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Continuing the fight against low literacy

Monday, March 17, 2014
The nation’s teachers face some uphill challenges in fighting low literacy.

Literacy remains at an alarmingly low level in T&T, with underperforming students—especially males—continuously left behind who eventually either drop out of the school system or turn to crime. Experts tell us that those who do not drop out of school enter the workforce but do not perform as well as they could with a better education, reducing the country’s potential economic prowess. FABIAN PIERRE concludes a T&T Guardian investigation into literacy in T&T, and what is being done to address those students at risk of fading into obscurity.


With literacy crucial to the country’s development, Secretary General of the T&T National Commission for UNESCO, Susan Shurland told the T&T Guardian that a pilot programme titled Leading for Literacy and Numeracy, inspired by UNESCO’s Education for All goals, has begun in 40 primary schools across Trinidad only. 


Speaking via telephone Shurland said the pilot project targets pupils at infant levels one and two, but equally—if not more importantly, the programme aims to train and guide leaders.


“We’ve had the regiment come in as well and train on the kinds of skills they use to build teams and understanding your peers and group work, and leading,” Shurland said. 


The programme’s lead says it isn’t strictly about addressing reading only, but understanding how pupils accumulate and assimilate using tools such as movement and sound among other methods, to provide a more holistic environment conducive to learning.


Online member for the National College for School Leadership, Elizabeth Crouch says that while school principals may have Masters degrees, they generally have little or no school leadership training. It does not exist in T&T. In an e-mail from UNESCO, it stated that the concept of the programme addresses these inefficiencies. 


“There is need for a start to be made for school leadership—in laying the foundation for an excellent system of school leadership initiatives in T&T,” Crouch said, adding “with the emphasis being that the principals of the selected school participate in a five to six day leadership training workshop in areas such as leadership in turning a school around, being credible as a leader, using data to effect change, team building, and conflict resolution.” 


The programme uses the Jolly Phonics programme which is British.


At the end of the current academic year, Shurland said, the data will be collected and analysed. However, she added that based on calls from principals the programme appears to be successful and during the second phase in the next academic year numeracy will be added to literacy. 


As for training of teachers, TTUTA says it has partnered with the Canadian Teachers Federation which has trained more than150 teachers over the course of the last year to identify those children with special needs in mainstream classes. TTUTA says it hopes funding for the training continues. 



What are we reading?




Checks with major book retailers revealed varied experiences. Director at Charran’s Book Store, Vinai Charran said the bulk of the store’s imports are academic books. 


“I have not seen a large volume of sales of recreational books however. I don’t feel that we’re really a people that read. What I’ve seen for us, however, is that the biggest sellers on the recreational side are children’s books. Unless there’s some popular series of books that teens or adults are reading.” Charran told the Guardian. 


A different story presents itself at Nigel R Khan book stores. A source who wished to remain anonymous told the Guardian that their market is mostly recreational and they do not go after Government contracts, therefore the bulk of their imports and sales are recreational books. 


“We see a high volume of sales during the peak period between July to September, but sales aren’t generally poor year round. 


“Our experience has been that people buy quite a lot of recreational books from us.”


RIK Ltd promised a comment but did not do so up to press time. Charran however added that e-books sales have not made a significant dent in their sales but has admitted to utilising the technology due to the convenience. “But nothing beats the feel of a good book,” he said. 


No one was available for comment at Mohammed’s book store.


T&T Guardian contacted Apple Inc for data on their iTunes book store purchases but there has been no response. 


Similarly, data was requested from on orders for both hardcopy and e-books from T&T but they also did not respond up to press time. 




Ministry of Education says

The Guardian contacted the CSO for updated statistics but none was available on literacy. A check of their Web site revealed no reports issued. The Guardian tried several times to contact the NPTA without success.


A series of questions was put to the curriculum division of the education ministry about the concerns raised by interviewees in this article. Below is the full text of their response.

Question: What exactly is being targeted and adjusted that was detrimental to the learning process of all children?

