Najwa Adra

The importance of learning through heritage is often overlooked in development contexts. This article describes a literacy project in which a vibrant oral tradition helped adults acquire reading and writing skills. In Literacy through Poetry, piloted in Yemen in 2002-2003, adult women learned reading and writing skills using their own stories, poetry and proverbs as text. Najwa Adra is a cultural anthropologist and literacy expert who has worked in Yemen since 1978. She initiated and coordinated the Literacy through Poetry pilot. The article is a follow-up contribution of Henrik Zipsane's article in the issue 68 of our journal.

Learning through Heritage, Literacy through Poetry 1

I have just read Henrik Zipsane's fascinating article on heritage learning (Zipsane 2007) in the latest issue of this journal. Zipsane describes several highly effective programs for lifelong learning provided by Jamtli Open Air Museum in Sweden. He argues that each person's heritage includes "many coexisting histories" and that there is a need to provide diverse learning experiences. He suggests that one can learn "through cultural heritage" and not only about this heritage. In a part of the world far from Sweden, geographically and culturally, I too have found that heritage can be an effective learning tool "in the present" and not just an interesting artifact of the past.

The Project

In 2002-2003, I piloted a literacy project for adults in Yemen, on the SW corner of the Arabian Peninsula, in which learners created their own texts through their stories, poems and rhyming proverbs (Adra 2004). 2 Classes began with a discussion of a photograph of a scene familiar to the students or a topic of their choice. Students were encouraged to insert poetry and proverbs into their discussion, as is their custom when discussing issues of importance to them. With the teacher's help, the class developed a short story based on the discussion. This story, which was written on large paper taped to the wall, along with poems and proverbs generated by the discussion, became the text through which students learned to recognize and read phrases, words and letters of the alphabet. In order to reinforce letter and word recognition, texts often focused on particular letters, words or syllables.

Because each class developed its own texts, classes were inherently diverse. Texts were first written in the local dialect spoken in the community. When students developed word and letter recognition, rules of standard written Arabic were introduced. (They need to know standard written Arabic because most published materials and media messages are phrased in standard Arabic.) Each text was typed, photocopied and returned to the students, so that they could learn to read their stories and poems in print as well as handwritten form. Finally, the typed texts of each class were collected and bound into a book. Each student who completed the course was given a book that she helped write.

Why were students encouraged to include poetry in their discussions and stories? As in many other Arabic speaking countries, the vast majority of rural Yemenis above the age of 35 can compose or improvise short poems of two to four lines which they sing while they work in the fields, at home, on construction projects or on a number of other tasks. 3 These poems express their deep feelings about their situation in the family as well as local and international issues. Short poems and proverbs are often inserted into conversation to make a point, and poetic competitions are integral to Yemen's heritage. Poetry is used regularly in conflict mediation to persuade the two sides to compromise (Caton 1990). Women's oral traditions have been threatened by socio-economic changes, new media such as television (Adra 1996), and imported conservative interpretations of Islam that denounce women's oral traditions as un-Islamic. While some genres of men's poetry have been enhanced through the use of audiocassettes (Caton 1990, Miller 2007), women's sung poems are rarely heard any more.

Literacy through Poetry, which was funded by the World Bank and the Social Fund for Development (SFD) in Sanaa, was designed to respond to two concerns: the very high illiteracy rate (78.2 %) among rural women in Yemen 4 and the progressive loss of women's voice in the past 30 years. Would incorporating local poetry in literacy classes attract rural students and sustain their interest in acquiring reading and writing skills? And/or would this participatory approach enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning? The pilot was intended to test these two questions. It was also hoped that recognizing and affirming women's poetry, their traditional form of public expression, would empower women and encourage younger women to revive and continue their mothers' poetic traditions.

Basic to the project is my belief, shared by the donors and implementers, that in today's global environment, learning to read and write is itself empowering for both women and men and basic to development. This position has been contested in literacy studies, often with good reasons, and I would not have argued in its favor thirty years ago. Certainly, illiterates are as intelligent and articulate as those who can read and write, but in rural Yemen today, the inability to read severely limits one's independence and the autonomy that Yemenis value. Reading skills are needed to perform even the most basic tasks, such as taking medication or applying pesticides safely, using a cell phone, navigating urban environments, reading letters from migrant kin, and even understanding extension messages aired in the media. When I have asked women why they want to read and write, they have often responded with an Arabic proverb: "Learning is a woman's weapon" ( Al-'ilm sila - h. al-mar'a ). Furthermore, women and men in this pious country cite learning to the read the Quran as an important priority for them. 5

The pilot was conceived to attract adult rural Yemeni women (and men) to literacy classes and to introduce up-to-date pedagogy to Yemen's adult literacy programs. Existing literacy classes offered by the Ministry of Education condense six years of elementary school curriculum into two years; a heavy illustrated text is used, and learning is purely rote. This curriculum is most attractive to young people who dropped out of school at a young age and who wish to complete elementary school. Even among these, withdrawal rates are extremely high, estimated at 80-90 %, and the ability of graduates to read unfamiliar text, even after two years of instruction, is low.

