Out-of-School-Youths: Basic Literacy and Life Skills Development

Country Profile: Marshall Islands

Population

62 000 (2005 estimate)

Official Languages

English, Marshallese

Total Expenditure on Education as % of GNP

9.5

Sources

Programme Overview

Programme TitleOut-of-School-Youths: Basic Literacy and Life Skills Development
Implementing OrganizationNational Training Council (NTC); RMI-University of the South Pacific Center (RMI/USP)

Context

The average age of the population of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is relatively low. A young vibrant population can be seen as an asset, particularly for a small economy. However, an exponential increase in out-of-school youths around the country and especially on the streets of Majuro city is a major cause for concern.

Many people have a misleading impression of the abilities and capacities of “out-of-school youths” or “drop-outs”. It is generally assumed that this group needs to re-do and re-learn the most basic literacy skills. Hence, it is marginalised and ostracised. In fact, out-of-school youths do have some experience of learning within the formal system. Moreover, many of them have gained rich learning experiences from their environment and culture. Thus, basic literacy does not necessarily mean teaching literacy in its most basic forms. However, the acquired skills and knowledge need to be recognised, tapped into and enhanced. Out-of-school youths may have failed to complete their education in the formal system due to various reasons, such as socio-economic or health issues, urbanisation, stigmatisation, teacher/teaching factors or curriculum problems.

A number of organisations are engaged in concerted efforts to curb these problems. The government is also fully aware that these young people represent the future of RMI and has thus contracted the National Training Council (NTC) to work on the development of out-of-school youths’ skills and potential through various training opportunities that will help them to find jobs and thus secure better conditions for their future lives.

Programme

The NTC’s mandate is hampered by the youths’ low literacy levels and absence of life skills. Together with the RMI-University of the South Pacific Center (RMI/USP), NTC developed a six-month basic literacy and life skills course for out-of-school youths. The Basic Education and Life Skills (BELS) class began in February 2008 and ended in July 2008. The class was initially attended by 25 students and was run by a literacy specialist from the USP’s Institute of Education (IOE).

Objectives

Basic literacy for out-of-school youths involves the acquisition of the basic skills needed to cope with our complex and technological world, including IT and computer skills. Developing the literacy skills of out-of-school youths is a complex process, which involves enhancing the knowledge and capacities that they have gained over the years and providing them with access to challenging learning opportunities.

The Basic English literacy class aimed to help learners use language in an appropriate and grammatically correct way. Basic English literacy is also considered as a means of widening the experiences of learners and allowing them to communicate effectively in everyday life as well as in their future lives as responsible citizens and professionals. Woven into this framework is the development of critical thinking skills. Thinking critically means grasping the complexity of the world and questioning how others think in order to clarify and improve one’s own understanding. These objectives are fundamentally different from that of acquiring basic literacy skills only.

The curriculum included a wide range of issues and texts relevant to the learners’ lives. The languages and thoughts of the various authors of the materials used in the course were utilised in a way that helped the students to develop:

Approach and methods

A multidisciplinary approach was used to enable sustainable learning by identifying and enhancing the young adults’ repertoire of knowledge and skills. The learner-centred approach furthermore adheres to the holistic principle of developing critical thinking, literacy, language and life skills and allowing learners to communicate freely. The following development strategies were utilised:

In each case, interactions and comments on the ideas, concepts and language contained in the learning materials f were recognised, highly valued and encouraged.

English played a fundamental role in the course. Learners were taught using a multi-syllabus strategy that focused on situational skills, specific tasks, functional notions and grammatical structures. The aim was to prevent students from learning out of context or by rote. The concept as a whole aimed to enable students to read and learn from texts such as the Marshall Islands Journal (MIJ). Journal articles are used in the course because they not only report on current issues but also tap into the different uses of language, critical thinking skills, vocabulary and grammar. Other texts (genres) such as poems and stories were also used to enrich the students’ knowledge of language and the ways in which it is used.

Hence, the approach combined the language and thinking skills that students brought with them with those they learned during the course. This in turn enhanced and accelerated the development of the aforementioned skills as well as students’ overall reading and writing abilities.

Programme Implementation

The programme’s target groups were out-of-school youths aged between 17 and 23 whose mother tongue was Marshallese. In terms of their initial level of education, most were 9th to 11th grade drop-outs. As most of the learners wanted to participate in a Job Corp training programme in Hawaii, they were easily motivated to enrol in the course. Hence, their attitude to learning was relatively enthusiastic.

The course involved four hours of classes per day. Literacy resource materials, such as writing materials and books, were supplied. March classes were held at the RMI/USP institute; hence learners could access the facilities and classrooms offered by the RMI-USP Project and the RMI-USP Centre. In April, students were split into two groups according to their test results. About ten students attended morning classes for more direct, one-to-one interaction. The remaining fifteen students attended afternoon classes at the RMI/USP institute. The two groups were merged again in May. However, when USP exams began in June, the students had to be relocated to the USP Centre and remained there until the end of the course.

Achievements

The emphasis on the development of thinking skills succeeded in increasing students’ vocabulary and understanding of grammar. They had the opportunity to sit the RMI-GED tests (Republic of the Marshall Island General Education Diploma) as well as the US-GED exams (United States of America General Education Diploma). Of the nine students who could afford the fees and enrolled in the test, five passed the RMI-GED exam. The results of the US-GED test are not yet available.

Evaluation and Monitoring

A total of seven tests were held during the course to evaluate students’ attendance, group participation, pair work and individual work. Students were also asked to keep a daily journal as part of the ongoing assessment procedure.

Challenges and Solutions

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One of the project’s major constraints was the lack of a permanent classroom where all equipment and materials could be stored and made accessible to all students at all times. A further problem was the drop-out-rate. After ten weeks, ten students – i.e. almost the half of the students who had originally enrolled in the course – left without giving a reason for their departure. After a call for replacements, 25 applicants had to be turned away because of a lack of space in the classrooms. At the end of June, many students left for the summer break, thus reducing the total number of participants to 20. It is possible that the timeframe would suit students better were it to be adapted to fit into the national school year calendar. Furthermore, a number of students were unable to afford the cost of transportation and food. Hence, there is an urgent need to find a new source of funding and eliminate this financial barrier. Another challenge was a permanent gender imbalance in favour of boys, even though a number of efforts had been made to encourage female students to participate in the course. Widespread research is needed to resolve this gender imbalance.

Lessons Learned

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It has been proven that out-of-school youths possess a broad repertoire of knowledge and skills that simply needs to be recognised, tapped into and enhanced in order for their abilities to be improved considerably in a very short time.

Although schools and learning institutions clearly neglect the development of critical thinking, there is much evidence to show that students’ reading and writing abilities are linked to their ability to question facts and information.

Working with out-of-school youth has shown that the quality of teaching/teachers and the curriculum are major factors leading to school ‘drop-outs’. There is a need to place a greater emphasis on quality as the cornerstone of all forms of educational development.

Contact

Sereima Lumelume
The University of the South Pacific
Institute of Education
E-mail:sere1mar (at) yahoo.com