ILLITERACY AS A SOCIAL PROBLEM AND THE ROLE OF SCHOOL IN REVERSING THE SITUATION

The social dimension

It is almost impossible for a literate person to imagine the social life of human groups without written language. In order to form society, it is essential to talk with people. This, in turn, makes room for a social necessity: communication.

Our society requires us to be literate, which implies not only a set of abilities, like learning to read and write, but also to be able to express and argument a point of view, to make connections, compare, interpret, reflect, and think critically, among other things.

All this knowledge allows us to take part in all fields of life: political, democratic, educational, social and economic. Considering the criteria mentioned above, illiterate people cannot become part of the society.

A social problem: illiteracy

After the release of the statistics realized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1976, which stated that there were over 800 million illiterate people in the world, it was suggested that affected countries include alphabetization in their national development plans, in which both adults and children were to be included.

In adults, it was necessary to fill in the gaps, while children had to be prevented from becoming illiterate.

The most important aspect is that UNESCO recognized the failure of previous educational campaigns, stating that if the situation didn’t change, the 21st century would find a largely illiterate world.

Illiteracy has its roots in several factors, such as:

– The socio-economical dimension

– The difference between the advanced urban areas and the underdeveloped rural ones

– The socio-educational difference

– Unsolved ethnic and cultural problems

– Low standards of living (caused by global poverty or poor distribution of the available resources)

As Jose Rivero states, “…it is no coincidence that over 98% of the illiterate population lives in the poorest areas and societies of the world.”

Illiterate people have entered a vicious cycle, in which they are rejected because they cannot read or write, and cannot learn these skills either, because they have been excluded. However, it is worth mentioning that there are – although rare – programs of study meant to solve these problems.

The research has brought light over the dark side of illiteracy. The issue of school failure and dropout was already related not only to social and familial problems, or individual pathology, but also it was admitted that the problem was often caused by factors regulated by the educational system.

TWO POINTS TO HELP YOUR WRITING

I love to write essays, as such I have wrote down my top two “go-to” points that I always teach my students:

  1. When the essay is between two to three pages long, subtitles are not necessary. When you have more pages, you can use several systems: writing subtitles, or separating the meaningful parts of the essay with numbers (I call these kinds of essays “Chinese boxes”). You shouldn’t forget that all parts of the essay should be linked. Even if we divide the essay (with subtitles, phrases or numbers), the essay as a whole should be compact. If we divide an essay, the parts that come out should continue to have an interdependent relationship.
  2. My most important rule is the fundamental role of the genre for the exercise and development of thought. Through the essay we “order” our thoughts. When we write essays, we prove either our “lucidity” or our “mental clumsiness”. The essay takes science out of its “excessive formalism”, and puts logic within the reach of art. Professional essayists know that truth is provisional, all doctrines have an adversary, all systems contain a figure. And, the essay is a constant search, it does nothing but rummage or remove one by one those cracks in the structure. Let’s say that the essay, a pure thought exercise, is the mirror held up to your own thoughts.

