Continuing our interview with Pam Allyn, founder of LitWorld, we moved on from World Read Aloud day to the wider work of her non-profit organization in fighting illiteracy around the world.
Are literacy challenges the same in developing countries as in a place like New York City?
In some significant ways, literacy challenges are far more extreme in developing countries. In other ways, they are more alike than you might care to think.
In terms of differences, the developing world has only just come to the idea of mandatory primary education. It is only in recent years that the expectation that all children must attend school is adhered to (and in many cases, still not completely). This is of course a good and great thing, but most of the developing world was not prepared to handle all the children who then poured into schools. As a result, there are far too few teachers per child (in Liberia, the average ratio in a classroom is 90:1), hardly any classroom supplies at all, and not nearly enough structures in place to train teachers on an ongoing basis or to provide state of the art learning that will help children move forward and stay in school. The conditions are grueling and difficult, for teachers and children alike.
In the developing world, we have access to extraordinary resources, especially literature written specifically for children, that teaches children how to read and conveys important big ideas. In fact, the materials used to teach reading can be too dense: they’re not written at a level children can understand and don’t do enough to draw a child into a world of words.
Even here in the United States, we do not guarantee equity of access to all children. High poverty districts are far more likely to have fewer books and computers in the classroom. And this is 2011! We still use outmoded forms of teaching in classrooms all over this country, and sad to say, the testing mania has driven us back to some terrible teaching practices that I haven’t seen since I was a child.
Just when we have to teach innovatively and creatively, we are all across the world teaching out of fear and insecurity, and that is not going to raise children to be the innovators and creators we hope and know they can all be.
Do your literacy schemes like use a particular approach to teaching and learning literacy? Are you subscribers to a particular philosophy of education?
I am a fierce advocate for what I call a “toolkit” approach to the teaching of reading. There are skills every child needs to learn to read; these include phonics, but also include fluency, stamina and comprehension. One without the others is a waste of time.
I believe in an integrated approach that will both help the child decode words but also beyond that help him to soar through them and transcend the work on the page to see reading as a joy, an art, a pleasure.
One of my heroes is Paolo Freire, who famously asked women in rural villages to tell their own stories as a way to learn to read and write. He was convinced that narrative is the force that drives us in everything we do and that was how he taught women how to read, was by asking them to tell the stories of who they were. I advocate this in my work with children; if they write about their experiences, both imaginative and real, and then read them back, they have a far better chance of becoming lifelong readers. They understand the power of story.
When I started LitWorld, I was thinking a lot about the most vulnerable children I had met, especially those who had been displaced or traumatized, and I wondered if teaching writing could actually HELP to build resilience. Teachers of such children often focused on their trauma. I wondered if by writing narratives that told the stories in ways that would give hope and strength, we could teach the child how to read and write, but also how to grow strong.
I developed the Seven Strengths model in response to that: learning based around Belonging, Compassion, Esteem, Friendship, Confidence, Curiosity, and Hope. We end up raising healthier children emotionally because they can use literacy as a tool for their own sustenance.
In much of the world, literacy and education are not seen as a priority for girls and women, but is this really true of the USA, where you also run your Girls’ Clubs?
At first we thought it would simply be fun for the girls here to join our worldwide network. We thought that the needs of girls here are more taken care of, and there wouldn’t be such a demand for the Clubs in the USA. What startled me here is how necessary they are HERE too. The girls we work with in Harlem tell us that the Clubs have been lifesaving. They feel very vulnerable and isolated in their communities, and find it difficult to talk in class. Here in the Clubs, we provide a sanctuary.
Next time on Books and Adventures, we head down under for the opening days of New Zealand Book Month!