After literacy, teaching: paradoxes of post-literacy work

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  • Viewpoints and controversies

    After literacy, teaching: paradoxes of post-literacy work Bernard D u m o n t

    Never in the course of mankind's existence has so much been done for literacy as nowadays. Yet because of the rapid increase in the world's population the number of illiterate adults is constantly increasing, and is higher today than ever before. As a result, some think, with good reason, that more ought to be done; if their studies and exhortations bear fruit, the record figures reached over the last ten years will be exceeded: each year tens of millions of human beings, including millions of adults, will learn to read and write.

    Then what? What purpose is served by the efforts of those who learn to read,

    write and count, and of those who organize and teach? What do they lead to? Literacy teaching, as is often said, opens the doors of know- ledge; but what knowledge? What does such knowledge lead to?

    If all literary teaching were Cfunctional', we should not need to ask such questions: for if literacy teaching is functional the knowledge acquired through training is closely connected with the activities and concerns that mean most to the learner in daily life; as functional knowledge is thus put into practice every day, it is kept up and develops constantly and steadily; at least, we hope so.

    But in fact, sometimes because the notion of functional literacy teaching is misunderstood, or, more frequently, because the material or human resources mobilized are insufficient, the various literacy programmes carried out are not always functional, or are not really SO.

    This is true of both children taught in schools, and adults who take literacy courses; but the problems that arise in each of these two age groups differ so much that they need to be examined separately. Many psycho-pedagogical and socio-economic studies of the children's problems have been made, but not of the problems which arise at the

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    Prospects, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1979

  • Bernard Dumont

    conclusion of adult literacy programmes, perhaps because post- literacy work has often been thought a simple affair. In this article, therefore, we shall look at some of these problems, from the practical standpoint of a person responsible for a literacy programme, or of anybody who wants to play his part in the effort to eradicate illiteracy.

    First we shall consider what exactly post-literacy work is and try to show the discrepancies between various aspects of the situation and between the true state of affairs and ideas that have been accepted or action that is to be or has been taken. Secondly, we shall also find numerous paradoxes when we consider the relations between literacy teaching and post-literacy work and try to see how to ensure that they succeed in overcoming illiteracy.

    A three-dimensional notion ,

    Post-literacy work can be defined as all those materials and structures which enable the newly literate adult to keep up, use and develop the knowledge he has acquired and the abilities generated in him through literacy teaching.

    L E N G T H : THE M A T E R I A L

    A glance at this definition shows us the first dimension of post- literacy work, a dimension that is a logical and chronological direct consequence of literacy teaching. It is now known that an adult who has learnt to read, write and count needs special material--'reading material for the newly literate adult ' -- if he is not to fall back into illiteracy. This material comprises: Informative material, generally in pamphlet form, the content

    and presentation of which are specially designed to give practical information that will help him to improve his working and living conditions (agriculture, stock-breeding, technology, hygiene, bringing-up of children, civic life) and also to serve as a transition between the ABCs and Cfirst readers' used when people are learning to write and the reading material of various kinds produced for the general public; such informative material is an essential stage on the road to adult education proper. :

    Periodicals, either rural newspapers or news-sheets published by firms, which are distributed to the newly literate, or easy-to-read insets or pages in the ordinary press.

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  • After literacy, teaching: paradoxes of post-literacy work

    Books of all types, informative or fictional, with or without illus- trations, picture stories and strip cartoons, which enable people to acquire the habit of reading.

    Various widely distributed materials (posters, calendars, pamphlets and brochures), from all of which something can be learnt, and which can be used in conjunction with other information media (radio, films, television), during campaigns intended to reach large numbers of people and dealing with subjects of general interest: food hygiene, how to combat certain illnesses and so on.

    Certain conditions, both qualitative (variety, regularity) and quanti- tative, must be met in the production of such reading material for newly literate people if it is to be really effective. Careful planning is necessary to ensure that the considerable resources required for its production are available when required: pedagogical research, finding authors and encouraging them, seeing that equipment and materials are provided. It may not be realized that in certain countries with extremely high levels of illiteracy, the consumption--and in the present state of the economy that means imports--of paper may be tripled in five years as a result of normal post-literacy work. But in most cases the greatest difficulty lies in the organization of publishing and distribution channels (libraries and bookshops), for most of those that already exist are unsuited to the requirements of post-literacy work.

