Raising our literacy rate

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday 27th January 2012

In 2000, while I was studying at the University of Goroka, Eastern Highlands, I came across a few interesting library books. (They were outside the required courses’ reading texts.) 
One of them told the story about the effort of Fidel Castro and his government to eradicate illiteracy in Cuba after they took over the rule of the country in Jan 1, 1959.
They declared 1961 to be the year of education and the Cuban Literacy Campaign started.  At the start of 1962 – after about 1,000,000 teachers and students reached out to teach the illiterate 707,212 workers and peasants – the literacy rate shot up to 96%, one of the highest in the world
Each teacher or student who went out to educate the rural people was equipped with, among others things, primers and a lantern.
The students included primary school, secondary school and university students.
The primers were really two books: We Shall Read and We Shall Conquer.
There are stories of 10-year-old, fresh-faced, literate city kids working alongside and learning from 70-year-old peasants in the fields during the day. In the night the students became the teachers and taught the elderly the basics in reading, writing and sounding the words correctly in Spanish.
The bonding that grew out from the programme between the young teachers and the rural folks is another story and is the subject of other books.
Reading about that story made me realise that the basics in literacy in a language (as in English or Spanish) can be easily taught within a short time using a primer – an elementary textbook that is used to teach children or illiterate adults to read, write and correctly pronounce words.
So for the last decade I have been hunting for a primer to teach English.
Last week I got my first primer, thanks to Omega Ministries, an inter-denominational Christian organisation which arranged for Carl Musch, a Christian minister from Queensland, with his able assistant Ben Joseph to run a one-week programme for those who were interested to learn and later teach using the 4S approach of learning English.
Those who turned up for daily three-hour sessions comprised mothers, teachers, young men and women with different interests. They went through Primer 1 in the four days, and may sign up later for the Primer 2 sessions.  
The 4S stands for Sight, Symbol, Sounds and Self.
The method teaches students to see (sight) the letters of the alphabet (symbols) and learn the phonemes (sound chunks) of the letters singly or as in a group.
That enables the reader or learner (self) to work out how new given words may be pronounced.
Musch said the more traditional way of teaching was the “whole-word” approach, where students saw a word, memorised the word and its pronunciation.
“The top students in the traditional way of learning were those who memorised the spelling and its sounds. That however was not a good method for the 80% majority of the people who struggled using that methodology,” Musch said.
The 4S approach which also incorporates a bit of the traditional method – and with the use of audio CDs and other materials – should help the struggling 80% of the people learn English.
Musch said the 4S method has been used to teach Aborigines in outback Australia as well as prisoners.
I, personally, have realised that PNG has its own form of English and at times can be confusing.
Many including the educated are not careful in distinguishing in pronunciation between the words “hill and heel”, “bed and bird”, “birth and bet”, “lash and lass”, “though and door”, “shore and sore”, “radar and rather”, “thin and tin”, “then and den”, “met and mat”, and so forth.
Possibly going through a 4S programme will help us be more correct in the use of English – and teach others to do the same.
The 4S method may indeed be a part of the solution to our literacy problem in PNG. 
More information about possible 4S programmes in the future can be obtained by emailing Musch at [email protected] or visit the website at www.imla.org.au.