A conversation with Paula Lucie-Smith, founder of Trinidad & Tobago's Adult Literacy Tutors Association, on the occasion of International Literacy Day

Signage at the Adult Literacy Tutors Association of Trinidad and Tobago's event, ‘Readings Under the Trees,’ which took place in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Port of Spain on March 18, 2023. Photo by Janine Mendes-Franco, used with permission.

September 8, 2023 marks 56 years since the first International Literacy Day (ILD) was observed around the world, in recognition of the importance of literacy to human dignity. The concept of the ability to read as a human right has contributed to the advancement of this United Nations (UN) agenda in creating more literate and sustainable societies. The 2023 theme is “Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies.”

To accomplish that, however, you need people on the ground. For the last 30-plus years, in Trinidad and Tobago, those people have been the volunteers of the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA), which prides itself on helping to bring about social change in the Caribbean through literacy. I interviewed the NGO's founder, Paula Lucie-Smith, via email and WhatsApp, about the advances her organisation has helped make, the regional literacy landscape and more.

Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): How did ALTA come to be?

Paula Lucie-Smith, founder of the Adult Literacy Tutors Association of Trinidad and Tobago (ALTA). Photo courtesy Lucie-Smith, used with permission.

Paula Lucie-Smith (PLS): I started ALTA [in] 1992. As a secondary school teacher, I had been teaching students in Forms 4 and 5 who couldn’t read, so in 1990, International Literacy Year, I became a volunteer in a Ministry of Education/UNESCO adult literacy programme.

Assigned to teach at Woodbrook Government Secondary, students came from many parts of the country to my class. What little support I got ended with the year — but I had students.

I conceptualised ALTA as a way to bring together the adult literacy teachers to share ideas, as well as to direct students to teachers close to their home or work. But those who joined ALTA wanted training and a programme of instruction, so ALTA quickly moved beyond networking into teacher training and programme development.

JMF: What have been some of ALTA’s key wins/achievements?

PLS: The key achievement: ALTA conducts a successful free national adult literacy programme with our own curriculum and materials – and we continued to do this through COVID-19, emerging with not one mode of literacy instruction, but three: ALTA-V (Zoom), ALTA Online (web-based application), and the community classes – now back [after pandemic restrictions]. As far as I know, we are the only non-profit to run a home-grown national adult literacy programme. I'm most proud of harnessing the power of good that lies latent to bring trained volunteers together with learners.

JMF: What are literacy rates like in T&T and across the region? Based on these statistics, we seem to be doing okay — but are you seeing a different situation on the ground?

Adult literacy learning with ALTA Online at the Belmont ICT Centre in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photo courtesy ALTA, used with permission.

PLS: Literacy rates in the Caribbean (and in most of the world) are unknown. Official statistics are based on the availability of primary school places rather than demonstrated literacy competence. What is cited as a literacy rate should be re-named ‘school access rate,’ as going to school does not mean a person is literate. An ALTA student who has NOT attended school is a rare exception.

A literacy survey gives the only valid estimate of literacy. Two national literacy surveys were done in Trinidad (ALTA 1994, UWI 1995) which show that 22–23 percent of persons aged 15-plus could not cope with everyday reading and writing. The UWI survey also showed only 45 percent could read and understand a newspaper article.

Low literacy is an issue in all English-speaking Caribbean countries and the problem is set to grow due to school closure during the pandemic.

JMF: In what ways do you believe increasing literacy can directly impact peace, especially in regional societies where violent crime is becoming more of a concern?

PLS: Peace in a society is the result of each person feeling a sense of belonging and acceptance for who they are. Over 30 years, many students have said to me that before ALTA they did not feel a part of society. Students also say ‘ALTA is family’ – they belong. In the words of one student, Glenn, ‘Not being able to do things that you want to do, it could create a stress in you that other people might not see it, but you will feel it. So just being able to do these classes, it kind of cleans certain things, like the toxic part of the feedback that [you're] getting. It kind of soothes it.’

A cross-section of the crowd at ALTA's March 18, 2023 event, ‘Readings Under the Trees.’ Photo by Janine Mendes-Franco, used with permission.

JMF: On the issue of crime, at least in Trinidad and Tobago, I've noticed that the language of the literate to describe the perpetrators tends to reflect an ‘us vs. them’ mindset. Does this concern you and how is ALTA changing that?

PLS: The word ‘illiterate’ in Trinidad [and Tobago] is synonymous with bad character and low morals. ALTA has worked for more than 30 years to sever this false connection. Our current awareness/student registration campaign, ‘I Am Skilled, and I Am ALTA Skilled,’ shows literacy learners not only to be productive members of society, but of good character and generous spirit despite harsh life experiences.

JMF: ILD is often observed in our region by those who are already literate, kind of like preaching to the choir. Why is the day important?

