Alan Rogers

Thirty Suggestions for Promoting Literacy Activities1

During a recent visit to Malawi and Uganda, I had a number of meetings with adult literacy facilitators/instructors in which we developed a list of literacy activi ties which can be done in any adult literacy class or REFLECT circle which will help the literacy learners to engage in exciting literacy activities. It seems useful to make this list available more widely to others. The importance of this list is that all these activities have been done somewhere already, so they are really tested and practical. I am sure others can be added to this list – it may be that DVV will wish to continue to collect such activities from time to time.

All of these activities are intended to be done in small groups, not as individual exercises. Most adults learn co-operatively by asking the help of others, not indi vidually as in most schools. Breaking the class down into groups of twos or threes is the best way to help adults learn literacy.

With all of these activities, there must be extensive discussion; they should not be done mechanically. The aim is to challenge the learners to think about what they are doing, not just to do it (e.g. copying). There should be lots of talk in the adult classroom. Exciting learning is noisy learning – when adults get excited, they talk!!!

Activities Inside the Class

There are a number of activities which I call “potential literacy” – i.e. they are spoken words which can be written down by the facilitator and then learned by the learners.

1. Most of the adult learning groups in both countries, whether functional adult literacy classes or REFLECT circles, sang songs, mainly about the value of literacy and/or development. In one or two places, the facilitator wrote the words of these songs on the blackboard for the learners to read. These songs tend to be written by the organisers of the programme; but the learners can make up additional verses which again can be written by the facilitator/ instructor on the blackboard, copied into the learners’ notebooks and thus the learners can learn to read their own words. Other popular songs from films or TV can also be written down for the learners to read. It is much easier to learn to read a text when you already know what it says.

2. Some of the classes started and finished with prayers – and again the op portunity to write these on the blackboard for the participants to learn can be taken; and again the learners can be invited to make up new prayers which can be written by the facilitator, copied by the learners and then learned. I do want to stress at this stage that I am not talking about choosing separate words from these activities to be learned out of their context. I am talking about writing the whole text, full sentence, speech just as the learners say it.

3. In all the groups I visited, the learners were wearing T-shirts with a logo or slogan written on them. Again these were compiled by the organisers of the programme, not by the learners. It is possible for each group to design their own motto, badge or T-shirt logo using their own words rather than leave this to the organisers (these will of course be written in the language of their choice, not necessarily in English as many of the existing T-shirts are).

4. It is common elsewhere for facilitators get the learners to talk about their life histories. Parts of these are then summarised by the facilitator and copied into the learner’s notebook and the learner reads his/her own words. This is what I call “creative literacy” – the learners make up their own literacy activities, as in some REFLECT circles.

5. Some groups have used local histories of the village – stories from the past concerning their own community and already known to or collected by the learners – to learn to read and write. Again these are first spoken and then written by the instructor and then used for learning literacy.

6. Some groups get the learners to make up stories which are told and used for learning (see box below) – again creative literacy.

Stories: One of the most exciting lessons I have ever attended took place in a coastal village in Tamil Nadu in a programme funded by DANIDA and run by the Bay of Bengal Programme. I planned to spend ten minutes in that circle before moving on to another - but I stopped for two hours. When I arrived, there were small groups all talking excitedly with lots of laughter. The facilitator told me that in their area, it was customary for women to tell each other stories they made up each evening, so she had asked them in four small groups to make up a story - "I simply told them, ‘Imagine you are a fish...'", she said. The participants told their stories out loud: one was about avoiding being eaten by a big fish; another about being nearly caught by some men in a boat with a net; another about a big storm and diving down deep to get into calmer water; the fourth told about the shells and other items they found on the bottom of the sea. Everyone was interested in every other story. As they told their stories, the facilitator wrote lots of key words on the blackboard from each story. I noticed she spread them all over the board, she did not keep the words from one story in one part of the board. At the end of the stories and after discussion, she asked them in their groups to write down into their notebooks only the words from the board which related to their own stories - again there was much discussion about which words belonged to which stories as they were scattered across the blackboard. As she said to me while they were writing, "When they are at home, the words will remind them of their story and their story will remind them of the words". This was true adult literacy learning - using their own words to help them learn literacy. Not moving from simple words to complex words, not breaking words down into syllables, but just learning to read their own words as they spoke them. And they were all keenly interested, indeed excited.

