My Experiences with English Literacy in Developing Countries

My Experiences with English Literacy in Developing Countries

By Helena Charlesworth.

Motivation + Encouragement = Success

From my experiences in teaching English in four developing countries, there are, I believe, two necessities for literacy to be improved.

  1. The students’ inner desire and determination to learn.  This may be motivated by the students’ firm belief that a good education will relieve them of poverty – a great motivator in a country where families suffer extreme poverty.  
  1. Opportunities and encouragement given, not only by the teacher, but also by the school programme with the principal giving one hundred per cent support; by teachers, classmates and by family.   N.B.  It is vital that the school’s whole programme incorporates ways and means of encouraging literacy.  Daily reading time (D.E.A.R. – Drop Everything And Read), weekly library sessions with a teacher who knows what he/she is doing, weekly peer-tutoring (where senior students pair off with junior students and work on language – oral and written – for a given period of time) should be built into the timetable for every class, and finally, if the whole campus is an all-English zone, you are home and dry.)

Without motivation, students will not bother to make an effort to master literacy skills.  But when they see that those around them with a reasonable education are able to acquire and hold down well-paid jobs while those who cannot do this literally starve (for instance, in some African countries where life with no financial support whatsoever is totally dependent upon crops and livestock which in turn are dependent upon rain which often does not come), then students will want to learn, and given the opportunity and encouragement, most will do so.

In my first overseas school in the Pacific, it was mandatory to speak English – in the classroom, on the playground, on sports days, everywhere on the school campus.  For both teachers and students there, English was a third or sometimes fourth language, yet every year in the principal’s Class 6 every one of her students passed the national examination and was able to gain a place in high school.   Not only was English compulsory on campus for students, it was also compulsory for staff, and as the school was able to give the teachers good work conditions and a fair salary, they cooperated fully.  So when the opportunity is there and the school’s programme is conducive to developing literacy and the staff all comply, there is success.

In an African country in one class, I remember well, students’ English skills ranged from good down to very, very weak.  One particular student, let’s call him Jason, a lovely, quiet and gentle boy, lacked the courage to open his mouth to speak any English.  We were working on a special English programme which aimed to help those students be better prepared for the mainstream classes and we had just nine weeks in which to do this.  Each day we practised speaking, reading, writing, understanding; we learnt new vocabulary; we helped and encouraged each other; we watched a film each week, discussed it, wrote about it.  What I saw though, was how Jason’s classmates actively encouraged each other.  When, at the end of the nine weeks, Jason stood in front of the class and gave a short talk in English, the class clapped and cheered, and one of the more able English-speaking boys stood up and said, “Look at Jason.  When he first came here, he’d say nothing.  Now look at him – isn’t he great?”  His classmates were truly happy for him and were not abashed to express that happiness; there were big smiles all around, with probably the biggest smile being on Jason’s face.  Such success with oral language is a base on which to build literacy because don’t we all learn to speak fluently before we start learning to read and write?

I then moved to another Pacific nation school where there was very little motivation to learn: students knew that when they left school there were very few job opportunities and the extended family would see they didn’t starve, so many were basically prepared to do nothing but sponge off their families, knowing that their culture would not allow anyone to be refused food, no matter how much of a shirker he/she might be.  As well, I found that the students who had mastered English skills to a certain extent were reluctant to encourage others.  

That was until I had one particular Year 12 class.  For some reason, there was a feeling of care and concern for each other that permeated that group of thirty or so students whose skills ranged from very, very weak up to reasonable, though hardly of a standard for that year level’s national examination.  Within that class there were four girls who were great friends and who were motivated more than the others to try to succeed academically; the motivation, I believe, came from their families and from each other.  So what did they do?  They would get together, work together, encourage and affirm each other’s successes, rejoice when one or other of them wrote a good essay and they would actively seek help from me.  I think they tried to outdo each other, and if one failed, she was not jealous of any of the others who succeeded; rather, she just put her nose to the grindstone and tried again.  At the same time, they were prepared to actually learn, to commit to memory things like new vocabulary, poems, quotations, etc.  At times I’d notice other students seeking their assistance.  That group was motivated and they were a delight to teach.  Unfortunately, they didn’t all pass their national examinations – their skills at the start of the year had been too weak to reach the required level, but they gained a great interest in reading and in study; they haunted the school library; they borrowed books; one borrowed adult books from me.   They had the satisfaction of knowing they had done their best, they had the joy of sharing their work ethos and they cemented an enduring friendship.  I still receive the occasional email from one of them who is now studying at university and she talks of her friends and her happy memories of that year of working together.  

Then, in yet another Pacific school, I had a Year 13 class whose students just did not seem to be interested in encouraging each other.  They would work individually, some well, some not, but showed little interest in helping their classmates to make any progress.  I remember two boys who were great friends; one had reasonable literacy skills; the other seemed quite weak and just copied his mate’s work whenever he had the chance.   For the first two terms, the former made a passable effort with his studies but his friend didn’t put in much effort – he wasn’t motivated to work to his potential.  But then, for some reason – it may have been due to the college’s parent-teacher meeting where mid-year reports were discussed – these two started working together – really working!  Luckily they lived close to each other and they would get together at home where the abler boy would help his mate, help by explaining, not just allowing him to copy.  The slower one began to taste small successes and he loved that.  English exam results (national examination) at the end of the year?  Would you believe, both scored the same result – 74%!  I give all credit to the first boy who became a role model and a motivator for his mate.

Motivation plus encouragement.  That’s what I believe is needed for improving literacy.