Answer: The Ministry of Education recognises that the school system and assessment culture of Trinidad and Tobago is one that has become highly exam-driven and that teachers often teach to the test using traditional methodologies that do not cater to the widest range of students’ learning styles and abilities. The new primary curriculum, the focus of the revision of the curriculum is the preparation of all our children with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to enable fulfilling each child’s potential. This new primary curriculum features: 


• A focus on nine subject areas within an integrated, thematic approach


• Literacy and numeracy skills developed through all subject areas


• Infusion of information and communication technologies in all areas


• A focus on assessment for learning, with emphasis on improving the performance of each child, rather than on stressful testing


• Explicit attention to differentiated Instruction to meet the needs of a range of students


• A conscious development of values, including health and family life education


While the core content of primary level education has not changed significantly, this curriculum focuses on transforming teaching and learning. We are facilitating a shift from traditional teaching, learning and assessment methods which have not been meeting the needs of some students. Our integrated, thematic curriculum has been developed to international standards with specific attention to meeting the needs of the full range of students, particularly those who would not have been engaged by traditional methods. The total curriculum package includes nine curriculum guides with standards, a teacher’s guide and six instructional toolkits which provide detailed and rich guidance to teachers for implementing the new approaches and methodologies espoused by the new curriculum.


Q: How far does the new curriculum go in assessing and addressing the aptitude of students? (Some receive information differently and/or at a different pace)


A: The notion of Differentiated Instruction (DI) is one in which the teacher plans for and consciously employs different strategies and caters for children of different levels of ability, pace of learning, learning styles and aptitudes within the same classroom and the same lesson. DI is one of the key considerations in the new curriculum. Within the Instructional Toolkit, which is the main support document for teachers and which delineates step by step for teachers the manner in which the whole curriculum should be taught, DI is a one of the points of focus, together with Literacy, Numeracy, Assessment for Learning and Infusion of Information Communication Technologies.

Q: Was the curriculum developed in conjunction with ALTA or any other stakeholder, that takes into account how instances of abuse, or trauma at the student’s home, including other environmental factors, can affect learning? 


A: The new primary curriculum was designed and developed based on extensive data and consultations with stakeholders. These included a national consultation and seven district consultations that collectively brought together the views of more than 3,400 education stakeholders including ALTA, NPTA, TTUTA, all local universities and education interest groups, employers organisations to name a few.


The expansion of the Student Support Services Division is in recognition of the need to treat with a wide range of conditions that impinge on student learning and affect the well-being of children. Schools are now much better poised to intervene and support students who are at risk and victims of difficult home circumstances.


Q: What systems were developed in this new curriculum, that can address the fact that a society with a high level of basic literacy, is one that is not economically competitive? What about other curricula for future development?


A: The key to moving each student and by extension our society towards higher levels of literacy, numeracy and other critical 21st century skills is in early intervention. While in the past, students have moved through the system with low level of literacy, the strong focus on literacy from the earliest level, Infants one, and sustained throughout, will redress this problem. To further support this thrust, is the deployment of literacy and numeracy coaches who will be working to further support teachers in the development of literacy at the level of the classroom, particularly in schools with low performance levels. The fact that the new curriculum focuses a wide range of subject disciplines, leading practices in teaching and assessment, the development of critical skills, including higher order thinking, and conceptual understanding in students rather than mere reproduction of facts and knowledge, prepares the next generation to take our country onto the world stage.


Unesco facts


• 80 teachers and principals trained by Ministry of Education so far from 40 primary schools in new pilot project. 

• Major commercial bank joins in training parents at home, to coincide with Ministry’s pilot project.


More info


TTUTA: Teachers stuck in the past


New primary school curriculum receives resistance from teachers. TTUTA President Davanand Sinanan says it’s natural. “We have issues with the implementation of continuous assessment, not the principle. You have people accustomed to doing one thing one way for 25 years and then you coming to tell them this is the new way. You didn’t wean them off. So that shift in the paradigm of the teacher, that has not taken place. So walls have gone up, the union is being called in, the resistance etc. ‘Oh Mr Sinanan you all are not articulating our interests and our concerns and what not.’ Schools are lacking in resources but there is dialogue happening on that,” he said.


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