Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Language and Education

pp 724-737

Literacies in Latin America

  • Judy KalmanAffiliated withDepartment de Investigaciones Educativas–Cinvestav, Center for Advanced Study and Research


Latin America is a heterogeneous region with deep cultural, social, economic and linguistic differences. International agencies such as UNESCO, World Bank, and the Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL) refer to the region as Latin America and the Caribbean in order to include not only the land mass stretching from Mexico to Argentina but also the small English, Spanish, and French‐speaking islands as well. Disparities in class, race, language, and ethnicity shape literacy in Latin America. In 2000, 20% of the region's income was earned by 5% of the population and 46% of all families were identified as living below the poverty line. Countries such as Brazil, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti still have illiteracy rates above 10% and this figure tends to increase among indigenous peoples. As a region, Latin America has high educational gender equality. Male and female enrollment is nearly equal and the difference between genders in adult literacy statistics is just 4%. However, indigenous peoples are more likely to be illiterate than other groups. Indigenous women are more likely to be illiterate than indigenous men and although illiteracy in urban centers tends to be 6%, it is twice that in rural areas. Any discussion of literacy in Latin America needs to contemplate this socioeconomic reality as well as the history of literacy in the region, the role of schooling in the dissemination of reading and writing, and education policies promoted by international agencies (La Belle, 2000; Prins, 2001; Rivero, 2000; Seda Santana, 2000).

Early Developments

School is the social institution traditionally responsible for the education of readers and writers. Starting as early as the 1950s, Latin American countries made universal literacy a national goal and began expanding their school systems in order to guarantee all children a place in a classroom. As a result, literacy rates climbed to 70% in the 1970s, reaching 89% region wide in 2005 (La Belle, 2000; Socialwatch.​org, 2005). While most children enroll in school, many fail the early grades and/or drop out before finishing their primary education, creating a potential population for adult education and literacy programs (Ferreiro and Schmelkes, 1999). However, the role of formal schooling of children should not be underestimated. Latapi and Ulloa ( 1993) studied the relationship between schooling and the dissemination of literacy. After considering the expansion of the Mexican public school system and adult literacy programs and policies, they concluded that declined illiteracy rates were due more to the growth of formal education, rather than programs designed to teach adults to read and write given the steady increase in school attendance and terminal efficiency and the disappointing outcomes of adult literacy programs.

By the late 1960s, official programs linked literacy to economic development and employment. Seda Santana ( 2000, p. 41) notes that “the general premise was that industrialized countries have high levels of literacy and therefore reading and writing were necessary conditions for national development.” Adult literacy curricula tended to emphasize alfabetización or the learning of letters and sounds and then postalfabetización, the development of so‐called complex skills and abilities considered necessary for the job market. However, many organizers of nonformal education programs associated literacy with Paulo Freire's theories of consciousness raising and oriented their efforts towards building a more socially and politically aware population. Perhaps the best‐known endeavor of this type was the literacy campaign in Nicaragua. Before the revolution of 1979, clandestine educational activity persisted for many years. Following the fall of Somoza, the National Literacy campaign, involving 150,000 student volunteers was launched. Employing Freire's methodology, the campaign used short narratives based on the nation's recent struggle as the basis for their program. The organizers claim to have reduced illiteracy in 3 months from 50.3 to 12.98, although there is not a clear picture of the types or depth of literacy achieved (Freeland, 1995; Hornberger, 1997; La Belle, 2000; Lankshear, 1988; Miller, 1985).

The dominant language in continental Latin America is Spanish, except for Brazil where Portuguese is spoken. Over 400 indigenous languages exist in the region, some of them with fewer than 10,000 speakers. In countries such as Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru, the rate of illiteracy among the indigenous population is much higher than the nonindigenous population. One clear example of this phenomenon is Guatemala, a multilingual country with 15 languages having 10,000 or more speakers each. Data from 1993 put illiteracy among the indigenous population at 79%, as compared to 40% among the nonindigenous population (Psacharopoulos and Patrinos, 1993). Most of the literature on illiteracy and indigenous languages centers on bilingualism and national identity, the importance of literacy for development, the right to education in the mother tongue, and educational programs and policies. Shirley Brice Heath's 1972 publication of La Politica del lenguaje en México: De la colonia a la nación is one of the earliest in‐depth studies of the issues from a sociolinguistic perspective (Heath, 1972).

