Pedagogical Approaches to Literacy Acquisition and

Pedagogical Approaches to Literacy Acquisition and Effective
Programme Design
Anita Dighe
A recent study commissioned by SIDA (Torres, 2003) on the status of adult
basic learning and education in the South in the context of Lifelong Learning
has highlighted several issues that are cause for concern. Her literature
review reaffirms that research and visions relating to adult basic learning and
education (ABLE) in the South are dominated by researchers from the
North, by international agencies and by English speaking researchers who
often ignore and are dismissive of the research produced in the South,
especially if it is written in a language other than English.
Her study also shows that there is a terminological and conceptual chaos in
the field of adult education. There is continued reduction of adult basic
education and even adult literacy in general, to literacy and continued
narrow perception of literacy as a single, elementary skill. Due to the major
problem of adult illiteracy, there is a tremendous preoccupation in dealing
with the problem of adult illiteracy.
In recent years, however, there has been a disconcerting development
worldwide. Adult education and learning are now a non-issue for most
national governments. The once strong pledge for `eradication of illiteracy’
has now almost vanished and even the much more modest goal of `reducing
illiteracy’ has been postponed due to lack of resources and absence of
political and bureaucratic will.
It is against this background that the present paper examines the pedagogical
approaches and practices that have been found to be effective in the
acquisition of literacy and suggests some broad principles for effective
programme design. In dealing with this theme, the paper explores five interrelated themes and issues and attempts to highlight the current understanding
and developments that have taken place in order to evolve a broad-based
understanding of the main theme. This paper has limitations. A professional
from a Third World country does not always have access to a variety of
books and journal articles. This problem has prevailed- offset, however, to
some extent due to the information that is now available on the internet. On
the other hand, the Third World experience is focused mainly on India due
to my background and years of experience.
Evolving understanding of the concept of Literacy: a pedagogical
An understanding of the concept of literacy is crucial in developing
appropriate pedagogy. If we examine the concept of literacy we find it has
evolved over the years. The traditional understanding has dealt solely as the
ability to acquire the 3 Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic). At the end of
the Second World War, UNESCO assumed the responsibility for putting
literacy on the educational agenda of the national governments. Since the
narrow understanding of literacy had led to motivational problems for adults,
the concept of `functional literacy’ was introduced. This focused on the
economic and development potential of literacy and was later put into
practice in the form of Experimental World Literacy Programme (EWLP)
that was conducted by UNESCO from 1967 to 1973 in eleven experimental
projects around the world. The EWLP experience, however, showed that
illiteracy still remained a problem with the marginalized groups.
In the 1970s, due to the influence of Paulo Freire, literacy was seen as a
strategy for liberation. The aim was to enable the adults not only to read the
word but also to `read the world.’ Freire’s (1970) emphasis on literacy to
`liberate’ as opposed to literacy to `domesticate,’ captured the imagination of
those who started understanding the transformative potential of literacy.
Further developments in the last two decades have helped in viewing literacy
as a broader and more complex social construct. Levine (1984) had focused
attention on the social dimension of literacy and on the importance of
understanding the social context in which literacy was being used. Street
(1984, 1995) refers to two models of literacy. These are the autonomous
model and the ideological model of literacy. In the former model, there is a
distancing of language from the learners. Language is treated `as a thing,’
distanced from both the teacher and the learner. External rules and
requirements are imposed and the significance of power relations and
ideology in the use of language, ignored. In this model, language is
conceptualized as a separate, reified set of `neutral’ competencies,
autonomous of the social context. With regard to schooled literary as well as
of most adult literacy programmes, it is the autonomous model of literacy
that has generally dominated curriculum and pedagogy.
According to Street (1995) the notion of multiple literacies is crucial in
challenging the autonomous model which has promoted the notion of a
single literacy, with a big `L’ and a single `y.’ It is important to recognize
that this is only one sub-culture’s view and that there are varieties of literacy
practices. He advocates the ideological model of literacy that views literacy
practices as being inextricably linked to cultural and power structures in a
given context. The work that has been done in the fields of linguistics,
anthropology and education suggests for him new directions for literacy
research and practice.
In recent years, literacy is increasingly being conceptualized as multiple,
socio-cultural, and political. UNESCO (2002) now conceives of literacy in
the plural as `literacies’ and embedded in a range of life and livelihood
situations. Thus, literacy differs according to purposes, content, use, script
and institutional framework.
The concept of `multiple literacies,’ however is complex. The term multiple
literacies has different connotations. Consequently, the pedagogical
implications are problematic.
Due to the multiplicity of communications channels and increasing cultural
and linguistic diversity in the world today, it is now contended that the very
nature of literacy pedagogy is changing rapidly (New London Group, 1996).
It is acknowledged that the new communications media are reshaping the
way we use language today. When technologies of meaning are changing so
rapidly, there cannot be one set of standards or skills that constitute ends of
literacy learning. Multiple literacies are therefore a way to focus on realities
of increasing local diversity and global connectedness (ibid, 1996).
