Beginning in 1986, I served as an early childhood teacher trainer in Haiti. At that time, the preschools I was working with were using a simple but effective curriculum developed by UNICEF, TImoun Byen Vini. Embedded in the play, socialization and a nutritious meal were beginning literacy concepts in Haitian Kreyol (the language spoken in Haiti) such as print awareness, alphabet recognition, phonemic and phonics activities — all the reading readiness skills that would poise preschoolers for reading success later on. It was a highly successful program, and when I was evacuated from Haiti in 1987 and continued my Peace Corps service in Paraguay, a similar UNICEF program, Mita’I Roga, was being used.
Flash forward 26 years, and I’m currently serving as the Literacy Specialist for Peace Corps. More than 20 posts across the globe are working in literacy and early-grade reading as primary projects, and even more Volunteers do secondary projects focused on literacy, reading and writing, and enhancing literacy in their communities through books and reading. Much like the focused efforts of the UNICEF programs I worked with as a Volunteer, our efforts today focus on the foundational skills young learners need to “crack the code” of reading.
Today, Volunteers use numerous components to teach literacy and support hosts community counterpart teachers, including:
- The “big books” method employs large books – often two feet tall or more – that include simple texts and well known stories so children can clearly see letters and words, which leads to easy identification of letters, words and patterns and helps with critical skills for reading readiness.
- Read-alouds are a favorite method in early childhood settings and focus on reading fluency by modeling intonation, pauses and sentence flow.
- Teacher book clubs and finding creative ways to enhance the literate environment outside of the classroom are also important methods.
Peace Corps Volunteers involved with literacy employee time-tested strategies and activities to get their students and communities excited about reading:
Literacy Camps and Clubs: Youth camps and after-school clubs that focus on reading and literacy skills enhancement through writing and speaking are among the most frequent PCV-initiated activities. In 2012 in Belize, Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Micronesia/FSM, Namibia, Peru, and Paraguay, Volunteers organized and led summer literacy camps. The camps included literacy games, library time and physical education. In Fiji, Volunteers and co-workers organized weekend programs for primary schoolchildren to attend story reading time to promote reading and encourage a love for books.
School and Classroom Literacy: Volunteers help primary school students improve their reading, writing and comprehension skills through direct teaching, co-teaching and remedial instruction. In 2012 Volunteers in The Gambia, Jamaica, Namibia, Guyana, the Philippines and Vanuatu facilitated classes in English literacy and phonics instruction. In Belize, Eastern Caribbean, Guyana, Mozambique, Paraguay, Jordan, The Gambia, South Africa and Zambia, Volunteers modeled new strategies for reading and writing instruction and trained teachers to use reading and comprehension assessments to better address literacy needs. In Panama and The Gambia, Volunteers introduced elements of a read-aloud as a teaching strategy to teachers and groups of students.
Community Literacy: Volunteers organize community-based literacy opportunities for youth and adults in many countries. In the Eastern Caribbean, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Namibia, Rwanda and Swaziland, Volunteers organized and facilitated literacy and numeracy classes for community members in 2012. Volunteers in Vanuatu conducted workshops for parents in the community and taught them games and activities to promote literacy and reinforce learning in the home. At local soup kitchens in Paraguay, Volunteers conduct reading clubs where they work with the cooks to teach reading, art and life skills. Once a week they take children from the soup kitchen to the local library. In Guyana, Volunteers and counterparts attended Parent Teacher Association meetings and provided and facilitated sessions on how parents can better support their children and improve their literacy skills at home.
Literacy Centers and Libraries: Volunteers in all regions are involved in improving, organizing and developing libraries and literacy centers to enhance local access to books and literacy resources. In 2012 in Armenia, Benin, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Colombia, Guyana, Jamaica, Malawi, Mongolia, Paraguay, Samoa, Sierra Leone, South Africa, The Gambia, Togo, and Tonga, Volunteers helped create and renovate local libraries, sought reading materials and trained local staff in library management. Volunteers also worked to transform existing libraries into engaging and dynamic learning environments. In Vanuatu, Volunteers and their work partners promoted the concept of classroom libraries by taking books that are designated by grade or level out of the main school library and placing them in classrooms. They then held teacher workshops to address how to best use a classroom library.
Using Instructional Technology (ICT) for Literacy: In Cameroon in 2012, Volunteers worked with their counterparts to organize seminars on teaching. They used ICT to cultivate the four skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing in their classrooms. In Panama, Volunteers used technology to help teachers understand reading assessments, presenting the results of reading diagnostics to teachers in the form of pie charts that utilize Microsoft Excel. In Peru, Volunteers and their counterparts, in collaboration with schools, local libraries and youth centers, provided computer workshops for youth, parents and community members.
There are so many ways that Peace Corps Volunteers can influence their community members for life through reading, and I hope you will join me in celebrating everyone involved with literacy on World Literacy Day 2013.
Joan Cohen-Mitchell is the Literacy Specialist at Peace Corps. She has an M.Ed. in nonformal education and Ed.D. in Educational Policy, Research and Administration with a focus on literacy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has more than 25 years experience working in program design, development, evaluation and training design and delivery in adult and nonformal education, basic education, literacy and early childhood programs in Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Namibia, the Eastern Caribbean and throughout Massachusetts. She has taught graduate and undergraduate courses at UMass, SIT, and Greenfield Community College. She is an RPCV having served in Haiti and Paraguay and has worked as a pre-service Trainer in Haiti and Costa Rica.