It is important to note that not all prehispanic languages were unwritten. While Quechua, the lingua franca of the Inca empire was agraphic, several Mesoamerican languages were not. In Mexico, writing developed around 600 b. c. and was passed on from one culture to another. At the time of the Spanish conquest, for example, the Mayans engraved stone and wrote glyphs on folded sheets of amate, a paper made from the bark of a local tree. Scribes and priests used writing to record historical events, sacred texts, almanacs, astronomical calculations, and mathematics. The Spanish destroyed the amate codices and prehispanic literacy as part of their policy to impose social and cultural dominion in the New World (King, 1994). While local literacy was shattered, the conquerors introduced their writing system and uses of written language as an instrument of authority, still associated by many with colonial power and domination (Zavala, 2005).

Education programs developed for speakers of indigenous languages have historically been based on transition models and cultural assimilation policies aimed at building a homogeneous national identity. Schooling for indigenous children and education for adults has involved either teaching the colonial language and then reading and writing or creating a written representation of local languages and using it to teach reading and writing as an intermediate step towards literacy in the dominant language (Freeland, 2003). Programs designed for adults have had different outcomes but most have been unsuccessful. Adults often do not register for programs, and if they do, they tend to drop out before completing them. Cutz and Chandler ( 2001) have noted that ethnic identity requires adults to adhere to standards of behavior that identify them with their communities. This may include working in the fields or the forests, dressing in typical clothing, and speaking their language. Literacy and/or the learning of Spanish may be seen as a sign of disrespect.

Research during the 1970s and the 1980s was mostly instrumental in nature, oriented towards material development and program design and description. However, there are some notable exceptions. The most prominent literacy theorist in Latin America is Paulo Freire (Freire, 1970), well known for his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, ideas about banking education and his advocacy for conscientizaçao—conscious raising learning processes. His work is still widely referenced by adult literacy program designers, informal education programs, and grassroots organizations and is used as a theoretical basis for the development of pedagogical actions in Latin America and beyond. Another early contribution was made by Ferreiro and Teberosky with the publication of their book (Ferreiro and Teberosky, 1979). Using a Piagetian framework, these two researchers from Argentina unearthed the process of conceptualization involved in understanding the alphabetic principle. This work has been the basis for rethinking emergent literacy throughout the region.

Major Contributions

During the 1970s and 1980s, various countries in Latin America were ruled by military dictatorships and authoritative regimes or engaged in civil war. The impact of these extreme circumstances on human rights, combined with the general decline in living standards, fostered social movements during these years. According to La Belle ( 2000), women were protagonists of these social movements. Their momentum was assisted in 1980 by the United Nations declaration of the Decade for Women. Many of the activities that women engaged in combined various forms of social action with literacy efforts (Prins, 2001). Recent publications explore women's literacy learning and experiences within community‐based organizations, official programs, and religious organizations (Aikman and Untehalter, 2005; King, 1998; Medel‐Añonuevo, 1997; Prins, 2001; Purcell‐Gates and Waterman, 2000). A recurring theme in this literature is the role literacy classes play as spaces for socialization (Kalman, 2005; Stromquist, 1997). Women tend to be confined to their households and hindered by domestic responsibilities and oppressive family structures with few opportunities to interact with other women. Stromquist observes that “the literacy classes constitute very desirable social spaces. The classroom emerges as a setting that is socially approved for women and can offer services that are not available elsewhere” (p. 90). These services function as a site for social distractions, a self‐help group and an informal social club.

There is consensus in the literature that the majority of current literacy research continues to be instrumental, what Arnove and Torres ( 1995) call “under‐funded and under‐theorized.” Jáuregui, Jeria and Retama ( 2003) note that a great wealth of work has been done on curriculum design and evaluations of performance and quality. Seda Santana ( 2000, p. 49) points out that “in the midst of multiple demands, research has not been a major priority for Latin American countries.” The applied nature of literacy research is due, at least in part, to its close ties to education programs and the sense of urgency to understand and solve what are conceived to be obstacles to obtaining the long‐standing goal of universal literacy. Furthermore, adult literacy tends to be divorced from other areas of educational research and perceived basically as a problem of remediation (Kalman, 2005).

In the late 1990’s, UNESCO supported research on the characteristics of functional literacy. The study, published under the title Functional Illiteracy in Seven Countries in Latin America (Infante, 2000), was carried out in Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Using standardized tests for reading and mathematics, the study aimed to measure adults' abilities to comprehend texts with various degrees of difficulty, to do arithmetic calculations, read graphs, and understand numeric information. One of the most important conclusions was that all those tested showed some knowledge about reading and writing, leading the author to question the widespread belief in a literacy–illiteracy dichotomy. Adults classified in the lower levels of literacy had approximately 6 years of schooling while those with higher reading levels had at least 11 years. This led the researchers to conclude that functional literacy is correlated with at least 6 years of schooling. It should be noted that this finding did not consider more qualitative factors such as opportunities to read and write in everyday contexts or the availability of print materials.

Several studies have recently contributed a more qualitative perspective to a small but growing body of research on literacy, schooling, and social practice in Latin America. A study from Mexico documenting the dissemination of literacy in a semiurban township recently won the UNESCO International Literacy Research Award (Kalman, 2004). In this analysis, the author makes a conceptual distinction between availability (the material conditions for reading and writing) and access (the social conditions for appropriating written culture). She first draws on historical and interview data to portray the development of the town over the last 50 years as a context for using written language. Then she describes in detail a literacy class for some of the townswomen where the local history and culture were backdrops for learning to read and write. She notes that for those whose lives are basically confined to their town, their opportunities for accessing literacy are limited to the reading and writing contexts they encounter there. She concludes that opportunities to interact with other readers and writers are intrinsic in becoming literate.

Rockwell (2001) has also made important contributions to the study of literacy as cultural practice in classroom settings. She draws on Chartier's notion of written culture based on shared practices, artifacts, meanings, and attitudes. Her study centers on reading in a rural school in Mexico analyzing how the layout of the textbook and the ways in which reading was accomplished influenced the outcome of the lesson. She then discusses how students construct changing relationships to the written language through schooling. Zavala ( 2002) published an ethnographic study of Umaca, a small Quechua community of 70 families in the Andes. There she studied the different ways the townspeople perceive written language, how they associate different meanings to reading and writing and struggle with literacy in both their relationship with their traditional culture and with their efforts to relate to the dominant culture. Because written culture has been associated with Spanish and perceived as foreign to Umaca life, people there have never considered literacy as necessary or found its' integration into their lives particularly desirable. Not only did the participants not use literacy in Spanish, they found reading and writing in Quechua cumbersome and pointless.

All of these studies offer a different perspective on the study of literacy. Their goal is to further the understanding of the factors and processes that contribute to the dissemination of written culture, explain why literacy is not always rapidly embraced and recognize the complexity of literacy practices. Overall, this line of research contributes to a growing body of knowledge about literacies in Latin America and beyond. The value of these studies is not the potential for their immediate application in a given program, but the specificity of the cases that they examine.

Work in Progress

One of the ongoing discussions in Latin America and the Caribbean is around the meanings of the term literacy and its representation in different languages. In Spanish, alfabetización ( alfabetização in Portuguese) refers to both the process of learning to read and write and the presence of written language in a given society. Until the 1990s, the notion of literacy as divided into two phases prevailed. This concept claimed that an initial phase involved learning the most rudimentary aspects related to encoding and decoding written language, followed by a second phase of learning how to use written language known as postalfabetización. The majority of programs for unschooled and under‐schooled youths and adults were built on this principle directing their efforts toward the acquisition of an isolated set of mechanical skills. Those unable to recognize the alphabet, name letters, read and write their names, or read and write simple messages were referred to as analfabetos absolutos. Those deemed as lacking in the abilities related to reading, writing, oral expression, and basic arithmetic thought necessary for employment were considered to be analfabetas funcionales. It should be noted that during the last decade these definitions have come under scrutiny. Broader notions of literacy and what it means to be literate have become subjects of dispute. These concepts have been debated in international meetings, academic publications, and among educators and policy makers in the region linking their arguments with similar debates in the international context (cf. Rogers, 2006; Street, 2006; UNESCO, 2005).

Researchers and educators have expressed concerns about the narrowness of the term alfabetización and its tendency to conceal the use of written language as social practice. In Brazil, for example, the term letramento has been used to analyze literacy as social practice and examine its pedagogical implications (Kleinman and Moraes, 1999; Masagao Ribeiro, 2003) whereas in Mexico cultura escrita is currently in use to broaden the concept of alfabetización to include both culture of reading and writing and the culture found in written text. The definition of literacy as social practice (cf. Section 1 of this volume; cf. Street, 2001) now has widespread acceptance, as shown by its recent inclusion in the curriculum for language arts in countries such as Argentina, Mexico, and Chile. However, this does not imply that it has been easily integrated into teaching practices.

In the 1990s, the term “youth” was officially introduced to region‐wide adult education and literacy and education efforts to explicitly refer to the large number of young people who leave school before finishing their basic education. During this period, Latin America has witnessed the proliferation of education programs aimed at reincorporating learners of 15–30 years of age (or more) back into the education system. These programs tend to be more flexible, focusing on the social, economic, and cultural issues young adults face (Jaureguí, Jeria and Retama, 2003). An example of this type of approach is the recent program developed by the Instituto Nacional de Educación para Adultos (INEA) in Mexico. The accelerated basic education program based on academic subjects such as mathematics, science, language arts, and social studies also includes courses based on health, family, domestic violence, child rearing, and employment issues.

The Centro de Cooperación Regional para la Educación de Adultos en América Latina (CREFAL) published in 2003, a theme issue of its journal Decisio on the topic of written culture and Adult Education. This collection of papers, written for literacy practitioners and program designers, emphasized the relationship between written and oral language, the notion of multiple literacies (Robinson‐Pant, Women, Literacy and Development:​ Overview, Volume 2; Rogers, Informal Learning and Literacy, Volume 2), the use of writing as a vehicle for learning and self‐expression, and the complex relationship between those who read and write well and those who want to read and write well. All of these notions extend the traditional boundaries of the concept of alfabetización.

In this discussion of the significance and accomplishment of literacy, the exchange of ideas among researchers, policy makers, and practitioners has become crucial. An ongoing host for this kind of dialogue is the Comunidad E‐ducativa, run by Rosa María Torres of the organization Fronesis. This group serves as a permanent forum for exchanging articles, announcing events, proposing measures and region‐wide declarations. Along with the Fronesis web page http://​www.​fronesis.​org/​, it has become one of the principal resources for keeping up with current literacy and education‐related events.

International agencies continue to play a major role in shaping literacy policies and related programs. As part of the policy aimed at achieving universal primary education (UPE) for all children, UNESCO currently promotes the development of libraries, the publication and distribution of books, and access to information, themes partly articulated through the shift of focus from individuals to ‘literate environments’ signaled in the Global Monitoring Report (Street, 2006; UNESCO, 2005). In Latin Amercia, this has been translated to a series of programs referred to as fomento del hábito de la lectura (promoting reading habits). Currently 19 Latinamerican countries have national reading plans with similar objectives and schemes of action. The Centro Regional para el Fomento del Libro en America Latina y el Caribe (CERLALC), an offspring of UNESCO, provides countries technical support for running their programs, organizing events, training teachers, librarians and other literacy personnel, and circulating information. It is not coincidental that these programs have developed simultaneously: the region is currently facing what has been called an education crisis, provoked at least in part, by the recent concern caused by the low achievement scores that students are obtaining on standardized tests and their poor rating in comparison with students in other countries, even after most Latin American nations have given priority to expanding their school systems over the last 45 years (Peña and Isaza, 2005).

The national reading programs are very similar in approach. They are based on the premise that reading is necessary for the development of democracy, the fight against poverty, the advancement of science and technology and, in general, a higher standard of living (Peña and Isaza, 2005). The idea that reading is essential for personal development, instills morals and values, and contributes to democracy by strengthening national identity and social economic development, is ideologically reminiscent of the 1960s literacy campaigns. The various ministries of public education seek to promote reading beyond the usual language arts curriculum, through book distribution programs for neighborhood groups, schools and public libraries; publishing programs to support the production of reading materials for young people; and working closely with teachers and school.

However, the programs do not exist without critics. Both Hernández (2005) and Zavala ( 2005) note that they operate from a single notion of reading and do not contemplate realities of people in Latin America struggling to get by. Kalman ( 2006) questions the idea that becoming a reader is a matter of habit and argues that written language use is deeply embedded in other communicative processes. Citing Rodriguez (1995) Seda Santana ( 2000) noted that legislating literacy often comes up against the conditions and variations of cultures. Becoming “a region of readers” will only be possible when the social world of diverse groups and cultures are taken into account. All authors agree that the distribution of books alone will not turn people into readers. The appropriation of literacy requires opportunities to interact with other readers and writers and participate in social situations where written language is key to communication (Kalman, 2004; Robinson‐Pant, Women, Literacy and Development:​ Overview, Volume 2; Rogers, Informal Learning and Literacy, Volume 2).

Problems and Difficulties

One problematic situation for countries in this region is the heavy influence that international agencies have in shaping policies and programs. From 1981 to 2000, UNESCO organized and directed its education policies for the region through the Principal Education Project for Latin America and the Caribbean (PPE). From 1981 onward, the main thrust was to promote primary education for children (Ames, 2003; Torres, 2004). Despite the importance official policies gave to literacy and basic educations for adults, few resources were channeled toward these areas. In countries where two‐third of the rural population were illiterate, only 1% or 2% of their education budgets are/were directed to adult education (Arnove and Torres, 1995; Jaureguí et al., 2003). This is partially due to the emphasis in international policy directives on UPE and the following reluctance of national governments to fund to adult literacy and basic education (cf. Rogers, Informal Learning and Literacy, Volume 2). The World Bank has also promoted the idea that investing in education programs for children brings a higher rate of return investing in adults (UNESCO, 2006; World Bank, 2003), although the Global Monitoring Report has scope for reintroducing emphasis on youth and adults (Street, 2006; UNESCO, 2005).

This policy has had several impacts on the direction of literacy work with communities and target populations. It has led educators in the region to separate literacy for children and adults, based on the premise that they could not learn together or from each other. As a result, many opportunities for intergenerational learning may have been missed despite the important findings on parent–child interactions around literacy from research in other contexts (cf. Ames, 2003; Rogers, Informal Learning and Literacy, Volume 2). It has also contributed to adult programs being second rate, depending on untrained volunteers, improvised spaces, and low social prestige. The poor funding and status of adult literacy and basic education has led to the dismantling of important state‐funded organizations previously responsible for designing and coordinating learning opportunities. While many adult literacy initiatives have often been criticized for their irrelevancy, inefficiency, and compensatory nature, these policies have been a major obstacle to professionalizing literacy teachers, systematically documenting programs, and improving practice (Rivero, 1999). The current tendency in Latin America is to think of literacy policy as a two pronged agenda: preventive measures to provide high‐quality education for children and keeping them in school, and the development of programs for marginalized youth and adults (Torres, 1998). In order for this approach to be translated into action, international agencies and lenders will have to reconsider their policies and create mechanisms for more local participation.

Although countries in the region are making efforts to provide education opportunities, both oral and written, to indigenous populations in their own language, literacy in indigenous communities continues to be problematic and insufficiently understood. Today, even with the development of some alphabetic representations, most of these languages are unwritten. The issue of literacy and illiteracy among speakers of indigenous languages poses important questions for the conceptualization of what it means to be literate (King, 1998; Freeland, 2003; Jones and Martin‐Jones, 2000). In the strictest sense, one would have to conceive these cultures and peoples as agraphic, without writing, rather than illiterate, unknowledgeable of writing. In school contexts, indigenous languages continue to be used mostly as a bridge to the dominant language. What is needed is that the local languages be used as a means of communication and reflexion as well as the language of instruction. For writing to thrive, literacy policies will need new strategies that promote the use of writing and the development of indigenous writers who can create written texts from and for their cultures (Ferreiro, 1993). Currently, countries such as Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru are developing programs that emphasize the need to develop a strong sense of identity among learners in addition to learning to speak, read, and write both the dominant and indigenous languages. If the context allows it, this would also include teaching indigenous languages to nonindigenous speakers (Schmelkes, 2006).

