Bernard Hagnonnou

From 3 to 27 July 2006, DVV International and the Institut Alphadev, a partner of DVV International in Cotonou, Benin, held a sub-regional workshop in Dabola, Guinea. The aim ofthe workshop was the training of literacy and adult education practitioners to implement a strategy to develop a sustainable literate environment in African languages of literacy. Bernard Hagnonnou is the Director of Institut Alphadev. The article was first published jointly by DVV International and Alphadev in Lettre d'Information Électronique (LIE) No. 5, Juin/Juillet 2006.

Adoption of a Strategy to Create and Strengthen a Literate Environment in African Languages


The workshop was held in Dabola, a small town situated in the centre of Guinea Conakry, attended by some thirty participants from six West and Central African countries, namely Benin, Cameroon, Guinea, Mali, Senegal and Chad, and from Madagascar.

The training was led by a number of facilitators. The principal trainer was Mr Bernard Hagnonnou, the consultant who had in 2003 written the baseline study setting out an operational strategy to create and strengthen a literate environment that was commissioned by the UNESCO multi-country office based in Bamako. Two other resource persons also trained participants to adopt information and correspondence tools (especially the written press); they were Mr Passy Bamba, a member of the Guinean Federation of Journalists, and Mr Lamine Bangoura, finance officer of the DVV International West Africa Office in Conakry, who gave an explanation of management tools for rural organizations.

The aims of the main study mentioned above, which was carried out in Northern Mali, were to examine the whole issue of the literate environment, and to define an operational strategy for its development. This strategy was broken down into modules intended for training literacy practitioners so that they could use them in order to put in place sustainable mechanisms, tools and practices to develop a literate cultural environment in African languages of literacy and post-literacy.

According to the overall conclusions of the study, which brings together all the mechanisms, tools and other measures needed to put the process into effect, a literate environment should be perceived:

  • not merely as a simple stock of written documents in the national languages
  • but as a gradual process of moving from oral traditions to written communication practices
  • which can only come about through regular use of written communication by newly literate populations re-investing what they have learnt in their everyday lives
  • such a process only being possible if a number of preconditions are met

Some Other Main Findings of the Study

Since literacy campaigns and programmes were launched in the French-speaking countries of Africa in the 1960s, critical evaluation has shown that

  • the approaches and strategies implemented have achieved appreciable success in terms of introducing the beneficiary populations to reading, writing and written calculation, but
  • the skills acquired have remained basic and tenuous, in the sense that neoliterates can neither fluently write nor fluently read texts of any great complexity, and cannot effectively use management tools
  • in other words, the skills acquired have not been effectively functional, i.e. applicable in all circumstances and in a range of every-day activities.

Furthermore, the literate environment generated by these programmes in African languages has remained embryonic, and has even receded in many countries where it achieved a remarkable rise during periods of intensive post-literacy. The literate environment also appears to act as a barometer of the qualitative changes expected to mark the gradual shift from a traditional African society that is essentially oral, to a society in which people enter into an era of written communication in their own languages, in the same way as the Koreans, Chinese and Japanese.

What remains of the first signs written in African languages that were erected at the entrance to villages and on the fronts of some public buildings in the 1970s and '80s in newly literate areas? Similarly, what has become of the newspapers from village presses that were avidly read by neoliterates in post-literacy languages in Benin, Mali, Niger and other countries such as Burkina Faso or Senegal? What has happened to the village libraries set up in the fervour of post-literacy in Mali and elsewhere? And lastly, what is left of the nascent literature created through post-literacy teaching materials and documents on specific topics?

State of the Literate Environment in African Languages of Literacy

The study mentioned above made it possible to arrive at an overview of the literate environment in Northern Mali, which served as the field for the research, and to reach conclusions that are in large measure applicable to the situation in other countries in the West African sub-region. The main findings are as follows:

  • Practices associated with a literate environment are the result of the implementation of post-literacy strategies, the primary purpose of which was to reinforce the reading skills acquired by neoliterates - there was talk at the time of reading centres; a secondary purpose was to create a framework of regular literacy practices for neoliterates.
  • However, this literate environment was not subjected to in-depth research to establish operational strategies which would, if implemented systematically, have led to clearly planned follow-up actions, such as a publishing policy.
  • The strategies applied were isolated and did not take into account the full range of measures required to establish literate practices firmly, namely the written use of national languages in formal education, local government and other contexts of everyday life so that such practices become rooted in national culture, etc..

