Carmen Campero / Luz María Castro / Carmen Díaz

In February 2007 we had the opportunity to participate in the Writing the Wrongs workshop in Abuja, Nigeria. We discovered the Interna tional Benchmarks for Adult Literacy and saw their potential to pro voke debate and to promote policies and actions that will support sub stantial integrated literacy processes. In this article we give an outline of the situation in Mexico in relation to the Adult Literacy Benchmarks, examining context, statistics and activities. We look at the Margarita Maza de Juárez Literacy and Human Development Programme in the state of Oaxaca, an example of the diversity of government practices in the context of the decentralisation of decision-making. We also look at a number of other literacy policies and practices, in particular those promoted by the Mexican Institute of Adult Education (INEA). Finally, we examine some of the key challenges faced in Mexico and offer some thoughts for the future. Carmen Campero is from the Uni versidad Pedagógica Nacional, Luz María Castro from the Instituto Nacional para la Educación de los Adultos (INEA) and Carmen Díaz from the Programa de Alfabetización y Desarrollo Humano Margarita Maza de Juárez del Estado de Oaxaca.

Mexico: Analysing the International Adult Literacy Benchmarks in Our Context


Literacy Context in Mexico

In Mexico, literacy remains a big challenge, although illiteracy rates have fallen steadily over the past seventy years. The improvement in literacy is clear from census information which shows the reduction from the extremely high levels of the post-revolution period (61.5 % en 1930), and then of the population explosion of the 70s and 80s (when illiteracy rates were 25.8 % and 17.0 % respectively), to arrive at 8.4 % in 2005. However, in this huge multicultural country, that corresponds to 5.7 million people, out of an adult population (15 years and over) of 68.8 million, an absolute figure that barely differs from the 6.4 million illiterates existing in 1980.1

The greatest inequalities are in rural areas, in the indigenous com munities that maintain their cultural and linguistic diversity, and espe cially amongst women: in 2000 62.4 % of the illiterate population were women. About 51 % are in rural areas (communities of under 2,500 in habitants), despite the fact that only 23 % of the population live in these areas; 33.4 % of the native population are illiterate, compared to just 7.6 % of the non-indigenous population, a gap that continues to grow. The states of Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca, which have large indig enous populations and a polarised income distribution, have illiteracy levels over 22 %, bearing witness to the close relationship between illiteracy and poverty.2 The recent 2005 Population Count put the level of illiteracy in the indigenous communities of Guerrero at 47.7 %.

A number of initiatives have been introduced to respond to this situa tion. Mexico is a federal republic divided into 32 states with decentral ised education services. The Mexican Institute for Adult Education (INEA) is the most important federal institute for adult education in the country; this is in part because of the level of funding and learning and assessment methodologies that it provides to the states. In order to promote an effective literacy process, the INEA has been developing the Education for Life and Work Model (MEVyT), a basic education proposal for adults and young people, which has an initial education level that offers more than the traditional literacy processes. In each state, a decentralised institute (IEEA) is in charge of promoting and organising facilities for learners and volunteer educators, which works on a study circles basis with free materials and a parallel system of assessment. Partly thanks to these structures and to the use of vol unteer educators, it is able to attend to over 3 million adults per year in literacy and in primary and secondary education.

Despite this, various states and municipalities resort to financing and organising intensive literacy programmes and campaigns, opting for the use of rapid literacy methods. The success of these programmes is often celebrated in effusive, quantitative terms. In this context of state and municipal decision-taking, seven states and at least five municipalities are currently using the Cuban literacy method, Yo sí puedo.3

In other areas, however, a variety of relevant and focused actions have been developed by civil society organisations in order to analyse and transform the participants' reality using a number of different approaches. These experiences often link literacy to one or more of the following: women's empowerment, savings groups, learning of trades, strengthening of community culture and history, support for school-age children, attention to social and family problems, local government, ethno-tourism and animal health, amongst others.

The Case of Oaxaca

A majority of the population of the Mexican state of Oaxaca suffers from social and economic marginalisation: 59 % live in municipalities with high or very high levels of marginalisation. In the 2000 Census, illiteracy levels were 21.5 %, the third highest in Mexico; 69 % of those who were illiterate were women; 56 % were over the age of 50 and 58 % were indigenous. The 2005 Population Count registered 437,604 illiterates, 19.5 % of the total population.