Recent work of Constructivist writers has further enriched our understanding
of literacy. According to Wangsatorntanakhun (2001) each individual
constructs the concept of literacy individually and as a result of social
interactions, and that these interactions are mediated through and by sociocultural identity, values, and beliefs. Given such an understanding it would
mean that it is necessary to understand the multiplicity of literacies
individuals face, as they become members of ever expanding groups and
communities. Hence each of us could possess varying degrees of proficiency
in multiple literacies within different communities of similarly literate
persons. Wangsatorntanakhun (2001) re-conceptualises the aims of literacy
acquisition to emphasise the following:
 Recognition of the close connection between social, cultural, and
political dynamics and literacy practices, including the ways that
literacy practices can be transformative,
 Acknowledgement and appreciation of the many diverse ways that
people use and understand reading and writing, reflecting the
multiple worlds in which they participate,
 An emphasis on the value of family, community, and personal
contexts determined by the quality of social relationships,
 An appreciation of what has been called local literacies and the
reading and writing done by ordinary people in their everyday lives
Due to the rapid technological advances in the West, particularly in the U.S.,
and the demographic and socio-economic changes that are taking place,
Douglas Kellner emphasizes the importance of multiple literacies for a
multicultural society. He then discusses how critical pedagogy can promote
multicultural education and sensitivity to cultural differences and then
focuses on the importance of developing media literacy to critically analyze
the wealth of media materials that characterize a technological society.
It is evident from the above discussion that while at one end of the spectrum,
the concept of literacy is narrow, uni-dimensional, limited to technical skills,
at the other end is a concept of literacy that is multidimensional, multiple,
context-specific. In the countries of the South that face massive problems of
adult illiteracy, it is the `autonomous’ model of literacy that prevails. This is
also the `universal literacy for all’ model, which is generally advocated by
international agencies. The pedagogical approaches that are used for literacy
programmes in these countries are still limited.
Pedagogical Considerations in Literacy Acquisition- what has been the
The two terms `pedagogy’ and `andragogy’ were used as polar opposites in
the earlier writings of Malcolm Knowles. While pedagogy was considered to
be an approach to childhood learning, andragogy was regarded as set of
assumptions and methods that helped adults learn. Over the years, the two
terms are no longer considered to be opposites. Knowles has clarified,
expanded and modified his ideas about andragogy and has described six
assumptions underlying the concept:
1. “Adults need to know why they need to learn something before
undertaking to learn it.”
2. “ Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own
lives… they develop a deep psychological need to be seen and treated
by others as being capable of self-direction.”
3. “Adults come into an educational activity with both a greater volume
and a different quality of experience from youths”
4. “ Adults become ready to learn those things they need to know or…to
cope effectively with their real-life situations”
5. “ In contrast to children’s and youth’s subject-centred orientation to
learning (at least in school), adults are life-centred (or task-centred or
problem-centred) in their orientation to learning”
6. “While adults are responsive to some extrinsic motivators (better jobs,
promotions, salary increases, and the like), the more potent motivators
are intrinsic motivators (the desire for increased self-esteem, quality
of life, responsibility, job satisfaction and the like.” (Knowles, 1989,
quoted in Merriam & Brockett, 1997)
Some of these assumptions have spawned different understandings about
adult learning. One of them has been in the area of self-directed learningthat is, adults assuming control of their learning. While there is considerable
work in this area, one criticism is that self-directed learning does not pay
sufficient attention to the social context in which learning takes place.
Transformation Theory: Experience is central to an understanding of the
adult learner. Experiential learning is therefore an important concept in adult
learning. However, it is not just the accumulation of experience that matters;
rather, it is the manner in which individuals make meaning of their
experiences that facilitates growth and learning. This idea is the foundation
of transformation theory. It was Jack Mezirow who used the term
perspective transformation to describe a change process whereby the frames
of reference through which we view and interpret our experience (meaning
perspective) are changed or transformed. Transformative theory is important
because it focuses on how experience can lead to fundamental changes in the
learners’ perspective. An important aspect of this theory is that it can serve
as a process for empowering learners.
According to Merriam and Brockett (1997), in addition to concepts such as
andragogy and transformation theory, the importance of learner’s experience
has helped shape techniques of “collaborative learning”- a sharing of
information in relationships of equality that promotes new growth in each
participant. This has resulted in bringing together a number of related
concepts. These include action research, action learning, participatory
research and the like. These concepts place greater emphasis on taking
action and working with informal theories and people’s experiences rather
than formal theorizing and reporting on research results.