Lastly, the study showed that the reasons for this situation were to be found in the literacy and post-literacy approaches applied in most West African countries. The inadequacies of these approaches are summed up below.

Inadequacies of Literacy Approaches

Among the inadequacies of these literacy approaches may be cited: 

  • Discontinuity of learning, which can be divided broadly into three stages:
    • basic literacy launched in the 1960s and becoming general in the 1970s
    • post-literacy, which expanded in the 1970s and '80s
    • special training courses, which have developed very recently, since the early 1990s
  • Such discontinuity was the result of the delay in introducing post-literacy, which was often launched several months, or even several years, after the end of initial literacy teaching, for reasons of institutional and organizational dysfunction that typified the implementation of literacy campaigns and programmes.
  • This discontinuity also led to loss of the knowledge and skills acquired through initial literacy, and sometimes to a return to illiteracy.
  • And lastly, the lack of technical writing skills among neoliterates meant that the literate skills acquired through such learning were poorly established, with the result that neoliterates could not write fluently; the ability to write words and phrases should not be con-fused with the writing of complex functional texts in a variety of genres for a range of uses.

The Requirements of a Literate Environment

In the light of the above inadequacies, the development of a literate environment remained theoretical since neoliterates had not acquired the ability to write and read fluently. That is to say,

  • to take notes as a matter of course on every occasion
  • to draft and present reports or the minutes of meetings
  • to explain a social or natural phenomenon rationally and to write a commentary on it
  • to express opinions in writing through correspondence, articles, etc.
  • to work out and draw up basic accounts of activities
  • to use management tools, applying them to specific activities (managing cereal banks, keeping daily accounts, etc.)

As can be seen, such functional literate skills cannot be acquired from a mere introduction to writing words and phrases, nor even from so-called functional post-literacy, the modules of which did not include the systematic learning of techniques for drafting texts or the scientific knowledge that would have fostered rational thinking and literate practices to support development activities.

It follows from the above findings that one prerequisite for the development of a literate environment is an institutional framework for continuing non-formal basic education, so that neoliterates can acquire rational thinking and functional skills, and can reinvest such learning in their everyday lives.

Have we systematically implemented literacy programmes that allow learners to acquire functional skills? From the various evaluations and critical analyses of the approaches developed over the last two or three decades, is it clear that this objective has not been met. This is demonstrated by the current state of the literate environment after three decades of literacy campaigns.

If there is to be a literate environment, it is therefore crucial that

  • neoliterates should have the opportunity to acquire sustainable literate skills, and
  • conditions should favour regular demand for these skills so that they become irreversible.1

This is the precondition for their playing a substantial part in a planned, sustained process of gradually moving from orality to the written word in African societies where the almost exclusive use of foreign languages in formal education and government still predominates, to the detriment of a multitude of national languages.

How to Develop a Literate Environment: An Integrated Continuum

The process to be implemented must be continuous, that is, it must avoid an artificial separation between literacy, post-literacy (which has to be introduced sooner or later and is generally later rather than sooner), and special courses, which some target groups have never experienced. Such a separation has the consequences that are well known: loss of knowledge and skills, and sometimes even a relapse into illiteracy.

The continuum envisaged should have a time span of at least three years. However, every basic programme, ranging from three to six months depending on the context, should comprise a minimum curriculum that includes the following aspects:

  • Learning topics chosen to match closely the activities and concerns of the target groups
  • Teaching/learning of rational knowledge linked to these topics, and of technical knowledge linked to target groups' productive activities
  • The acquisition of instrumental reading, writing and drafting skills, calculation and problem-solving skills, and skills to use management tools
  • The whole process should lead, whatever its length, to a minimum of knowledge and skills, namely

    • the acquisition of rational knowledge and technical skills, initially in the field of activities of each target group
    • the ability to draft texts, and to use textual information, correspondence, management tools, etc.
    • the use of these tools as channels for applying knowledge in neoliterates' everyday lives.