    These are all serious diificulties, but they are largely the same as those encountered during literacy programmes and are but an exten- sion of them. As a result, the teams in charge of literacy programmes are usually quite capable of handling the situation: as long as they have the resources, they can easily find extensive bibliographies and in their turn produce valuable information through which the methods used in their work and its results can be disseminated.

    W I D T H : THE E N V I R O N M E N T

    When we try to add a second dimension to the idea of post-literacy work, to widen the concept, and to get the newly literate adult off the beaten track along which he has been led by the reading materials prepared for him by the literacy programme staff, we find a very different state of affairs. For if the purpose of literacy programmes really is to 'demarginalize' the illiterate adult, as we are so often told, the latter should one day reach the stage where, in his own environ- ment, he is on an equal footing with those who are not considered as

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  • Bernard Dumont

    marginal, i.e. those who have taken and completed a school course. Here other paradoxes begin to appear: taking mankind as a whole,

    almost a third of adults are regarded as marginal because they are illiterate, and if present trends continue there will still be a quarter in 199o. The critical evaluation report of the Experimental World Literacy Programme 1 points out that about 8o or 9o per cent of adults in some countries are said to be marginal because they can neither read nor write; what, then, of the rural areas in these same countries, where the written word has no place whatever, and never has had, in any aspect of life--the life of the family, the economy, culture, health, even administration, if one can use such a term in this context.

    In these areas, which make up the larger part of the countries hav- ing the highest rates of illiteracy, and where literacy programmes have been introduced as an accompaniment to economic changes, the effectiveness of a post-literacy programme depends not only on the quantity and quality of reading material made available to newly literate persons, but also on action--vigorous, effective action--to make the environment favourable to the general use of written communication, more rapidly than if it were to come about naturally.

    Studies and, indeed, experiments on a scale that compels attention have been carried out in some of the many fields in which it is possible to contribute to the creation of an environment that is favourable to literacy programmes, for example, on the organization of rural libraries in the United Republic of Tanzania and the participation of adults in the production of their own reading material, described by Simoni Malya. ~ But many other fields have not yet been sufficiently or properly investigated. Something more should be said of at least three of these: the presence of the printed word, the radical reorganiz- ation of training programmes, and the status of the languages used for literacy teaching.

    It is difficult for anyone who lives and works in towns, where there are signboards, posters and advertisements on all sides, to imagine the almost total absence of the printed word in very large rural areas of countries which have an oral civilization--areas where the majority of illiterate adults live. Any attempt at literacy teaching will have little impact in such places, unless the people can apply in practice, nat- urally and as it were subconsciously, the knowledge of writing and arithmetic that they have acquired. The visible context of the people's life must be changed--signposts must be put up on roads and street names indicated in towns or villages--so that there is more evidence

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  • After literacy, teaching: paradoxes of post-literacy work

    to show the adult, and for that matter the child, that the written word is a normal part of relations between people, as well as material for individual reflection. Moreover, if the written word is used in this way widely enough, the newly literate person will feel at home among familiar signs, when he is away from the context--necessarily a restricted one- -of the verbal relations he has had.

    It is generally held that one of the functions of post-literacy teaching is to give adults a chance to reach a higher level of know- ledge. However, the arrangements made to enable them to do so have long consisted of the provision of special classes as a transition towards the normal forms of education--existing school or univer- sity institutions. Until very recently, many 'evening classes' in various African countries were of this kind-- the lessons intended for schoolchildren were merely repeated for adults. Similarly, the 'social advancement courses' provided in France, were usually mere rep- etitions for adults of those used for technical college students in the daytime.

    Behind these practices l ie--more or less explicitly--not only the force of habit and fear of innovation, but also the conviction that the school system is an excellent means of individual or collective advancement. True, at certain times and in certain contexts some of those who started to attend school when they were very young have done well because of it; how often have we heard somebody of import- ance in the world of education or elsewhere refer to his humble origins as a country boy, and say what great things the school did for himl But, apart from the fact that people have quite different opportunities, because of the rapidity with which changes take place, these argu- ments do not alter the fact that there are at least two reasons why school programmes and courses should not be used for adults with- out adaptation. First, in the planning and organization of school Pr0grammes the rate of progress is based on the stages o f average development of a child's personality, whereas adults have already passed through these stages--in a different way, it is true, but they have done so; second, school programmes and the methods generally used in them are such that there is little opportunity to take account of an adult's experience of life or turn it to advantage.

