Probak Karim

The increasingly difficult situation of the rural population is leading to extensive urban migration, which creates in turn a greater need for literacy projects to respond to the new circumstances. Probak Karim describes how the Experimental Literacy Project in Bangladesh, aimed at developing an urban version of rural literacy materials, produced a “new set of materials based on new pedagogy and teaching- learning process”. The author has been working in the field of adult and primary education in Bangladesh for more than a decade. His current areas are decentralized development of the curriculum and of community-based learning structures. He is presently working as a Community Learning Specialist at the Country Office of Plan International in Bangladesh, Dhaka, and can be contacted at

Shekor (The Roots): Lessons from the Urban Literacy Materials Development Project in Bangladesh

Poverty, river erosion, destitution and expectation of better opportunities force a large number of villagers to migrate to cities with an increasing realisation that without acquiring appropriate survival skills in the new context, they cannot settle down in the urban environment. While looking for odd jobs in the widening service sector in the urban areas, most of the adult migrants, both male and female, realise the market value of literacy. A workshop conducted in 1996–97 by the Friends in Village Development Bangladesh (FIVDB), a NGO engaged in the adult literacy movement in the country, to assess the nature of literacy needs in the capital city Dhaka and other urban areas, revealed a wide spectrum of diversified literacy needs linked with domestic service, garment factories, transport like rickshaw pulling, peddling and small business. There has not been much effort in Bangladesh to understand the real needs of these people and to address them within any large-scale adult education initiatives.

Through its Urban Literacy Materials Development Project, FIVDB initially developed an ‘urban version’ of its traditional rural literacy materials. However, from a critical analysis of learners’ achievements and expectations, an in-depth investigation of the teaching-learning process and pedagogy, and the bottom-up nature of the process later facilitated the development of a more innovative and effective set of materials.

Getting Started

In the early 1980s, FIVDB developed a set of basic literacy materials for the non-literate adults they had been working with. Gradually, other NGOs started using those materials in their own areas. In the early 1990s, FIVDB came to support more than 200 NGOs in terms of providing materials and training for implementing their literacy programmes. The literacy learning materials that were initially developed by FIVDB for its own programme became so popular that they were adopted by most agencies all over the country.

It was only in the mid-1990s that several NGOs in Bangladesh started working in urban areas. Some of these NGOs had adopted an adult literacy programme in support of their other development activities. One of the major problems that these organisations faced then was the non-availability of appropriate literacy primers for urban adult learners. By default, almost all of these agencies had to use or adapt literacy material originally designed for rural learners in their urban literacy programmes. It became apparent that there were many problems in these programmes at that time because of those inappropriate materials. While these organisations experienced severe constraints relating the content and vocabulary used in the rural literacy material to the urban context, they had practically no other options.

At the request of some of these organisations, FIVDB decided to undertake the challenge of designing literacy primers for urban learners essentially as one of their ongoing research and development activities. FIVDB had generated technical expertise while providing support services to its field units in a wide variety of rural and semiurban literacy programme settings and also to its partner NGOs, and this expertise contributed to this venture. The Bangladesh country programme of Plan International came forward in 1996 to fund this initiative. Plan International Bangladesh also shared the experiences of its field unit engaged in running adult literacy centres in Dhaka with FIVDB. This arrangement motivated FIVDB to a great extent to set up a Materials Development Unit in Dhaka and initiate an urban literacy materials development project.

The FIVDB team of curriculum and materials developers started their activities with an in-depth evaluative study of adult literacy programmes in Dhaka. The key findings from this study were:

  • Almost all adult learners in these urban programmes had some sort of literacy experiences before joining the literacy centre.

  • In most adult literacy centres, the social awareness component of the programme remained unaddressed.

  • Most adult learners found the duration of the daily lesson (2 hours per day) to be too demanding in the light of their other livelihood commitments.

  • The learners also considered the duration of the course (six months) to be too long for them to commit at a stretch.

  • The rural context of the lessons was not appreciated by the learners.

What Motivates Adults to Learn?

