Author: Margaret Hill

Today we are in a very different position from when Bible agencies and churches first started running literacy classes. There are alternatives! We now have many methods of producing, distributing and copying oral Scriptures of many different types. In almost every case where a literacy programme is going nowhere, people will accept oral Scriptures and listen to them.

Several years ago, Margaret Hill wrote an article provocatively titled "How Literacy can Harm Scripture Use". Her thesis was that too many literacy programmes were starting with classes for beginners rather than focusing on transition literacy for the leaders and change agents in society. Such an approach, she argued, is harmful to Scripture engagement.

This article is a follow-up, emphasising the same message and going further to take into account the observation that "increasingly here in Africa we are seeing that many language groups are very interested in using their languages orally, but very uninterested in reading or writing in them".

Rather than "hitting your head against a wall" with struggling literacy programmes, the author calls for a refocusing of strategies and reminds us that audio Scriptures often work very well in such contexts.

Download the article as a PDF document.

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 Brad Willits  |    Tue 26 Aug 2014, 14:09

Margaret's title is quite provocative, but did the article really explain how literacy can "hurt" Scripture Engagement? What I read was the timely reminder that non-print media can be a great choice...something which I agree with totally. I've seen plenty of struggling literacy programs, but I've never seen any of them "hurt" scripture engagement.

 Martin Engeler  |    Fri 29 Aug 2014, 14:37

My comments are based on observations over the last 25+ years in Africa (Cameroon, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and Kenya) some of which I was working directly in Vernacular Media and Scripture Engagement.

I found Margaret's article a bit to bleak in regard to the interest in MT literacy. I would guess, there is truth in about a third of the communities that I have visited, where I saw a strong desire to become more fluent in the official language of that country. But likewise in about two thirds of the communities, I felt a frustration by local people to not get the “real” information out from the Language of wider Communication (LWC) or the National Language (NL), despite their somewhat passable knowledge of the oral or even written form of that language. The reason, why they felt frustrated was, that their schooling in the national or official language, did not provide them with the skills of learning from reading, but just how to read a paragraph more or less haltingly. So once they were faced with instructions on how to prevent AIDS, or how to apply properly fertilizer in their fields, they felt unable to do so with 100% confidence, that they had fully understood what those instructions said.
Because of this many of these people were very interested to enroll in transitional literacy classes (NL to mother tongue (MT) literacy) and benefit from the functional content also taught in these MT literacy classes.
If they were Christians they often also wanted to read the Bible for themselves and not just depend on a five minute long Scripture reading during the Sunday service.

- Is beginners' literacy being promoted too early without paying enough attention to transition literacy? I believe in some cases yes! And I want to emphasize the truth of what Margaret states: “…. If language groups are to take an interest in the written form of their language, Bible translation agencies must begin with influential people who are already literate. This includes, for example, the church pastors. “
Within our family of organisations we need to put a much larger emphasis on touching and reaching out to the key decision makers (or “Elites” as they are often called in Central Africa) in a given community. If a pastor or priest does not feel comfortable in reading fluently his MT Bible, he will not lose face in front of the whole congregation by attempting to read it in Church! If the highly educated and economically successful members in a community don’t know how to read and write their own MT, this gives a clear signal to the rest of the community, that MT reading- and writing-knowledge is not something of high importance. This means, that we need to develop transitional literacy classes for those community members who live in the Diaspora, in the large towns and cities where they have settled. CABTAL in Cameroon, for example, has made some good progress in doing that, including holiday transitional MT literacy classes for the children of those “Elites”. Often these same “Elites” pay the literacy teacher’s accommodation and transport from the home area and even some financial compensation for his/her efforts.

- Are people more interested in listening to local language Scriptures than reading them, and is their desire for literacy rather in the LWC or official language? I know that in Burkina Faso some of our partners have had involvement in MT literacy programs that provided a transition towards the end into the Official Language (OL) due to a very high desire by community members, who had never attended school and/or where there still even today does not exist a single school in their village. I would be very interested to hear from other places, if that had been tried and to what success.

Where formal or non-formal Bible listening groups have been active, I have seen a huge impact in the attendees lives, not just in a higher understanding of God’s Word, but also since many read along in their Gospel booklet or NT, a subsequent higher fluency in reading.