Kazi Rafiqul Alam

Kazi Rafiqui Alam, Executive Director of the Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM) Bangladesh, one of the leading NGOs in Bangladesh working at the grassroots level and at national and international levels in the fields of non-formal and formal education and poverty, describes the work, aims and assessment criteria of the Community Learning Centres. The curriculum of the community-based approach used in DAM Centres is founded on essential human needs such as food, health, the environment, etc., with particular reference to the poorest sections of the population, on the inclusion of continuing and further education activities, and on reinforcement of learning through structured postliteracy courses. The views of participants are an important element in evaluation of courses. This paper was presented at an “Expert Meeting on Building a Conceptual Framework for Literacy Assessment” organized by UNESCO in Paris on 10-12 June 2003.

Operational Definition of Literacy for Assessment Purposes: Literacy to Meet Basic Learning Needs

The basic learning needs of the people comprise both essential learning tools and the basic learning content required to be able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and to work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions and to continue learning.1 The Dakar EFA Framework of Action set goals to ensure that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life-skills programmes;2 also to ensure that learning outcomes especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills are achieved by all.3

Literacy (including post-literacy) interventions planned for adults and young adults thus need to support them in continuous updating of their knowledge and level of awareness through access to accurate information about strategic needs for a better life and enable them to transfer the information into practice and make decision(s) to find a way out of poverty and become self-reliant. Improvement in quality of life can be achieved through addressing individual needs as well as the needs of the community as a whole. Without comprehensive community development the individual’s empowerment would not yield much, particularly for socio-political and cultural changes. Here lies the importance of four pillars of learning: Learning to know, Learning to be, Learning to live together and Learning to do.4 Typical learning needs of the people, particularly the poor, cover four skills: a) Skills of learning, b) Skills relating to quality of life, c) Productivity skills, and d) Skills relating to organization, attitude and values.5 Figure 1 explains poverty manifestations and Figure 2 depicts the basic learning needs of illiterates.

Figure 1: Poverty manifestations of illeterates, Figure 2: Basic learning needs of poor illiterates

Figure 3: DAM's community-based approach for meeting basic learning needs

Figure 3: DAM's community-based approach for meeting basic learning needs

Taking into account the needs of the people, in general, and the needs of the poor in particular, the aims of literacy programmes should be to instil knowledge, skills and attitudes in reading, writing and numeracy based on needs and problems.6 They should activate learners to take the initiative for their personal development and the development of the society. The expected outcome from literacy and continuing education programmes should cover the followings:7
i) Communicating smoothly;
ii) Reading materials necessary for improvement of the quality of daily life;
iii) Expressing ideas in writing and being able to share them with others;
iv) Solving simple numerical calculations;
v) Demonstrating positive attitudes towards acquiring further knowledge and skills;
vi) Being able to identify the problems faced by the individual and his or her community;
vii) Actively participating in the socio-economic and cultural activities of the community.

Along with literacy, post-literacy activities should be planned as an integrated component to cover the multi-dimensional needs of human beings through a package of educational support services in different media. The ultimate objective should be to create increased access to information, so that all people in the society can utilize the information for improvement of their quality of life, and to create scope for occupational skills development, development of management skills, leadership, etc. through face to face training or self-learning.

In Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM),8 Bangladesh, the intervention areas of the literacy programme generally cover the following:

  • Imparting literacy to all illiterates, particularly the poor from rural, remote and difficult areas, through development of programmes designed to serve the needs of women, out-of-school children and youth and/or other defined disadvantaged groups. Literacy programmes cover issues of basic human needs and also issues for improvement of quality of life like health, nutrition, population, agricultural techniques, the environment, science, technology, family life, including fertility awareness, and other societal issues.


  • Making arrangements for continuing education for further education, consolidation or improvement of skills through structured post-literacy programmes, linkage between formal and non-for- mal education and linkage among literacy programmes, different  educational programmes and development agencies in order to create scope for application of the knowledge acquired.

The community-based intervention of DAM is delivered by organising Community learning centres, known as Ganokendra. Figure 3 explains development services how this approach addresses the basic learning needs of poor illiterates taking into account the context.

The major thrust in DAM’s interventions is on acquisition and furtherance of essential life skills. The following table gives an account of the skills-based interventions in the literacy programme of DAM in Bangladesh.

Table 1: DAM’s skill-based literacy and continuing education interventions 

Life Skills Interventions
Literacy Skills


  • Literacy and numeracy practice through graded books (suited to the level of learners), newsletters, newspapers, booklets, posters, wall magazines, charts, games.
Functional Skills


  • Bringing change of behavioural practice in health, sanitation, and environmental affairs through interactive discussion, supply of BCC (Behaviour Change Communication) materials and linkage with local government and nongovernment services in the area.
Social Skills



  • Training in gender sensitization, development of decision making skills
  • Organization of socio-cultural activities, issuespecific action groups (e.g., for prevention of dowry, early marriage, etc.)
  • Supply of information and communication materials on social empowerment issues
Economic Skills

  • Providing support for market survey and identification of viable economic activities
  • Organisation of trade-based skill development and enterprise development training
  • Linkage with micro-finance services/organizations
  • Marketing support services

Levels of Literacy Skill

In literacy sessions the adults learn incrementally – from the simple to the complex – and move gradually to the deeper levels of concepts. Target/expected competency levels in terms of reading, writing and calculation (3R) may vary in different contexts depending on the learning needs of the people enrolled. But the principle of gradual increase in the expected competencies over time is common in all cases. In DAM, the target 3R competencies are divided into 5 levels. The following table gives an example of reading and writing competencies at different levels of the literacy curriculum.