Such a process would also systematically make it possible at the same time to acquire:

  • rational knowledge linked to the principal areas of activity of the target groups
  • literacy skills which, in the case of neoliterates, consist of:

    • writing general and functional texts (stories, descriptions, reports, arguments, etc.)
    • reading, understanding and explaining texts dealing with topics associated with their context of life
    • reading, understanding and explaining texts dealing with topics associated with their context of life

NB: It is important that the acquisition of topic-based knowledge should not be artificially separated from the acquisition of the literacy skills of reading, writing and calculation/problem-solving. The two types of knowledge need to complement each other, literacy skills serving to underpin rational knowledge.

Thus, learning an explanatory text will follow a session of explanation that might aim to demonstrate the causal links between an unhealthy environment (poorly maintained surroundings, polluted water) which encourages mosquito larvae to hatch, and the trans-mission of malaria to people.

imilarly, a text putting forward an argument will be studied as a means of examining controversial and polemical opinions, and will be structured in the form of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Learning to set out written arguments is crucial since it firmly anchors learners' capacity for critical thinking on numerous social issues and conflicts, for example; a critical mentality is the foundation for an open mind and a culture of progress.

This process of integrated learning will make it possible to avoid an artificial separation between initial literacy and post-literacy, etc. Above all, it will give learning a sense of purpose and an im-mediate relevance, instead of the traditional approach of rows of syllables that adults are expected to repeat, and other such practices that treat them like children and reduce the effectiveness of their learning.

The methodology that needs to underpin this integrated learning will comprise the following stages:

  • Encouraging learners to express their endogenous views on the topic chosen, which will often be empirical
  • Encouraging them to subject their own views to critical reflection using MARP cognitive tools of analysis and other problem analysis techniques
  • Raising doubts among learners at the end of this cognitive exercise, and encouraging them to reach findings and to make logical deductions
  • Encouraging questioning of beliefs and other long-established irrational prejudices through local informal education systems
  • Constructing rational knowledge that accords with this rigorous critical approach (hypothesis and deduction)
  • Moving on to the stage of learning techniques for writing texts of various kinds, and text management tools
  • Taking learners to an adequate level of expertise so that they are capable of using these tools effectively to apply rational knowledge in their lives

We regard this process of learning rational knowledge as crucial since lasting skills and knowledge will be unlikely to develop unless learners have first been enabled to realise the irrational and often completely false nature of their earlier empirical perceptions.

It is enough, for example, to draw up a list of the words used by people to describe malaria in their national languages. This would reveal that these words embody empirical explanations of the disease which are more often wrong than not, but nonetheless govern the way in which it is seen and how people behave in response.

Given such empirical perceptions, the spread of ideas and the development that goes with it cannot occur without systematically calling into question empirical knowledge that is firmly rooted in centuries-old traditions.

Literate Environment and Sustainable Development

In the wake of such a process, neoliterates will more readily and effectively reinvest the knowledge acquired, by:

  • capitalizing on methodical discussion and analysis of local is-sues
  • producing general, technical and specialist documents
  • using mathematical skills to resolve their problems
  • using management tools in economic activities, and
  • using all the everyday literate practices that will give rise to a literate environment which is sustainable because it results from an endogenous process

Such a process will only be possible if neoliterates have mastered the ability to write texts, and not merely the elementary ability to write words and phrases hesitantly and to read without expression.

In this context, the literate environment

  • will no longer be a mere list of written documents generally pro-duced without the effective involvement of neoliterates
  • but will rather be a genuine process of moving from orality to writing, whereby newly literate populations actually use the written form of their languages, through cultural, economic, commercial, social and political activities

Grassroots development will then be able take off again:

  • promoting the national cultural heritage through the written description by people themselves of their religious artefacts, artistic objects, cultural practices, etc.
  • ensuring the sustainability of socio-cultural values, and especially local practical knowledge (of medicinal materials) by restoring this knowledge to those who first possessed it, i.e. resource persons from the local environment who now know, for example, how to write explanatory texts
  • promoting so-called oral literature, which will now be transcribed by village writers who have learnt and mastered the techniques of writing consecutive text

The literate environment will also become the medium for various forms of knowledge, namely:

  • education for citizenship and human rights in the context of a democracy that will be reinvigorated at the grassroots
  • education for a culture of peace
  • education for people in better local governance
  • specialist training courses to develop micro projects, etc.

