Literacy Matters (8 Stories)


When Mohammed Yunus launched the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh twenty years ago, ‘experts' thought he was crazy to lend money to the destitute, however small the sun-is. Today, the system of granting microcredit has raised the incomes and expectations of over 8 million people - mainly women - worldwide and led them to appreciate the importance of literacy. It has generated a host of education, work and health projects. So successful has it been in developing countries that its methods have been adopted in deprived areas of Europe and North America.

The Barefoot College grew out of a ground-water survey in and around the village of Tilonia in rural India. Twenty-five years later, Tilonia is self-sufficient in its water and energy requirements and in its wide range of education and development programmes, from solar electronics, health care and goat breeding to community theatre and handicrafts. pre-schools, day schools, night schools and vocational training classes are thriving. Women's Groups are particularly active.

For International Literacy Day, this portfolio offers a selection of learning experiences. Like the Grameen Bank or the Barefoot College - although with a lower profile they reach unreached populations, stay in tune with participants concerns and transform lives at grassroots and street level. Whether they target rural women, urban children or remote indigenous peoples, their common goal is empowerment through education.

Women and girls make up the largest single category of people deprived of full and equal opportunities for education. Two-thirds of the world's illiterates are women, a shamefully high proportion which has been increasing over time. Although they grow 80 per cent of the world's food, their economic contribution remains unacknowledged, as does the need to train them in appropriate technology. Their double burden of field work and domestic chores goes unrecognized.

Literacy continues to occupy a minor role in development policies. But so-called traditional literacy programmes no longer suffice as a tool for effectively transforming learners' lives. International concern to empower women through education - both as a basic human right and as a means to enter the development process - has pointed to the urgent need to take account of women's conditions, needs and aspirations in the learning process. But women are already overburdened. They will not stay in the classroom if they are not convinced that the knowledge will be of some practical use.

Empowerment has been defined as "the ability to direct and control one's own life.' The literacy programmes which impart a feeling of self-worth are the ones that produce lifelong results. Many grassroots organisations base their entire action on this principle. Some of their stories are included in this portfolio, along with stories of individuals and initiatives for youth - another category of learners which causes concern. The importance of paying attention to what is happening on the ground cannot be overstated. Who can predict which community project may become the next Barefoot College or Grameen Bank?

Perhaps you have ideas or experiences to share. Please don't hesitate to communicate them: contributions and views are always welcome in the continuing debate on how best to achieve lifelong learning for all.

Literacy liberates: Saptagram's "survival kit" for Bangladeshi women

Literacy enriches: A higher standard of living for women in rural China

Literacy transforms: A second chance for teenage drop-outs in the Caribbean

Literacy integrates: Bringing indigenous Mexican peoples out of isolation

Literacy motivates: Brazilian workers learn to be heard

Literacy connects: Africans with a story to tell

Literacy awakens: Dakar's children get an education - in the street

Literacy inspires: From former illiterate to English playwright


Literacy liberates: Saptagram's "survival kit" for Bangladeshi women

"We have been told all our lives by our mothers, grandmothers and aunts that our place is at the feet of our husband," says Lily Begum, a Saptagram member. But thanks to Saptagram, the Seven Villages Women's Self-Reliance Movement in Bangladesh, thousands of women now stand at their husbands' side instead.

One of Rokeya Rahman Kabeer's first moves when she founded Saptagram in 1976 was to start adult education classes for landless women. "It completely failed", she recalls over 20 years later. "Women weren't interested. They asked us to teach their children".

What did interest them was gaining access to credit. Of the 125 million people in Bangladesh, 8 0 per cent of them rural, almost 1 00 million live below the poverty line. Landlessness is a growing problem. At 74 per cent, the women's illiteracy rate is among the world's highest. "We could have tied our credit programme to education, making it a rule that only those who attended classes would get credit," recalls Kabeer. "Instead, we waited for women to appreciate the importance of education themselves."

