Our Readers' Opinions
September 7, 2010
The Caribbean needs to embrace Family Learning as we mark International Literacy Day

by Fortuna Anthony Tue, Sept 7, 2010

Caribbean islands, like the rest of the world, will celebrate International Literacy Day on Wednesday September 8, 2010. However, as Caribbean nations, we continue to lag behind in developing our own model of family learning which has been found to be a powerful tool in alleviating illiteracy. Family learning is a term used to describe how adults and children learn together.{{more}} It describes the role that reading, writing and numeracy play in family life, both at home and in the community. Research on family learning shows that there is ongoing work in developing this link which is so critical to learning as is seen necessary from prenatal onwards.

The high rate of global illiteracy as suggested by the United Nations stands at four billion persons, with 776 million lacking the basic literacy skills and one in five adults being illiterate.

The Caribbean has not placed sufficient emphasis on the importance of parenting skills, within the education system. Hence, many “new” parents do not recognize that learning begins in the womb and that the environment they create in the home is the first step to their child becoming a literate and successful individual. A literacy-rich environment, simply means using available materials to begin awakening and stimulating the child’s cognitive development. Parents can learn that every day experiences and materials provide opportunities for interaction and learning and that they are the most important positive stimulant in their child’s life, regardless of economic status.

Policy makers in the region therefore need to demonstrate their commitment to reducing illiteracy, and by extension poverty, amongst its most vulnerable group by engaging parents, educators and communities in family learning activities. This commitment must be demonstrated by embracing policies which are child and family oriented. For example, early childhood policies and regulations which will ensure that our future generations have access to quality daycare and preschools and are nurtured in safe and child-friendly environments. For this to happen, there must be the political will for all policy makers to make the concerted effort to invest and embrace supportive policies for this sector of society.

The Family Learning Programme (FLP), an initiative of the Caribbean Child Support Initiative, CCSI, funded by The Bernard van Leer Foundation, has provided the first stepping stone for Belize, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Lucia by sensitizing persons to the importance of family literacy as a powerful tool in starting the literacy process very early in the life of the child. Such an early start in literacy helps foster a more literate society. The programme seeks to raise the awareness of all ministries, NGOs, individuals and families that learning and literacy can be achieved through targeted, simple activities, recognizing that a child needs to be stimulated daily, through simple and cost effective methods, such as play, story telling, daily communication and creative activities. If the objectives of this programme are to be achieved, there will be the need for commitment at the highest level.

Statistical data show that none of the Caribbean region can be considered as having attained 100% literacy, and so there remains much work to be done. The literacy attainment level of Grenada has been stated as 96% followed by St. Lucia with 94.8%, St. Vincent and the Grenadines – 88.1%, Dominica – 88% and Belize – 75.1%. The literacy attainment levels in Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda are at 99.7% and 99% respectively.

While many parents, “the first teachers,” are aware of their child’s struggles in terms of literacy – reading and numeracy, it has been found, that they seek help for their child only when the pressures and stresses of examination arise. Many expect that “tutors” will create miracles. Parents can be taught how to observe their child from very early and be encouraged to seek help once they recognize that there may be a problem.

In the USA, for example, the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute has embarked on research in an effort to create a model of public education for children that begins at birth and leads to success in college. Family members advocate a vision for a birth-to-college model of public education in which children will have rich opportunities to pursue their passions and interests, develop fluency and mastery in literacy and numeracy at accelerated rates, and receive targeted instruction and comprehensive supports that address their academic, socio- emotional, and health needs in a holistic manner.

UNESCO, in its quest to embrace and succeed at Education For All (EFA) believes that “good quality basic education equips pupils with literacy skills for life and further learning; literate parents are more likely to keep their children healthy and send their children to school; literate people are better able to access other education and employment opportunities; and collectively, literate societies are better geared to meet development challenges. Indeed, the emergence of knowledge societies makes literacy even more critical than in the past. Achieving widespread literacy can only happen in the context of building literate societies that encourage individuals to acquire and use their literacy skills”.

This year, as the Caribbean moves towards preparing for International Literacy Day, let us not just work and talk for one day, but allow the quest for strong literate societies and by extension regions, to have it roots firmly embedded in the “family,” as this is where it all begins. Fathers, mothers, and siblings must all join together to promote family learning, if we are to succeed in the creation of a learning society and the reduction of poverty. Education must be seen as the saving grace for all persons in the Caribbean region and by extension the global society.

Achieving this must be a collective effort by everyone, with governments leading the charge, and recognizing the long term benefits of investing in early childhood development and family education as against investing in remedial and intervention strategies.

Fortuna Anthony is Coordinator of the Family Learning Programme, FLP, a programme of the Caribbean Child Support Initiative, CCSI.