Older adults, on the other hand, find textbooks and exams alienating and do not feel the need to learn all of the subjects taught in school. When interviewed they usually say that they simply want to acquire reading, writing and numeracy skills. This pilot was designed for the

latter group - older adults not interested in pursuing the full range of basic education. As it turned out, many of the students in the pilot went on to register in government literacy classes after spending nine months in the pilot, an indication of its contribution to lifelong learning.

Literacy through Poetry was participatory from its inception. In response to adult women's expressed needs, it did not aim to provide a basic (formal) education. Instead, its modest goals included reading and writing skills. Graduates of the program were expected to be able to read new text and write a short paragraph on a topic of interest. The curriculum was developed by Maritza Arrastea and Fatiha Makloufi. 6 It combines a Freirean emphasis on learning through dialogue and drawing class content from the local culture with a community literature approach in its development of student stories. 7 The teaching of reading skills began with sentence and word recognition, then focused on syllable and alphabet recognition. What is new to the method is its focus on the students' poetry and oral heritage.

Before continuing with details of the pilot, I provide a sample text developed in one of the classes. The text addresses conflicts between the demands of agricultural labor and education, as well as the common disregard for girls' education. (Prose is presented only in English translation. Poetry is presented in the local dialect of Arabic followed by my translation.)

The story: Muhsin went to the fields early in the morning. He went with Hamud and his daughter, Rahma, to sow seeds. When his wife brought them breakfast, she said: "Ya ma'in" (Oh, hard worker - This is a common greeting and appreciative comment to someone who is working.)

He replied poetically using a variant of "ma'in", the word she had used, "Allah ya'in al-jami'" (May God help everyone." )

His wife said, "Shame on you for taking your daughter out of school to help in the fields."

He then recited a verse from the folk tradition:

Ma rayt mithl al-zira'a
Ma rayt ana mithliha shay'
Al-waqt kullihu matalim
Ghayr al-madhari laha awqat

Translation :
I have never seen anything like farmin g
I have never seen anything like it .
It is always time to plant somethin g
Except those plants that have specific sowing seasons .
(In other words, there is always work to do. )

His wife's sarcastic poetic response was composed by a learner:

Hadhihi al-sana biyidrisayn 'ajaiz
Wayn al-mudir yidi lahin jawa'iz?


This year, old women are studying Where is the director (in this case, school principal) who should be giving them certificates?

(In other words, why are men in positions of authority not providing the support they need?)

In this example, the story reflects problems often encountered by rural students. Poetry and humor present both the man's reasons for taking his daughter out of school and his wife's annoyed and clever retort.

Beneficiaries and Partners

Phase 1 of the project was piloted in four rural communities in Sanaa Governorate and one urban literacy center in Sanaa that caters to recent rural migrants to the capital. The choice of region was made in accordance with the stated preference of Ministry of Education personnel. The rural villages are all within a one-hour drive from Sanaa. All are farming communities with populations ranging from 645 persons (the smallest) to 1,122 persons (the largest). All are farming communities, with most members of each family actively participating in cash cropping and subsistence agriculture and herding. Although male out-migration does not reach the levels of some regions of Yemen, large stone houses in each village attest to the influx of some remittance wealth. The largest community is also the site of a thriving market along a major highway. This community includes a significant population of those who engage in formerly low status occupations, such as musicians and butchers.

Each community has an elementary school, which boys and some girls attend. The smallest community boasts a new elementary school for girls built with funding from the World Bank. Boys attend regional secondary schools. Girls who wish to complete secondary school, however, do so by living with relatives in Sanaa during the school year or by studying at home and only going to the school to take exams. Two of the villages offer Government-sponsored literacy classes accessible to the women in the community. These are attended largely by young girls whose parents did not permit them to complete elementary school.

In three villages, pilot partners included school principals or education directors. In the fourth rural community, the local partners included village leaders, and in the urban class, the pilot worked directly with the Ministry of Education. The class in Sanaa was one of several literacy classes in a newly opened literacy center for women. The other classes in the center offered the Government curriculum.