This happened gradually. Women who obtained collective loans to start income-generating activities required basic accounting skills. Others realized the importance of numeracy when they were cheated of their full wages. Today, Saptagram can't keep up with the demand for education among women. At present, 3,500 students are following the curriculum, a fraction of the organization's 22,000-strong membership spread across 900 villages of the Faridpur, Jessore and Kushita districts.

Saptagram starts its awareness-raising work at village women's groups. Trained field staff talk to women., listen to their concerns and win their confidence. This process has hardly changed since the organisation began, although at the time, it upset entrenched local interests.

As women discuss what kind of cooperative economic ventures to engage in, they confront the taboos governing their lives. "We want to make women aware they can do everything men can,"" says Kabeer. Now, instead of tilling land themselves, women are running successful power-tiller businesses in several villages and selling their produce at the local market, traditionally a male sphere. Other women have gained skills in the production of rare, silk from silk-worms, one of Saptagram's top income-generating projects.

Saptagram's literacy programme encourages women to question taboos and act in numbers to defend their rights. Through a booklet of 39 key words and phrases related to health, work-, religions customs, social and political rights and the environment, women learn the letters that make up words and discuss their meaning,. The booklet spells out each word shows its syllabic structure and illustrates it. In one drawing, entitled "Seclusion", a veiled woman is seen walking with her husband and son. This might lead to a discussion around the tradition of "purdah".

One illustration in the 76-page primer entitled "address", shows a postman handing, a letter to a woman. "In Bangladesh, women had no identity," recalls Kabeer. "You could only write to them care of their fathers or husbands. We managed to get society to recognize that these women exist." Besides receiving letters, women learn to write them in class. Advanced classes develop reading and accounting skills. An illustrated book of 15 stories deals with family planning, the importance of registering a marriage and procedures for acquiring land.

Staffed by women at all levels and working within a strict Muslim society, Saptagram has managed to create a sense of solidarity between its members and help them break out of their traditional isolation. "Women in Saptagram groups show courage by maintaining membership despite family and community opposition," states one project evaluation. "They have demanded, and obtained, changes in their social and economic status." But if education for women is one of its top priorities, another is to counteract the conservative religions and political forces which deny their rights. Says Kabeer, "Our programme is a survival kit".

In Our Own Hands: the story of saptagram, a women's self-reliance and education movement in Bangladesh (Innovations series, No 2) is available from the Global Action Programme on Education for All.

UNESCO. 7, place de Fontenoy
Paris 75352 07 SP, France
Tel. : (33 1) 45 68 21 26
Fax: (33 1) 45 68 56


Literacy enriches: A higher standard of living for women in rural China

"Women hold up half the sky", according to a Chinese expression. Thanks to skills learned at a women's award-winning literacy programme, millions of rural women are now self-sufficient, like Ma Xianwei from the deprived province of Yunnan.

Ma Xianwei is a 30-year woman of the Hui ethnic group, one of the 25 minorities living in Xuan Wei County in the mountainous province of Yunnan. Life changed for her five years ago when she decided to attend a training course run by the All China Women's Federation

(ACWF). She now makes 30,000 yuan a year - almost $4,000 - from her half-hectare vineyard, many times the income of the average family in the county (about 600 yuan, or $75). "I was scared to death at the mere thought of going into a classroom when the ACWF officials persuaded me to sign up," recalls Ma Xian wei. "I was worried that no-one would look after the family if I attended the class. Besides, I was illiterate."

The Skills-based Literacy programme for women that Ma Xian wei attended was launched in 1990, and is run by the Yunnan Education Commission, UNESCO,'LTNDP, the Ford Foundation and especially the ACWF, which was awarded the King Sejong Literacy Prize by UNESCO in 1995 for its work in teaching over 20 million rural Chinese women to read and write since 1989.

Xuan Wei county is a poor region where 66 per cent of illiterates are women. To persuade them to attend courses, which last between 15 and 30 days, the ACWF conducts door-to-door campaigns, organizes teams to ensure that women come to class regularly, publicizes its activities in the local media, distributes leaflet s and plasters the walls in the villages with newspapers.