PLS: Literacy is invisible. You can’t see a person’s literacy level or hear it. Speaking in Creole English is not a valid determiner of literacy. The stigma means that those who need literacy help instead spend a lifetime perfecting the art of keeping their poor literacy hidden. So, we need an international day to look and hear about literacy.

ALTA student Mickel Williams reads one of his essays at the ‘Readings Under the Trees’ event at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Port of Spain, March 18, 2023. Photo courtesy ALTA, used with permission.

JMF: Is ALTA doing anything special to mark International Literacy Day?

PLS: ALTA is marking ILD by opening ALTA community classes at 21 venues across Trinidad. We are back in the classroom after three years!

JMF: What are the ways in which you think Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like the Caribbean are grappling differently with illiteracy? Are factors like the climate crisis, digitisation, the widening economic gap, and even the ripple effects of COVID-19 affecting us differently?

PLS: Most of the Caribbean pretend, and even advertise, that their populations are literate. Apart from some drama when SEA and CXC results come out, literacy is not on the national agenda. No Caribbean government wants to know the real picture and when it does arise, literacy is lodged solely as a school issue. Trinidad launches new school literacy initiatives every year or two — none of which has ever been fully implemented or sustained.

Developed countries separate education policy from politics and make long term plans. In the year 2000, a [T&T] prime minister declared the end of the Common Entrance and universal secondary education, [but] 23 years on, non-literate 13- and 14-year-olds are put into a secondary curriculum requiring literacy. And you ask why children don’t want to go to school? Why parents don’t spend thousands of dollars on textbooks the children can’t read?

The factors you mention affect all equally. The difference is that the Caribbean has much fewer resources to weather these storms and battle an increasing brain drain to the developed world of the expertise needed to effect the needed changes.

JMF: What can the average person do to help create a culture of literacy?

PLS: Shame is what stops a child, a teen, an adult from admitting their literacy difficulties and getting help. They dread hearing, ‘He must be can’t even read’ — and the laughter (or pity) that follows. And who engenders this shame? The literate. To build a culture of literacy, we, the literate, must change our mindset.

We must understand two things. One, literacy is a skill like any other – some of us have natural talent and acquire it easily; some have great difficulty and need specialised instruction; most fall at the various points between these two poles of ease and difficulty. So some brains come wired for reading and writing, others do not. Two, and of equal importance, this wiring does not say anything about your ability to think. Take away the shame and we can walk the road to literacy.

A child is engrossed in a storybook at ALTA's ‘Readings Under the Trees’ event at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Port of Spain, March 18, 2023. Photo by Janine Mendes-Franco, used with permission.

JMF: Tell us one literacy success story that has stuck with you over the years.

PLS: There is no way to choose one success story, but here are a few highlights that stay in my mind. Yvonne, a Spiritual Baptist Mother, looked at the sign she had been seeing for 30 years, broke it into parts and read the word. She said to me with awe and wonder: ‘All these years I didn’t know they was telling me ‘Welcome’.’

Linton, a very dyslexic student, proudly told me of passing [his] school-leaving exam with distinction and setting up his own business. He also passed on what he learned at ALTA to his two sons, and made sure they were not out on the street, but doing their schoolwork.

Jackie’s daughter became a medical doctor, who wrote, ‘As I observed my mother persevere to one day write post-primary examinations after completing ALTA Level 3, I gained an appreciation for education. As she practised her syllables, vocabulary and spelling, I practised too. In retrospect, I can say ALTA taught us both. Seeing my mother progress from a struggling student to someone who was able to stand before a crowd and read fluently was a marvel to me. Seeing her progress from spelling words completely different to their actual spelling to minor misspellings touched my life in a way I cannot translate into words.’

One day, a man walked into the [ALTA] office and donated TTD 10,000 [approximately USD 1,500], saying that he was earning good money now thanks to ALTA and he wanted to help us to continue helping others.

ALTA student Gillon Henry is congratulated after reading one of her essays at ALTA's ‘Readings Under the Trees’ event on March 18, 2023, in Port of Spain. Photo by RT Photography, courtesy ALTA and used with permission.

JMF: What’s next for ALTA?

PLS: The world, and ALTA Online will take us there. [It's] an interactive, web-based programme of literacy instruction built around Caribbean life skills content and designed for independent use by persons aged nine and over. Interacting with a screen bypasses shame, meets differing learning rates, and is available 24/7. It’s the future of literacy learning.

JMF: Complete the sentence: I will feel that ALTA has achieved its purpose when …

PLS: When the stigma of low literacy has vanished, so coming to a literacy class is just like coming to any other class to learn a skill.

There will always be people who have difficulty with reading and spelling whose needs are not met by schools — and thus, a need for ALTA. What they need is freedom from fear so they can come to learn.

Disclosure statement: The author of this post worked with ALTA on its recent student recruitment campaign.

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