Posted by Joe Smith


To mark World Literacy Day on September 8, I am taking a look at the issue of literacy from a Nicaraguan perspective.

For much of the 35 years since the 1979 Revolution, literacy has been a central concern in Nicaraguan education policy. After four decades of the Somozas’ dictatorship which had seen it as unnecessary for the majority of the population, the Sandinista government set about a mass literacy campaign within months of coming to power.

The literacy brigades of 1980 not only set out to eradicate illiteracy, but also to encourage understanding and political integration at all levels of society. Regardless of what its critics say, it was a major triumph for egalitarianism which had taken a battering under the Somozas.

A national census found that about 50% of the population was illiterate, with figures as high as 75% in rural areas. Tens of thousands of volunteers, many of school-going age, were dispatched to tackle the problem. To be considered literate students had to be able to perform a series of tasks including writing their own name, reading text aloud and writing a sentence dictated to them. Within five months illiteracy figures had officially dropped to below 13% and the programme was branded a success.

But in rural areas cut off from access to basic services, illiteracy remains a major problem today. Ten years of civil war that followed the campaign of 1980, and further years of economic reconstruction evidently took their toll.

Nuevas Esperanzas recently conducted its own literacy test in the community of Agua Fría to gauge how much written material it could use in its training sessions. The test consisted of a reading comprehension aimed at Nicaraguan fourth graders – 9 to 10 year olds.

The results were mixed and, on the whole, varied depending on the number of years spent in education. Many of the older participants had only completed primary school, while the younger ones had done two or three years of secondary, and only one was completing his final year of secondary.

With more recent investment in education it is not uncommon to see primary and secondary school children with higher levels of literacy than their parents and the results reflected this. Older participants with less schooling struggled with most of the test. The younger participants fared better, but their comprehension was still low and they found it hard to understand and explain passages using their own words.

Although education – or access to education – has evidently improved, even those graduating from secondary school did not excel. This may be down to a tradition of rote learning and lack of critical thinking. In rural areas, having a school at all is still a luxury. Until just a few years ago the community of El Caracol did not have a school building and classes were often held outdoors. Nuevas Esperanzas helped build a basic building consisting of a few wood pillars with a zinc roof. But improvements are still needed as this lets in heavy rain in winter, ruining books and halting classes. Desks and materials have to be stored at a neighbouring house overnight.

Girls are further disadvantaged in these areas. Often they are removed from school to help with tasks around the house. And even for those who complete primary education, travelling to secondary school in town is normally out of the question unless a nearby relative is willing to offer lodging.

In 2005 the United Nations Human Development Report found that Nicaragua spent just £32 ($57) per year on education per child under 15 years of age. In the same year the United States spent 178 times as much, and the UK was not far behind. Even neighbouring Costa Rica spent about 13 times more per pupil.

There is little doubt that literacy and education have improved over the last 35 years. But there is still clearly some way to go eradicate illiteracy amongst the most marginalized children, as well as those members of the older generation who fell between the cracks and are still functionally illiterate.

More information about Nicaragua’s literacy campaign can be found here.