If you had to guess Trinidad and Tobago’s illiteracy rate, where would you put it? High or low?
Well… according to the United Nation’s (UN) 2009 statistics, 98.7% of Trinbagonians 15 years old and older is literate, as is 99.5% of the 15-24 age group. Are you as shocked as I was?
This news was just too good to be true, so I took to Google again for more evidence to support this high number and found a letter to Newsday’s editor, written by CEO of the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA), Paula Lucie-Smith, in April 2010. Scathing in her approach, Smith indicated that the correct figure is in fact 45%, and that although the last scientific survey of T&T’s illiteracy rate was conducted in 1995 by The University of the West Indies (UWI), it was certainly still relevant. Surveys by ALTA and UWI, in 1994 and 1995, respectively, also show that 22-23%, or one out of four persons in Trinidad and Tobago are unable to cope with everyday reading and writing.
Since ALTA’s goal is to help adults become literate, it works very closely with illiterate people, and is intimate with this problem, who do you think is right?
Here’s the killer. According to Lucie-Smith, “Government’s literacy statistics come from equating attendance at primary school with literacy or from census responses to the question ‘Are you literate?’” This, she explained, is how the official, literacy percentages are calculated for world bodies like the U.N. Are they serious?
I have to agree with Smith’s retort: “Do you know any Trini who would say ‘no’ to that question?”
“Do you know any Trini who would say ‘no’ to that question?”
In retrospect, maybe the question isn’t as much ‘wrong’, as it is too basic to truly determine the level of one’s literacy. ALTA describes ‘functionally literate’ as the “ability to read and answer two multiple choice questions and ability to read an instruction and to write a simple sentence in response”. ‘Functionally illiterate’ is the “ability to perform at least one of the tasks” as a functionally literate person, or to “read at least three out of these five words: to, at, love, bet, sun”. An illiterate person is someone who is unable to perform any of these tasks or read at least three out of the five words previously mentioned. So, basically, an illiterate person is unable to read or write English.
According to any of the reputable online dictionaries, literacy is defined as the ability to “read and write”. So I guess if we count the words on a Play-Whe chart or the labels of any alcoholic beverage, then maybe the U.N. isn’t far off the mark. Right? Sarcasm aside, there are everyday examples, which indicate that many of our adults, who also are parents, have trouble reading and writing.
There’s a business sign on Cipero Street, San Fernando that claims to offer “Proffessional” services. The first time I saw this misspelling I chuckled, but now I wonder how aware the sign painter was of his error. It’s not a new sign; so is the storeowner also unaware that professional is spelt with one ‘f’? Perhaps it was an honest typo or was it the craftsmanship of a skilled, yet illiterate, tradesman?
“…if we count the words on a Play-Whe chart or the labels of any alcoholic beverage, then maybe the U.N. isn’t far off the mark.”
This leads me to also believe Lucie-Smith’s claim that many technical training programmes, such as YTEPP, MUST, HYPE, and Servol, as well as NGO programmes, have reached out to ALTA, saying that “trainees’ inadequate literacy skills make them unable to cope with the training provided”.
Illiteracy has devastating implications for a society. Most people are embarrassed that they can’t read or write, and understandably so, and some will choose to be more reactive than proactive, using anger and ridicule to take the focus off the blaring issue. Some illiterate parents may never offer support for their kids to become educated or make it a priority in their household, thus establishing a cycle of poor education, low income and struggle. Illiteracy is a catalyst for a lifetime of crime. How? People who feel pigeonholed and ashamed may find robbery simpler than filling out a job application form. In modern-day society, there aren’t many opportunities for the illiterate, skilled labourer, tradesman, or thief.
Other less devastating scenarios include a tradesman who may get your specs on your cabinetry, house foundation, or car wrong, because he couldn’t read the manual. Think about the people you randomly meet at the ATM who ask for assistance to enter their pin, and withdraw funds too. You or I may help them. Someone else may help them… and take their money.
The more serious implication involves illiterate parents who want better for their children. They want to break the cycle, but need help to support their children’s development. On the other hand, there are those who figure that if they’ve made it through life without an education, so can their child. Ask teachers who work in rural areas. Some children are taken out of school to farm the land.
“The emerging generation is sadly misread.”
The emerging generation is sadly misread. I mean misled – even by literate parents. There are the adults who condone the use of laptops and digital reading aids to teach our youth, rather than promoting the importance of hands-on training – the old school ‘home lessons’ most of us received from our parents, taught after dinner and news. Now, we’re living in the digital age, so obviously kids will use these tools.
However, if the priority in our ‘modern-day society’ is that every child should have a cell phone, and not a library card, the ability of our children to acknowledge the importance in reading an entire book – when most of their daily experiences fit into 100 characters or less – is also questionable. Parents thus have a responsibility to encourage their children to read.
Clearly the solution is to start young. As adults we need to be conscientious of the development of the children in our lives. You can borrow books for your kids until they are ten, and can get a card of their own. Gift your children, nieces and nephews, cousins, and siblings with books filled with vivid pictures or engaging features so their interests are piqued. While some kids will naturally love reading, some will not. Make it a priority in your household to balance play with reading time, even if it’s a magazine. Your child may not understand the benefits of being literate, especially when Wii is ‘sooo’ much more interesting, but we know better.
Helping to decrease literacy demands a mix of prevention and cure. While it might be more challenging for an adult mind to be taught how to read and write rather than a child, who’s more open to learning, it’s not impossible. In 2010, the number of students at ALTA’s has almost doubled, with ALTA having started their academic year with 2,000 students. So this year, they’re looking for more volunteers.
There is an ancient saying, “Only the educated are free”. For the illiterate, every day can feel like living in a foreign country, trapped by their inability to communicate, once the written word is brought into the conversation. Unless we can all read and write, we will continue to see the plight of impoverished parents seeking better for their children, feel the brunt of frustrated convicts, and pass misspelt signs, in a world governed by words.
To find out how you can become a volunteer adult literacy tutor with ALTA, visit http://www.alta-tt.org or call any of the numbers in the ad below.
Check out the rest of this week’s issue (24/01/11; Issue 42):
- Things that Make Employers go WTF!
- Blast from the past: Old ads that make you say “wheey”
- How to get a commitment phobic man to commit
- How it Go Look: Trinis and Taboos
Look out for a new issue of Outlish.com every Monday.