LITERACY: THE CHALLENGE

Errol Miller

Literacy has been the subject of a lot of attention recently. The new president of the JTA, Mr. Byron Farquarson, has made it a centrepiece of his administration and has called on teachers to ensure that children are functionally literate by the end of primary schooling. The Minister of Education and Culture, Burchell Whiteman, has announced a new policy that students will not be promoted above Grade Four in primary and all age schools unless they are functionally literate. The Sunday Gleaner carried a front-page story that adults are enrolling in literacy classes in increasing numbers. This indicates that literacy is not only the concern of the teaching profession and the policymakers in the Ministry of education but it also has resonance at the level of the individual. These are all positive developments.

I feel constrained to make a few comments on the subject because literacy in the 1990s, whether among children in school or the adult population, cannot be approached in the same manner as was the case in the 1970s. Our best estimates indicate that some more than 70 percent of primary school children are functionally literate by age twelve years. In the case of the population, 15 years and older the figure is about 80 percent. The point is that in both instances a substantial majority are functionally literate. The task is moving to the target of 100 percent or as close to it as possible.

What must be realised is that what is required to move from 70 or 80 per cent to the target of 100 per cent is going to be substantially different from the provisions and efforts to get to 70 or 80 per cent. More than missionary zeal is required. To reach to the desired goal of full literacy it will be necessary to be much more professional and scientific in our approaches than is currently the case.

To begin with the problem of illiteracy is not evenly distributed across schools and within the adult population. To make this final push to attain the objective demands that we identify and target the schools and sections of the population in which the incidence of illiteracy is highest. From the analysis of existing data it appears that schools in rural areas, by that I mean schools located outside of town and cities, require particular attention. In the adult population men engaged in agricultural labour, particularly in the sugar industry, are prime targets.

There is research evidence that suggests that many children who miss out on basic instruction in the fundamentals of reading, through irregular attendance in Grades One and Two do not get a chance to recover until they get remedial instruction in Grade Seven. If the policy of barring promotion beyond Grade Four is to work it will be necessary to introduce remedial reading programmes within the primary school probably as early as Grade Three. In my judgement if this measure was introduced in the schools with high levels of illiteracy the national average could jump to close to 90 percent within a few years.

There is also research evidence to suggest that some of the children not learning to read by the end of primary schooling are suffering from mental and learning disabilities that are going undetected. To address the needs of such children it will be necessary to do the following:

  • Sensitising the regular classroom teacher to recognise and identify children with disabilities that need to be referred for diagnosis.
  • Set up a system of referral of children for diagnostic testing for learning and other disabilities.
  • Increase the number of special education units in some large primary schools that would serve their students plus those from neighbouring schools.
  • Staffing these units with special education teachers equipped to address the needs of these children.

While I wholeheartedly applaud and support the pronouncements of both the JTA President and the Minister, I must point out that to achieve the desired objective it is necessary to address some of the deficiencies in the present provisions in primary schooling. The fact that 30 percent of children are leaving the primary school functionally illiterate does not mean that primary school teachers are failing to do their jobs. Rather, it represents the limit of productivity that can be expected from the existing levels of provisions, the current organisation of primary schooling, and technical expertise being deployed in support of its mission.

The eradication of the 30 percent illiteracy requires that we address the issues mounting remedial reading programmes within primary schools and the early identification of children with disabilities. I am confident that if these pronouncements are matched and backed by these measure then we can raise the level of literacy at the end of primary schooling to more than 90 per cent within five years.

 

September 7, 1998

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