On a rainy Tuesday in June, Amanda — a forty-five-year-old woman from St James, Trinidad — sits at a desk in the Harvard Club in Port of Spain, writing carefully in a workbook. She is one of fifteen students in an Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA) class, separated into two groups by a whiteboard on which tutors write words like “might,” “cut,” and “part.” The Level I students, who have already mastered letter formation and simple sight words, are moving on to phonics, comprehension, and simple sentences. On the other side of the board, Level II students are practicing with the same words.
“I always have a problem with spelling,” says Amanda, a Level II student, after class is finished. ALTA lessons, she says, “give me a little more confidence. I know I’m not a hundred per cent there yet, but if I stick with it, I will get there.” Amanda has never met Paula Lucie-Smith, ALTA’s founder and one of the main architects of the programme. “I don’t know the person, but God bless her.”
Lucie-Smith built ALTA from the ground up. It’s now twenty years old, and has taught thousands of adults in Trinidad and Tobago how to read and write. Although UNICEF lists the adult literacy rate in the country at ninety-nine per cent, ALTA’s statistics put it much lower. Lucie-Smith doesn’t like to say “illiterate” — in Trinidad, she says, “They think that if you can’t read you have no other thinking skills.” Instead she talks of “non-readers,” persons with “low-level literacy,” and persons with “high-level literacy.” A 1994 ALTA survey found twenty-three per cent of the population were non-readers, unable to read or write a simple sentence; a University of the West Indies study a year later found only forty-five per cent of the population had high-level literacy, and were able to read and write a paragraph such as could be found in a newspaper.
Lucie-Smith is quick to gloss over her own achievements in favour of discussing the work of the non-profit organisation she founded two decades ago. In an interview at the ALTA building on Belmont Circular Road, on the other side of Port of Spain, she is a witty, earnest subject, smiling widely and often. The wall behind her desk is crammed with certificates for some of the many public service awards she has collected. She says her staff made her put the items on the wall for a photo she had to take. Her 2001 Hummingbird Gold Medal, a Trinidad and Tobago national award, isn’t there, and neither is her 2012 Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Award for Excellence in Public and Civic Contributions, which came with a cheque for TT$500,000. In over three hours of conversation, she mentions neither honour, instead talking at length about the problems of literacy, teaching, and the adult students whose lives she and ALTA seek to change.
Each year, ALTA trains about a hundred new tutors. It also holds seventy adult literacy classes at more than fifty venues, mobilising over three hundred tutors, and teaches two thousand students annually. It started as a two-man operation in Lucie-Smith’s home; now it employs several permanent staff, owns a building, and conducts classes all over Trinidad and Tobago, even training tutors in the prisons to do peer-to-peer teaching.
Lucie-Smith is a member of an old French Creole family on her mother’s side, and her father is English. She won an Island Scholarship on graduating from St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain. After leaving Warwick University with a BA in history, she had just completed a post-graduate certificate in education at the University of Leicester when she moved back home to teach social studies at a senior comprehensive school.
“I had students in my class who could not read, and they were expected to be operating at a very different level,” she recalls. “As a teacher with a CXC curriculum, you can’t stop for the non-readers. You can’t do it in class time, and it’s hard to deal with it out of class time. Most of them were boys, fifteen- to seventeen-year-old boys, who don’t want at that point for anybody to know they can’t read. They’re hiding even from themselves, so it’s difficult to even offer help, because they’re trying to avoid the discussion at all and thinking they can get by without it. They’ve built up a lot of coping strategies at that point.”
Cut to 1990: International Literacy Year. Having left teaching to start her family, Lucie-Smith saw an ad recruiting adult literacy tutors for a government programme. Though she never completed the training, because she contracted dengue fever three days in, she nevertheless found herself posted to teach classes at the Woodbrook Government Secondary School in Port of Spain. “It was a rather unprepared start,” she ruefully recalls. All the equipment they got was “a chalk and a jersey.” She and her fellow tutor, Emlyn Davis, had to design the course and make their own teaching materials. They bought books and spoke to educational psychologists, including Dr Esla Lynch, a prominent teacher of dyslexic and learning-disabled students.
“By 1992, what spurred us to form an association was we had students coming to the Woodbrook class who were living in Cunupia,” Lucie-Smith says. (Cunupia is a rural community about sixteen miles, or three taxi routes, away from Woodbrook.) “We would say, ‘Surely you can find a class closer to you,’ and they’d say no. All we could find was one lady teaching in South, one in Diego Martin, and then us teaching in Woodbrook.” Though the government had trained five hundred tutors in 1990, two years later the tutors had mostly vanished. Lucie-Smith wanted to find them. “The idea was that we could bring all the teachers together so that we could refer teachers to [the students].”
She soon discovered that many of those trained had no interest in actually tutoring. ALTA began its own training programme, and put in measures to ensure nobody comes to earn a quick certificate and vanish again. Candidates pay a small deposit, and only get certified after having done a year as volunteer tutors with ALTA. “You have to almost make it difficult to volunteer, so that you really get the people who want to do it.”
Over the years, ALTA has developed its own teaching materials, including over sixty books written by Lucie-Smith herself. She learned how to write textbooks in her teacher training in Britain, and after delving into courses and books on teaching dyslexics, she created a system that emphasises word recognition through directed discovery, and uses materials that are relevant to students’ lives. A Level I text, for example, opens with a series of advertisements such as might be seen in any newspaper. Further along in the book are some grown-up jokes — even one that makes a reference to domestic violence — and it ends with a personal data form the students have to fill out themselves. Level I students at the Harvard Club class took many minutes to write down their nationality, ID card number, and marital status.
“For people who have difficulty with reading and writing, the world is getting smaller and smaller,” Lucie-Smith notes. “The world is based on reading and certification, and you have to express in words what you can do. Even the most practical of subjects has a theory side. In years gone by, you’d work with a plumber and you’d learn like that. You never needed certification.”
More than anything, what comes across from Lucie-Smith is her interest not only in teaching literacy, but in removing the stigma from adults who have to learn how to read and write. “If you can’t sing, you don’t feel ashamed, you just can’t sing,” she says. To her, reading and writing are just the same.