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Improving literacy levels in T&T

International Literacy Day, September 8
By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Twitter: @gordon_lp

International Literacy Day is on September 8 with a focus on literacy and multilingualism. The United Nations Educational, Science Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said: “Despite progress made, literacy challenges persist, distributed unevenly across countries and populations.  Embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy development is central to addressing these literacy challenges and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Trinidad and Tobago participated in a literacy study Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international comparative assessment that measures student learning in reading. The study, done every five years, in 2016 found four per cent of Grade Four (Standard Three) students in Trinidad and Tobago were reaching the Advanced benchmark in reading achievement. There were 49 countries in the study. T&T showed improvement with 479 in 2016 up from 471 in 2011 and 436 in 2006.

In 2017, Dr Paulson Skeritt, of the Faculty of Humanities and Education, School of Education, The University of the West Indies voiced concern. Despite gains, the country remains below the international average of 500 points. She observed unsettling trends with the significant gap between girls outperforming boys, and 80 per cent of students below the Low International Benchmark of 400 points. Dr Skerrit explained this meant the country has not managed “to educate our students to a basic level of reading”.

T&T has also participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Latin America and the Caribbean, an evaluation every three years on what 15-year-old students know and can do in science, reading, and mathematics. T&T had 46 per cent low performing students in reading. The summary report stated, “…they cannot identify the main idea of a text, understand relations, or infer information that is not directly provided in the text”.

Improving literacy has been a thrust of the Education Ministry. Over 2014–January 2016   Master of Education (Reading) graduates were hired as literacy coaches for some primary schools from, sought to improve literacy instruction for teachers of Infant 1, and Infant 2 and Standard 1 through a coaching programme to improve their knowledge of pedagogy and content. Seven Curriculum Officers specialising in reading were appointed to the Ministry’s Curriculum Planning and Development Division. In 2013 the Leading for Literacy Now! project in collaboration with UNESCO, the National Library Information System and Republic Bank Ltd was launched for schools.

Chief Education Officer Harrilal Seecharan in an interview with the Catholic News said based on the ministry’s assessment from both studies, T&T is among the top three countries in the region but still behind many European and developed countries. He noted improvement since the 2006 results. Seecharan said the primary school curriculum has a “significant focus on literacy and numeracy” and has been informed by the findings of the PIRLS studies.

“It is one of our real areas of concern and we are working. In fact, as I speak, we are actually rolling out some training for principals at the primary school level in terms of Leadership for Literacy…it is an ongoing process. We actually have been using a targeted approach with our primary schools and that will be ongoing until we get everybody up to standard,” the CEO stated.

Literacy—a passport for success

The School Leadership Centre was enlisted by the Catholic Education Board of Management to implement training for principals and infant teachers of nine RC primary schools. It was funded from proceeds of the 2018 Priests Can Cook. The training took place August 19–23 at ROYTEC Henry Street during the school’s vacation break. Training objectives included identifying the principals’ role as leaders in Leading for Literacy, gain insight into the importance of self-awareness as a leader, recognise the significance of how the needs of pupils impact their literacy development and identify strategies to meet these needs, become aware of the relationship between trauma and learning and develop strategies to help children cope.

President of the Centre Elizabeth Crouch said at the launch, “If children cannot read at Infant 1 then it is not going to happen. They are the vulnerable children who go through the system unable to read and then we just sometimes shake our heads and say ALTA will take care of it but sometimes ALTA cannot take care of it.” An educator for 48 years, she said literacy is “the passport for success”.

As a primary school pupil in 1954, Crouch recalled malnutrition was a problem and teachers rose to the task of dealing with it by mixing powdered milk every morning during recess. “In those days Trinidadians were poor and strong bones and teeth was a national issue because children will get rickets,” she said. Poor families sent their children to school hungry or with “flour pap”.  Crouch said primary school teachers today were called to respond to something equally important as malnutrition: literacy; they are part of a “global network” of other countries also fighting for literacy.

Crouch said when a child leaves the infant class and continues through the primary school system still unable to read, their human right has been denied.  She added that the gaps between those who have and don’t have, and those who know and don’t know were too wide and still increasing.

Crouch said, “And we talk about our young men who are incoherent and cannot express themselves, angry because they would not tell you they cannot read what is on the paper.”

She encouraged principals and teachers to be vocal with parents about the fact their child learning to read is a human right.  Educators cannot have a “dem”/us attitude” or have closed minds that parents don’t care.  “Once a parent knows you respect and care and you are going to do something to take the child from A to B these are the parents who bring you sweetbread, or bread or provisions because you love their children too and see their children as worthwhile,” Crouch said.

Setting the context for the Leading for Literacy Now project she said when it began it was disturbing to find teachers who did not know how to teach a child to read. Although there were reading resources the teachers expected to children learn through “sight”.

Crouch said, “If you are relying on children learning to read through sight words that is, memorising words. Vulnerable children have huge problems because of the trauma they experience in their lives to hold in the head the tens of thousands of words in order to move from primary to secondary.”

The project identifies principals as critical change agents in driving the project because “if the principal does not drive it, nothing happens”. The teacher who did not know how to teach a child to read placed the child at a disadvantage.