So far 36,000 women from Xuan Wei county have learned to read, write and calculate thanks to the course, and the female illiteracy rate has fallen by 29% compared with the average for the province. More than 300 technical training courses in 70 subjects have taught new skills to 275,000 women. From training in farming skills - growing mushrooms, cereals and tobacco, tending fruit trees, making tofu or breeding chicken and quail - to embroidery and small business management, and over 85 per cent of the women in the county have taken classes by now, and over 1,000 of them are earning at least 10, 000 yuan a year. The women rarely relapse into illiteracy, according, to programme director Wang Rongxu, as even in the most remote villages they are exposed to the written word in the form of posters and newspapers plastered on the walls.

Ma Xian wei decided to attend with eight other women from her village, while continuing to work in the fields and the home. As classes are held in the evenings, women Who have to walk long distances are escorted home by guards from the community to ensure their safety. At the classes, women of all ages sit around hurricane lamps, learning 1,500 Chinese characters - the minimum number required to be considered literate. Vivid pictures are used as visual aids. The local authorities design and produce learning materials geared to local conditions which also present a positive image of women. Besides reading, writing and arithmetic, the course includes basic craft skills. Practical farm work is done on experimental farms, supervised by specialists from the agricultural and livestock departments. This was how Ma Xian wei learned to grow grapes.

There has been a palpable effect on the villagers' standard of living and on the county's economy. Pig-breeders (pork is a cheap and popular meat in China) have increased production by over 30 per cent. Maize crops have increased and sanitary conditions have improved. Many families are using stoves which use less energy but retain more heat, reducing indoor air pollution. Above all, the women have gained self-confidence. In Xuan Wei county and in poor provinces all over north-west and south-west China, the clouds are clearing from half the sky.

Adapted from UNESCO Sources. For more information. contact: the Literacy and Non-formal Education Section, Division of Basic Education, 
UNESCO, 75352 Paris 07 SP. France, 
Tel: (33-1) 45 68 Il 32,
Fax: (33-1) 45 68 56 26/27,


Literacy transforms: A second chance for teenage drop-outs in the Caribbean

cast out -of the formal system and in danger of opting for a life of drugs and crime, the 5,000 teenage drop-outs who pass through Servol's 40 Life Centres in the Caribbean each year get a new, start in life.

"Respectful intervention in the lives of others" is how Sister Ruth Montrichard, Executive Director of Servol (Service Volunteered for All) describes its successful community-based programmes in the Caribbean. Servol's mission, which targets both ends of the education spectrum, is preventive and remedial at the same time. The 4,500 preschoolers who attend its 148 Early Childhood Centres each year are prepared for primary school. The 5,000 teenage drop-outs who pass through Servol's 40 Life Centres annually are given a new start in life through personal development, literacy and skills training and work experience. To date, 42,000 16-19 year-olds of both sexes have grabbed this lifeline.

The 15-month programme is divided into four stages. An adolescent development programme is specially designed to reverse negative conditioning in the teenagers' lives that can so often degenerate into violence. An adolescent parent programme based in nurseries and early childhood centres exposes teenage parents to childcare skills in the hope that they will not repeat -their own parents' mistakes. A skills training programme involves learning a marketable, skill through on-the-job experience. A computer programme in one of Servol’s three Hi-Tech centres prepares trainees to cope with a technological environment. Lastly, Servol helps the newly-trained adolescents to find jobs or become self-employed through a loan to buy equipment or set up a small entreprise.

Servol first defined its programmes in 1970, following a period of social unrest in the country, by listening to marginalized communities in the slums of Laventville in Trinidad and Tobago and tailoring its programmes to meet the needs they expressed. In 1986, at the request of the government, the organisation extended its programmes throughout the country. On one condition: according to Sister Ruth, "Each centre would have to be run by the communities in question.

This has remained the founding principle of Servol's 188 centres in Trinidad and Tobago, all of which are managed by a Village Board of Education. "Communities ask for the projects, maintain buildings for them, organize themselves into boards to supervise them, choose teachers for training, collect school fees and volunteer time to help with the project," explains Sister Ruth. The board pays instructors' salaries through a government grant passed on by Servol. Community-based and early childhood education were recognised as part of the education s stem in 1992, when the organisation took part in a national task force on education.