Critical pedagogy: Some of the most important recent developments in the
field of adult education are linked to the introduction of `critical’
perspectives in the theory, research, and practice of adult education. The
central theme of critical pedagogy is that for true learning to take place, it is
necessary to ensure that the voices of the marginalized groups are fully
engaged in the learning process. It is critical theory, which has inspired
critical pedagogy. Particularly well-known proponents of critical pedagogy
are Michael Apple (1996), Henry Giroux (1997), Ira Shor (1992). Paulo
Freire is the intellectual father of critical pedagogy. Freire advocated an
approach that started with consciousnessness raising, enabling the poor and
the oppressed to explore and analyse the sources of their oppression. Freire
laid emphasis on starting the literacy classes with discussion and an
identification of key words that would form the basis for developing literacy
materials. The Freirian approach to literacy learning that emphasized the
importance of a pedagogical process that was dialogical in nature, influenced
the literacy campaigns of some Third World countries, but critics have
raised questions about the efficacy of this approach. One of the problems
relates to the difficulty of the process of conscientisation taking place in
bureaucratically organized education systems, while a Freire-style response
requires something much closer to a political movement. Finger and Asun
(2001) are of the view that Freire remains unspecific about concrete action
or result of the pedagogical praxis. While on the one hand, he rejects
revolution and violence, on the other, his suggestions for alternatives remain
unspecified beyond acknowledging they have to be political. Freire is also
uncritical of institutions and of overall development process.
Levine (1984) however, is of the view that Freire’s influence has been,
broadly speaking, on the creation of a pedagogical climate which places
great importance on treating the adult learner as a learner, entailing a
recognition of his/her life experiences but opening the way to a self-critical
stance towards it.
Participatory Research (PR) and Participatory Action Research (PAR) are
other practical approaches to social change through learning that developed
in late 1970s and through 1980s. Like Freire’s ideas, PR and PAR flourished
in the South and have been created and rooted in the South. There are,
however, differences between critical pedagogy and PR/PAR. According to
Finger and Asun (2001), the latter are critical of the development processes
and advocate an alternative form of development that is people-centred and
bottom-up. In participatory research, those who are being studied, become
the co-researchers who share in the decision-making about why the study is
being undertaken, who will be studied, how the study will be conducted, and
how the results will be used. Participatory research plays down the role of
experts and emphasizes the contribution of those whose lives and work are
directly affected by the problem under study. PAR is pragmatic as it links
adult learning to very concrete processes of community development and to
specific problems in areas such as agriculture, health, sanitation and so on.
For PAR, learning is through participatory action or through a problemsolving approach. Finger and Asun (2001), however, point out the
limitations of the PAR approach. According to them proponents of this
approach do not necessarily place development in the context of overall
global development.
Feminist pedagogy is both similar to and different from critical pedagogy.
As in critical pedagogy, so too in feminist pedagogy, there is a commitment
to giving voice to those who have been silenced, to the importance of
reflection and action. Yet, there is a difference for there is no single model
of feminist pedagogy. Tisdell (1993) distinguishes between liberatory and
gender models of feminist pedagogy. The liberatory or emancipatory model
of feminist pedagogy deals with the nature of structured power relations and
interlocking systems of oppression based on gender, race, class, age, and so
Feminist education theorists who write from the perspective of the liberatory
model have been influenced by the Freire’s work but they have also been
critical of Freire and Marxist education theories. According to them, the
primary focus of the latter has been on class-based oppression, but that they
have not dealt adequately with oppression based on gender, race or
interlocking systems of oppression such as gender and race, or gender and
class, or gender, race, and class.
Inadequate attention has so far been paid to understanding how women learn
and what are the barriers to their learning. The issue of women’s lack of selfconfidence and low self-esteem in starting or returning to an educational
programme is now well known. This lack of self-confidence, however, is
endemic to women and cuts across cultural and class barriers. Due to a
variety of reasons including social norms and mores as well as the process of
acculturation and personal experiences, most women exhibit extreme lack of
confidence when they join an educational programme. Coupled with this is
what as been described by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986)
as the phenomenon of `finding their voices.’ This is a positive reinforcement
and an assurance that women need to know that they are intelligent, that they
are capable of learning. The adult education functionaries would therefore
have to be trained to give positive and constructive feedback to adult women
to ensure that their confidence is enhanced and not eroded.
Research is also beginning to show that women seem to do best in learning
environments where affective forms or knowledge that come from life
experiences are valued (Belenky et al. 1986). In short, they do best in
learning environments where there is an effort to relate theoretical concepts
to real life experiences. In these environments, women begin to recognize
their own ability to think independently, to think critically, and to come to
their own conclusions. It is also in these connected teaching-learning
situations that many women come to recognize and hear their own voices.
Connected teachers, as defined by Belenky et al. (1986) see the teacher as a
`midwife.’ The teacher’s task is to draw students out, to “assist the students
in giving birth to their own ideas, in making their own tacit knowledge
explicit and elaborating on it” (p.217), and to support the evolution of the
learners’ own thinking.
The idea of capitalizing on learners’ life experiences and relating theoretical
concepts to these experiences is not new in the field of adult education.
What is new, however, is the emphasis feminist pedagogy places on the
importance of women in particular reclaiming and validating the learning
that comes from their life experience as women. Women learners come to an
educational programme with specific personal histories, learning styles and
expectations that are shaped to varying degrees by their experiences as girls
and women in a society characterised by male power and privilege. In
addition to barriers posed by sex discrimination, many women are doubly or
even triply disadvantaged as members of ethnic minorities, as working class
women, or as members of other marginalised groups. In order to provide an
educational programme that would be appropriate to women’s needs, it
would be necessary to understand more about their experiences, their
learning needs, the difference and diversity among them so that a womensensitive approach could be planned and implemented for them.
