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Local Action for Literacy

by Clinton Robinson. Literacy is certainly not a matter of ‘just teaching someone to read’! The first essential is to have a written language. There are still many unwritten languages around the world, so if yours is one of these there is still hope - but a great deal more work will be involved to reach this essential first step.

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From: Literacy – Footsteps 16

How to increase the desire for literacy and develop literacy at community level

by Clinton Robinson.

Literacy is certainly not a matter of ‘just teaching someone to read’! The first essential is to have a written language. There are still many unwritten languages around the world, so if yours is one of these there is still hope - but a great deal more work will be involved to reach this essential first step.

Literacy always seems a good idea to an outsider who can read. It is tempting to set up campaigns to provide literacy for other people. However, literacy will only last if a community wants to read and write and if they take responsibility for spreading literacy themselves. A community must be mobilised for literacy.

We faced this problem in a small community in Cameroon where they speak a minority language. How was literacy to become valued? How could literacy be spread throughout the area? Part of the answer lay in forming a local committee to encourage literacy.

Why form a local committee?

Every community is different. The way literacy will be organised will be different too - depending on the local language, development projects and particular needs, such as women’s education. A local committee can discuss the best ways to meet these needs and decide their priorities. Above all, when local people take responsibility for literacy work, the programme is theirs - they have an interest in its success.

Who is part of a local committee?

A literacy committee must represent the whole community. It is important that no-one feels left out; the different groups in the community need to feel they are represented by at least one of the committee members. So in many places a committee will have members representing some or all of the following groups...

  • men and women
  • youth, adults, the elderly
  • different villages or village groupings
  • the various churches and denominations
  • development agencies: co-operatives, village development associations, the local government administration.

A committee may also need a technical adviser at the start, helping for example with producing materials or finalising the written form of the language. The local language should be used wherever possible, even if that means getting more help.

There will often be two kinds of committee members: honorary and working. The honorary members are those who sit on the committee because of their status or role in the area: chiefs, religious leaders, the mayor etc. They give credibility to the committee and can be a big help in promoting the vision of literacy. Working members are those who are actively involved in the literacy process, such as supervisors, teachers and writers. Both kinds of members are necessary if literacy is to spread effectively.

What does a local committee do?

Their most important role is to encourage and supervise the progress of literacy work. Plans must be agreed, decisions made, new materials developed and finances supervised. Here are some of the questions which committees regularly deal with...


  • What use will people make of reading and writing?
  • What groups need literacy most?
  • How many teachers do we need?
  • How will they be trained?
  • When should classes start?
  • How long will instruction continue?
  • What help do we need?
  • What other organisations might be involved?


  • Where should literacy classes be held?
  • Who should be trained as teachers?
  • What kind of materials should be produced?


  • What new literature could be developed? Diary? Calendar? Health charts?
  • What about a local newspaper?
  • How can we use local stories and local history?
  • How can we get more people involved?


  • What will the programme cost?
  • What are the sources of funding?
  • Who will manage the money?
  • How will we account for what is spent?

When the committee struggles with these questions, the literacy programme will begin to fit the local circumstances and become the property of the local community.

A final word...

A local committee can have a ripple effect - as it promotes literacy at the local level, the community as a whole will begin to understand that reading and writing can help them in their daily lives right there in the village.

Clinton Robinson worked for ten years with the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Cameroon, first in a village literacy and translation project, then as director of SIL. He is currently working in the UK on communication, languages and rural development.

Literacy and Health

‘Educate a boy and you educate a man.
Educate a girl and you educate a generation.’

Of the one billion people worldwide who are unable to read, two thirds are women. In most societies, girls are given less chance to complete their schooling. If money for school fees is short, priority will nearly always go to boys. Parents reason that boys are more likely to find work and continue working than girls, who are expected to marry and have children.

However, surveys have shown that in fact it is the mother’s education rather than the father’s that has the greater long term effect both on her own health and that of her family.

Research shows that educated mothers are more likely to use health clinics, and are more likely to return to the clinic if their children’s health does not improve. Educated women tend to have fewer, healthier children. They also tend to begin their families at a later age. Researchers for the United Nations, studying 46 countries, found that a 1% rise in women’s literacy is three times more likely to reduce deaths in children than a 1% rise in the number of doctors. They also found that four to six years of education for women led to a 20% drop in infant


A girl who grows up healthy and confident in her own ability has a much better chance of safe motherhood, and of raising her own children to meet their full potential. Women with more education have better health and nutrition. They feel they can influence their own lives and those of their children. The families of women with some education tend to have better water and sanitation, income, housing and clothing.
Literacy programmes can therefore have far reaching effects on health. If women are given access to literacy and better education, they will be able to make their own choices to improve their lives.

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