Servol also trains paraprofessionals to go from village to village educating parents. They discuss the child's emotional needs, nutrition and hygiene, and how harsh discipline or neglect harms children. Teenage parents have been particularly responsive. In most preschools teachers noted that higher parental awareness produced results such as improved cleanliness, punctuality and attendance in the children and more nutritious food in their lunchboxes.

Besides administering its 188 centres in Trinidad and Tobago, Servol monitors an equal number in 15 other Caribbean territories. All of its programmes aim to allow people to take charge of their lives in a creative way. Servol believes that empowerment which begins from the bottom and filters up to the top is a most effective tool in the building of a nation. "We do not view the lack of money as being the most debilitating thing about people who are steeped in poverty," says Sister Ruth. "Far more pernicious is the sense of powerlessness which afflicts the poor and which renders it virtually impossible to climb -out of the pit of poverty.

On the Right Track.- Servol's early childhood and adolescent development programmes (Innovations series.No. 5) is available from the Global Action Programme on Education for All,

UNESCO. 7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 07 SP, France.
Tel: (33 1) 45 68 21 26,
Fax: (33 1) 45 68 56 29


Literacy integrates: Bringing indigenous Mexican peoples out of isolation

Through activities such as improving, farming methods and learning About communication and broadcasting, Mexico's Mixe Indians are emerging from centuries of isolation.They are also developing the first-ever alphabet of the Mixe language.

"Always begin with the practical details of what people know, live and feel, the different situations they confront, and then add to it," explains Sofia Robles Hernandez, Secretary-General of the Services for the Mixe Community (SER), a non-governmental organization which is bringing Mexico's Mixe Indians out of their cultural and economic isolation.

More than 91,000 people live in the Mixe region in Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca.This rugged, isolated zone comprises 140 communities, but less than half are accessible by road. Illiteracy is high, child malnutrition common and economic opportunities non-existent.

For almost two decades SER has worked at raising the educational levels of Mixe adults. Its projects range from increasing agricultural production to communication and broadcasting. The geography of the region and the lifestyle of its inhabitants make any change to the situation difficult, so all activities follow the rhythm of community life and take a bottom-up approach: the communities decide what they need to know, how it can be taught and how quickly.

We have basically adapted strategies that meet the survival needs of the Mixe population," says Robles. The focus is on encouraging discussion and analysis of common problems and searching for realistic alternatives. This is done through community assemblies SER's main educational tool.

"The advantage of an assembly is that everyone can express an opinion whether or not the v can read or write, " explains Robles. "Nevertheless, they are exposed to literacy because the assembly incorporates exercises using written letters or drawings."

Using the assemblies, SER launched a series of "Weeks of Mixe Life and Language" to promote the reading and writing of Mixe. This is one of the pillars of its programme. Although linguists lent their expertise, work on developing, a Mixe alphabet w as done essentially by the people themselves. The process is long and difficult as the language has several variants. "We have not achieved a unified alphabet yet," says Robles, "but practice will help us choose which one to adopt. We believe that everything is a process. We debate the merits of different writing systems and submit them to the communities. In this way, we are defending the social character and preparation of the alphabet as much as its use."

Holding the "Weeks" in different communities allows more people to participate, says Robles, "and lets us organize groups of different levels. Within a few weeks, the advanced learners are teaching the beginners." Mathematics are incorporated in these gatherings, along with Mixe culture. "In each community we ask elderly men and women to share the history of the area or a reclonal legend they may know," Robles points out.

Thanks to training in legal affairs. marginalized people can defend themselves. The assemblies discuss the articles of the Communal Statute in their own language. "This is vital if we are to protect our communal lands", says Robles. "This type of training is important as many communities are alienated from what happens on the national level. The information provided by the press and radio does not reach our community, or if it does is not completely understood." Recent assemblies have covered indigenous law and the rights of indigenous populations to community, culture and land. Anthropological literacy and linguistic subjects are also included. "We are not training people to supply institutions," concludes Robles. "We are aiming to train critical and creative people who can reflect together on their everyday problems."

