September 06, 2016

Spreading literacy to promote development, understanding and peace

Myo Myint

Every year on September 8th, the world celebrates International Literacy Day.  This day is celebrated all over the world annually with different themes to draw the attention of leaders and citizens of nations, local and international NGOs, governmental organizations and the illiterates themselves to issues concerning illiteracy and the importance of acquiring literacy skills in order to liberate illiterates from the depths of poverty, ignorance, and exploitation to enable them to reach their full potential.  The benefits of a country having a literate population are too numerous to be listed here. To mention a few, literacy is recognized worldwide as an important tool in raising socioeconomic standards of a country, fostering understanding, cooperation, tolerance and peace among members of the society, enhancing critical thinking skills, promoting gender equality, inculcating knowledge of healthy living and increasing appreciation for the need to conserve the environment.
In this day and age of digital skills, for those who have been able to attend school, the abilities to read, write and calculate are very basic skills that can be developed at an early age.  It has been fifty years since the initiating of International Literacy Day by UNESCO in 1965 and since then many countries have made great strides in eradicating illiteracy. Although the number of illiterates in the world has been halved between 1970 and 2005, there still remain millions all over the world, who have not had the opportunity to attend school, and for them, especially adults, achieving literacy may be a great challenge. According to UNESCO there are 758 million adult illiterates and of them two-thirds are women. In the case of Myanmar, during the time of Myanmar kings, as noted by foreigners of that period, Myanmar had a fairly large literate population due to the wide prevalence of monastic schools.  Myanmar is also one of the countries that have gained success in eradicating illiteracy and has received two international awards in recognition for its outstanding achievements. In awarding the Mohamed Reza Phalavi Prize for 1971, the jury stated that the prize was awarded, “for the intensive literacy teaching carried out with exemplary persistence and earnestness in an increasing number of areas, for the benefit of broad strata of the population, with the assistance of the whole student body.”  Currently, the Myanmar literacy rate is equal to the average literacy rate of ASEAN and higher than those of neighbouring countries, India, Bangladesh, Lao PDR and Cambodia. However, Myanmar cannot be complacent and has still to strive to fully eradicate illiteracy in the country and work for higher literacy among women as the national census of 2014 stated that the adult literacy rate is 89.5 percent, with literacy rate among men being slightly higher than women.
Knowing full well the cost of illiteracy, Myanmar continues to make relentless effort to promote literacy using the strength of the younger generation with university students forming the core of volunteer teachers and harnessing the assistance of basic education teachers and local volunteers.  Each year, funds and areas are earmarked for eradication of illiteracy and volunteers are recruited. The majority of the volunteer teachers live in the villages assigned for the duration of the 45 day literacy promotion programme. According to the Ministry of Education, in April and May of 2016, 30 townships were selected from 14 Regions, States and Nay Pyi Taw area and 20527 illiterates were formed into 2180 learning groups to provide literary skills. Again, in October of this year, 3R campaigns will be carried out in Kayah State to bring literacy to about 4600 persons who will be formed into 400 learning groups to be taught by 400 volunteer students from technological and computer higher education institutions located within Kayah State.
This year’s International Literacy Day Celebrations may be considered to be of special significance as it marks the 50th anniversary of its initiation by UNESCO and supported by nations all over the world. The theme chosen for this year is Reading the Past and Writing the Future. The theme highlights the fact that the 50 years experience of striving to eradicate illiteracy worldwide serves as a sound foundation to increase effectiveness and maximize the benefits of future literacy campaigns.
For some of the nations that have faced challenges of long standing illiteracy, this year’s theme of International Literacy Day may serve as a reminder to assess the successes of the methodology, the teaching materials and teaching aids  and the mode of training of instructors used in the past and drawing on the achievements to introduce more effective ways. It is widely recognized that there have been many positive developments in teaching language and numeracy to children and some of the modern techniques used, with some modifications may be utilized in facilitating learning and increasing its pace.  Moreover, whatever the age, most people like game-like activities and these can be incorporated in the methodology to create interest and fun and lessen stress.  So also, learning materials that have been used for many years may become more effective if reviewed and updated to reflect the interests of the times. It is also possible that if learning materials can incorporate very short and simple reading passages on life skills and activities on income generation, learners’ knowledge on how to improve their lives and thinking skills may also be promoted and the programme better appreciated.  In addition, utilization of more teaching aids will help learners learn faster and retain better. It is true that teaching and learning aids can be borrowed from schools in the locality, but it would be much better if these aids are developed specially for 3R classes most of which are attended by young and older adults and as many sets of teaching aids should be made available to provide learners hands-on experience. The teaching aids should be reusable ones so that they can be reutilized later on in literacy programmes at other venues and save costs. As young people these days are very much interested in social work, university students will be more than happy to assist in producing simple teaching aids during their free time. Similarly, by increasing the duration of instructor training programmes, the skill of instructors who lack experience of teaching 3R classes can be enhanced.
In addition to human resource, good planning and management, another important success factor for nationwide campaigns is the amount of financial resources that can be utilized. In Myanmar, the budget allotted to the Ministry of Education is increasing steadily but since it is the main provider of education in the country and many areas need improvement, the ministry can only spend a small percentage of what is needed on literacy campaigns resulting in limiting the number of centres and participants.  In addition, printing and distribution of reading materials and holding of follow-up programmes for neo-literates have been hampered by lack of funds.  However, there is hope that this can be redressed as Myanmar is now practising market economy and the private sector is prospering and many successful companies have embraced the concept of corporate social responsibilities. Knowing the importance of literate human resource for the country as well as for the private sector, many companies will surely provide financial support to this national endeavour if invited to do so by the ministry concerned.
Meanwhile, while striving to raise the standard of education, the Ministry of Education is also trying to ensure that all persons gain access to education by creating various pathways. In the very near future, the ministry will open a new department, the Department of Alternative Education whose tasks are to provide education to education seekers of all ages using non-formal and innovative means. It is hoped that the department will also carry out effective literacy programmes that will reach the four corners of the country to ensure that every citizen receives basic literacy skills and when the time is ripe to provide more advanced literacy skills defined by UNESCO as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”.
There is no doubt that mastery of literacy skills has a huge positive impact on a person and also multiplier effect.  Not only will his/her life be transformed for the better, so also he/her can contribute to the advancement of his/her family, community, country and future generations, personally, socially, economically and politically. It is therefore imperative that more innovative means are sought and best practices shared among countries and organizations to ensure the success of literacy campaigns all over the world and that the literacy achieved forms a sound basis for lifelong learning for those keen on further improving themselves.



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