The experience of Mahila Samakhya (an education programme for women’s
equality of the Government of India) as well of various women’s NGOs has
shown how women can generate their own learning materials on the basis of
their lived experiences. Niranter, a feminist NGO in India, developed a
curriculum collaboratively with village women on five issues that affect
their lives. These included water, forests, land, society and health (Windows
to the World, 1997). Niranter has also been successfully bringing out a
newsletter called `Pitara’ with the participation of the village women in its
production and content.
Culture and Learning: In recent years, with globalisation bringing about
demographic changes in the world, a large number of countries have schoolgoing children as well as working adults who are from diverse ethnic and
working class backgrounds. Questions are being raised about the kind of
education- both for children as well as for adults- that would be appropriate,
keeping the diverse background of the learners in mind. For it is contended
that the traditional adult learning theories are limited and that they exclude
types of learning that best suit people of colour, those from working class
background, those unemployed and so on. Culture is regarded as central to
shaping and molding the educational process. The way people communicate,
express, think, learn and relate to others is a product of a value system of
their home, community and culture. People from varying cultures may have
different ways of thinking and learning. These cultural learning differences
can be called `cultural learning styles.’ It is contended that the
interrelatedness of culture and learning has been neglected in the study of
learning. Flannery (1993) therefore avers “practitioners must increasingly
conceive of learning not as an isolated ladder with progressive rungs to
climb, but as a lattice with horizontal and vertical connections and
interweavings. Just as the cognitive and affective domains are interwoven,
so too are neurological and social cognition integral parts of the same
lattice” (p.81).
One way in which insights could be obtained to ascertain the role of culture
in learning would be through ethnographic research studies. The case studies
presented by Street (2001) under the New Literacy Studies show how the
outcome of such research might lead to different curriculum and pedagogy
than those in many traditional programmes. The ethnographic approach to
literacy research has shown that by being sensitive to local needs, it would
be possible to recognize where some local literacy practices are more central
to practical `needs.’ The value of local literacies is that the everyday uses of
literacy by marginalized groups in both rural and urban settings help identify
specific literacy skills that are focused on immediate tasks. The pedagogical
challenge would be to see how to make the link between the `local’ and the
`central’ and to establish a dynamic relationship between the two so that
generic skills could then be transferred to other situations. The ethnographic
study done by Dyer and Choksi (Street 2001) on the Rabaris, a nomadic
tribe from Gujarat in India, showed that there were substantial differences
between their own and Rabaris’ perceptions of `literacy.’ Their ethnographic
study helped in developing a much more substantial set of understandings
about the complexity of what Rabaris understood by literacy. The Rabaris’
conceptions of knowledge, identity and being influenced their understanding
of literacy and hence a literacy programme for the Rabaris would have to
provide for such expectations. Studies on folk mathematics have shown the
indigenous methods by which adults acquire numeracy skills. A study done
by Saraswathi some years ago (Rampal, Ramanujam, Saraswathi, 1997)
showed how, despite being illiterate, adults in rural Tamil Nadu had
acquired sophisticated numeracy skills. These included ability of the elderly
to calculate time and seasonal changes on the basis of the length of the Sun’s
shadow. Or the ability of the village women to count in order to make
sophisticated geometrical patterns as part of the cultural practice of making
`kolums’ (a design made of rice paste and natural colours in front of the
house each day as a sign of good omen). Such ethnographic studies present
people’s perspectives on literacy and would undoubtedly be different from
those of programme designers who sit in the state capitals. They would thus
help design more culturally sensitive literacy programmes that would also
have greater relevance and acceptability.
Pedagogical issues in Curriculum Content and Curriculum Transaction
As part of literacy education, primers and textbooks are written for
pedagogical purposes. They are developed for the purpose of selection,
construction and transmission of valued knowledge and practices that the
students are required to study in order to be certified as literate by schools
and other institutions. Extensive research on school curriculum has been
done, particularly in the West, to draw attention to how `the choice of
knowledge’ presented in the curriculum is part of the process of hegemony.
Research studies on textbooks show that they are ideological message
systems for the transmission and reproduction of values and beliefs of some
groups, while those of others are invisibilised and marginalized. Apple
(1990) has highlighted how class, race and gender inequalities work through
schools in the content and organization of the curriculum.
Adult literacy curriculum, however, has remained a neglected area of
research. Even with regard to research on school textbooks in India, micro
level studies are few in number (Scrase 1993). There has been little effort to
explain how textbooks are biased in terms of social class or culture. An
analysis of early Bengali language textbooks of pre-Colonial times showed
that the content represented the values and interests of a small but socially
powerful minority of Indians. A comparative study of primary school
textbooks from Madhya Pradesh and Ontario, Canada, by Kumar (1989)
showed the kind of socialization these textbooks presented to children. A
study of the English language textbooks in use in the state of West Bengal
showed that it was the culture of the mainly urbanized, middle classes that
invariably got reproduced in the books (Scrase 1993). The legitimization of
the culture of the dominant classes occurred at a dual level in the books:
overtly, there was bias, stereotype and distortion of subaltern culture;
covertly through omission of and silence about subaltern culture.