Adapted from UNESCO Sources


Literacy motivates: Brazilian workers learn to be heard

Workers who attended evening classes at construction sites in the city of Joao Pessoa learned how to read, write - and stand up for their rights.

Many of Brazil's construction workers come from the state of Paraiba, where over half the population is illiterate. These workers drift into cities where they work long, exhausting hours, and their employers often show little concern for the workers' personal well-being.

Recognizing that literate workers can better articulate their needs and rights, the construction workers' union in the city of Joao Pessoa and the Federal University of Paraiba established "workers' schools" at construction sites throughout the city in 1991. University lecturers and students gave classes in subjects ranging from basic literacy to science.

Despite physical fatigue and the need to work overtime, workers attended after-work classes from Monday to Thursday. As turnover was high. the make-up of the classes was constantly changing. Nevertheless, results were seen in regular attendance by worker-students at union meetings and greater willingness to stand up for their rights in the workplace.

Unlike many literacy campaigns, the programme in Joao Pessoa was an urban and local effort. The workers' schools succeeded with minimal state funding, but without support from the central government nor nationwide voluntary mobilization. The success of the union and the university team in mobilizing the frequently neglected population of manual labourers shows that determination is a crucial factor in the success of adult literacy efforts.

Adapted from Adult Education in a Polarizing WorId: Status and Trends, UNESCO, 1997,
available from the Secretariat of the International Consultative Forum on Education for All.
UNESCO, 7, Place de Fontenoy, 75352 07 SP. France.
Tel: (33 1) 45 68 21 28,
Fax: (33 1) 45-68 56 29


Literacy connects: Africans with a story to tell

The trauma of child marriage, the burden of fetching water and the exploitation of child domestic servants have recently inspired popular storybooks and radio programmes. Created by Africans for Africans, they raise awareness and discuss solutions.

The lives of millions of African women revolve around fetching water and fuel, cooking, cleaning, looking after the young and the old and working long hours in the field. A man helping his wife do "women's work" is likely to be ridiculed by his peers as someone who "lets his wife sit on his head."

Literacy programmes can only succeed if they tackle these issues head-on. as did 25 literacy workers and radio producers from English-speaking Africa at a workshop in Tanzania in 1997, organized by the DANIDA-UNESCO Special Project for Women and Girls in Africa. From the stories they shared, the group produced illustrated manuscripts - simple tales. full of anecdotes and humour - and an equal number of radio programmes, to help people explore issues close to their lives.

Priscilla Nyingi, from Kenya, relived a childhood experience. She still remembers her fear of the beating she would get when, on the way home from fetching water, her jar tipped over and all of it spilled. She was only five. "Mama, I'm so tired," wails the child in Priscilla's tale, And the Women Had A Break. "This jar is too heavy. Why do I have to carry it all the time? 1 should be carried instead!" The story not only highlights the burden water-carrying represents for women and girls, but also describes a solution Priscilla discovered during a field visit to a nearby community, which shared the cost of a mule to carry water for everyone.

Amy Joof, from Gambia, chose to write about child marriage, an issue which made some people uncomfortable despite its proven harmful physical and psychological effects on young girls. Tackling the taboo head-on. Amy announced, "I was a victim of child marriage myself This is a true story." Amy's parents had forced her to marry a rich cousin for the benefits it would bring to the family. After years of misery, she left him to live an independent life, eventually remarrying a man of her choosing. Her colleagues had no further questions.

Another story addressed the exploitation of child domestic servants through the character of Yaba, who follows other village girls into the city to work as a servant. She lives in fear that her male boss will abuse her and his wife will refuse to pay her properly. Yaba suffers verbal abuse, has a huge workload and is always tired. There are no ready-made answers to dilemmas such as Yaba’s, but perhaps the stories will help communities to find their own solutions, as well as providing neo-literates with much-needed reading materials.

Following the work-shop, participants returned to their countries with the stories in manuscript form. They are currently being tested and adapted before being published in the form of illustrated booklets and distributed to learning centres.