The urban literacy materials development team followed up the above study with an assessment of learning needs as perceived by adult learners. The key objective of the process was to identify not only problems, issues and topics of immediate interest to urban learners, but also the possible literacy methods which might accelerate the process of acquiring literacy and numeracy skills, taking advantage of their exposure to the world of writing in the urban context. In order to accomplish this task, the team started an informal and intimate interaction with urban slum dwellers. This was accompanied in parallel by a structured survey of the perception of non-literate and semi-literate urban adults.

The reports of both the informal-qualitative and formal-quantitative surveys were placed before urban literacy workers in a workshop in Dhaka. The workshop made an attempt to cluster the perceived learning needs of the prospective learners under the following broad areas:

  • Measurements and calculations related to jobs in garment factories

  • Domestic work in middle-class urban households

  • Communication with relatives left behind in the villages through exchange of letters

  • Money transfers through post office and bank

  • Reading road signs and addresses

  • Starting small businesses and bookkeeping

  • Reading immunisation cards of mother and child to identify the day of the next visit

  • Labels of medicines in order to be able to take the doses appropriately

  • Payment slips of the garment workers

  • Reading newspapers

  • Providing some measure of support to school-going children etc.

The FIVDB urban materials development team also separately undertook a survey of the speech pattern of Dhaka slum dwellers develop a list of the most commonly used words in these slums. This vocabulary was supplemented by standard Bangla words and phrases widely used in road signs, banners, posters, newspapers, and television and radio programmes. The compilation of these words was titled, Nittay Kotha (most frequently used words) and was used for the development of urban literacy learning materials.

Implications for Materials Development

One of the major intentions of the materials development team was to create space for the learners to determine what they wanted to learn. It is often said that the learners are the most untapped resources for curriculum development. The materials development team did not want to repeat that. So instead of developing a full set of materials first and then asking the learners what they had liked or disliked about them, the team decided to develop the materials on a weekly basis. Seven literacy centres were organised in the Agargoan neighbourhood (the biggest slum in Dhaka city). The materials developers used to assemble at a literacy centre every day. They observed the class, assisted the shebok/shebika (facilitator) and the learners, collected feedback about the method and the contents of the materials, and evaluated the teaching-learning strategies etc. They also used to ask the learners and the facilitators about what they would like to learn next week. As learners from different backgrounds joined these centres, their interests were also diversified. The team systemically analysed the observational data collected by it from the experimental centres each week with a view to developing follow-up contents and teaching-learning strategies for the next week. This practice continued for six months and concluded with an assessment of the learning achievements of the learners’ learning outcomes.

Despite the above efforts made by FIVDB and Plan International Bangladesh, the achievement of the learners in terms of the levels of literacy finally acquired was not significantly better than that of the centres run with rural materials. Besides the achievement scores, the literacy workers collected feedback, formally and informally, from the learners about their overall performance in reading and writing.

The broader picture that emerges from the above assessment data, formal and informal feedback from the learners and facilitators, and from the literacy workers and materials developers indicates the following:

  • The literacy levels attained by the learners were not sustainable.

  • ‘Look and say’ or ‘word method’, a locally adapted version of the whole language teaching method, could hardly be implemented by the facilitators following the desired methods and strategies.

  • While most of the learners could recite some of the texts from the primer, they could not independently decode simple words from outside such texts.

  • Almost all the facilitators being adolescent boys and girls, their capacity to adapt different methods and materials in the actual class transactions was very limited.

  • The teachers’ guide became a tool for limiting the creativity of the facilitators.

  • The numeracy lessons did not take into account the functional computing ability of urban adult learners.

As one of the key purposes of collecting the assessment data was to identify the areas for improving teaching and learning, the team tried to identify the pedagogical implications of these data. This process was facilitated by an international consultant.

Reflecting Critically

The team started interpreting the available data in order to identify the areas of improvement in the materials. But this critical analysis ultimately led the team to come up with developing new teaching-learning strategies as well as contents based on some new insights. The initial objective of the project was to develop ‘an urban version’ of the rural literacy materials, but during and after this review process, it ended up with a new set of materials based on new pedagogy and teaching-learning processes.

The new strategies that evolved from the critical analysis of that data were:

  • One of the major objectives of the materials would be to help the adult learners become ‘independent readers’.