Kumar’s study (1989) has shown how alienating the content of textbooks
can be for the tribal children when they are depicted as being backward and
illiterate. The Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE, 1999) has
commented on how primary school textbooks waste a great deal of space on
trivial and futile preaching and moralizing. There is an implicit bias of the
curriculum makers and book writers towards the rural poor for they are
depicted as `ignorant and illiterate’ and therefore are told how to conduct
their lives `properly.’ In addition, textbooks go out of their way to present
over-idealised situations- of democracy, panchayats, benevolent employers,
good neighbours, functioning hospitals and efficient government. Simplistic
generalizations are made and almost surreal situations are constructed,
whereas natural conflicts and complexities of life are strictly avoided even if
a majority of our rural children actually live such lives and are deeply
conscious of its realities.
The broad contours of the content of school textbooks closely approximate
those of the literacy primers for the adults. An analysis of the literacy
materials developed by World Education, an international NGO, showed that
though Freirean terminology was consistently used, the content of the
literacy primers was essentially `pseudo-Freirean’- for it perpetuated
dependence and subordination (Kidd and Kumar 1981). This study also
revealed how the literacy text can become an important symbolic system for
expressing and disseminating economic and technical power and dominance.
Kumar (1981) refers to the content of the literacy primers that are generally
used in the literacy classes. According to him, a typical literacy primer tell
the learners how a poor peasant can gradually become progressive by
making certain rational decisions and dropping a set of backward and
disagreeable characteristics and adopting an alternative set of characteristics
that are modern and healthy. The areas covered by a typical literacy
curriculum follow a certain `mythology.’ The problems of the illiterates are
seen as the outcome of a disorganized, unthinking, ignorant personality
whose salvation lies in new knowledge and skills (including literacy),
planning and self-control.
An analysis of literacy primers in use in six states of India (Dighe et al,
1996) showed how certain recurring patterns ran through each of the literacy
primers in use in different languages. Thus, the overall approach was to treat
the adults as those with `empty minds’ who had to be sermonized about the
manner in which their lives could improve. The basic thrust was `victim
blame’ and not `system blame’ Such individual blaming perspective did not
attempt to link the development problems with the structural reality of the
poor, perennially plagued with landlessness, lower wages, unemployment
and lack of access to basic services and facilities. Development messages
and information were communicated mostly either through a monologue or
through a very limited conversation between the characters in the text. In
general, hardly any dialogue or discussion was initiated to enable the
learners to understand divergent points of view on a given topic. Such a topdown approach reinforces the dominance of the viewpoint of the
`progressive’ protagonist while depicting the learners as passive recipients of
development messages. There is therefore a tendency to talk down to the
learners as though the illiterate minds are `empty vessels’ waiting to be filled
by the sagacious advice given in the literacy text. Freire (1985) refers to this
phenomenon as the `nutritionist view of knowledge’ according to which the
illiterates are considered as `undernourished’ and have to be `fed’ or `filled’
in order to know. Pedagogically, such a didactic approach to learning does
not recognize the indigenous knowledge of the learners and would neither
allow them to think critically nor enable them to raise questions about
whatever is learned.
If one considers the issue of gender in literacy curriculum, some of the
studies highlight how certain repetitive images and themes characterize the
content of the literacy primers. These studies (Bhasin 1984, Patel 1987) have
shown that the primers ignored women’s role as productive workers and
focused exclusively on their roles as wives and mothers. The literacy
primers thus generally reinforced traditional definitions of women and
propagated the ideal for Indian women as being a person who is passive,
submissive and self-sacrificing. There was no attempt to challenge or
question the existing sexual division of labour and discriminatory practices
against women in society.
Greenberg (2002) quotes what a researcher had to say about the content of
an adult literacy textbook in Egypt. “ I leafed through the whole textbook
looking for pictures of women and found only one, though every story was
accompanied by a picture. In this picture, every woman was pregnant or
accompanied by small children or both. I asked what the story was about and
was told the subject was family planning. The agricultural work Egyptian
women undertake, participation in the paid labour force in a variety of
capacities, food preparation, household work, beer brewing, and all the other
types of work with which women engage, were completely ignored.”
The study by Dighe et al (1996) showed that despite `women’s equality’
being stated as a goal, it was basically the ideology of domestication that
was promoted in the literacy primers. The portrayal of women was
stereotypical and did not reflect the reality of everyday lives of poor women.
The role of the teacher in a formal classroom has traditionally been that of a
knowledge giver. The relationship between the teacher and the students has
been hierarchical and the channel of communication has been one way.
Freire had termed this the `banking’ concept of education. The importance
Freire has given to dialogue by equating it with education, as well as to the
non-hierarchical relationship between the teacher and the learners has led to
a change in the role of the adult literacy teacher. Such a teacher creates a
learning environment, builds on learners’ experiences and facilitates social
interaction and cooperation. A literacy teacher who makes learners feel
comfortable, helps them voice their opinions, encourages them to question,
critique, analyse and to arrive at their own decisions would go a long way in
facilitating and promoting adult learning. Even in the case of the formal
schools, the focus is now shifting to learner-centred teaching practices.