To complement the stories, the work-shop prepared and recorded ten radio programmes on the same issues, but using different formats: documentaries, interviews or radio plays. The Tanzanian participants, led by radio producer Maria Shaaba, produced a radio play about child domestic servants. Called Organize, Don't Agonize, it made a great impact when broadcast on Radio Tanzania. Other countries, including South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania have broadcast the programmes with encouraging results. Requests poured in for more, along with suggestions for subject matter.

Radio and literacy materials make an excellent match, as several projects have shown. Ten similar stories and radio programmes for French-speaking Africa have since emerged from a similar workshop in Côte d'Ivoire in late 1997. Radio producers and literacy workers are waking up to the fact that they share the same audience - Africans who can't have enough of stories about people like themselves.

Namtip Aksornkool. For more information, contact: the Literacy and Non-formal Education Section, Division of Basic Education,
UNESCO, 75352 Paris 07 SP. France,
Tel: (33-1= 45 68 Il 32,
Fax: (33-1) 45 68 56 26/27,


Literacy awakens: Dakar’s children get an education - in the street

Orphans, street children or Koranic students are all welcome at Amouyacar Mbave's street school in the rue Tolbiac in Dakar. And when evening comes, it's the adults' turn.

"Street school for children" announces a bill-board on an electricity pylon. A few metres away, children are sitting on benches spread out in the middle of the pavement, carefully reading out a sentence their teacher has just written out in beautiful rounded writing. A blackboard with the day's lesson is hung up on a blank piece of wall next to a shop.

In rue Tolbiac, ten minutes away from Dakar's business and ministerial district, pupils from the four "classes" of Amouyacar Mbaye's school sit surrounded by the noise of the street, the elements and dust. with their backs turned to the incessant flow of cars. They try to ignore the weather-beaten taxis and buses hooting, the people coming and going, the smell of kebabs. "We even have classes when it's raining" explains Amouyacar Mbaye, founder and head of the school. Unfortunately lie can only provide a makeshift tarpaulin shelter for his pupils in bad weather. The police turn a blind eye to this unauthorized occupation of rue Tolbiac, as it means fewer young people hanging around on the streets.

In 1983, Mbaye, a former sailor and farmer, first thought of creating a school for poor, out-of-school children. Having first set up a school in a suburb of Dakar - of which three former pupils are now at university - lie moved to rue Tolbiac in 1990. The street borders the last slum in central Dakar. For Mbaye, teaching is a vocation. Without any higher education or even teaching qualifications, but driven by a burning desire to make knowledge available to the poor, he has turned himself into a crusader for education, making up for the gaps in a schooling system which cannot provide education for all.

"In the formal system, many pupils don't even know how to write a letter when they leave primary school Mbaye declares. "Before I was able to benefit from public teaching I had eight years of Koranic school. I knew all the verses by heart but I couldn't read or write Arabic." Mbaye believes in accepting everyone, whether they go to school or not.

During the school year of 1996-97, 150 children and young adults went to the rue Tolbiac school under the guidance of Mbaye and six volunteers. unemployed graduates. The school covers the six years of the primary education cycle. From 5 to 7.30 pm it also caters for children registered at the five public establishments in the area. Then, in the dim light provided by a few electric bulbs, between 8 and 10 pm, it's the adult’s turn, when maids, mechanics, shoe-cleaners and street-sellers come to learn how to read and write. Mbaye's school produces measurable results: he points out that he put twelve pupils forward for primary school certificates in 1997.

Until 1994, the school functioned on a purely voluntary bases. But with the severe decline in living conditions that followed the devaluation of the CFA franc, the volunteers could not ensure their own survival and continue teaching too. Furthermore, adult learners began asking for extra benches and proper lighting during teaching sessions. The school, accordingly, now asks for a modest, income-related fee of each pupil. This covers the electricity bill, pays for chalk, and provides a breakfast for the learners. But the fees just about cover running costs. The six facilitators share a monthly payment of 60,000 CFA which covers their travel expenses. This is allocated by the international non-governmental organisation Enda (Environmental Development Action in the Third World), as part of its support to "peoples' training initiatives" and other street comer schools flourishing in Dakar. What of the future? For Amouyacar Mbaye, this kind of initiative must be replicated wherever necessary. As for his own school, despite several articles in the press, people have not been rushing to help him. There is some hope that a space - a real one - might be granted him during the upgrading of a neighbouring slum.