Mechanisms, Tools and Media

This whole process presupposes the implementation of mechanisms, tools and media that are yet to be developed and must be closely linked to the contexts, situations and needs of target populations. These mechanisms may include:

  • A local forum providing a framework for synergy between all those who can act as catalysts for the expansion of the literate environment by helping to train neoliterates to create and use various tools; among these persons may be mentioned:

    • literacy practitioners (literacy teachers, course leaders, trainers from national literacy services, NGOs, etc.)
    • staff of sectoral services supporting local development (health, environment, agriculture, animal husbandry, etc.)
    • resource persons
    • traditional practitioners
    • holders of endogenous knowledge, etc.
  • A literate cultural centre that will provide a framework for a variety of activities:

    • courses of integrated non-formal basic education
    • a village library
    • literary competitions, collective listening to audiovisual broad-casts that are then transcribed, etc.

Tools to Develop a Literate Environment

The strategy requires the development of a whole range of tools needed to support a literate environment. However, the creation of tools must be guided by one fundamental principle which no longer means, as in the past, having documents and newspapers produced by a minority of literacy practitioners in national languages, some of whom do not always write accurately, or indeed have the skills to write texts in a variety of genres.

The weaknesses of such an approach have been seen in the unreliable translations of technical documents, the authors of which have found it difficult to reproduce technical concepts in national languages. This raises the whole issue of the creation of scientific vocabulary in national languages.

The new strategy intends that neoliterates should be able from the outset to

  • master the techniques required to write texts in different genres (narrative, description, information, explanation, argument and instructions), not only in theory, but also to
  • set out functional texts in these different genres (correspondence, reports, note-taking, etc.)
  • and be familiar with and apply management tools in the context of the activities of their institutions (stock records in cereal banks, simplified book-keeping for economic and commercial activities, women's groups, etc.)

These skills are a prerequisite for neoliterates to take part in the literate activities for which these various tools will act as media and channels.

They will then be able to play a part in producing tools, e.g.

  • village monographs in local languages, the creation of which provides excellent opportunities for participatory diagnosis of local problems and for devising shared local development approaches; participants' ability to write down the findings of these monographs will enhance their capacity to capitalize on technical monograph research techniques, such as
  • newspapers and other periodical documents
  • technical documents describing procedures useful in agriculture, poultry-keeping and fishery

The Question of Vocabulary

The difficulties associated with translation relate among other things to the creation of vocabulary, including adapting to national languages the new lexical and terminological concepts that accompany the rapid progress of science and technology. A start can be made on solving this problem by building up knowledge together with neoliterates, since they

  • are the native speakers of their own languages
  • will have acquired not only simple writing skills, but above all a critical mind and rational knowledge, as well as the ability to write complex, particularly discursive, texts (explanation, argument, description) etc.
  • and will therefore be best placed to produce a technical discourse in those languages
  • having learnt the form of discourse that enables modern knowledge to be constructed

Such an approach will allow neoliterates, as long as all other conditions are met, to produce an endogenous scientific discourse in national languages that fulfils the requirements of syntax, clarity and comprehensibility. One of the preconditions for meeting this goal is rigorous training of trainers.

Profile of Course Leaders

If this process is to be implemented, it presupposes rigorous training for course leaders with specific qualifications, at least four years of secondary education. If they are to pursue training assiduously, a system of motivation will also need to be introduced, depending on the context, to guarantee regular learning. In turn, they must be guaranteed rigorous training.

Training of Course Leaders

Training of course leaders must be:

  • based on participatory methods which
  • start in every case from the endogenous knowledge of the learners, and then
  • encourage these learners to analyse, criticize (using MARP analytical tools) and question the empirical and irrational aspects of this knowledge, before
  • constructing rational knowledge with the active participation of learners

The main tool of the course leader will be an adult education teaching sheet. Since the approach does not specify particular teaching materials, course leaders will need to prepare these teaching sheets both in advance and on the spot by

  • collecting technical information from various resource persons and technical institutions, namely rural development workers, health workers, education officers, etc.
  • consulting technical documentation relating to the various topics to be covered, which will revolve around the following four areas of knowledge:

