By Simone Delochan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Some of us may be familiar with the web series, ‘What yuh know’ on Facebook and YouTube. It’s facile in approach: ask random people in different parts of the country to spell certain words, or answer trivia; offer them money if they respond correctly. Respond wrongly, and the host may grimace into the camera, or raise his eyebrows or obviously attempt to keep a straight face. Errors are punctuated with derisive cutaways. It’s funny that people don’t know how to spell everyday words, right? Except that it isn’t.
According to UNESCO, Trinidad and Tobago has enjoyed a literacy rate well into the ninetieth percentile. The truth is far grimmer. According to the Adults Literacy Tutors Association of Trinidad and Tobago (ALTA) in a survey done by them in 1994, and the University of the West Indies in 1995, 22–23 per cent of people in T&T aged 15 and over “are unable to cope with everyday reading and writing”. That is approximately one in four who are not literate. “Eight per cent of people over 15 could not read even three of these words: to, at, love, sun, bet.” It seems unlikely that the literacy situation would have improved since then to any great degree.
Catholic News interviewed both ALTA and the Trinidad and Tobago Reading Association (TTRA) two groups dedicated to improving our literacy rate. While the former goes directly to the impacted individuals through the teaching of reading, the latter targets teachers and other interested parties in an attempt to forge more effective strategies in the classroom, and increase the enjoyment of reading.
In the emailed interview with ALTA, the typical literacy issues that were faced were dyslexia, slow learners, intellectual deficiencies, developmental issues, visual impairment and hearing impairments. School experiences also impacted on learning with factors such as student to teacher ratio, which causes some students to be ignored; students being promoted to each level even though they have not passed exams; severe physical punishment; being labelled as ‘dunce’ or ‘stupid’ or behavioural issues which led to the student dropping out, or being expelled or suspended.
Sr Annetta Alexander SJC of TTRA says, of her own observation as teacher and school principal, that teachers in the Infant classes are quite thorough in foundational strategies, but then a “gap” appears between Standards 1 to 3. “They stop drawing attention to digraphs and blends because they think the children know how to read so they just move ahead…” TTRA has a membership of about 200, cutting through a cross-section of primary and secondary school teachers mainly.
Sr Annetta believes that it is, at times, simply not that children “cannot read” but the issues have not been adequately diagnosed in the classroom. “Teachers say that children can’t read but they need to say what aspect of the reading is problematic. Is it that they can’t identify the sound? They can’t map the sounds with the letters? Or is it that they cannot combine them?”
She continued, “I think children can read but it’s the lack of constructing meaning in what they are reading…when they do the exam, when you hear the national tests results, they always get the lowest marks in comprehension. This happens when the children are not taught the different skills in comprehension, cause and effect, understanding tone and mood etc. Unless the teachers themselves are conscious of this, make an effort to teach this, you end up with 30 per cent falling under.”
It then seems to be a two-fold problem: actual illiteracy, due as well to constraining personal socio-economic factors, and the inability to make sense of words and sentences and thus construct meaning.
Space here limits delving into what is a complex issue and which needs immediate attention. Literacy problems are not amusing for the person who is unable to function and neither should illiteracy be stigmatised. If you know someone who has literacy issues encourage them to enrol in a class at ALTA, or perhaps you can volunteer to be trained as a tutor. Contact ALTA at 664-2582 or 653-4656.
For the teachers, TTRA offers workshops as well as a certificate course, through UWI’s open-campus, in the teaching of reading which begins yearly in October. For anyone interested in actively promoting reading or learning more contact Sr Annetta at 778-0708 or Vittoria de la Grenade at 637-3297.
And parents, read to your children, and let them see you reading. Begin reading to them from the time they are in the womb.