Mon | Nov 20, 2017

Continue down the path to full literacy

Published:Tuesday | January 22, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Heather Loague, in charge of the kindergarten to GSAT students, checks on her students' work at the Heroes Circle Seventh-day Adventist after-school and adult evening class in Kingston last year February. Despite drawbacks, Jamaica's literacy and other educational outcomes have soared since Independence. - FILE PHOTOS
Colin Neita, Contributor
Members of the Jamaica Reading Association and students march along Tom Redcam Avenue towards the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Library as they participate in a literacy march last year, in observance of International Literacy Day. The day is observed each year on September 8, and aims to raise people's awareness of and concern for literacy issues in their communities.

Colin Neita, Contributor

THE HISTORY of adult education in Jamaica is a study in the growth of a dependent colony becoming a self-determining nation. It is also a study in the growth of an economy from one dominated by agriculture, diversifying into mining, manufacturing, and tourism, and most recently, into knowledge-driven businesses like finance and an emerging inclination towards technology.

While the Jamaica Foundation For Lifelong Learning (JFLL) was first established as the National Literacy Board in 1972 - later becoming the Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL) in 1974, then the Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning (2006) - the effort to eradicate illiteracy in Jamaica has its roots in pre-Independence Jamaica.

The Laubach 'each one teach one' system was introduced in 1943. It was followed by an intervention by the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission - now the Social Development Commission. The commission's efforts eventually received government funding in 1954.

Created in 1970, The Literacy Evaluation and Planning Committee - with support from UNESCO - marked a turning point in the government's adult literacy policy. At a time when bauxite mining and manufacturing were prosperous economic players, the committee found that approximately 500,000 Jamaicans, or 40 per cent, over the age of 15 were illiterate. The stage was well set for a major developmental thrust in adult education. In 1972, The National Literacy Board took on the task.

Among its earliest challenges were high dropout rates among students and teachers alike, staff shortages, a substandard quality of teaching, and the need for student-evaluation methods.


In 1974, the organisation emerged from a period of restructuring to overcome its challenges with a new name: JAMAL. There were three simple mandates:

1. Eradicate illiteracy in Jamaica in the shortest time possible;

2. Improve the literacy skills of the adult population of Jamaica;

3. Develop human resources to enable each adult citizen to participate meaningfully in the social, economic, and cultural development of the country.

To approach this deceptively simple task, JAMAL devised a network of adult educational centres (AECs) throughout all 14 parishes. These centres now number 31. The teaching staff largely comprises volunteers. While the AECs thrived, a strong spirit of community and a sense of national urgency led to the establishment of volunteer AECs run by churches, communities, and NGOs that now number 100.

The JAMAL Foundation met with significant success, with over 248,000 learners achieving literacy by 1989. This dramatic performance was reflected in the national literacy rate moving from 68 per cent in 1975 to 82 per cent in 1987. Trained volunteers exceeded 20,000.

Reflecting the national priority of literacy of the day, the JAMAL Foundation was sufficiently funded to take its interventions on air with televised programming, including the JAMAL Literacy Quiz show in which learners were able to compete in a format very similar to the popular Schools' Challenge Quiz.

All this activity did not go unnoticed, with UNESCO awarding the Nadezhda K. Krupskaya Prize to JAMAL in 1989 for its work in adult literacy.

Over time, however, the changing Jamaican economy dictated a realignment of national funding, which reduced the funding available to JAMAL during the 1980s and '90s. Despite the challenges, both the foundation and the Ministry of Education continued with programmes to address literacy in both the non-formal and formal education sectors.

Within the formal sector, the Grade Four Literacy Test was introduced in 1999 to provide both an indicator of literacy skills, as well as a suite of interventions to ensure that fourth-graders would be ready for the Grade Six Achievement Test. The Primary Education Support Project, the Reform of Secondary Education and the Inner-City Schools Improvement Programme (2003) are other significant literacy interventions introduced to the formal school system. The Career Advancement Programme (2010) includes a literacy stream to serve the needs of learners reading below grade nine level.


The 1990s saw the JFLL offering workplace-based adult literacy programmes. This programme has led to corporate-level partnerships with entities such as Sandals Corporate University.

Regrettably, JAMAL's public success also became its own enemy. A stigma became attached to its learners. This labelling spread, impeding student enrolment even more gravely than budget constraints.