Initial enrollment ranged from 20-32 students per class. Of these, 98 students were evaluated at the end of the course, yielding a completion rate of 81 %. Student ages ranged from 15 to 70 years, with the majority between 18 and 30 years old. The urban class only accepted students who had no previous literacy experience. Approximately 25 % of the students in the rural classes, however, had some experience with schooling, ranging from a few weeks to a year.

In the following year, SFD added four urban classes (Phase 2). Two of these were held in literacy centers in Sanaa and two in the town of Manakha. The choice of location of Phase 2 classes was determined by existing SFD projects in the same centers. Only students who had no previous formal schooling were accepted in Phase 2 classes. The total initial enrollment was 79 students with a 73 % completion rate.

Teachers and Teacher Training

Teachers of the rural classes were secondary school graduates who lived in the communities. Most of them were in their twenties, but one was 19 years old, and one was 40 years old. 8 The urban class in Phase 1 was taught by the then Director of Illiteracy Eradication and Adult Education for Sanaa. She was the only one of the teachers with a university degree and formal training in pedagogy, and she played an important role in mentoring teachers and helping them resolve problems. In Phase 2, she trained and mentored the teachers but did not teach any of the classes.

Teachers in Phase 1 participated in a five-day intensive training workshop, and three follow-up one-day workshops. Teachers in Phase 2 were trained for only four days with three follow-up workshops.


Although the method and its goals were discussed with community leaders and prospective students to ascertain their approval before classes began, there was some initial resistance to the method from two sources. Members of two of the villages were skeptical that "real learning" could occur through poetry and without textbooks. In one village, young men raided the classroom in the evening, tearing down texts and overturning chairs. The school principal intervened with other community leaders to halt this behavior. Some of the younger students also complained of the lack of textbooks in the early stages. Teachers responded by bringing in written materials, such as calendars and newspapers.

An unexpected source of resistance came from some young rural students who pretended that they did not know any poetry or proverbs. This objection came from two sources. The first included young girls who considered local heritage unsophisticated and old-fashioned. Their models were urban, and they did not think that oral poetry had a place in modern, cosmopolitan society. Women from families of professional musicians also pretended ignorance of poetry. They did not want to be stigmatized as low status "musicians". These problems were resolved in an ingenious way. The urban teacher invited rural students to attend her class. When they arrived, they were met with traditional welcoming verses. They had two choices, they could respond in kind or pretend they could not, a rather shameful position in this society that values oral presentation. They chose to respond with verses that were even more creative than those of their hosts, thus enhancing their social standing and dispensing with the fiction that oral poetry was alien to them. The fact that urban women modeled poetic improvisation removed the "rural" and "low status" stigma of oral poetry for these students.

Evaluation and Results

The pilot was evaluated on several levels. Following guidelines for participatory monitoring and evaluation, teaching methods were continuously adjusted in response to comments made by students, teachers and supervisors. Supervisors visited classes regularly, mentored teachers and tested students' skills acquisition. Teachers evaluated students informally throughout the class, and they also administered formal examinations. In some cases, these exams were more demanding than those given to students in Government-sponsored literacy classes in Yemen. Evaluations of student skills acquisition was based on these exams. This was not planned in the early stages of the project, but teachers and supervisors argued that they needed a formal way to compare the skills acquisition of students in this project with those in other literacy classes. One consequence of this practice was that several of the oldest students refused to attend class when supervisors visited, or when the teachers scheduled an exam. This skewed completion rates as well as skills acquisition rates. 9

In terms of pilot results, three important differences influenced variations in student skills acquisition between Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the pilot:

  • Four of the classes in Phase 1 included students who had some experience with formal education, ranging from a few weeks of class to one year. These formed 25 % of the total. In contrast, none of the students in Phase 2 had any previous experience with formal education.
  • Classes in Phase 1 were held for 9 months with a total of 272 contact hours. In Phase two, classes met for only six months (220 contact hours).
  • Teacher training was shorter in Phase 2 (four days) than in Phase 1 (five days).
  • Still, project results surpassed expectations. In both Phase 1 and Phase 2, most learners could recognize letters of the alphabet, sound out words and take dictation in commonly used words after three months of instruction. In Phase 1, after nine months of

instruction, 36 % of the students tested could read and write new text fluently. Another 38 % could read and write slowly, and 12 % could read but not write new sentences. In other words, 74 % met project goals, and another 12 % could sound out new words.

