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Literacy for real

A four-year project implemented in three schools encourages improvements and discovers failures in public education

Literacy class at USP’s Application School, one of three included in the project to build a program for the early grades of primary school

Leo RamosLiteracy class at USP’s Application School, one of three included in the project to build a program for the early grades of primary schoolLeo Ramos

The numbers are official. According to the results of the National Literacy Assessment (ANA) in 2014, announced in September 2015 by the Ministry of Education (MEC), one in five children in the 3rd year of public school primary education is only able to read single words, and 56.7% can only locate specific information in a long text if it is in the first line.

By the 3rd year—which ends the first cycle of primary education—children should have attained literacy. Since this goal was often unrealistic, the National Pact for Literacy at the Right Age (PNAIC) was created in 2012; it represented a commitment by federal, state and local governments to try to reach it. Two years earlier, also with the aim of improving these statistics, compulsory primary education was extended to nine years, which added a year to the literacy process.

“New policies are created, but no one looks ahead to how they’re going to work,” says Claudemir Belintane, a professor at the School of Education of the University of São Paulo (USP). Although net enrollment numbers have reached almost the entire school-age population, the shortcomings in teaching literacy are not a cause for celebration. “We no longer have selective schools, but rather students who feel excluded within the classroom,” says Belintane. He notes that a single classroom teacher is almost never aware of the literacy level of all the students who come to school with differing degrees in the ability to read and write. “So they find a middle standard, supporting students who are prepared and ready to learn and neglecting those who are not,” says Belintane. However, differences are natural in any group of students. “We need to understand that diversity does not necessarily bring with it problematic students, but different ways of learning the written word based on the culture of each student,” he says.

Between 2011 and 2014, Belintane headed the project entitled “The challenge of teaching reading and writing within the context of nine years of primary education,” backed by the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes). Its objective was to build a literacy and reading proposal for the first cycle. The project was developed at the Application Schools of USP and the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), and at a public school in Pau dos Ferros, overseen by researchers from Rio Grande do Norte State University (UERN). In all, 326 children were involved in the study; undergraduate and graduate students of the three institutions participated while the schools’ teachers received scholarships to participate in the research.

An assessment performed by the researchers—12-15 in each school—found that more than 90% of students were literate, in addition to having “a high level of reading and textual production.” The good results were confirmed by the ANA assessment of the USP school. Before the project, the grades from these schools under the Basic Education Development Index (Ideb) of the Ministry of Education were very different: 7.3 for São Paulo, 5.8 for Pará and 4.9 for Rio Grande do Norte. No subsequent evaluation has been done by Ideb.

Both verification and intervention were in play simultaneously, with an ambitious scope, which included diagnosis and ongoing student assessments, research into teacher training and developing a policy for coordination between grades and between cycles. “While we did research, we also improved teaching from one year to the next,” says Belintane. The first year, 2011, was one of introduction and organization of the first grade; we encountered some resistance and teachers underwent a period of adaptation. Belintane noticed a willingness on the part of teachers in general to welcome “a big interruption” in their classroom routines. “Nine years of primary education was beginning to be introduced and no one knew exactly what to do,” he says. “This gave us an argument to propose changes in the cycle program.”

Password game, with recombining of syllables, before entering the classroom

LÉO RAMOSPassword game, with recombining of syllables, before entering the classroom…LÉO RAMOS

Telling stories
The intervention emphasized orality as an introductory element to literacy and the use of various media to teach reading and writing, including electronic media. Belintane has researched and advocates the importance of orality; he wrote the book Oralidade e alfabetização – Uma nova abordagem da alfabetização e do letramento [Orality and Literacy – A new Approach to Literacy] (Cortez Editora, 2014), which was based in part on earlier research, done with the support of FAPESP in a state school west of the city of São Paulo. A new book on the subject is scheduled for 2016, now with a database and observations based on the latest research. In addition to journal articles, the Challenges Project, as it became known among the participants, has so far generated four doctoral theses and six master’s dissertations, as well as a documentary film now in the editing stage.

The use of orality strategies encompassed storytelling and games such as riddles, tongue twisters and rhymes. These practices, originating from folk tradition, are part of a kind of collective memory, but are often overlooked in classrooms. “For teachers who are not used to using them, I ask them to go back to their own childhood memories,” says Belintane. At first, even the storytelling should, according to Belintane, be done ​​by the teacher without written support.

“One of the findings that I brought from previous projects is that Brazil is a country with an oral tradition,” says Belintane. “Students respond well when we have activities that include music, rhyme, meter or storytelling, texts that are recalled from memory. It is not about everyday conversation, which is fragmentary.” Even children who do not like school and become physically agitated in the classroom usually enjoy listening to stories and respond to them by remaining still. Engaging the group in a storytelling circle is also a way of integrating children who tend to be alone.

The idea of working with this kind of material is consistent with forming a textual matrix that will be needed in reading and writing, because it corresponds to narratives. “If students have no narratives in memory, their literacy is uncertain,” says Belintane. Gradually, the teacher will mix storytelling and reading aloud, and then, at a later point, will tell the story orally up to its climax and then present the resolution of the plot in writing—those who have difficulty will read along with a colleague. “Students have to read large amounts of text,” says Belintane. “Government assessments often suggest the text of an advertisement, comic strip or a short text. This improves statistics, but the student who reads slowly is not really a reader. Faced with a large text, the student is lost.”

