the name or some fish, and their prices, thus having practical experience in writing, with a meaningful purpose in doing so. You use the booklet with each participant in reading the list.

In the various phases of the project, you identify how recording and reporting are helped by writing and reading, and how the participants are doing it, not you.

7. Do Not Aim for High Levels of Sophisticated Literacy:

To be highly literate, able to analyse complicated grammar, sure of spelling, able to appreciate fine poetry and prose, may be a nice end in itself. Surely if one of two participants indicate a desire to reach that level, you encourage them to find ways to do so. Your literacy programme, however, should not aim for such goals.

You are not teaching literacy for the sake of members becoming literate. You are helping a community to become more empowered by allowing its members to do practical things in and by reading and writing.

Perfectly correct spelling or grammar are not necessary. The ability to identify commonly used words that are written down, and the ability to make symbols on paper that can be read by others –that is the level of literacy towards which you strive.

Never criticise a spelling or grammar mistake. Never.

Limit your topics to those which are immediate, relevant and local. People of a fishing village do not need to know about Shakespeare or Proust. Cattle herders need not be able to quote Wordsworth or Browning. Slum dwellers do not need to know how to parse a sentence or decline a verb. Horticulturists need not be able to create new poetry or lyrics. Some individuals may go on to discover those joys (encourage them to do so), but not in your literacy programme.

Do not worry if your participants can not spell correctly or can not write with correct grammar. If you can understand what they intend when they write a word, then they have succeeded. Praise them for that.

Let them seek perfection elsewhere. "Do not ask a cow for eggs; do not ask a chicken for milk."

8. Seek Practical Communication – Do Not Strive For Perfection:

The two main practical purposes of writing are (1) recording and (2) reporting. Both those can be done verbally, but you can demonstrate how participants can be more accurate and easy when using the written word. See the module on monitoring. There are advantages to written recording and reporting.

If you and your participants make a field trip to the fish market and write down the names of different kinds of fish and the prices for each, you are making a record. A month later, if you look again at fish prices, you have an accurate record of the prices as they were the first time. It is more reliable than memory. If you take the booklet or poster listing the names of fish and their prices, and forward that to someone who was not with the group on the field trip, then you are making a written report.

Likewise, it is more reliable than memory. That reliability is a practical and useful result of writing and reading.

That is why that field trip would be more relevant to a fishing community, if it collects fish names and prices, than if the community members were cattle herders. To be practical, you must first (and best if it were done as a group task with the participants) make an assessment of what topics are most relevant to the lives of the participants.

They will be more likely to see the value of learning how to write and read, and they will be more likely to retain what they learn.

9. Emphasise Languages and Alphabets Most Commonly Used:

In learning basic literacy itself, it should not matter what languages or alphabets you use in your literacy programme. No one is absolutely better than another. The choice should be based upon what is commonly understood and known in the community in general. Again, relevance and utility must be your criteria. You need to know about the community.

Sometimes there are more than one alphabet for the same language. Hindi and Urdu, for example, are essentially the same language, Hinduism influencing Hindi and Islam influencing Urdu. The Hindi alphabet is derived from Sanskrit through ancient Persian, while the Urdu alphabet (written from right to left) is a derivative of Arabic, but through Persian influences. (The language itself is a derivation of Persian). The modern Japanese alphabet (Japan has three alphabets, one of which is Chinese) is a matrix where each character is a combination of a consonant followed by a vowel. The same with the 240 characters of the Amharic language of Ethiopia. The distinction between consonant and vowel, of course, is a characteristic on European languages, mainly based upon the Roman alphabet.

It is OK to use several alphabets in your work, demonstrating how a single word can be written different ways when using each alphabet. The only requirement is that the alphabets you use be commonly understood throughout the community.

In much of Africa, only one alphabet is used, based upon European languages and often introduced by Christian missionaries. Just because you are using it does not mean you must be a strict demagogue, insisting on "correct" European spelling and grammar. Your guiding principles should be that what is learned by your participants should be practical, understood, and usable (not necessarily "correct").

10. Combine Written Words with Simple Pictures:

You learned to identify pictures, perhaps unconsciously, as part of your learning to read. If you are literate – and you are if you are reading this – you may be surprised to discover that many illiterate people can not identify line drawings like the ones used throughout this web site.