FOUR TIPS TO HELP YOU WRITE AN ESSAY

  1. An essay is a mix of art and science (this means that it uses creative, literary and logical elements to handle ideas). This dual essence in an essay (some will use this to say it’s a hybrid genre) is the origin of its power and difficulty. Because it’s a centaur, half one thing and half another thing, the essay can deal with all areas of knowledge and all topics. However, no matter what topic is chosen, the essay needs some “finesse” in its writing, so that it’s highly literary.
  2. An essay is not a commentary (writing about an opinion), but is rather a meditation, and it’s almost always derived from other people’s meditations (these people don’t necessarily have to be mentioned explicitly, although they’re usually mentioned in the footnotes or in the references). This is why the essay depends more on judgment and arguments (they’re not free opinions). The essay has to support the ideas. Better yet, the quality of an essay is measured through the quality of its ideas, the way in which they’re communicated, faced and taken into consideration. If there are no strong arguments, if they haven’t been developed beforehand, the essay becomes merely an assumption.
  3. An essay reasons. It’s a complete discourse. Good essays are linked in a coherent manner. It’s not about putting one idea after the other, because the addition of ideas does not constitute a good essay: you have to weave them in an organized manner, and you have to organize the ideas in a hierarchy, weighing them (let’s remember that ‘essay’ comes from ‘exagium’ which means, precisely, “weighing”). If there’s no logic in the composition of an essay, it will be difficult to get acceptable results, just as in music. This is why it’s important to make a plan, a map, a sketch – it works as a guide to write the essay.
  4. Just like a discourse, the essay requires a good usage of connecting elements (you have to keep a reserve of them). The connecting elements are like the hinges, the links that are necessary for the essay to not seem to be lacking cohesion. There are relationship connectors, consequence connectors and causality connectors. There are also connectors to summarize or emphasize. And, next to the connectors, it’s essential to have a perfect command of punctuation. Thanks to the comma and the semicolon (one of the most difficult-to-use punctuation signs), and thanks to the period, this is how the essay breathes, has a rhythm, a life. The inadequate or proper use of punctuation signs is what determines if our essay is monotonous or light, interesting or boring, flexible or tedious.

EDUCATIONAL PLAN

There are three main factors involved in any educational plan: the information, the student and the teaching process, united in a context.

There are different principles involved in this situation, that have to be taken into account, if we aim to form skilled readers and writers, and therefore to reduce the rate of illiteracy.

  • DIVERSITY

– in regard to didactic plans containing reading or writing situations

– in reading and composing texts that are not necessarily typical for school (like course books or textbooks), but also related to the society (stories, novels, news, maps, riddles, poems, pamphlets, graffiti, encyclopedias, etc.).

– by proposing situations that take into account the functions of reading and writing

– by reading and writing for different audiences or recipients, such as authorities, friends, family etc.

– in regard to the activities children perform starting from texts: reading, writing, dictation, listening, transcribing, shuffling through a text, making a plan, etc.

– in the ways the group, as well as the content, is organized (by planning permanent activities, strings of activities, occasional activities and projects).

  • CONTINUITY:

– This encourages the development of successive reading and writing situations that can be graded, and that can be presented at different stages of the school life.

– For Molinari, this word implies continuity not only in the classroom, but also at institutional level.

  • WORKING WITH THE WRITTEN LANGUAGE AND THE WRITING SYSTEM

– “As he gets introduces to the laws of language, the child builds a writing system. There is much evidence proving that learning to read and write does not mean only being acquainted with the alphabetic system, but it is necessary to take into account all the dimensions that written language involves. Consequently, children must be asked to read and write whole texts, not only isolated words.

  • IDEAS OF ACTIVITIES THAT MAY POSE PROBLEMS

– This means staging situations in which the children don’t have all the necessary knowledge, so that they have to use their previous knowledge and coordinate it with the new situation, enriching them and thus building new meanings and points of view.

  • IDEAS OF REAL COMMUNICATION SITUATIONS

– Considering that the student is a social and cultural being, we need to imagine situations that are closely related to daily activities and occurrences. This means that we need to present situations in given contexts, with a real receiver and a relevant goal, in which the children can participate with projects or other activities that arouse their interest. This will make tasks meaningful, and will make the students achieve new knowledge.

The role of school

After analyzing a few works that approach this subject, we have reached the following conclusions:

  • Every educational institution is a part of society, which has certain expectations from it, established according to the institution’s functions and performance.
  • One of the fundamental tasks of these institutions is that of forming literate people. They don’t restrict their activity to teaching letters, but aim to form skilled readers and writers.
  • Nowadays, we can notice a high degree of dissatisfaction in the society. The latter puts pressure on school to take up functions that people consider it should fulfill. But the fulfillment or the failure to fulfill these functions depends on certain factors. Here are the most important of them:
  1. School shouldn’t follow a curriculum that makes significant differences between the knowledge that each group of the society receives, because that would cement the socio-cultural differences that already exist. This happens because:

– school focuses on teaching the higher social classes;

– uses a “parallel distribution system”; that is, its requirements and expectations from the students are proportional with their performance;

– because it molds a homogenous educational offer over a heterogeneous educational system (that operates at social, religious, economic level, etc.) For this reason, teaching is done in arbitrary and artificial situations taken out of context.