Working and Inventing on the Streets of Africa (Innovations for youth. No 1) is available from the Global Action Programme on Education for All.
UNESCO, 7. Place de Fontenoy, 75352 07 SP, France
Tel: (33 1) 45 68 21 26,
Fax: (33 1) 45 68 56 29


Literacy inspires: From former illiterate to English playwright

For 38 years, Sue Torr hid the fact that she was illiterate in a literate society. When she finally learned to read and write she wrote a play called Shout it out. The subject? Illiteracy. She now runs a learning project in Plymouth, England.

"I was brilliant at games at school, but when it came to reading a book or writing things down, I just didn't bother, " explains Sue Torr. "I didn't want to bother the teacher. 1 left at the age of 15, unable to read-and write." Embarrassed, Sue kept her illiteracy a secret, even from her husband, a sailor, all through their 16-year marriage. "At first, he used to write me letters. When he was on leave, he'd ask, 'Why don't you ever write to me' I'd give him some excuse. I didn't want him to think I was a dunce," she recalls.

"One night my mother-in-law said, 'Sue, what's on TV tonight? Could you just have a look in the newspaper? I picked it up and pretended to look. 'There's nothing much on,' I said. 'What's on the second channel?' she persisted. 'Just a load of rubbish,' 1 said. In the end, 1 left the room and ran upstairs.

According to a 1996 study by the UK-based Basic Skills Agency, 19 per cent of 37 year-olds have low or very low literacy and 23 per cent have low numeracy. Sue sums up the feeling: "You live in fear. You've got a twinge in your stomach every time reading is mentioned." Finally, Sue admitted her secret. "I was with a bunch of children. They were going through a book and knew all the words. One child asked me to help her and I sat there struggling with it. This little girl said, 'You can't read that word, can you Miss? I said, 'No, 1 can't.' She said, 'But you're old. Why can't you read?' 1 felt terrible.'

Sue signed up for adult literacy classes and attended them for the next three years. Then came the turning point. One day, her teacher asked her to write down a list of what you could and couldn't do if you were illiterate. "I just kept writing and writing," remembers Sue. "My teacher understood my writing and took it home to type it out." She then took the typed manuscript to a local writers' group. With their help, it became her first play. Shout It Out was performed at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, and on local radio. It won a Sony Radio Award. She then raised $3 5,000 to produce a video version of Shout It Out. That won a Royal Television Society Award in 1997.

Now aged 44, Sue has left her former job serving school lunches. She has her own office from which she runs the Shout It Out learning project. She tours schools and colleges with a one-woman-show about adult literacy, visits writers' clubs and runs a scheme to encourage children to read. She has collected numerous prizes for her work and was recently made Member of the British Empire. "I've given talks on adult literacy in universities, to students and lecturers," she remarks. "I had a letter from Reader's Digest asking me to go up to London to give a talk. So 1 did. They wanted to know what it was like learning to read at a late age."

Sue has written two more plays. The Playground. based on her experience working in school canteens, was performed at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. Her latest play is called The Pub. But these days, the Shout It Out learning project takes up most of her time. The project has developed links with Plymouth College of Further Education and the University College of St Mark and St John.

Sue is determined to draw attention to the difficulties faced by illiterates in a literate Society. "I know that there are thousands of people out there who are struggling. I want people to point to me and say, 'That's her who couldn't read"' she says. She herself still attends literacy classes. Although these days she is a playwright, she claims that there is still room for improvement in her reading and writing.

Adapted from an article by Martin Whittaker in the Times Educational Supplement
To obtain copies of the video version of Shout It Out,
telephone (00 44) 01752 607277


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