A totally illiterate person has nothing on which to make a comparison; the drawings are black and white, not like real life; they are symbols, they are artificial. But they are comparatively easy to learn, easier that the more arbitrary characters of most alphabets (except, perhaps Chinese, which is based upon pictures). Once your participants learn to identify simple black and white line drawings, you can include drawings in your programme.

One project, for example, would be to prepare a booklet, or a set of posters, where a commonly used and well known object, appropriate to the specific community, is drawn as a sketch by the participants, and a written word, identifying the same object, is written below it.


Meeting for planning and review

11. Include Elementary Numeracy Early in Your Teaching Plan:

The word "numeracy" is not often found in dictionaries. It means to have the elementary skills needed to recognise numbers, to write them, and to use them for counting and measuring.

Many individuals who have not learned to read and write prose, have somehow learned basic numeracy, and use it to handle money. This is good, and should be used as a foundation for learning how to read and write. Others have not. Your syllabus should include numeracy. Include numbers in your literacy programme. Do not teach arithmetic; teach recognition of numbers, and how to write them.

12. What Is Learned Must Be Practical, Immediate, and Useful:

There are many similarities (to learning literacy) with the aural method of learning an oral language, described in another document of this site: Aural.

One important element these methods share is that what is learned should not be learned by rote and in isolation from every day activities. If you are thirsty, learn how to say "Give me water," and it will stick better (be retained). Especially if, by saying it, someone gives you a glass of water. What about learning to write the sentence, "Give me water," and by doing so you receive a glass of water?

Positive reinforcement.

Learning should be existential. That is why you, as a mobiliser, should become very knowledgeable about the community, and what things are important to its members. Those things should be the basis for generating content in the learning projects that you organise.

13. Learn and Use What Is Useful and Interesting in the Specific Community:

First you must learn much about the community, and the things and activities that are most essential in it. Then you must draw your participants into doing the same thing, becoming more conscious of the details of what is happening around them.

When they are learning basic literacy, they should not be burdened with a large vocabulary, or with learning the shapes of a large number of characters in the alphabets you are using. You must therefore be selective, and should select words that identify things that are most commonly used by them.

The vocabulary, the content of your literacy programme, needs to be functional. That means it must be practical and relevant. That differs from community to community. That is why you, as a mobiliser, needs to be very familiar with the details of daily life to plan a literacy programmee. You do not do it yourself; you draw it out of the participants ─ but you need to know what to draw out of the participants.

14. Avoid Curricula (Content) Borrowed From Orthodox Schooling ─ Make Your Own:

It is so tempting, especially when you are just starting out to run a literacy programme, to borrow an elementary reading book from a nearby school, and start teaching words out of it

Be strong; avoid this approach.

Look carefully at such a book. What are the words in it? How many of them relate to what is important to your participants?

Although many efforts are now being made to make national text books more relevant to national images and ideas, no text book can reflect the wide variety of activities, things and ideas throughout the nation; communities differ so much from each other. Furthermore, making up your own vocabulary lists, as a group activity with your participants, helps them in becoming more empowered, and helps them to identify more closely with the chosen words (ie that they have chosen).

The criteria for your methods and content should not be whether they are orthodox or unorthodox, but whether they genuinely cause the number of literate people in the community to increase.

15. Avoid Traditional, Orthodox, Useless Topics (eg Alphabet, Poetry, Foreign Drama):

In a school setting, it is common to teach the whole alphabet to the pupils. But what is an alphabet? It is a collection of characters, each with a different shape, and each representing a different sound or set of sounds.

The alphabet and the letters in it do not represent anything practical or useful in the lives of your literacy participants. They are awkward to memorise, and they are not directly connected to daily life.

Do not teach the alphabet. Teach only those letters in it which are in the words you have chosen as practical and useful to learn (differing from community to community, and differing between various groups in the same community). Eventually, perhaps the literacy participants will learn every letter of the alphabet, or at least all of those to be used.

And what is poetry? The poetry taught in schools has been screened to be "suitable" for pupils. It is usually very sophisticated, and always highly impractical. What practical use would a poem be to illiterates learning basic literacy? What about other forms of literature? Yes, these may be pleasurable to read – at least for some people. If they are not immediately practical, relevant and useful to your literacy participants, do not teach them in your programme.