Table 2: Example of literacy competencies at different levels

Expected reading skill (Example) Expected writing skill (Example)
1 Able to read and understand sentences comprising 8 words having font size 36. Able to write 5 simple sentences of one’s own.
2 Able to read and understand posters, signboards, etc. having font size 18 & above. Able to express simple issues in writing.
3 Able to read and understand simple stories, features in specially developed newsletters. Able to give answers in writing
4 Able to read text with clear and correct punctuation. Able to fill in simple forms
5 Able to read different books, magazines, daily newspapers and explain the matter to others Able to write at least one page on a specific issue expressing one’s own ideas.

Learning Process

Literacy programmes usually allow individuals to acquire knowledge and skills through a variety of activities, promote informal learning, and encourage people to make and follow their own educational plans. In order to create scope for literacy practice and for acquiring life skills, access to information and organisation of community development activities with local initiatives should become the major focus of literacy programmes.

The participants in the DAM literacy programme learn through self reading, guided reading, discussion of issues, and training. The learners also learn by doing. For example, at many literacy centres in Bangladesh, socio-cultural activities are organised with community support for promotion of gender development, environment conservation, recreation, immunisation, etc. Each centre can have its own plan for organisation of social activities depending on the decision of the members. Examples of activities are organisation of courtyard meetings, rallies, running an immunisation centre, observance of national days, arranging drama, folk song sessions, sports, etc. In the centres, local experts, such as local craftsman on handicraft design, may be invited to facilitate discussion meetings or skill training programmes. In other cases, assistance from outside resource persons, such as a government health worker, can be utilised for the development of a community health programme.

Assessment Issues

A literacy programme cannot be considered an isolated educational approach. It functions within the broad framework of education as a whole for the empowerment of people. The scope of literacy interventions is hence widened both horizontally (covering multi-sectoral functional areas of learning) and vertically (covering various levels of learning), catering for the continuous learning needs of different segments of the population. Assessment of literacy achievement should thus be formulated from that perspective.

The major focus of assessment should cover contents (whether these are based on individual learning needs), learning methods (what extent interactive using multiple ways of teaching and learning), educational materials (whether supportive to individual practice) and actual practice itself. The learning assessment process needs to be built-in in the learning process so that the learners themselves can assess their own progress, can see the changes that have started to take place in their day-to-day life. This would facilitate the process of further learning as both the learners and the literacy provider can use the current level of achievement in planning the next course of learning.

The following example9 gives a number of functional indicators planned for a literacy programme particularly designed ‘to improve the skills of learners in community water management’. Indicators used in that project are as follows:

  • Extent to which the participants acquire the skills to handle the water problem locally

  • Types of skills acquired

  • Are the skills transferable and sustainable?

  • Whether there is scope for further improvement of skills

  • Are the skills in use?

  • Effects resulting from skills development


The main objective of literacy programmes is to improve the learners’ literacy competencies as well as knowledge and skills essential for day-to-day life. Since assessment refers to verification of the learners’ level of achievement vis-à-vis required skills, the first thing to be decided is what skills are expected to be achieved by the learners. For the operational purpose of assessment, the domain should cover both literacy competencies and needs-based functional knowledge and skills. Precisely, any operational definition of literacy denotes ‘acquisition and retention of essential literacy competencies covering reading, writing and calculation skills and life skills based on the day-to-day functioning of the learners concerned’.

Assessment of whether the required skills are achieved or not can be best judged by the learners themselves through practice of the skills in everyday life. From a programme perspective, there are other ways of assessment that are usually done by external assessors who make value judgements about the achievement. These include10 individual/ group assessment by supervisor/teacher, inter-group/inter-personal assessment by learners, assessment by parents/community and/or assessment by outside assessors.

The tools for assessment may be structured observation/test questionnaire, checklist, scorecards, rating scale, mapping, etc. Whatever tools and processes are used for assessment, in literacy interventions assessment should be planned as an informal (non-threatening) way of measuring the learning outcomes and it has to be a continuous effort, rather than a one-shot exercise, because retention is more important than acquisition in any literacy intervention.  


1  Art. 1, World Declaration on Education for All (1990).
2  Goal 3 in Dakar Framework for Action (2002).
3  Goal 6 in Dakar Framework for Action (2002).
4  Delors Report.
5  UNESCO (1998), Basic Education for empowerment of the poor, Bangkok.
6  UNESCO, Bangkok (1988), ATLP vol. 4.
7  Ibid.
8  Dhaka Ahsania Mission, a national level NGO with consultative status with UNECOSOC and Operations Relations with UNESCO. Visit www.ahsania.org for details.
9  Source: UNESCO, Bangkok (1999), Monitoring and Evaluation of Literacy and Continuing Education Programmes.
10 UNESCO Dhaka, Training Manual on Competency Based Learning Assessment.

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