Literacy is simple

You might imagine that literacy is complicated, that it costs a lot of money, or that adults learning to read spend years in classes. After all, not all children in US schools become fluent readers by the end of first grade and it is in second grade that most become fluent readers. Even then, it is not sure that many could read the Bible and understand it. So you might think that it takes years for an adult in Africa to learn to read well enough to read the Bible fluently. But Bible translators run literacy classes that might surprise you in many ways. I have seen adults become fluent readers, including reading Bible passages, after spending 12 weeks in intensive literacy, although it usually takes longer. They have a very big advantage over US grade school students. Because of the work of missionary-linguists, their language sounds like it spells and spells like it sounds. They don’t have to deal with the inconsistent, confusing maze that is English spelling.

Also, the literacy program is adapted to the local context. Classes are held in whatever facilities are available, even if that is under a tree. Whatever the church or community has, that’s what we’ll use.

In addition, the literacy teachers are volunteers. Few have any formal training as teachers. Some just became literate themselves and they are often among the best teachers! They do get a week or two of training. This is possible because the primer is made so the every lesson has exactly the same steps. The teacher doesn’t need to know why or how the steps work. They just learn to follow the same process with each lesson. (This wouldn’t work with English because the spelling is so complicated.) So literacy classes can be run by almost anybody. A church that wants its members to learn to read the Bible does not need to find a trained teacher. Any literate member of the congregation can do it. Even if no literate person wants to, the church can send a few of its illiterate members to a literacy class and then have the one of them who does the best become the teacher for others. When I was in Burkina Faso, one big literacy program run by another organization required a high school diploma to be a teacher. Not many were found and they wanted salaries, of course. Then the wanted proper classrooms, and they did not want to be assigned to literacy classes is remote areas. A literacy program that uses motivated members of the community does not encounter these issues.

 So, these simple literacy methods work because of motivation. The teachers, for example, are often very highly motivated. Some have been volunteer teachers for years, peddling their personal bicycle to a class several times a week, then the next year doing the same for a different class in a different location. They do this year after year. One even continued after being hit by a car while peddling his bike to class and spending some time in a hospital. They believe that they are changing lives and transforming their community, which they are. The learners are also motivated. Many want to read the Bible. Some want to use text messaging on their phone. Others want to write letters to distant relatives. They put up with the inadequacies and spend hours in class because they really want to read. If they fail, they enroll in the next class and try again. Chiefs want literacy classes in their areas so they give what they can and tell people to enroll. Nothing can replace motivation when it comes to literacy.

But the biggest reason why these literacy classes work is that they are in a language people know – their own language, their heart language. Time after time, I have seen adult literacy programs in English or French (in countries where French is the official language) get low results.

A few years ago, I met a young lady in northern Ghana who told me that her father would not let her go to school, but her uncle interceded with her father so that she could go to a literacy class in her language offered by the Ghanaian organization I work for. She did so well and her father was so impressed that he let her start school for the first time as a teenager. She advanced quickly. In the process she became a Christian and married a fine Christian man. When I spoke to her she was a few weeks from graduating from university. There are tens of thousands of similar cases in Ghana.  Combine literacy in the heart language with the Bible also in the heart language, and amazing things happen. Simple literacy yields results that are anything but simple. 

Photos: Rodney Ballard, courtesy of Wycliffe Global Alliance

How do people read?

This week, I continue my series on the questions I was most asked while in the US. This week’s question is:

How do people read the translations, because their language is unwritten?

Most of the languages without a translation are unwritten. It follows that the people do not know how to read. There is no sense printing a Bible no one can read and no sense translating one that will not be printed. Also, 1/3 of the people in the world cannot read in the language they speak most often. So this question raises a key issue.

Rural literacy in Ghana

Rural literacy in Ghana

First,  if one develops a good alphabet, one that sounds like it spells and spells like it sounds, then teaching reading is easier than for English, much easier. An adult can learn to read in a few weeks or months of evening courses, not the years it takes for English. Also, ordinary people can teach each other, eliminating the need for professional teachers. Rural literacy programs can be run with volunteers at a very low cost. Using these methods, about half a million previously illiterate people in northern Ghana have learned to read their languages, with many moving on to English. And Ghana is just one example. See the video at the end about how one young woman in Senegal turned her education around through literacy in her language.