7. In Yemen, the women learners make up and learn to write their own poems.

8. Books of recipes have been compiled by women’s groups, first spoken, later written; they learn the literacy of cooking.

9. In all the classes and circles I visited, there were very small children – who were always seen as a problem. But in Nepal, babies are seen as a learning resource. Mothers with small children are encouraged to keep a baby book in which they write the name, date of birth, weight, height, food, illnesses, etc. of their children and they show these off with great pride. There are many women with infants in other adult literacy classes or circles and they can be encouraged to do the same; this would turn a “problem” of children in the classes into a resource for learning and provide grounds for discussion; it combines health with literacy.

10. Some women bring their children’s school books into the literacy learning circle for others to share.

Literacy in the Community

UNESCO's Global Monitoring Report on Literacy has urged the development of a "literacy environment" as one necessary means of promoting literacy learning. It is widely stated that most of the villages

Adults Learning for Development

in Africa and Asia do not have any literacy in them. But in every village we went into, there were several texts written on the walls or notices put up at various places. My favourite is the statement on the wall of one house: "Before you enter this house, take off your gossip bonnet". We saw others such as "A person cannot be good in the eyes of all the people" (i.e. there will always be some who will perceive you otherwise, no matter how good you may try to be); and a more personal note:

"I would like to inform all those whose fishing nets of any type are no longer helping them to catch fish to come to me and get "chidima" (a concoction or medicine) for catching fish. This is serious, I do have the medicine, please come."

Local texts like these are part of the literacy environment and form a valuable resource for learning both reading and writing; participants can collect such writings and/or make up their own slogan for their own walls or the walls of the learning centre.

11. Some classes or circles have sent the learners out into the community to copy all the written signs on the buildings and then return and learn to read them and discuss them - who wrote them, why, what is their meaning etc. In several villages, we got the learners to map these texts (around the school or clinic, police station or local government offices, or church/mosque ortemple etc), both where they are and where they are not, like a PRA graphic, again leading to much discussion and learning. The learners can then create their own texts, their own signs on their house walls, to help build up the literacy environment. Every learner should have some text on the outside of their house chosen and written by themselves.

12. In Sierra Leone and other countries, the groups sponsored by DVV have collected in spoken and then written form, local proverbs, traditional songs and sayings which are passed on from one generation to another. They can then go on to make up their own proverbs.

13. Many of these and other items have been produced in a small occasional newsletter which the adult literacy group writes and circulates round the village; the organisers can provide resources to duplicate these newsletters.

14. In India, a number of villages put the class blackboard (when it is not being used in class) outside the learning centre under a veranda and use it as a village newspaper, with members of the group (and other villagers) writing up some item of news (the weather, the size of the fish catch, local births or marriages, prices, village meetings or political events, etc,) or a poem every day.

15. In a literacy programme in Pakistan, every learner keeps a literacy corner in their own house in which they keep every bit of reading and writing material they can find such as posters, calendars, pieces of newspaper etc. It soon builds up if the learners collect such items for themselves. And we found them using these items from day to day.

16. Some groups ask each of the learners to keep a written record of what they read at home, especially what they read to their children. In it, they also write what the children read out loud to them. They start off by getting the children to write these lists, but gradually the adults learn to write them themselves.

17. Some groups have a group outing, say to the capital or a nearby large town or some other site of interest – and the group then writes up a report about the visit.1

18. In Bangladesh, some village literacy classes have run a small stationery shop, one member going into town once a month to buy notebooks, pencils, envelopes, stamps, etc, and selling these in the village. The group keeps a record of these transactions.

19. In other groups in Bangladesh, the women are helped to write the literacy associated with the birth of their child (registration), with marriage (every woman is encouraged to get a marriage certificate) and with a funeral. They get the forms and combine to fill them in; they have even at times decided the forms were too complicated and so created their own simpler forms.