Learner-centred teachers understand that they must find ways to know their
individual students and provide a safe and nurturing context to promote
learning. Learner-centred teachers also understand that not only is learning a
natural lifelong process, but motivation to learn also comes naturally when
the learning context is supportive (McCombs 2003).
Pedagogical issues relating to Language and Literacy
Pedagogical issues relating to language and literacy have not received
concerted attention thus far. This could possibly be due to what Illich has
said is alien to the modern Western mind: the ability to make `a distinction
between competence that derives from life in a vernacular setting and
competence in a taught form of mother tongue’ (quoted in Pattanayak,
1981). In the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural developing
countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, language is not only the
criterion for ethnic identity but it is also the expression of ethnic
consciousness. And yet, language policies that have been inherited from the
colonial era have given importance to the colonial language or to the
standard language/s and have marginalized the spoken languages or the
mother tongue languages of vast sections of people in most Third World
A consideration of the language policy in India will provide insights about
the politics of language. The 1961 Census recorded 1652 mother tongue
languages in India. The corresponding 1971 and 1981 Census figures for
mother tongue languages had shrunk to 221 and 106 respectively. The
reason for this was that from 1971 Census onwards, the Census
Commissioner was advised to drop listing all those languages that had less
than 10,000 speakers. Presently, the Eighth Schedule of the Indian
Constitution recognizes 18 languages as standard regional languages with
Hindi and English considered to be `official’ languages.
It is evident that the Eighth Schedule takes no cognizance of the vast
majority of Indian languages. While the standard and official languages have
power, recognition and prestige, the others are left to languish with such
demeaning labels as `dialects,’ `tribal languages,’ and `minor languages’
(Saxena 1997). Education, the judiciary, administration, mainstream trade
and commerce, use the standard regional or the official languages for
communication purposes, totally ignoring the vast majority of Indians whose
mother tongue languages are different. For millions of children who are
forced to seek formal education in schools where curriculum and language
of instruction has no relationship with their home language, this neglect of
mother tongue results in their acquisition of low levels of reading and
writing skills. According to Saxena (1997) the principle reason for low
language skills is that the child is forced to unlearn his/her mother tongue to
learn a language that is alien to his/her milieu. But, more serious than the
sheer inefficiency of teaching and learning is the violence that is done to the
sense of self-respect of children whose languages are marginalised in this
Now widely accepted, this realization has led to the reiteration of the
pedagogical principle that `the mother tongue should be the medium of
instruction’ for early childhood education. Likewise, in the case of the nonliterate adults, it is recognized that the starting point has to be the dialect or
the spoken language. And yet in the concern about making a switchover
from the spoken dialect to the standard regional language, an unstated
viewpoint persists that only education in the standard language will liberate
people from ignorance and bring about national integration. Also, there is an
assumption that the spoken `local’ languages are likely to encourage
fissiparous anti-national tendencies, keeping people enslaved in
backwardness. According to Saxena and Mahendroo (1993), standard
languages divide society and control information flow. As such they are
effective tools for maintaining regional and national status quo. In the
process, people’s spoken languages are subdued and marginalized, ensuring
the cultural hegemony of the ruling elite.
But even if the medium of instruction is the mother tongue, there are
complexities in making a transition to the standard regional language, which
have to be handled sensitively. The case study by Bhog and Ghose (Ouane
2003) highlights how in the process of collectively evolving, with neoliterate women, a bi-monthly broadsheet, the latter defined not only the
themes and the content of the broadsheet but also engaged in its writing and
production. But as the women realized that they needed to have access to
Hindi, the standard regional language as it was a language of power and of
the powerful, the transition was made in a gradual manner, ensuring a
limited fusion between Hindi and Bundeli (the mother tongue). The
experience of Bhog and Ghose showed that as women gained greater control
over their writing and reading skills, they were in a stronger position to
handle the complex process of language integration.
Pattanayak (1981) is of the view that in countries where multiple languages
and cultures co-exist, the notion of one dominant language as the medium of
instruction leaves thousands of children illiterate in their mother tongue and
fosters low achievement levels in the dominant language itself. He is also of
the opinion that language is a major factor in high dropout and stagnation
among school children as well as to the high levels of illiteracy among
adults. Commenting on the language of the school textbooks that are used in
rural areas, the National Advisory Committee that was appointed by the
Government of India said `our textbooks are not written from the child’s
viewpoint. Neither the mode of communication nor the selection of objects
depicted, nor the language conveys the centrality of the child in the world
constructed (by the school)…words, expressions and nuances commonly
used by children in their milieu are absent…. and an artificial style
dominates, reinforcing the tradition of distancing knowledge from life. The
language used in textbooks thus deepens the sense of `burden’ attached to all
school-related knowledge’ (Learning without Burden 1993).