If one of the participants shows interest, give encouragement and support, and suggest that they study the poetry, drama, prose or other literate arts, in other settings.

16. Do Not Criticise – Ever; Praise – Often:

See the module on participatory management: Positive Attitude. It explains that, when we criticise someone, they will not easily or automatically correct a mistake; they will put more effort on defending it, and on becoming less willing to follow your leadership. This principle, which is applied there to managing staff and volunteers, also applies here to leading participants towards literacy.

Expect your literacy participants to make mistakes; it is an important human characteristic (and distinguishes humans from God). How you respond to their mistakes will make a big difference to how well they will earn literacy from you. Stay calm, be tolerant, focus on the achievements.

Let us use a hypothetical example. Pretend that one of your literacy participants was trying to write: "The cat sat." Perhaps they have printed out: "The kat sot." Acknowledge that the participant has made progress; it is indeed a very difficult job to get even that far. Let your trainee know that more people will recognise the sat in the sentence if s/he wrote: "sat." (Do not even mention the "k" in "kat").

In general, the pattern of response you should make is: "Very good, and you can make it even better by ..." (the dot, dot, dot, differs according to what improvement you are suggesting). Without criticising, you can suggest an improvement.

In a rare case, the trainee might ask outright, "Is ‘sot’ wrong?" In basic literacy training, there is nothing that is wrong. Tell him or her that. It is merely that more people will understand what you want to say if you write it "sat" rather than "sot."

Praise achievements. Do not use superficial, insincere praise. Acknowledge truthfully the achievements. It is no easy thing to recognise a character, and to be able to print it so that others will also recognise it. That is a big achievement.

Rather than criticise to say something is wrong, gently point how something can be improved. See Sandwich: you sandwich (insert) the suggestion for improvement (not acriticism) in between praises (the bread).

An important slogan in management training is, "You do not have tobe bad to get better." Remember that your trainees will make mistakes; do not point out the mistakes, show them that they are not bad and that they can get better.

17. Give Opportunities to Participants to Teach What They Learn:

You may have noticed it. When we learn something, and then we must teach it, we learn it better. We retain it longer. We understand it more deeply. By making an effort to teach it to someone else, we help ourselves to understand more about something.

Put this phenomena into the methodology of your literacy programme. Find ways for your literacy participants to teach, demonstrate, or illustrate the things they are learning. Their fellow participants can temporarily become their clients. Perhaps it is something elementary such as how to make the shape of a letter such as "P." Perhaps it is something related to a field trip of project, such as how to set up a pamphlet that will list names of fish and their sizes and prices.

If you are using these documents to help train mobilisers in setting up a literacy programme, give the participant mobilisers tasks of teaching each other the principles of practical and functional literacy. See Training Methods.

Whether your participants are literacy trainees, or mobiliser trainees, the principle of "learning by doing" can (and should) be extended to finding ways of the participants to teach others the skills and principles that they are learning. When they do, they will learn better.

18. Guide Participants Into the Awe and Enjoyment of Discovery:

Your literacy participants will not have you forever to teach them everything they will want or need to know about reading and writing. It would be productive, therefore, if you can prepare them to continue to teach themselves, and to explore the joys of seeking to learn more.

There is no "once-and-for-all" in functional literacy. People can become more and more literate, or they can stop the process at any level. You have started them off at the most elementary level. That should be a foundation for them to continue learning more (such as spelling and grammar which should not have been an important part of your curriculum).

One idea that has been successful elsewhere is to see if the participants want to organise themselves into a reading club or association. As a club, they would have their own executive, make decisions as to what they wanted to do, and how they would govern themselves. They might choose to invite volunteers, perhaps retired literate people local professionals, and others, to visit them and each make a presentation or two on a specific topic. They may grow into a book review club, or a newspaper reading club, depending upon how well they have learned to read, and at what level.

When you are showing literacy participants for the first time how certain squiggles of pen on a paper can communicate meaning, they will likely display joy and awe that this can be done. That is a good time to suggest that the new things to discover are endless, and that they can be learning more new things until the ends of their lives – if they so choose.

If you instil and/or encourage a sense of wonder and awe in the joy of learning, you will have done a great service to the participant – and to the community because the community becomes more empowered as more of its its members become more literate.

Back to Literacy and Empowerment


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2010.06.25

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