In a world where around 773 million young people and adults are still lacking basic literacy skills (UIS), the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of its lockdown are only magnifying the already existing literacy challenges.
In line with this year’s theme of the upcoming International Literacy Day and UNESCO International Literacy Prizes, ‘Literacy teaching and learning during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond’, we are looking into how former Prizes laureates have been coping with the unforeseen crisis.
This is the first story in the series of two where we follow testimonies from Indonesia, Colombia, Jordan and Democratic Republic of the Congo on how the laureates ensure that their literacy programmes continue to reach the most vulnerable populations during the pandemic.
Combined digital and analogue solutions for literacy learning during pandemic is key in Bali
With the overall philosophy that literacy learning is most efficient when using local languages, the Bacabal Wiki programme from Indonesia, where more than 700 languages are spoken, was awarded the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy in 2019. Based on a collaboration of scholars, governments, artists and the community from within and outside of Bali, BASAbali is a digital dictionary tool that was created to both preserve local languages and promote linguistic diversity.
According to Ms Alissa Stern, Founder of BASAbali, the Prize supports a critical message that reading and local languages matter, which is especially important in a place like Indonesia where literacy rates are high but where there is also a low reading culture.
“With 10 percent of the world's languages, recognizing that diversity of cultures and languages is as important as the diversity of species, is an important message for Indonesia as for the rest of the world,” says Ms Stern.
In Bali, as in most places around the world, schools have been closed since the pandemic started. This has abruptly limited literacy learning.
For children in remote and rural areas without internet access and without access to books, literacy efforts have been at a standstill during the COVID-19 crisis. To cope with the lockdown challenges and the lack of internet connection, the programme further invested in their production of books with new superhero adventures.
Before the lockdown, with the support from the government and through 250 teachers around Bali, the programme promoted its superhero books to teach creative writing and encourage the joy of reading among children and youth. During COVID-19, BASAbali also started raising funds to deliver these superhero books to children in the most remote and impoverished communities, so that they can continue their literacy progress and beyond.
“In this way children will not only have something to read, but they will have books in local, national and international languages written by local authors and illustrators with local awareness,” says Ms Stern.
The limited internet access has limited the programme’s ability to fully operate online. Although it caused reduced online participation and internal coordination, it has not stopped a new initiative taking form, namely BASABali’s Wikithon.
People are invited to compete against each other online by adding sentences to the Balinese-Indonesian-English wiki dictionary.
“It has been a success, and now all 16,000+ words have sentences! We have decided to have monthly mini-wikithons to keep people writing and reading. The next wikithon will be an essay writing competition,” says Ms Stern. “Now more than ever, we are interconnected and we need to address this pandemic together.”
Adult literacy programme for construction workers is challenged by lockdown in Colombia
The Antioquia regional branch of the non-profit association Camacol from Colombia was awarded the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy in 2019 for their ‘Obras Escuela’ programme, for giving construction workers the opportunity to learn literacy at their workplace.
However, since the appearance of COVID-19 in Colombia, the programme has faced many challenges. By closing down the construction sites, the workers have been forced to stop their usual literacy learning. Moreover, being mainly adults over 45 years old and digitally non-literate, the workers have difficulties using digital solutions to replace onsite learning.
Nevertheless it has been possible to stay in contact through telephone with most of the workers by the help of a team of teachers who also received support from the workers’ families.
Ms Maria Lucia Velez, the CSR Director at Camacol Antioquia, says that it has been very encouraging to see families supporting the workers’ academic development. Through guidance from both teachers and families, the workers are able to continue their learning by following up on some of the workshops that were delivered before the pandemic.
“What was essential before, such as the teachers’ closeness to their students, must be changed today due to social distancing. We need to foster learning interest and connection with students in other forms such as through short and informative videos or audio samples, as to not stop their learning processes,” says Ms Velez.
The ‘Obras Escuela’ programme has been included in the strategies of support for Education proposed for COVID-19 by the Ministry and the departmental and municipal Secretaries of Education. It has also received high recognition from the business community, as well as the possibility for learners in Medellín and Antioquia to receive literacy and basic elementary school certifications upon finalization.
“We are currently advancing the process of curricular revision and adaptation of the programme to present to the Ministry of National Education as a proposal for a flexible educational model. It is applied to the construction sector, through which we can reach a great number of people and manage to reduce illiteracy in our territories,” says Ms Velez.
“Today more than ever, when the world faces a crisis of such proportions, it is necessary to find disruptive alternatives that allow us to continue strengthening the capacities of the most vulnerable populations, and unite the efforts of organizations and public and private entities that are in social responsibility and philanthropy. This is the way to support the processes of social transformation and sustainable development,” says Ms Velez.
This year’s International Literacy Day and UNESCO International Literacy Prizes will be looking into the theme of literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. The five new Prizes laureates will be announced around International Literacy Day, 8 September 2020.
The two UNESCO International Literacy Prizes are: The UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize, Established in 1989, with the support of the Government of the Republic of Korea, which gives special consideration to the development and use of mother-tongue literacy education and training. And the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, established in 2005 with the support of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, which is dedicated to promoting literacy amongst adults in rural areas and out-of-school youth, particularly girls and women.