  • Social awareness on some selected issues’ should also be supported by developing ‘critical thinking ability’ among the learners.

  • There was a felt need to introduce appropriate instructional strategies for promoting decoding skills in the existing primers to hasten the development of independent reading and writing competencies within a short period to develop self-confidence among the learners.

  • A basic reader could be used for accelerating the reading process, while widening the relevant knowledge domain of learners.

  • Emphasis should be given to achieving higher numeracy skills, taking advantage of the existing mental computing skills.

  • Too many instructions for the facilitators to conduct the discussion part of the adult literacy class so as to raise social awareness in fact serve to limit the ability or scope of the facilitators to create an environment for learners to engage in meaningful dialogue.

  • Based on that finding, the team agreed to be ‘less instructive’ to the facilitators and to create opportunities for them to be creative.

  • Experience of other experiments indicated that within a very short period of time, if the learners could achieve the decoding and encoding skills in Bengali language (along with limited sight vocabulary), that would increase the motivation level of the learners to a great extent, while it was also important to continue to build on those primary literacy skills.

On the basis of those experiences, the whole literacy course was divided into three major parts. Part one was to be a programme to learn the alphabet and signs and develop the basic skills of decoding and encoding. Part two would be basically for consolidation of those skills; and Part three would be the rapid expansion of literacy skills building on the strengths of the previous two stages. The third part would be more learner-centred; it would be expected that the learners would be able to participate in the reading, writing and accounting tasks mostly by themselves while the facilitators would provide and evaluate tasks and off-course support, if needed.

The materials were thus divided into three parts. The first part called Shekor (The Roots) would be for 24 days; second part named Ankur (The Bud) would be for 30 days; and the third part named Bistar (Growth) would be for 51 days.

Need to Learn from the Learners

As the team came up with an almost new set of materials, it was suggested that there should be scope for field-testing of these materials. Though FIVDB did not have any programme of adult literacy learning at that time in any urban areas, it was decided that at least two literacy centres would be established in a slum for adults. The materials would be field-tested in these two centres.

The initial results of this field-testing turned out to be extremely encouraging especially in terms of academic achievements. Following that experience, the materials were modified further. However, before these materials were offered to other organisations, it was suggested that one of FIVDB’s partner organisations that had an urban literacy programme should implement this material on an experimental basis. A NGO called ARBAN agreed to take on this experimental programme and implemented it in 50 literacy centres in different slums of Dhaka city.

Lessons Learned

The urban context of literacy programmes is quite different from the rural context, and the idea of a special programme for urban dwellers is also a new concept in Bangladesh. The experience of developing Shekor, which happened to be the first experiment of that kind in Bangladesh, had some significant implications. The project demonstrated higher achievement by learners in reading, writing, accounting and social awareness.

The facilitators strongly appreciated the strategy of giving them freedom to be creative.

This approach also proved to be effective for the learners who were identified as ‘semi-literates’, who normally were excluded from any literacy programme.

In addition, it successfully demonstrated what others have also found, that the more adults see a purpose in learning literacy and are able to connect it to the literacy practices they go through in everyday life, the more they are motivated.

However, one of the major limitations of this project was to try to develop literacy teaching-learning materials without connecting them with any kinds of income-generating or vocational education programmes.

While it was a significant experiment in the emerging context of urban literacies in Bangladesh, it was later realised that it is important to have thorough documentation of the project and the processes involved. This was probably the weakest area of the project.

Urban literacy programmes should not only be regarded as adapted versions of rural programme, for this had proved not to be effective. Therefore it is important to consider urban literacy programmes as a new phenomenon.

The newly adopted mixed method for literacy learning seems to upset most of the literacy experts in Bangladesh, who tend to confine themselves to the ‘single method’ (‘word’ or ‘sentence’ method without linking it with the development of phonemic awareness and phonics) as the best method for literacy learning, ignoring the fact that they live in a changing world.

However, one of the most important lessons this project taught us is that a successful literacy learning programme does not only depend on good materials. Integration, organisation, supervision, training, monitoring and evaluation etc. are very important factors in a successful literacy programme. While Shekor was an important experiment in materials development, other areas still remain unexplored.