After six months of instruction in Phase 2, 62.5 % of the students could read new text fluently. Of these 35.5 % could also write well and take dictation. Another 27.1 % were ranked "good." Their reading was described as "fast and accurate" but their writing was slow. Another 13.5 % were ranked "acceptable." Their reading and writing were judged to be slow. A control group of students who had taken two years of a Government literacy class were given the same exam. In the control group, only 25 % were adept at alphabet recognition, 10 % were judged "excellent" at composing sentences and taking dictation, and 20 % could read unfamiliar text. In the control group, 40 % of the students were ranked as "weak" compared to 10 % of the students in the pilot group. In short, the students in the pilot performed better on exams than the control group.

Empowerment indicators were evaluated by teachers and through interviews and focus group discussions with students and members of the pilot communities. Teachers as well as students reported indicators of empowerment. Teachers appreciated the chance to learn and practice new teaching methods, and one exclaimed that she learned to solve problems through her participation in the project. Teachers noted that their students showed improvement in their abilities to ask and respond to questions, and to articulate their opinions about topics discussed in class and events in their lives. Learners reported that they were accorded more respect within their families, and they demonstrated greater interest in their children's schoolwork. Students voted in national elections, and they initiated health interventions in two of the pilot villages.

Students composed poems in response to local and international events, and several younger students experimented with new genres of poetry. Two of the supervisors noted that the creativity inherent in poetry helps students adapt to their changing environments. In terms of lifelong learning, almost all students asked for another year of classroom instruction. The younger students asked for basic education classes, and proceeded to enroll in Government classes where these were available the following year. The older students, however, were interested in continuing learning through oral heritage. Unfortunately, they have not been offered the opportunity to do so.

A valuable result of the pilot with consequences for women's education is that community members who had initially assumed that adult women could not learn to read and write were impressed at the skills acquired by the students in the pilot. The demand for adult women's education increased in all of the pilot communities. Finally, the project is now "owned" by Yemeni nationals. The Social Fund for Development funded and implemented Phase 2 of the project with no help from outside consultants.

Reasons for the Pilot's Success

Why has this pilot been so successful when so many adult education projects fail? I believe that the participatory nature and inherent diversity of the method have been crucial to this pilot's success. These lead to "authentic" literacies (Arrastea 1995; Purcell-Gates 2002) that build on local knowledge. (Street et al. 2006:33) Like Rogers' "embedded" literacies, they teach skills that the learners value. (Rogers 2005) We know that learning is most effective when it builds on the strengths and knowledge base of the learners and when it utilizes material that the learners find interesting. Texts generated by the learners themselves are neither new nor threatening, leaving them free to focus on the task of skills acquisition.

Poetry itself is an excellent pedagogical tool: rhyme renders words and subject content easy to learn and remember, while poetry enhances critical thinking skills. The humor in most oral poetry helps maintain enthusiasm for learning. The use of students' own poems and rhymes affirms their values and their competences without compromising the acquisition of new skills. This was especially important for older students, whose lives and assumptions have been shaken by new media and economic changes (Adra 1996). Rather than feeling foolish at their lack of education, students began class with oral skills valued by the teachers and supervisors. In an environment in which women's voices are especially endangered, poetry provides both traditional and modern alternatives for young women to express themselves and their opinions - the role of poetry in self-expression is traditional, but its use and adaptation is new to young women who had previously considered their heritage old-fashioned.

Recent Developments and Future Hopes

In 2004, this pilot was featured in National Geographic News ( It has been cited in the World Bank's Beijing +10 report (World Bank 2005:21) and recognized as an example of "best practice in women's empowerment" by the Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) in Tunisia. I was invited to present the project at the UNESCO/Qatar Foundation Regional Conference in Support of Global Literacy in the Arab Region (March 2007).

Currently, for reasons not entirely clear, the Yemeni Ministry of Education has not authorized new classes in this method in spite of continuing demand and adequate funding for the project. However, there is no reason not to pilot this method in other countries. In response to teacher and student evaluations, plans to expand this project or pilot it elsewhere would include extending the teacher training workshop to two weeks and adding numeracy skills. This method is appropriate for women and men in any country with an active oral tradition, including most, if not all, Arab countries (including Morocco, Tunisia and Libya), many countries in West and East Africa (Mali and Nigeria come to mind), countries in Central Asia and many countries in Latin America.


Too often, donors and development officers assume that intangible heritage is not easily amenable to development projects. Yet a focus on heritage is not only "politically correct"; it can in fact enhance de velopment. Local heritage is part and parcel of daily life. It provides identity and a voice to even the most impoverished populations. Many societies favor the use of poetry to express anger or dismay because the medium itself is less direct and not as confrontational as other forms of criticism. An appreciation of the skill and beauty of a good poem is more likely to generate another poetic response than it is to provoke violence. Artistic expression also mediates social change. These qualities suggest many ways in which heritage can be incorporated into development projects. Literacy through Poetry provides one example of a successful approach.