The state has a huge cultural and linguistic diversity. There are 15 differ ent indigenous groups; dozens of indigenous languages and 137,000 Oaxaqueños are identified as monolingual in an indigenous language. 4 In order to respond to the problem of illiteracy, in April 2005 the state government embarked on a new initiative: the Margarita Maza de Juárez Literacy and Human Development Programme, which used the Yo sí puedo method based on video lessons. This programme received unprecedented levels of funding, in addition to the federal resources, which are regularly channelled through the State Institute for Adult Education (IEEA). The state government has given the IEEA responsibility for coordinating the implementation and development of the programme, and supported the decision to combine the Cuban initiative with the continuing education provided by the MEVyT.

As it was clear to the IEEA that such a large-scale literacy programme could not be undertaken by the Institute and the existing volunteer educators alone, a State Council for Literacy was set up consisting of various educational institutions. The 570 municipalities were also encouraged to set up independent literacy councils, which would become the main promoters, organisers and supporters of the literacy project. Municipal literacy councils were not set up everywhere as hoped; sometimes because of a lack of training, sometimes because priority was given to other public works, and sometimes because the area had a mainly monolingual indigenous population, for which the Cuban method was not appropriate.

The programme has been continually evaluated and this has led to substantial changes in the structure of the IEEA and in educational methodology. In terms of methodology, following the first visits to the study circles, it was decided to incorporate extra study materials for the adults. In addition, a teaching guide was developed for educators, who were also able to make use of materials developed for the MEVyT La Palabra module, supporting a facilitator-based approach to literacy (as opposed to the video-based Yo sí Puedo method). An ongoing evaluation of learning also began, and the participants also took part in the INEA standardised national assessment system.

In mid 2007, in order to get a clearer picture of qualitative results, the IEEA carried out an evaluation of the programme. The process included visits to the study circles, interviews with the educators, observation of learning sessions and a number of other evaluation tests with the learners. Observations brought to light: a) that the Yo sí Puedo method did not take account of the heterogeneity of the study circles and it was difficult to serve the bilingual and monolingual indigenous population with a mass literacy approach designed for Spanish-speakers; b) that in many cases the literacy levels attained were not sustainable and that it was necessary to carry out a series of educator-based activities to ensure that learning took place; and c) that the educator is key to the group process, over and above the video lesson. Also identified were problems linked to the use of physi cal spaces that were inappropriate for literacy sessions based on the use of television; some had no electricity.

In order to strengthen the programme, the IEEA set up a completely new training programme for educators, trainers and coordinators. In 2007, participation in the Diploma on Written Culture organised by CREFAL was incorporated into this programme, as was the seminar "Towards an Integrated Vision of Literacy", organised by the National Pedagogical University for local coordinators and managers, which included a discussion and analysis of the International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy.

Decisions were also taken to establish technical support teams in each of the local offices, incorporating three new subjects: planning, training and monitoring, and to strengthen, through training and awareness raising workshops, the existing areas of assessment and IT. An agree ment was also reached with many educational institutions to provide more adequate spaces for learning. In 2007 a tax was introduced on the services provided by the state government to raise additional funds for literacy, adding to the existing state and federal funding and allow ing the programme to grow and support other related activities. One example of this is the development of the Bilingual Indigenous MEVyT (MIB), intended to provide an appropriate approach and service for the monolingual and bilingual indigenous communities. The INEA and IEEA had already developed materials for initial literacy learning in various indigenous languages and for Spanish as a second language in order to shape the MEVyT initial level for some ethnic groups. Work shops were therefore held to look at areas such as literacy and culture, literacy and language, literacy approaches and indigenous languages and Spanish as a second language.

In Oaxaca a number of NGOs and religious organisations already have considerable experience in this area, carrying out literacy and cultural activities in the indigenous communities. This work is reinforced by the, still limited, production of bilingual publications.

Mexico and the Adult Literacy Benchmarks

A number of clear lessons have been learnt from the many diverse literacy experiences in Mexico, as was seen in the case of Oaxaca. Below, we examine some of the positions, policies and learning de rived from the various Mexican experiences in relation to the Adult Literacy Benchmarks.

Literacy definition and approach (Benchmarks 1, 2 and 9)

The INEA and IEEA concept of literacy is best expressed in the following statement:

"It is not enough to write one's name and sign, people must know what they are signing and be able to decide whether to sign or not."

This educational approach has deep roots in the ideas of personal and citizens' empowerment and finds its expression in the MEVyT, which in practice has had varying degrees of success.