Significant policy changes in 2006 resulted in a rebranding of and name change to the Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning. The organisation's mandate was expanded and a new and dynamic slogan - 'Changing Lives Forever' - was adopted.

Cognisant of the greater educational demands of the Jamaican workplace, the Ministry of Education charged the JFLL to expand its scope to provide educational opportunities up to Grade 11. The resulting High School Equivalency Programme (HISEP) added society and citizenship, science and technology, and literature to the JFLL core subjects of mathematics and English language. The programme provides Sovereign (independent) Learners the opportunity to secure their Grade 11 qualifications in five subject areas.

The new branding and programme presented a significant and flexible second-chance opportunity for adult learners. The programme's success led to the development of a more compact version, JFLL Secondary, which was offered in 2011 and was met with enthusiasm from learners islandwide.

In addition to the name change, 2006 marked a period of reviewing and improving teaching methodologies that continues today. The most significant change in instructional methodology addressed basic learner-placement techniques and rote teaching methods.

In 2011, the JFLL moved towards a more diagnostic method of teaching and learning, adopting more detailed learner-assessment methods, including the Ministry of Education's Informal Diagnostic Reading Inventory, as well as more relevant classroom instructional techniques that seek to be context driven with learner-differentiated teaching techniques that seek to maximise learner engagement.

Simultaneously, a redefinition of the concept of literacy, based on the definition used by UNESCO, has been promoted by the JFLL. No longer do we consider literacy as simply the ability to read and write, and no longer is it sufficient to be 'functionally literate' at the grade four level. The view now is that literacy is a continuum - from the lowest levels to levels of mastery beyond the secondary level - and is made up of a multiplicity of disciplines required to function in a modern and complex world. Simple examples beyond words and numbers include the demand for and attainment of computer literacy and financial literacy; a more sophisticated need is to understand investment products.


The JFLL and the Ministry of Education have not been alone in their mission to eliminate illiteracy. The invaluable technical assistance from UNESCO has played a crucial role, predating its landmark literacy survey of 1970 that indicated a literacy rate between 50 per cent and 60 per cent. This collaboration in statistical monitoring has continued and has expanded into bilateral cooperation.

More recently, the Ministry of Education has once again partnered with UNESCO, this time to begin the process of gathering more relevant data on adult literacy. The Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme will facilitate the planning of even more effective adult-literacy programmes. This kind of partnership has provided access to best practices internationally, as well as draws attention to best practices developed in Jamaica in virtually every area of educational governance and practice.

The International Council of Adult Education, particularly through its regional arm, CARCAE, has been another key partner. Its Jamaican arm, the Jamaican Council on Adult Education, has been a critical partner in promoting adult literacy and lifelong learning through public and political advocacy and lobbying.

The future

While facing many challenges, including stigmatisation and budgetary constraints, literacy in Jamaica faces a very positive future. Within the formal education sector, the grade one and grade four literacy assessments and CAP are strong literacy-assurance measures.

In the non-formal sector, the Ministry of Education, through the JFLL, is revamping the HISEP programme to make it accessible via computer-based distance learning. This would make it widely available.

The Government is also investing in the deployment of the AutoSkills learning system that would enable learners to access education and practice in basic literacy and numeracy at any location where the HISEP programme can be accessed.

Beyond technologically enabled learning interventions, the JFLL and the Ministry of Education are reviewing and upgrading the curriculum to provide greater relevance and flexibility for the modern adult learner.

In the government and NGO sectors, the JFLL has been expanding its footprint with significant and growing partnerships with ministries, departments, and agencies, including the Ministry of Labour and Social Security's Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education and Special Youth Employment and Training Project, the Ministry of Health, the Correctional Services Department, the HEART Trust/NTA, Boys' Town, Hibiscus Jamaica, the Digicel and Camara foundations, and others. These partnerships are providing increasing access to learners, locations, teachers, and teaching resources.

The current state and future of literacy in Jamaica are best described by Jamaica's Vision 2030 national development goals:

1. Jamaicans are empowered to achieve their fullest potential - including a target adult literacy rate of 98.3 per cent;

2. The Jamaican society is secure, cohesive, and just;

3. Jamaica's economy is prosperous;

4. Jamaica has a healthy natural environment.

In order to achieve these goals, we must have a society functioning with a wider range of literacies to positively change as many as, and perhaps more than, 2.7 million lives.

Colin Neita is the public relations and marketing manager at The Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning.