The Power of Literacy

It’s more than teaching people how to read

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Literacy is essential for enabling people to read and study their translated Scriptures. Literacy specialists develop alphabets, facilitate development of reading materials, and equip mother-tongue literacy teachers. We desire for literacy to become a way of life to pave the way for reading and responding to God’s Word.

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Elisabeth looked like any other woman in her small West African town. Her soft, brightly colored blouse and long, wrap-around skirt showed signs of fading and wear. She wore her hair in tight, intricate braids woven by a neighbor. Her nine-month-old daughter was nestled snugly against her back in a cloth sling tied with precision around her body.

When missionaries from Pioneer Bible Translators offered an adult literacy class, she was immediately interested and determined to learn to read Scripture on her own. She attended class faithfully and worked diligently in the few precious hours that remained after completing her daily tasks, often studying late into the night. Her persistence propelled her to the top of her class. She became a leader of the literacy movement among the local women, most of whom had never even held a pencil before coming to their first class.

Elisabeth did not keep the benefits of being literate to herself. She started Bible studies in her town, reading Scripture to non-literate women in the evenings by the light of a kerosene lantern. Her ability to read enabled her to start several businesses, transforming the economic situation of her family and community. And she dreamed of doing even more, like writing stories in her own language that would lead others to faith.

Tragically, this dream was never fulfilled. Elisabeth’s life was cut short by a severe asthma attack when she was only 30 years old. She left behind a husband, young children, and a potential future of many years of teaching and serving others in the church. Yet although her life ended abruptly and prematurely, Elisabeth’s legacy lives on in the lives of the women with whom she had shared the Word of God and the gift of reading.

Elisabeth’s story captures beautifully the essence of how gaining access to Scripture through literacy can change a life, a family and a community.

LITERACY IS A KEY COMPONENT of the mission and vision of Pioneer Bible Translators to provide enduring access to God’s Word in every language. The ability to read empowers people to unlock the treasure trove of written Scripture. A Bible translator in Papua New Guinea describes the significance of literacy in this way: “If you only hear the Word once, it won’t sink in and transform you. You need to be able to go back and expose yourself to it. Each time, something different comes out and speaks to your current situation.” Literacy, then, is a lens that allows people to explore the panoramic vistas of the world of Scripture—a world of which they might otherwise catch only fleeting glimpses.

The development of literacy “from the ground up” in a Bible translation project is a robust, multi-stage process.

The first step in tilling the soil of a culture to receive the seeds of literacy is to establish how the language will be written. Its orthography (alphabet) must be developed. To accomplish this, a literacy specialist works closely with the local people to identify all the sounds in the language and decide how they will be written. These decisions must take into account people’s expectations about what their written language should look like, government policies and, in some places, the alphabet used for “holy writings.” Once a tentative alphabet has been developed, it must be tested rigorously. For literacy to bear the fruit of fluent readers, the alphabet must be intuitive, efficient and clear.

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“Writing” in the air helps these literacy students in West Africa reinforce the shapes and sounds of the letters they are learning.

 The next step in the literacy process is to conduct writers’ workshops in which the local people are encouraged to write down their legends, histories, fables, proverbs and similar material as well as stories of recent and current events. These stories are valuable in many ways. Analyzing how people actually spell the words in their stories may reveal aspects of the alphabet that need to be revised. Distributing copies of the stories, then seeking feedback on their readability, gives additional information critical to finalizing the alphabet. And finally, they provide the beginnings of a body of local literature to help foster the habit—and hopefully the love—of reading in their own language.

Once the alphabet is established, two kinds of primers must be developed for teaching people to read. One, a transfer primer, enables people who are already literate in another language, such as the national language or the one used for religious instruction, to “transfer” this knowledge into reading their mother tongue. Transfer primers begin by reviewing already-familiar letters and sounds, then teach those that are new. Traditional primers, for people who are learning to read for the first time, introduce each letter and its corresponding sound, using pictures of common objects to teach and reinforce. Careful attention to the sequence in which the letters are taught enables students to sound out words after only a few lessons and to begin reading whole sentences and even short stories not long after that.

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A Papua New Guinean boy practices reading Luke in his mother tongue. Teaching children to read helps ensure that the next generation of church and community leaders will be able to read God’s Word in the language of their hearts.

The next step in the process of fostering literacy is to offer literacy instruction. Students each receive a primer which they use in class and then take home in order to review, complete assignments and perhaps even begin sharing the gift of reading with others in their family who are not able to attend the classes. Although literacy classes may at first be conducted by missionaries, the goal is to train literate mother-tongue speakers to teach others to read, increasing their ministry exponentially.

At this stage, new readers taking their first steps in the world of literacy may be teetering and wobbling along unsteadily. While their initial steps might be clumsy and off-balance, with practice and persistence they can become confident readers. The collections of stories created as a result of writers’ workshops are invaluable at this point. Additionally, Bible stories and translated Scripture selections give additional reading practice and help plant and water the seeds of the Gospel.

Throughout the entire process, literacy serves naturally as a vehicle for evangelism and discipleship. As they live and work among a group of people, literacy specialists cultivate relationships with local people and earn their trust. They are invited into their homes. They laugh with them, cry with them, help them welcome new children into the village, and stand with them as they say farewell to loved ones. They build emotional credibility, which paves the way for spiritual receptivity.

A strong desire to learn how to read is common among the people served by Pioneer Bible Translators. “Literacy is a felt need for those who are hungering for God’s Word,” affirms a church planter serving in West Africa. He has seen literacy efforts in his region open doors to people who were previously inaccessible. Additionally, literacy “facilitates the work of church planting as it gets people deeper into God’s Word.” It is an essential complement to the work of church planting. 

LITERACY IS MORE THAN SIMPLY teaching people how to read; it opens up a new way of living. It provides a path to Scripture for people who otherwise would not have it. It is a vital tributary that converges with the broader river of the Bible translation process itself, and they flow together naturally and beautifully to provide enduring access to God’s Word.

You Can Pray:
  • for consensus in developing alphabets for previously unwritten languages
  • for effective strategies that overcome barriers to literacy
  • for adults and children to become fluent readers of God’s Word

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