20. Some groups write about village ceremonies and the activities of village committees. Or about development activities in their own village to keep a village record of such changes.

21.Religious activities provide many opportunities for reading and some for writing – hymns, prayers, religious texts etc.

22. Many learners write real or imaginary letters to others.

23. Many learners bring into the class or circle real forms, bills or receipts which they have received; they engage in discussion in the group, identifying the real difficulties with these forms for people who have limited literacy skills and experience, and sometimes even rewriting them in simpler language to see what they would look like.

24. Many groups write about health matters in their family or community lives, especially visits to hospitals.

25. Local politics often form the basis for some writing – e.g. getting the women to design a poster about some issue or other, or a petition to the local politi cian.

26. In several classes, the learners are encouraged to go round their localities and to collect local texts which they bring into the class. In India, some have brought film notices; others are using a collection of different calendars, some religious, some secular – they discuss how these are being used in their homes and learn to read and write through such texts. One women’s group learned reading (and writing) through a water pump manual which the village had been provided with along with the pump. Finding similar material in the village or urban area and bringing it into the learning class or circle is part of the role of the facilitator/instructor and the organisers but the learners can also help. It is important for the learners to discuss these rather than just use them as another kind of textbook.

The Class Itself

The Global Literacy Challenge

Mediated literacy: many non-literate persons engage in literacy activities through mediation - getting someone else to read or write for them. This is seen as a disadvantage; it is urged that everybody must learn to read or write for themselves. But mediated learning is the most common form of adult learning; we all ask the help of someone else with our learning. Mediation should be seen as an advantage, a tool for learning. Most adult literacy classes contain people who already have some literacy and numeracy skills apart from the facilitator. These should be used to help others in the class or circle to learn. Not all the teaching should come
from the instructor/facilitator; small groups can learn from each other very effectively.
Such an approach will make even the non-literate person feel good about learning, not feel bad about themselves; it will boost their confidence that they can cope with the learning. And for the participant who is helping the other learner to learn, the best way to learn is by teaching others!

27. In one programme in Pakistan, every learner has to have a friend, a buddy who is not a group member, and the learners teach their buddy what they have learned in the class session. The best way to learn anything is to teach it to others!

28. The literacy learning class itself can provide some occasions for writing - e.g. a written report of each lesson or of the discussions which take place in the
class can be prepared by the whole group or by smaller groups. Non-literate members can speak their words which others can write down; then all can learn to read such words.

29. There is or can be much writing involved in the programme itself. We found a number of written records of the literacy classes such as the register, the facilitator’s lesson book (not every facilitator kept one) and the instructor’s regular reports to the organisers. But all this writing is done by the facilitator, not the literacy learners. Some of this could be done in association with the learners – for example, the regular report to the organisers could be prepared by the whole class, not by the instructor alone. Such reports can be prepared either orally for beginners or in written form by those who have the skills to do so.

30. Many classes/circles engage in a development project as well as literacy learning. Every class project (growing bananas or water melons, tending vegetable gardens or tree nurseries, rearing pigs or poultry, etc) will have literacy activities connected with it (keeping records of planting and fertilisers etc., of pests and diseases, or records of purchases and sales, etc). All these should be done in the class by all the learners, not just by one person, the project secretary.


There are many other writing and reading activities which an imaginative instructor and his/her group can identify in their own local context – political or cultural/ social events, local happenings like a storm etc. These will make the literacy classes or circle meetings much more exciting.

It may be argued that “illiterate” learners cannot do any of this – they must learn literacy before doing literacy. But experience proves that those who are non-literate can engage in all of these activities, orally at first, and that others will write down their words and then the learners can learn to read their own words. It can be done – because it has been done. Illiterate people do engage in both development activities and in literacy activities with the help of others; and if we use this to help them learn, they will be much more motivated.


1 I am grateful to ICEIDA (Icelandic International Development Agency) for their assistance with the research


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