A recent study undertaken by the Unesco Institute of Education (2003)
demonstrates the normality of multilingualism and questions the
teaching/learning systems, which are grounded on the principle of
monolingualism. Investigations carried out in 30 African, Asian and Latin
American countries showed that plurilingualism was a natural state in
human society and hence strongly recommends the use of local languages
and mother tongues in formal and non-formal education. An examination of
multiculturalism in school and the language question in education in the
United Kingdom and Canada showed that while both countries had nurtured
the myth of cultural and linguistic homogeneity as a means of ensuring that
power stays with the dominant group, multiculturalism and multilingualism
were always prevalent in these two countries (Edwards and Redfern quoted
in Ouane 2003).
Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century: need for a new Pedagogy?
In a virtual conference that took place last year as a preparatory process
towards CONFINTEA V +6, adult educators from different parts of the
world voiced their concerns over the transformations that have taken place in
the world in the past few years. The issues raised by them are part of the
document titled Education for Inclusion throughout Life (2003) and
enumerates the various economic, political and technological changes that
have brought about far-reaching changes in our lives. The concerns that are
raised relate to the problems of a globalised world. What role does adult
education have in such an altered scenario? What kind of pedagogy would
be appropriate? The section below attempts to describe briefly the changed
post September 11 2001 scenario and to define broad contours of what needs
to be done and what has already started happening worldwide.
We are now part of a globalised world, dominated by one single power
which promotes unilateralism, a return to militarism and where the markets
play a dominant role. Globalisation has made a few countries and sections of
their population very rich, while endangering the lives and livelihoods of
millions of others. Likewise, the communication and information
technologies have brought about enormous changes in our lives. Thus,
middle class families in most Third World countries now have better access
to information and news. Due to digital communications, they are now able
to access the latest news, and are able to remain in touch with their family
members and friends in various parts of the world. Likewise, it is now
possible for the middle class youth to buy designer clothes from the Internet,
inasmuch as it is possible to seek/share advice on care of a loved one with
cancer or HIV/AIDS. However, access to technology is highly iniquitous.
This is evident when we realize that that there are more telephones in Tokyo
or Manhattan than in all of sub-Saharan Africa and internet use in Africa can
cost a month’s salary or more.
Capitalist globalisation has had a powerful impact on all aspects of human
life. In the single-minded pursuit of wealth, growth, power and control that
characterise capitalist globalisation, the values that are promoted are those of
increased competition, production, marketing, privatisation, and
Capitalist production requires that the raw materials or natural resources
have to be made into saleable commodities. Such a development has had a
direct impact on the natural environment. Furthermore, in order to sale
commodities, consumerism has to be promoted. The communications
technologies have become instruments for promoting a culture of
consumerism and are under the control of few trans-national corporations.
As a result, they are driven by the logic of profit-maximization.
Capitalist globalisation is dependent on the world’s natural resources in
order to sustain and propel itself. As a result, there are struggles to obtain
and/or maintain control of natural resources worldwide. Majority of the wars
that have been fought in the recent years were fought not due to differences
in ideology but in order to gain control over territory, land that is rich in
natural resources. The relentless exploration and exploitation of natural
resources has uprooted and displaced people around the world and forced
them to live in conditions of poverty and degradation.
It is also important to understand the role of the global economic institutions
and the manner in which they are affecting the lives of poor people in Third
World countries. Global economic institutions such as the International
Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation are now
taking decisions that affect the lives of people all across the world. These
institutions are not elected democratically and are not answerable to citizens.
The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is one of the most
important agreements of the World Trade Organisation. The Agreement,
which came into effect in January 1995, is now privatising services that have
been known to be public utilities. These include education, health, energy,
and communications, even water. What is happening is that while these
services had been defined as `rights’ earlier, are now becoming `goods’ that
have a price tag. As a result, only those who can afford to pay for these
goods can have access to them. Those with limited means or no means are
What is evident from above is that we live in a highly complex, polarised
and unequal world. A question that needs to be asked is, what kind of
education would be required in order to face the enormous challenges that
we are faced with. Countries that have still not ensured primary education to
children and face massive adult illiteracy have been involved in the
Education for All programmes. The problem with the Education for All
(EFA) discourse is that it has reduced the concept of adult education to just
literacy and basic education. It would therefore be necessary to have an
expanded vision of adult education. As was proposed at the Unesco meeting
in Hamburg, it would be useful to consider the concept of lifelong learning
as a broader concept that would include the participants as active subjects in
their own learning, as well as include formal, non-formal and informal
dimensions of every educational process.
Presently, there is a mis-match between the educational discourse at the
international level and the manner in which it has got translated into
educational policies in different countries. This is particularly true with
regard to countries of South Asia region. The concept of Lifelong Learning
has not found mention in the policies of a large number of countries in the
Region. In order to move beyond such a narrow perception and mind set,
concerted efforts would have to be made to examine the shortcomings of the
existing educational policies and plans and to re-shape them in the light of
the rapid changes that are taking place nationally and internationally and
which are influencing educational discourse. New challenges of social and
economic development such as those mentioned above as well as other
concerns (eg. human rights, HIV/AIDS, sustainable development, meeting
the Millennium Development Goals, etc.) would have to be addressed.