Research in literacy has been characterized as dispersed and weak: it is permeated by a sense of immediacy that overrides other agendas. In general, universities and other institutions of higher education lack the infrastructure, the funding, and qualified personnel in this field. For this reason, much of what is available in local publications is centered on immediate program applications, program evaluations, material development, and policy analysis. There is an urgent need for a broader research agenda, graduate programs for training of new researchers, and increased collaboration and academic exchanges among researchers.

Future Directions

Globalization has caused important changes in national economic policies. One of the results of the incursion of Latin American countries into international markets has been economic growth during the 1990s, in some cases as high as 6.9%. Despite this statistic, the impact for local employment has been devastating (Hernández, 2005). Formal jobs are scarce and increasingly replaced by the rapid expansion of the informal economy: jobs located outside the formal social structures of work that do not adhere to labor laws, wage conditions, or social security and benefit regulations. They often include exchange mechanisms involving bartering, and activities such as household‐based domestic work, day laborers, street vendors, and social services based on self‐help. It is currently estimated that 40% of the work force in Latin America is informally employed, and the number is rising (La Belle, 2000).

Young adults in contexts of poverty are likely to end up in the informal sector. Often unschooled or under‐schooled, they are ill‐prepared for other types of employment. Recent research has reiterated that for survival in this job market, workers need to know how to read and write, make decisions in situations of great uncertainty, negotiate with customers, and calculate costs. For education programs to be relevant for young people and adults working in this environment, planners will have to contemplate the types of literacies and knowledges workers mobilize in this rapid expanding sector. Some activists would also argue that what we should really be doing is working to change this economic structure but that is beyond the scope of literacy programs alone and of this paper. The recent election of more governments with a stronger social agenda such as Michel Bachelet in Chile and Evo Morales in Bolivia is a reflection of these concerns.

Over the last four decades, urban spaces have been decorated with slogans and graffiti sprayed on walls, facades, or under bridges. Even the most unreachable spaces are turned into public displays of youngsters' loyalties and group affiliations. Murals exhibit common cultural icons that have been resignified to account for globalized urban identities (Valenzulea Arce, 1997). These and other types of representations are currently all but absent from research or considerations for literacy planning. Knowledge about people’s meaning‐making processes is important for thinking about their inclusion in written culture. Everyday literacy practices, alternative sources of text, popular literature, and symbolic representations form a fertile ground for both research and development.

New directions in literacy research should also include the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) (see Leander and Lewis, Literacy and Internet Technologies, Volume 2). Present efforts are concerned with the distribution of equipment and “technological readiness” while the ways in which ICTs shape literacy use (how people learn to use these technologies, the place they play in everyday communication, or how new formats and connectivity are inserted into the language life of communities) are still unexplored. The impact of handheld devices and the types of transformations in reading and writing messages has not been investigated. While there have been some experiences in using computers in classrooms in Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and other parts of the region, there is an assumption that their mere presence in schools will improve learning. It is often assumed that past curricular contents of literacy will continue to be essential for the future. As a result, computers have been installed in classrooms without much thought given to how teachers and learners will use them.

In the last decades, literacy in Latin America has been contextualized by tensions for educators, policy makers, and researchers. Literacy has been seen as a step towards the labor market and at the same time as part of the road to liberation. It has been promoted as a means of cultural assimilation as well as the means for preserving local cultures. It has been prioritized for children yet almost abandoned for adults; and efforts to understand literacy have been so instrumental in nature that many questions remain unanswered. A deeper view of literacy in everyday life, the emergence of ICTs, the role of symbolic representations in identity building among youth, indigenous people, women and other historically marginalized groups will contribute to the development of a broader notion of literacy in Latin America. In turn, this understanding can help frame new courses of action for shaping literacy in this part of the world.

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