Belintane is critical of the constructivist theory that children should be exposed to a variety of texts. He believes that in the early grades children’s imagination should be ignited and satisfied. Belintane agrees with the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) when, in criticizing pragmatism in education, he said children should read “useless” things, that is, not necessarily related to the immediate reality they are living in. It’s a different approach than the one advocated by Magda Becker Soares, an educator and professor emeritus of the School of Education of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), and a researcher at its Center for Literacy, Reading and Writing (CEALE). She believes students from the beginning need to be exposed to the social function of writing. “Children become literate in order to read texts operating within a social context and to write about events in which writing is required,” says Soares. “Literacy must be based on texts produced in real situations, with a view to actual readers.”

...the words to be deciphered by children on the blackboard

Léo Ramos…the words to be deciphered by children on the blackboardLéo Ramos

For a long time Belintane has been observing children’s interest in myths, and he often relies on anthologies of folk tales, of indigenous, African or European origin, such as those compiled by Luís da Câmara Cascudo (1898-1986). “Children entering the new first grade are only six years old, but many teachers work almost exclusively with chalk, blackboard and literacy elements, without stimulating their imaginations,” says Belintane. He recommends that teachers dispense with didactic books (especially textbooks) and produce or look for contextualized materials based on an assessment of the students in the class, simultaneously using materials available in paper and also contemporary tools, from films to tablets and computer games.

For those involved in the project coordinated by Belintane, this traditional scheme, centered on the classroom teacher (the one in charge and responsible for the core activities of the classroom), cannot manage the class’s diversity and multiple demands. At the USP Application School, the teacher Natalia Bortolaci—selected based on her experience as a grant recipient under the project in order to do her master’s thesis in education, a curriculum proposal for the new first grade of primary school—participated and closely followed the preparation of procedures for each child in the class. During the project, because more teachers than those employed by the school were present, the classes could be reduced from 30 to 20 students, which made personal attention possible. There were two teachers in each room, one of them to answer “individual questions.” “This made possible more relevant observation and intervention in the case of students with greater difficulty learning or those arriving with less knowledge of school culture,” says Bortolaci.

The Challenges Project encouraged diagnostics with four levels of reading and writing proficiency and classification of the children. Bortolaci says this approach challenged all students to learn more, even those who had already mastered reading and writing. Activities on the same topic but with different degrees of difficulty were held simultaneously. And once a week, the “cycle teacher” invited those having the most difficulty to activities outside the classroom, which focused on orality. On other occasions, the activities mixed two groups together, the idea being that those who knew more would help those who knew less. The experiences at UFPA’s Application School went further, with groups combining students from different grades. The work with four student profiles continued at UFPA even after the project ended. The idea of separating students by skill level is viewed cautiously by many educators. “Separating students draws into the school prejudices that society assigns to the most socially weak,” says Leda Tfouni, a professor at the Ribeirão Preto Faculty of Philosophy, Science and Languages and Literature/USP.

For the diagnostic work of the first grade, the Challenges Project teachers prepared student portfolios at the beginning of the year, which combined the activity logs done in preschool and, where possible, information from parents. Similar work is being carried out under the concept of “hinges” between grades and cycles: at the end and the beginning of the year students of two consecutive grades meet and talk. The work of learning and dialogue with the student is constant. Belintane adopted the concepts of “listening” and “transfer” from psychoanalysis in order to work with students in activities related to literacy. Games and exercises are used to make a deeper contact with children. “The student who is having problems is very sensitive and difficult to deal with objectively; but someone can be present in the class to take care of this without having to resort to an educational psychologist outside of the school environment,” says Belintane.

Class participation and learning to write: attention to uniqueness and students’ imagination

Léo RamosClass participation and learning to write: attention to uniqueness and students’ imaginationLéo Ramos

Teacher training
Listening to the student borrows the “floating attention” idea of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), according to which the seemingly unimportant details of a person’s speech reveal something more profound. It is hoped that in this way students will find the “turning point” from which they go from inability to ability to understand. An example of transfer is one of a student who was very resistant to learning and had a personal history of abandonment; through storytelling activities encouraged by one of the Challenges Project researchers, he identified with the character Tom Thumb (a lonely wanderer), and this was his turning point.

Challenging the practice of constructivist and social interactionist theories—which preach exposing students to the full texts of various genres from the beginning of the literacy process—Belintane believes in using the constituent elements of words—syllables and letters—in combinations and recombinations. At the USP Application School, the teacher, upon entering the classroom, plays a “password” game with students. Without looking, each student picks a card with two words (for example: chuchu [chayote] and vagem (string bean) and tries to form a new word with a syllable from each (chuva [rain]). Another activity involves a list on the blackboard with strange words, which students must rearrange into familiar words by adding and taking away letters.

The shortcomings of literacy teaching perceived during the Challenges Project and in Belintane’s previous research inevitably led to an assessment of teacher training. In his view, anyone who teaches literacy needs to be a “teacher/reader.” “The training of teachers needs to be less ideological, less marked by adherence to the latest trends, and address the actual demands of Brazilian education, especially those of the particular school in which they teach,” says Belintane. “There is a lack of knowledge of literacy techniques and of the resources required to master the alphabet.” Leda Tfouni agrees: “What good is a teacher with a head full of famous theories, without knowing exactly what to do with them?” Belintane believes that the Challenges Project enabled comprehensive education courses for teachers to be rethought and improved at all three universities involved in the Project.