There are many advantages to doing literacy:

  • People who learn to read have a skill that allows them to do many other things successfully, such as having a small business. One woman told of finally being able to track what she had sold on credit, to whom and how much they had paid back. Imagine trying to remember all that, and the conflicts that might cause!
  • Young school drop-outs who learn to read in their own language are much more likely to go back to school and graduate. There are thousands of Ghanaians who are teachers, pastors, even some university professors and government officials who got a re-start in school after taking a literary class. Without that, today they would be uneducated peasants.
  • Farefare 7The children of women who learn to read are twice as likely to survive infancy.
  • Women in particular, gain many advantages when they learn to read in their own language. Here are some other web articles about that:
    What literacy does for women
    Famata’s story
  • People will come to a literacy class who would not come to church. At least one successful church planting program in Ghana starts with literacy for this very reason.

But for those who do not learn to read, the Bible is recorded. People listen to it on their phones, on local FM radio stations, in listening groups sponsored by their churches and in other ways. Indeed, listening groups where people listen to the Bible in their own language and discuss it, have been shown to be one of the most effective ways to plant churches and foster spiritual maturity in believers. Some will listen so many times that they memorize long passages. In addition, local choirs write Scripture songs which people memorize, ending up with a repertoire of dozens, even hundreds of Scripture songs.

Carrying out adult literacy for minority peoples erases a question some ask – should I do/support humanitarian work or evangelism/church planting? Through literacy, your money, your efforts and your prayers can do both at once!

Literacy for Life

Many deep comments have been made about the following passage from Luke chapter 4, and rightly so:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down.

Today, I do not have any deep thoughts about this passage, but I do have one simple question: How and where did Jesus learn to read?

Literacy class at night

Rural literacy class being held at night by lamplight – Photo by Paul Federwitz

Universal public education is a relatively new thing in human history. It is certain that the Roman authorities who ruled the Jews at the time did not provide education for them. So, how did Jesus learn to read?

Well, he learned in the synagogue from the Rabbi, or perhaps some in his family from his parents.

Teaching children to read was part of the Jewish tradition. Before the advent of government-funded universal education, is also became part of the program of the church. Sunday School started out as a school (reading, writing, ‘rithmatic’) which happened on Sunday before church. It became what it is today when universal schooling took away its original purpose.

A woman teaching other women to read

A woman teaching other women to read – GILLBT photo

As Christianity has grown rapidly in Africa and other places, it is encountering again some of the issues it faced in the not so distant past in Europe. Many churches today are in places where most people do not know how to read and write. Think about that. What would it be like to be in a church where most people do not know how to read? What challenges would that present for Bible study?

Man selling literacy books in the market

Man selling literacy books in the market – GILLBT photo

Here in Ghana, the organization I work with (GILLBT) is addressing this issue with a program called Literacy for Life. This program, run by Nelson Jatuat, offers churches help (training, primers, etc.) setting up church-based adult literacy for their members. People learn to read their heart language. Each lesson includes both teaching to read and write as well as a Bible lesson. It is offered in 18 of the more than 60 languages in Ghana.

Woman and child reading the Bible in their language

Woman and child reading the Bible in their language at a Bible dedication – GILLBT photo

This year, 900 local churches are participating in the program and over 15,000 church members are learning to read. Every year, different churches take part and a similar number of Ghanaian Christians are enrolled. The program is run on a shoestring – churches offer the locale, chalk, and blackboard  free of charge, teachers are volunteers with no pay (although they may receive something small as a recognition for their services), and learners of their churches buy the books. Using these methods, churches and GILLBT can work together to teach an adult to read fluently in his or her language for well under $100. Now that is a bargain.

The program is run by Nelson Jatuat who travels to various parts of the country to train teachers and help churches with evaluation at the end of the teaching cycle.

Outdoors literacy class

Outdoors literacy class – GILLBT photo

Not only do the participants learn to read the Bible in their own languages, they also gain a life-skill that they can use in all kinds of ways. They can keep records, correspond with family, sign their name on official documents, teach a Sunday School class, be the secretary for a local women’s group, take part in a Bible study, or teach a literacy class themselves all things which they could not do before knowing how to read and write. This program has a disproportionately favorable impact on women – the reverse of the unfortunate tendency of development programs to favor men.

Nelson Jatuat

Nelson Jatuat who runs GILLBT’s Literacy for Life program

Where else but in adult literacy in minority languages can a person simultaneously proclaim the Gospel, make disciples, enable others to make disciples, carry out a practical economic development activity and elevate the status of women all at the same time? And where else can one do all that but among some of the most marginalized and neglected people on earth? Anyone out there want to get involved in that? Contribute to it? Come and do it? Pray for Nelson?

If we could ask them, what do you think they would say – the people who taught Jesus to read? And the Christians learning to read through GILLBT’s Literacy for Life program? What do you think they will say in heaven about those who taught them, subsidized their books, sponsored those who developed primers in their languages? And when they say it, do you think that Jesus might remember his own experience learning to read and be impressed?
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