Commitment would have to be made to meet the educational needs of the
marginalized groups such as poor rural and urban women, out-of-school
children and youth, physically challenged people, migrant workers, ethnic
minority groups, refugees, etc. A well-defined educational policy would be
necessary to guide the educational programmes in most countries of South
One of the problems with the existing system of education is that it does not
recognise that diverse groups of learners have diverse learning needs. As a
result, there is a tendency to offer a narrowly focussed `one size fits all’
educational programme. Experience, however, is now showing the need to
move away from such narrowly conceived educational programmes.
The educational programmes would need to recognise that adults have
diverse learning needs and interests. The pedagogical processes would need
to encourage processes of critical self-reflection, thinking, questioning,
exploring, interacting, creating, connecting, and discovering. Such processes
are directly linked to the notion of empowerment in which an individual
learns to create, appropriate and to share knowledge, tools and techniques in
order to change and improve the quality of his/her life. These processes
would need to be used for empowering communities so that learning
communities can be established. The link between the local, the national and
the global would need to be constantly made so that the local reality can be
perceived and understood in the light of the changes taking place at the
national and international levels.
Also, there would be need to address the issues of consumption and
production by analysing marketing practices that promote `good life’ on the
basis of material ownership and conceal practices of overproduction and
unethical resource extraction. Critical media literacy would play an
important role in deciphering media messages that covertly influence
lifestyle changes, attitudes, and values.
Alongside, there would be need to go through a process of unlearning which
as a principle has been well articulated by the women’s movement. Thus, it
would be necessary to unlearn the primacy of the male figure as the power
of domination; to unlearn that war resolves conflicts and is in the best
interests of nations; to unlearn practices of consumerism; to unlearn the
condition of dependency, exclusion, and marginalisation and so on.
Unlearning some of our previously held attitudes and beliefs would enable
us to have open minds to consider that another human condition is possible,
that another world is possible.
Beyond the utility of technology in formal educational programmes for
adults, existing and readily available information technologies can also
provide unprecedented opportunities for informal learning by adults.
Broadcast media, interactive video, and the internet can provide rich
informal learning opportunities to adults in a wide variety of contexts. It is
this kind of informal learning that has started taking place across the globe
through the use of technology. As a result, a new consciousness is now
developing. This new consciousness understands and sees human nature
from a complex and multidimensional perspective. Such an understanding
sees the biological, cultural, social, historical, political, and economic
aspects, not in isolation but as interlinked and inter-related, all linked to the
same cycle of cause and effect. This new consciousness is now beginning to
reject inequality and to celebrate diversity. The recent meetings of the World
Social Forum in Puerto Allegro in Brazil and in Mumbai, are beginning to
show that `another world is possible.’ Interestingly, the communications
technology has played an important role in promoting and facilitating this
new consciousness. Thus, cyber networking has started taking place and
people who share the same views and opinions but who live in different
locations and in different countries form cyber committees. Also, there are
alternative media projects such as use of community radio, short
documentaries and protest/community music on videocassette tapes and
digital discs. These alternative media projects are enlarging the space and
reach of critical thinking and oppositional politics to global capitalism.
People around the world are becoming increasingly politically active and are
speaking out, weaving the pedagogical with the political.
To conclude
It is evident from the above discussion, that there are no clear-cut
pedagogical models for adult literacy. The models are diverse and the
problems associated with them, are complex. It would therefore be difficult
to articulate specific strategies for effective literacy programme design.
However, on the basis of the developments that have taken place in the field,
it might be appropriate to spell out a few principles for effective literacy
programme design that might be of some help to literacy policy makers,
planners and administrators.
 Focus on the marginalized groups. Literary programmes do not
necessarily focus on the poor, the disadvantaged, and the
marginalized groups. A clear statement that the literacy
programme would focus on these groups would help establish its
priority concerns
 Ascertain the diverse needs of such groups of learners.
Ethnographic research studies would be one way of finding out
these needs. Various participatory techniques are also available
that would help in prioritizing the learner needs
 Articulate a vision for the literacy programme along with the
learners. Most literacy programmes falter due to lack of a shared
vision. Would such a programme deal with multiple literacies?
How would these be defined? What would be the appropriate
 Work collaboratively with learners in developing a curriculum for
the literacy programme. Participatory processes would facilitate
the curriculum development process. Sensitivity to the culture of
the learners and use of local language would ensure learner
involvement and learner motivation
 Facilitate curriculum transaction by creating an environment that
promotes and sustains learning. Learning strategies that evoke
curiosity, questioning, analysis, synthesis, perspective building
among the learners would help sustain learner interest
 Sustain learning environment through learner involvement in
eliciting information from different sources, helping develop
learner-generated materials and empowering learners whereby they
can seek information or data from sources they had no access to
 Help learners to learn holistically. Rather than confining learning
to a few limited areas or attempting to compartmentalize learning,
establish cause and effect relationships, establish inter-linkages so
that adult learners can begin to understand their own local reality
within a wider context
 Help in building learning communities. While acknowledging that
learners have diverse needs and interests, facilitate the process of
developing a variety of programmes, using technology wherever
 Link with the larger struggles and democratic movements be they
women’s movement, peace movement, ecological movement,
human rights movement and the like so that the literacy
programme can become part of a larger struggle for social,
economic, and political change.
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