Adra, Najwa (In press) The Relevance of OTEs to Development. In Unesco Manual on Safeguarding Oral Traditions and Expressions . Paris. (1996). The 'Other' as Viewer: Reception of Western and Arab Televised Representations in Rural Yemen. In The Construction of the Viewer: Media Ethnography and the Anthropology of Audiences . P. I. Crawford and S. B. Hafsteinsson, editors, pp. 255-269. Højbjerg, Denmark: Intervention Press. [Available as pdf at:] (2004). Literacy Through Poetry: A Pilot Project for Women in the Republic of Yemen. Women's Studies Quarterly , 32(1&2):226-243. [Available as pdf at: http://www.najwaadra. net]

Arrastea, Maritza (1995). Our Stories to Transform Them: A Source of Authentic Literacy. In Immigrant Learners and Their Families . Gail Weinstein-Shr and Elizabeth Quintero, editors, pp. 101-110. ERIC Clearinghouse.

Arrastea, Maritza et al. (1991). Community Literature in the Multi-Cultural Classroom: The Mother's Reading Program. In Literacy as Praxis: Culture, Language, and Pedagogy . Catherine Walsh, editor, pp. 133-155. Norwood, NJ, USA: Ablex Publishing Corp.

Bartlett, Lesley (2005). Dialogue, Knowledge, and Teacher-Student Relations: Freirean Pedagogy in Theory and Practice. Comparative Education Review , 49(3):344-364. Caton, Steven (1990). "Peaks of Yemen I Summon": Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe. Berkeley: University of California Press. Miller, W. Flagg (2007). The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audiocassette Poetry and Culture in Yemen . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Purcell-Gates, Victoria (2002). Authentic Literacy in Class Yields Increase in Literacy Practices. Literacy Update , 11(7):1,9. Rogers, Alan (2005). Embedded Literacies and Productive Skills Training. Adult Education and Development , 65:59-66.

Street, Brian V., Alan Rogers, and Dave Baker (2006). Adult Teachers as Researchers: Ethnographic Approaches to Numeracy and Literacy as Social Practices in South Asia. Convergence , 39(1):31-44.

World Bank (2005). Improving Women's Lives. World Bank Actions Since Beijing. Washington, DC. Zipsane, Henrik (2007). Heritage Learning: Not so Much a Question About the Past as About the Present, Here and Now. Adult Education and Development , 68.

1 My gratitude goes to Alan Rogers for his helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article and his critical discussion of the project.

2 Adra 2004 is a detailed discussion of this project. It includes more contextual information on the changing roles of rural women in Yemen and more information on local uses of poetry than I provide here.

3 When camels were the major form of transport (they were replaced by automobiles in the mid 1970s), camel drivers were known for their haunting songs. Women sang while grinding grain on stone hand mills until diesel-generated mills were introduced, also in the 1970s. Currently, women and men sing songs for family members who are absent on pilgrimage to Mecca. They do this while swinging on hand made swings.

4 According to the Government of the Republic of Yemen, "liberation from illiteracy" is achieved by completing elementary school or its equivalent. This ignores those who can read and write at other levels or who may have attained a level of occupational literacy. Thus, official illiteracy rates may be inflated. Still, the vast majority of adult Yemenis, especially in rural areas, do not read or write.

5 It can be argued that the ability to read religious texts decreases people's vulnerability to the truth claims of radicals.

6 They had developed a similar program in New York in the 1980s. In the Mothers Reading Pro gram, the text was developed through the learners' own discourse (Arrastea 1991; Arrastea et al. 1995). Arrastea and Makloufi trained the teachers and supervisors of Phase 1 of this project. Before conducting the teacher training workshop in Sanaa, they pre-tested the method among Yemeni students in a literacy class in Brooklyn, New York.

7 Lesley Bartlett notes that with some classes that attempted to apply Freirean methodology in Brazil, "popular knowledge was defined in a narrow, limited way as students' experiences" (2005:358). This was not the case in this project in which discussion ranged from local issues to international problems of interest to the students.

8 The forty-year old teacher had received a diploma from a teachers' training program twenty years earlier. She team-taught the class with her daughter, the youngest teacher, who was already very active in her community.

9 According to their teachers' reports, at least some of these students' reading and writing skills were excellent.

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