Nancy Samoya remembers very well who taught her how to read.
After coming home from school in her small town of Agua Escondida, Nancy recalls sitting down in the kitchen with her mother for reading sessions.
“She would prepare a space on the table with a newspaper or old magazine because we didn’t have any books in the house,” says Nancy, now a Child Aid literacy trainer. “She would tell me to read a section or we would read it together. In our school, we didn’t have many resources and we spent a lot of time copying lessons or memorizing words. So we really didn’t have much comprehension of what we were reading. My mom helped me a lot in the process of learning to read. She was the only one who really helped me.”
Nancy and her Child Aid colleagues know how difficult it is to learn to read in typical Guatemalan schools. Most of them attended schools with few books and teachers with a lack of skills or interest in teaching reading, conditions that are still prevalent today.
Despite facing many obstacles, these individuals developed their reading skills through perseverance, support from families and a desire to improve their own lives. Not only have they learned to read but have gone on to pursue further education and develop professional careers as teachers and trainers.
These early experiences give Child Aid’s literacy trainers a unique insight into the challenges facing the students and teachers whom they work with today and the extra motivation to bring about changes that will improve things for the next generation.
During a recent meeting, the staff shared their experiences growing up in the Guatemalan education system and how they learned to read. There were many common themes.
One of the biggest obstacles, they agreed, was the lack of access to good books.
For the most part, the only books they had in school were textbooks – with names like “El Nacho”, “El Buen Sembrador” and “Pinocho” – whose primary purpose was teaching the mechanics of reading.
“The book we used when I was in primary school was called ‘Victoria’.” said Marilena Ixen. “It was for learning the consonants and how to read words and simple sentences. It had letters on a page and a few words and sentences using the letters.”
Although some of the textbooks had simple readings for students to do, storybooks with engaging stories and colorful pictures were almost non-existent.
“The books we used had letters, but very few pictures.” remembered Jorge Sanum. “My favorite book in school had only three pages but it had a picture of a duck at the end. I think I liked it because of that one picture.”
“I remember that the first book that we read was ‘The Blue Heron,’” said Carlos Pos, “but that wasn’t until I was in second basico [middle school]. We had to buy it and read it in our free time. But in all of primary school, we never had books like that.”
Access to reading material outside of school was also a challenge. If there was a library in the community, it probably didn’t have books appropriate for young kids. Buying books was rarely an option for families who were struggling to get by. Most had to find their reading material in newspapers, magazines or whatever was at hand.
“I spent a lot of time reading the New Testament,” said Graciela Pichiya, “because the Bible was the only book that we had in our house.”
With few resources in the classroom, the instruction they received was limited to lectures from teachers or copying lessons out of their textbooks.
“We had to copy two lessons per day from the book and deliver them at the end of the week to the teacher.” said Jeremias Morales. “The book only had thirty lessons, so when we got to the end, we just started over from the beginning.”
“Our teachers then were very strict,” said Sarah Campo. “If we did not memorize what they said, they gave us paddlings or hit us on the head. It was a very traditional education.”
So how did they learn to read? Many of the literacy trainers credited their parents or other family members with filling in some of the gaps left by the school. Like Nancy Samoya, Marilena Ixen received extra instruction from her father, who also taught a class in an adult literacy training program. Evelyn Camey remembers being sent in the evenings with her cousins to the house of an uncle, who was a teacher, for extra help with their studies.
In her first grade classroom, Kelly Batz says she was able to memorize the sounds and words from her textbook, but really wasn’t reading. When her parents realized this, they took matters into their own hands. “My dad got a blackboard and began to teach the letter sounds with things or objects that I already knew. He gave me words from magazines that he had to see if I was learning or still just memorizing.”
For some, like Carlos Pos and Jorge Sanum, the challenge of learning to read was even greater because they could not find the extra help they needed at home.
“Unfortunately my parents only finished second grade in primary school so my dad could not even help me with my homework or give me ideas to improve my education,” he said. “But I always received the moral support, encouraging me to continue my studies.”
Jorge added that, for those without educated parents, learning to read took a great deal of perseverance. They often had to find their own resources and look for inspiration in the few teachers or other adults who encouraged them to read.
“Although my school did not have any resources, I still enjoyed going to school,” said Graciela Pichiya. “I got up very early to be the first one there. But I feel that most of it was self-motivation. I had only one teacher in my life who would read aloud to us, usually from the newspaper. I liked how he used his voice to create emotion and tell the story. I liked to watch him and how he read and I wanted to read like him. That had a big impact on me.”
Despite their early challenges, many said their experiences growing up have only fueled their desire to learn and pursue higher education. Working with Child Aid has also played a role in their professional development. Many in the group said that the training and experience they have received has helped them become better readers themselves and has given them skills they have used in other areas of their lives.
Carlos Pos said he’s been reading more in his free time and has discovered a love of historical fiction. Jeremias Morales has been challenging himself to find new information through books and has learned to think more critically and ask questions about what he is reading. Edgar Garcia added he has been able to apply much of what he has learned at Child Aid to his university classes, where he is studying to become a lawyer.
“The most important thing has been to improve my reading skills and have the tools that facilitate a better comprehension of what I am reading,” he said. “That has helped me expand my knowledge and improve my life.”
But perhaps the most personal response came from Carlos, who said that Child Aid has inspired him to read more to his four-year-old daughter. He sees that she is already benefiting from opportunities that he never had.
“I have brought various books to the house and we read at least 3-4 times per week. At times she even demands to have us read to her,” he said. “And recently I observed her beginning to recite the story from one of her favorite books without my help. This is really incredible to me and I see it as a result of the kind of work that I do and the impact of what I am doing with Child Aid.”