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Literacy in the 90's
The Role of SIL

This informative booklet, now published here on the Web, was originally printed in the 1990s. As a historical document, it reflects SIL's work in literacy during that decade.


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Literacy and Development: Opening New Doors, Creating New Horizons

Barai literacy class in Papua New Guinea
Barai literacy class in Papua New Guinea

Literacy benefits both individuals and their communities. Learning to read boosts self-esteem and provides important new skills. In Africa, farmers discovered that they began getting better prices for their crops when it was evident they could read and write. In the Philippines, newly literate adults have begun opening bank accounts and managing their money more knowledgeably. In India, newly literate Oriyans now qualify for desirable jobs which had previously gone to outsiders.

Moreover, the effects of literacy often extend beyond personal benefits. UNESCO has stated that an effective literacy program can lead to "participation in formal community organizations" [UNESCO 1976, 178]. This has been evident in SIL-directed literacy programs. For example, after becoming literate, the Vagla of northern Ghana began to increase their involvement in the political affairs of their community. In 1979, four years after the program began, they had equal representation on the District Council Committee in Bole [Bendor-Samuel and Bendor-Samuel 38]. The Bimoba, also of Ghana, have begun to organize their own cooperatives and to do long-range economic planning. The Pez of Colombia have organized their own education committee to do long-range educational planning.

The men were leaders of a workshop to train Deg speakers of Ghana to write literacy materials in their own language
The men were leaders of a workshop to train Deg speakers of Ghana to write literacy materials in their own language

In an effective literacy program, the people who benefit will often learn to write and illustrate primers and other books. Literacy experts evaluating UNESCO's Experimental World Literacy Programme (EWLP) observed that literacy programs "enhance the ability of individuals and groups to express themselves orally, in writing or in other ways" [UNESCO 1976, 193]. In its literacy programs, SIL also seeks to foster the self-expression and self-sufficiency of learners. Whenever possible, mother-tongue writers and artists produce literacy materials under SIL's guidance.

The Guahibo literacy program illustrates the effective use of a reading practice component in an SIL-directed campaign. As they learned to read, the Guahibos wanted to produce a newspaper in their mother tongue. With assistance from SIL specialists, they learned how. The resultant newspaper has been printed since 1978 and now circulates among Guahibo as well as non-Guahibo readers [Between Two Worlds (general reference)].

In evaluating the Experimental World Literacy Programme, experts advised the use of trained non-professional teachers in literacy programs. "Experience shows that, more often than not, instructors from the same ecological and vocational background as illiterates are more successful in carrying out literacy than school-teachers, because they understand illiterates' problems better." [UNESCO 1976, 193.]

The training of local teachers has been a hallmark of SIL literacy programs. Thousands of teachers from hundreds of different languages many with little or no formal education have been taught to teach in their own language. This has proven to be very successful.

In Mexico, an Otomi man reads to his friends.
In Mexico, an Otomi man reads to his friends.

The same principle has been found to apply to formal school programs as well. In the Peruvian bilingual education program, school teachers must be fluent in the mother tongue of their students. It has been found that moderately educated mother-tongue speakers are more effective teachers than "professional" teachers who know only Spanish.

Over and over again, SIL members have watched literacy transform people, communities, and entire social structures. Literacy brings a greater sense of personal dignity, additional skills in problem solving, and the respect of others who tend to view the illiterate as an ignorant and marginal person fit only for common labor.

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