As mentioned, when the MEVyT was scaled up in 2005, the literacy process was expanded to include an initial level that goes beyond the mere acquisition of a code and system of writing and requires a longer and more comprehensive learning effort. For Spanish-speakers there are three modules in this original level;5 for monolingual speakers of an indigenous language,6 five modules are currently being developed. These are rather arbitrary divisions developed in order to give learn ers gradual satisfaction in their achievements through independent assessment processes. Based on their Rules of Operation,7 the INEA and IEEA are also able to incorporate and evaluate learners who are using other literacy methods. However, as over the past 12 years (two presidential terms) the INEA has not promoted the idea of quick-fix literacy or of a specific method, this has generated a vacuum in the public discourse on literacy, encouraging the appearance of a lucra tive market in methods that focus on low cost and rapid results.

The Role of Government (Benchmarks 3, 4 and 10)

In Mexico there has been a constant decrease in illiteracy rates, and there are two main reasons for this. The first is linked to a decisive move by government to guarantee universal primary education for all children, particularly since 1980. The second is linked to government persist ence in supporting a variety of literacy campaigns and processes, and to the creation of the INEA in 1981. This process of institutionalisation was further strengthened 17 years later, with the decentralisation of the activities of the INEA to some of the state governments, an as yet incomplete process which has increased the levels of awareness and participation in the field, albeit with varying results.

A national information system, the Automated System for Monitoring and Assessment (SASA), which aims to collect reliable data on the progress of the adults who enter the INEA programmes, was set up in 1997. The INEA also supports the production and distribution of materials which, because they are attractive and free, have become the beginnings of libraries in people homes. The IEAA facilitates the distribution of materials, the organisation of volunteer educators in study circles, and the parallel system of assessment and certification of learners. One of the results is the existence of a small number of experienced people across the country who understand the subject and are able to propose new approaches and innovations appropriate to the context.

However, the education of adults and young people is not a priority in Mexico compared to the education of children, and this can be clearly seen in the miserly budget, which over the past decade has never reached 1 % of the total education budget. Literacy in particular has not been a priority over the past 12 years; it does not figure in the public policy agenda and was not included in the last two government programmes. This just widens the vacuum that other non-government initiatives began to fill.

For literacy to have a greater impact and be more relevant to personal development, adult educators, the INEA and IEEA have insisted that it should be linked with other social programmes, in particular with the Opportunities programme, which provides social and economic support to five million poor families. However, its reach has been limited because national priorities have focused on the strengthen ing of formal education. Only now do other possibilities of real inter institutional cooperation seem to be opening up, with the launch of the Strategy 100 by 100 programme, intended to cover integrated ac tivities, including literacy, in the municipalities with the lowest human development indicators; 99 % of these municipalities are indigenous, and currently have no appropriate literacy initiatives.

Adult Literacy Educators (Benchmarks 5, 6, 7 and 9)

Adult literacy in Mexico relies on volunteers, totalling 80,000 in 2007.8 They are each assigned to a study circle and work with an average of 10 students at different levels, in a variety of spaces provided by the community. This system developed before the creation of the

Class in Mexico 

Class in Mexico
Source: ActionAid

INEA, because it was cheap and because many adults and young people were unable to attend regular classes or fit within the school calendar. The educator and learners usually agree their own times and ground rules.

Analysis of the best literacy practices of the INEA and the IEEA shows that qualitative achievements depend in large part on the presence and support of these literacy educators, and that even when activities are based on a specific method or on televised instructions, s/he is the main mediator because they are able to understand and resolve the specific needs of each person and are also aware of other cul tural issues. However, even when it has been the policy of the INEA to remunerate educators, the pay is very low and for the past 10 years has been linked to pass rates in the literacy tests. This means that educators tend to rush through the process in order to get paid and that real learning is of secondary importance. For an increasing number of educators this is their sole income.

Over the past three years, additional funds have been made available for training educators, particularly new ones. The task of the adult literacy educators is of fundamental importance and yet they often lack the specific knowledge required to do the job well. Currently a team of specialised trainers is being set up and trained in each of the states in order to prevent a distortion of the training as it cascades down to the educators. In addi tion, two national congresses of educators have been held, as well as a number of state congresses and meetings, in order to exchange experi ences and provide training as well as giving recognition to the educators. It is possible that these measures and the constant revision of financial rewards have influenced the annual turnover of educators, which fell from 50 % in 2004 to 28 % in 2007. Retention rates have also improved, as is evidenced by the increase in the percentage of educators with more than three years' experience, which was 18 % in 2004 and increased to 33 % in 2007. Unemployment levels in Mexico may also be a factor, of course. Given the complexity of literacy work in an indigenous context, fixed pay based on the number of learners, in addition to that based on results, and more paid training were introduced for bilingual educators in 2008.