– or simply, because it focuses on unsatisfied basic necessities, which makes it shift its aim, giving more importance to the welfare or wellbeing function, which eventually leads to school failure.

  1. Absenteeism: In some cases, students skip classes due to the long distance between home and school, or the weather conditions of the area. This results in an interruption of the educational process, which can culminate in school dropout.
  2. Dropout and repetition: These are other factors that lead to educational failure. “When a child doesn’t manage to learn, school offers him a second chance: the opportunity to start all over again. Is this a solution? The failure experience will repeat itself in similar conditions, so is it necessary to ask the child to go through it again? How many times can a person make the same mistakes? Probably, as many times as possible, before finally aborting the whole process.”

These repeated school years make children abandon the system either temporarily or forever. But this situation often depends on more than the student’s own will – it is the school who abandons the “deserter”, because it doesn’t have any means to keep him.

Therefore, we should address the problem not as a consequence of individual people’s will, but as that of a selective educational system – a social selection machine.

  1. Identification with other persons: Many children try to take after the grown-ups. So, when the model they choose is an illiterate person, they want the same for themselves. This results in the children’s lack of interest for reading and writing, or at least for recognizing letters. An educational institution should act as a liaison between school and family, so that this can be prevented from happening.
  2. The lack of awareness and commitment: An illiterate person, who grows up in an environment and a home lacking written materials and resources, has to receive all the information and the knowledge from his family.
  3. The small number and poor distribution of rural schools: this makes it difficult for children to have access to basic education. This is closely connected to absenteeism, repeating school years and dropout (described in points 2 and 3).

These are only some of the causes that educational institutions should analyze in order to amend the situation.

ADVICE FOR ESSAYS

The following is helpful advice that we have compiled in the last couple of weeks from our literature savvy friends:

  1. There are two great types of essay: one, the Montaigne line (you can read, for example “To Philosophize is to Learn to Die”, “On Friendship”, “On Books”). And, the other is the Bacon line (read at least two: “On studies”, “Of Vicissitude of Things”). In the first line, the essay is more subjective and there are proper citations. In the second line, the essay is more objective and there are no explicit citations, or there are few. Both Montaigne and Bacon are masters when it comes to developing ideas. They both work on the obvious and deep, the everyday routine and the surprising. They both appeal to other voices, they both use the past and other books to present their points of view. They both pass judgment: they venture to present their thoughts. It’s important to reread these two authors, apart from being a joy and a reunion with good prose, they’re model-essays, and they can be useful to anyone who wants to learn or perfect their essay-writing.
  2. Other exquisite essays are the ones written by Alfonso Reyes and Pedro Henríquez Ureña. These are strong essays with depth, and above all, they were written using all of the literary resources and the power of imagination. Whoever has read Reyes’ “Notes on American Intelligence” or Ureña’s “Six Essays Looking for Our Expression” has felt this to be a revelation of powerful writing, the kind of writing that can create worlds. There’s a treasure trove of style in these two essayists, a really personal “stamp” that puts the essay on the same level as the story or the poem. When you read Reyes’ or Ureña’s essays, what you read, apart from being energetic thoughts, is excellent literature.
  3. The essay shouldn’t be so short that it seems like just a thought, or so long that it seems like a research paper. There’s a middle ground: from 3 to 10 pages (just to mention a length). But, whatever its length, each essay needs to have a thesis (with its pros and its cons), and the necessary summary. Let’s not forget that the essay is a complete piece of writing. The previous points are not selective in regards to other styles or to different ways of writing an essay, and they shouldn’t be read as set rules. They’re only recommendations, general guidelines.