    • transcription and techniques of written expression to create texts in six genres, and specific texts (story-telling, description and portraits, reports, correspondence, argument, newspaper articles, etc.)
    • the critical learning of rational knowledge dealing with social issues, the rights and duties of the citizen, decentralization, etc. (social sciences)
    • the critical learning of scientific explanations and human biology, animal and vegetable life, and natural phenomena in general (life and earth sciences)
    • the learning of mathematical knowledge applied to solving problems associated with production, marketing and other activities, and learning to use management tools
  • devising teaching sheets that describe precisely the stages of each learning session, including:

    • the overall aim
    • specific objectives for acquiring notional or thematic knowledge, and instrumental knowledge that must eventually lead to the creation of a second text and texts in different genres
    • anticipated outcomes, and
    • evaluation

NB: Rigorous selection and appropriate training of course leaders of the required level (at least four years of secondary education) is one of the requirements for the project to succeed. To this end, multidisciplinary teams should be set up gradually by NGOs, institutes of applied research, training institutions, support structures for educational programmes, etc. These teams must include experts in languages, social sciences, life and earth sciences, mathematics and management, who are capable of providing training and adult education support for course leaders.

Other General and Specific Requirements

Other requirements must be met to consolidate the process of developing a literate environment in accordance with the approach described above. It is necessary to ensure:

  • the adoption of national policies in the various countries, and
  • the adoption of publishing policies to promote writing in national languages

This second concern is essential since many of those involved still confuse government action plans and sectoral education strategies with national literacy and adult education policy documents.

NB: All those involved, including practitioners, need to under-stand this important institutional issue. It is inconceivable that a national literacy and adult education policy should be drawn up and adopted (within some ministerial cabinet) without the effective involvement of those working in the sector in question, and of the beneficiaries.

The main criterion for the validity of a national policy document is that it should relate to the genuine concerns of those working in that field, and of the beneficiaries, and it is impossible to take these concerns into account without involving the latter.

Moreover, the major purpose of participatory policy definition is, in addition to this criterion of validity, that it should provide a framework and an opportunity for

  • participatory diagnosis of the problems in the sector by all those concerned, including the beneficiaries
  • collective definition of a national vision that is shared by those immediately involved and by decision-makers in the non-formal education sector
  • formulation of strategic guideline objectives, implementation strategies, and in short
  • adoption of the policy by those who will be responsible for putting it into practice

Forthcoming sub-regional meetings must methodically discuss this policy issue since it is a precondition for minimal harmonization, if only between the ways in which ministry decision-makers, national literacy directorates, NGOs and support structures need to understand the overall literacy approach, and the development goals that these processes aim to achieve in terms of education for all and the Millennium Development Goals.

In the absence of such a collective approach, the various interest groups within each country will continue to develop approaches in isolation, with the result that considerable resources are wasted on the hypothetical achievement of results that do not meet the expectations of beneficiaries and providers.


Like any innovation, the strategy outlined above needs to be widely disseminated so that it can be tried out in a variety of contexts, and its applicability measured. From this point of view, the initiative of the DVV International West Africa Office, which has brought together providers in seven countries, is to be welcomed.

Furthermore, this strategy has already been adopted by many practitioners and is beginning to be implemented in regions of Northern Mali (following training similar to that which took place in Dabola). It has already been tested in Niger, Benin and Burkina Faso (thanks in particular to IDEA, based in Geneva which promotes PDT, one of the components of the strategy) through three-year programmes.

Its gradual spread would at least make it possible to lay the foundations for the gradual process of developing a sustainable literate environment by moving from orality to written communication in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa that still depend on inadequate oral traditions.

The great Malian writer Amadou Hampate Bah said that "in Africa, when an old man dies, a library burns." This is even more true today. There is no longer any need to emphasise the importance of writing in a world in which digitalization is driving the explosion of information and knowledge-based societies.

We know that Microsoft has just developed Windows software in Swahili, and will soon produce versions in Bambara and other major vehicular African languages. It would therefore be a disaster if the African populations speaking those languages were once more handicapped because they could not use the latest tools - computers and above all the Internet, which can truly be likened to a gold mine, given the mass of information that it carries.

A literate environment is therefore the way for our people to access this gold mine of information. And this raises questions for education-al decision-makers, for providers of non-formal basic education and all forms of education for children and adults, and for their partners.


1 Cf. the definition of a literate environment given by UNESCO.

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