Multilingual Contexts (Benchmark 8)

This point is particularly relevant for Mexico. There is now a greater awareness that at least a quarter of the illiterate population is indigenous and also that the young illiterate population is in general indigenous and female. Many indigenous people claim to be unable to read or write. Although they use their mother tongue to think, name and understand the world, they rarely express any desire or intention to become literate in it, because they feel that this language has no wider use. On the other hand, although they need Spanish, in the best cases this has been learnt purely at an oral beginner's level. This is because when literacy is taught in Spanish it is not taught as it should be, as a second language, nor is there any consideration of the sheer effort required to learn a foreign language, which for many is barely comprehensible.

Recognising the need to find solutions that are relevant to the par ticular circumstances and cultures, the INEA worked with the IEEA in the states with significant indigenous populations and with NGOs and members of the indigenous communities to design methodolo gies and materials for a bilingual literacy process which combines literacy in the mother tongue, Spanish as a second language and the possibility of studying the whole of basic education in a bilingual programme. The development of learning materials has been carried out within the MEVyT. It is divided into two separate routes, depend ing on whether the learners are bilingual or monolingual. These are the Integrated Bilingual Indigenous MEVyT (MIBI), based in part on the CEPAL experience run in Chiapas, and the Bilingual MEVyT with Spanish as a Second Language (MIBES).

The project has required a great deal of negotiation and lobbying and although the development of programmes for 22 regional eth nic groups / languages began in 2003, the programme for the Maya language was only launched in 2007. Fifteen other languages will be rolled out in 2008, focusing on those that are used in the municipalities with the lowest human development indicators, many of which are in Oaxaca. The results of the Maya language programme in the Yucatan peninsula are still not clear but there is growing learner interest and the programme is progressing cautiously.

Financing (Benchmarks 11 and 12)

Two years ago, based on budgetary details and information from the SASA, it was calculated that each learning module of the MEVyT had a unit cost of about US $ 66. This included the writing, printing and distribution of materials, training, educator pay, assessment and cer tification, spending on technology, including the Plazas Comunitarias (educational facilities that include technical resources such as comput ers with internet access, television and video), and even the costs of cleaning and security. Given that the three modules of Spanish lan guage literacy learning take a little under a year, then the annual cost per learner is approximately US $ 198. If we discount the cost of the Plazas Comunitarias , then this suggests that the annual cost per learner proposed in the benchmarks is accurate. However, if we then look at the proposal that 3 % of the total education budget should be devoted to adult literacy, we get a different picture. The INEA unit cost may look high but the whole system (INEA and IEEAs) receives less than 1 % of the total education budget (0.7 % in 2007) and this money covers not just literacy but also adult primary and secondary education.

The length of initial learning for those who are monolingual in an indigenous language averages 24 months, so it is close to the mini mum length of time suggested by the benchmarks. Evidence that it is indeed possible to have much longer, more substantial programmes, despite the many detractors who suggest that adults do not have the interest to sustain such learning, can be seen in the following results from the MEVyT-INEA. A sample of 80,218 participants in the INEA's La Palabra module in 2004 shows that: 72.2 % (57,921 people) com pleted the initial level (1-2 years); 60.2 % continued to the primary level; 30.5 % (24,471) completed it, and 8.9 % (7,165) went on to complete the secondary level. In December 2007, 11,075 people were still participating in the basic education programme.

We feel that problems often arise when, despite the existence of ex perienced educators and an organisation such as the INEA or IEEAs, the literacy processes promoted and paid for by the state are limited, failing to consider the specific needs of the groups that they are aimed at and the time required. Statistics show that 60 % of those who have completed a short literacy course, irrespective of the method used, return to illiteracy before a year is up, and that only 10 % of those who have participated in literacy processes of less than four months are able to become averagely functional readers and writers.

Activities to Highlight the Importance of the Benchmarks

In addition to the international agreements and policies that Mexico has signed up to, including the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012), the Dakar Millennium Development Goals, and the Ibero-American Literacy and Basic Education Plan for Adults and Young People (2007-2015), the Global Campaign for Education and the position of civil society organisations are particularly relevant. We believe that the benchmarks have brought together key learning from government and non-government experiences and that they will help create a conducive environment for improved decision-making, resource allocation, literacy processes and results. We have therefore carried out a number of literacy diffusion and discussion activities in Mexico using the benchmarks.

