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Reasons for Designing a Custom Programme for Each Community

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Dedicated to the memory of Peter Gzowski*

Rationale for this Methodology

The justifications and basics for custom designing a functional literacy programme

What's Wrong With Predetermined Content?

Learning how to write and read means learning how to identify written symbols, (letters, characters) how to reproduce them, and how to relate them to words and sentences that we speak and hear. Beyond that, there are many – in effect an infinite number of – choices of which symbols to learn, and we can continue to learn them for the rest of our lives. Those symbols can be grouped into vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and other classifications.

If they are chosen by some remote text book writer, or by some national or international curriculum producer, then they are more likely to be less relevant, less local, less understood, and less practical than if they are determined by the trainees themselves. That is why this web site does not give to you a list of words you should teach to your trainees. The predetermined list would be wrong; to teach it (in the traditional sense of "to teach") would also be wrong.

Your method should therefore include an assessment, with your guidance, by the trainees, of words, meanings, concepts and concerns that are most used by them - that are most understood - that are most relevant. Furthermore, your method should not be an imitation of what we might see in a traditional classroom.

What is Wrong With the Traditional Presentation Method?

A lecture is essentially a single person presenting a pre written (prepared) speech to a group of listeners. Often not all are listening. A presentation is merely an elaborate lecture, perhaps illustrated with some slides, overheads, blackboard words or pictures, perhaps with a film, video or played audio tape.

The sociology of a lecture is that there is some social distance between the presenter and the listeners (class structure). That class difference can be a barrier to learning. The lecture or presentation method is "top-down."The presenter is assumed to be better than the listeners in some way.

Quite apart from the attitudes and behaviour of the lecturer, the social structure itself implies differences, it belittles the trainees. Furthermore, it assumes that there are some "absolutes," ie some "correct" body of knowledge, which the lecturer knows, and the trainees do not, but are expected to learn. It is not grounded in the reality of the trainees.

Add to all this the psychological characteristics of how we tend to learn. There are many ways we are expected to learn, by looking, by listening (books, pictures, videos, films, lecturers, events). Experienced school teachers know that by asking the children to repeat after them, and then recite the material in unison, that "doing" will be effective in retention by the children. Unfortunately, that method is a little too regimented for teaching adults. The regimentation becomes a barrier. Yet, among the various ways of learning new skills and information, learning by "doing" is the most effective.


How do all the above considerations affect the way in which you should design a programme of learning basic literacy by adult illiterates? The following sketch of a participatory approach can be your guide to custom designing a different programme for each community, or for each set of trainees.

What Should a Custom Designed Participatory Programme Include?

Set up a literacy programme that is custom-made to meet the needs and conditions of your trainees. Use the principles that are detailed elsewhere on this web site, especially the empowerment principle.

Instead of a classroom and teacher, use the room for planning and follow up, organize field trips and projects where learning literacy will be included, but almost as a secondary activity, and where you are not a fount of knowledge (expert, teacher), but a tour guide in a self discovery adventure by the trainees.

Determine the content (what is to be learned), especially vocabulary, by participatory methods. The source of what words to put in the list to be learned should come from the trainees. Your job is to use PRA/PAR type methods to draw that list out of them. As in PRA, make a "map" of the needs and interests of each set of trainees. Do this every time, even if you train more than one group from the same community.

In planning sessions with the trainees, set up "projects" and "field trips" where trainees produce an output. The outputs for each could be booklets and posters that relate to daily interests. Be creative and think of other project outputs that would be meaningful.

Use the classroom as a meeting room to plan projects and field trips rather than as a room to "teach a class." Use the classroom as a meeting room for follow up and completion of each project. If you have a room with a table and chairs around it, as in a seminar or board room, all the better.

As you assist the trainees in writing the words they have chosen as meaningful, during each project implementation, do not aim for perfection. Overlook spelling errors. Overlook grammar errors. These are not important so early in learning literacy. While perfect spelling and grammar are not important at this stage, getting across the concept of making written symbols that others can understand, is most important. Making it possible for the trainees to do it, and to see that they can do it, is your goal.

Do not limit yourself to written words. Include numbers. Include line drawings. Both of those are part of the literacy learning process, they are symbols that communicate on paper from people to people. Learning to use and understand pictures and numbers is part of the overall process of learning literacy, and reinforces the learning of letters and words.

Do not teach an alphabet (alphabetical list of characters) as an alphabet. Teach only those letters and characters that are in the words the group has chosen as high priority. Use more than one alphabet if the whole community does. Where appropriate, link words (ie groups of letters) to pictures with the same meaning.

Let your teaching location be along side the trainees as they work on each project, rather than in front of them as a class. Be an available guide. Provide plenty of positive feedback: recognition of achievement (identifying characters and other symbols is a BIG achievement) and honest (not superficial and excessive) praise.

In Summary:

This approach, custom making the programme for each community, requires more creativity and thinking by the facilitator, avoids formula or rote teaching, and will have more lasting and valuable effects.


Learning How to Read:

Learning How to Read

© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2012.10.03

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