Specifically, in 2007:

  • 150 posters of the benchmarks and a number of copies of the "Writing the Wrongs" publication were distributed to State Insti tutes of Education, to the 35 branches of the Universidad Pedagóg ica Nacional (carrying out literacy educator training in Mexico), to the Regional Centre for Adult Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (CREFAL) and to higher education institutes that carry out activities linked to the education of young people and adults in Mexico and Latin America.
  • Presentations on the benchmarks were made at a number of dif ferent events, including: the Ibero-American Forum on Literacy in the Context of Continuing Education (Foro Iberoamérica Siglo XXI-Alfabetización en el Contexto de la Continuidad Educativa); a session of the Andrés Bello Degree Course in Literacy at the Ibero-American University; the 8th National Reunion of the Network for the Education of Young People and Adults ( RED–EPJA ) in October 2007; the Literacy meeting of the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education and a short presentation in the Diploma on Literacy and Written Culture organised by CREFAL in May.
  • An article on the benchmarks was published in the Revista Trans atlántica de Educación (Transatlantic Education Journal), in Sep tember 2007.
  • In the case of Oaxaca, the benchmarks were included in the Semi nar/Workshop "Towards an Integrated View of Literacy", which will be repeated in 2008 with literacy educators working in the field.


Final Considerations

Literacy is key to any advance in people's empowerment and in the social, economic and political development of communities. In order to be successful, literacy programmes, especially mass ones, require levels of organisation, financial resources, pedagogical and operational processes that are much more complex than those often con ceived by government programmes. For this reason the benchmarks are important. They are the result of a consensual process based on real experiences. They identify processes, actors and resources and they propose clear aims, which take into account citizenship, well being, written culture and literate environments.

From the Mexican perspective, the continued existence of almost six mil lion illiterate people, all of whom have a right to education, represents a great challenge. We must reduce the distance between the aims and reality of programmes, using materials appropriate to the context and carrying out evaluations and other relevant activities in order to solve the problems that are identified en route, as in the case of Oaxaca. In the same way it is necessary to prioritise actual and comprehensive learning over numerical aims, if worthwhile investment is desired. To achieve this, it is essential to provide educators with professional development opportunities, including training, support for their work and improved remuneration, as long as the processes are needed. This requires a rethink of the idea of the volunteer as pillar of adult education; whilst recognising the importance of solidarity, history has demonstrated that good will is not enough. It is also impor tant to reinforce the link between literacy programmes, the interests and needs of adults and young people, the contexts in which they develop and other social programmes promoted by governments. All this requires an increase in the financial resources available for this work.

We also feel that it is necessary to look deeper at the problem of multi lingualism at an international level. To what degree does illiteracy persist because the question of linguistic diversity is simply not considered? It would be interesting to research good practice in multilingual contexts in order to construct specific benchmarks on this issue and to promote an evaluation of the real situation of adult illiteracy at an international level from a multilingual perspective. We also need to ask how many lit eracy programmes impose dominant cultures and therefore languages, without considering the languages or dialects in which people think and conceive of their reality, especially in those situations in which the groups are not empowered to express their own interests and needs.


1 Censos de Población y II Conteo 2005. INEGI.
2 Alfabetización en México, José Antonio Carranza y René González Cantú. Editorial Limusa, 2006.

3 Over the past seven years, the Yo sí Puedo method has been used in San Luis Potosí, Nayarit, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Coahuila, Distrito Federal, Chiapas, Tabasco and Quintana Roo, at the initiative of the state governments. It is also used in a number of municipalities in the states of Guerrero, Puebla and Estado de México. Veracruz is also considering introducing the meth odology. It has had varying degrees of success. Whilst Michoacán declared itself to be free of illiteracy in February 2008, after five years of work, others report an increase of only a few hundred literates.
4 Atlas y Catálogo de lenguas indígenas. INALI, 2006 and 2008.

5 The La Palabra modules (based on the generative word methodology) Para empezar and Matemáticas para empezar are used.
6 The following modules are used either in the indigenous language or Spanish: Empiezo a leer y escribir mi lengua, Hablemos español, Leo y escribo en mi lengua, Empiezo a escribir el español and Uso la lengua escrita . The contents and methods vary according to the context.
7 Reglas de Operación para la Atención de la Demanda de Educación para Personas Jóvenes y Adultas con el Modelo Educación para la Vida y el Trabajo 2008. Diario Oficial de la Feder ación.

8 Figures for 2007. SASA, INEA.


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