    Therefore, i f a post-literacy programme is really to give adults the same opportunities for a full life as people who have had a school education, different arrangements must be made for their training, or else existing systems must be radically changed, so as to cater for the particular situations and needs of the various age groups.

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    This is being done in the United Republic of Tanzania: in the Folk's Development Colleges the programmes are specially designed for both the new literate and people who have had a school education, local employment needs and opportunities being taken into account. Likewise, in Mall, the Cfurther training' courses with a scientific bias, which are intended for the inhabitants of a village or group ofviUages, provide an opportunity for people who have had a school education, those who are newly literate and even some illiterate people to obtain reliable scientific information about the problems of daily life.

    The effectiveness of post-literacy work should not be impaired by the choice of the language to be used in literacy programmes. Only in rare cases is this both the language spoken by people in their families, the language most commonly spoken, and the official language of the country, with a fixed written form and a substantial body of published and available literature. The various combinations of these language functions can lead to many and very different situations.

    One of these situations, which has become increasingly common in certain African countries over the last ten years, is characterized by the adoption, for psycho-pedagogical and economic reasons, of the language most widely used in society, as the language in which literacy teaching is given. Sometimes the language people speak in their homes is used, but it will not be the official language, which is generally a foreign language used in the school system and adminis- trative life. A dichotomy is thus created between people taught in schools in an official language, who get salaried posts in the public or private sector, and adults who have taken literacy courses, usually country people who can read and write only in their native tongue. This dichotomy has many consequences.

    The most immediate of these, for our purposes, is the adult's reluctance to learn to read and write a language which is not that of the authorities and the well-off and which, in the system he accepts as a model, does not appear to lead to any real opportunity for advancement.

    This being so, the status of literacy programme languages must be clearly defined and constantly respected if post-literacy work is to be carried out successfully, q n the present circumstances,' said the Director-General of Unesco, on the occasion of the thirteenth Inter- national Literacy Day, 'literacy work often requires a twofold effort, since, to achieve its full effect, it must be applied to two languages, whose respective spheres of influence must be defined and whose coexistence must be organized.' For example, while the scientific

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    study of the present state of languages used in literacy teaching and of their evolution must be continued, it is essential to arrange for them to be officially used for certain administrative papers or documents (identity cards, civil status certificates, public notices, court judge- ments, sign-posting, etc.), to give them certain recognized functions in the school system (in the early stages, as a subject for study, or as a vehicular language) to extend their use in and through the civil ser- vice, and to encourage the production and dissemination of material in everyday use (calendars, public transport s i g n s . . . ) and of books and periodicals in these languages. Arrangements must also be made for those who have been taught to read and write in local languages to learn the official language, and vice versa.

    I f we consider the above, in which there are factors for the creation of a favourable environment, we shall see that, as opposed to reading material for the newly literate, the principles to be observed and the practical measures to be applied are only to a small extent the responsibility of those in charge of literacy courses: for the most part they are a matter for decision-making authorities and executing agencies, which are mainly concerned with other affairs than adult literacy teaching and follow-up work, of which, indeed, they may know nothing. The responsibility for ensuring that the written word is frequently to be seen rests upon all those in charge of public administration or production firms who, in their respective fields of competence, can encourage or discourage the use of the written word, rather than other modes of communication, at the various stages of their decision-making. Those who are in charge of adult education can see to the establishment of middle-level and advanced training courses for newly literate adults, but when it comes to solving prob- lems of equivalence and co-ordination with traditional school or university courses, developing the different types of course properly and defining their role as a preparation for higher education and for responsibility in the community, the decisions and choices to be made are different, and usually of a political nature. And the status of the languages used in literacy teaching--a matter which is not only extremely technical, but also involves choices in a particularly sensi- tive area for all parties concerned--is something to be decided by the authorities empowered to take action on questions of policy.

    It therefore appears that, if post-literacy work is to attain its second dimension, it must involve others besides literacy teachers; persons with responsibility in various spheres, particularly political leaders, must play a part in it.

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    D E P T H : P A R T I C I P A T I O N

    This will be even clearer if, continuing our examination of the idea of post-literacy work, we consider what conditions 'the use and devel- opment of the abilities acquired or generated by literacy teaching'. Here we come to a third dimension of post-literacy work, the dimen- sion which gives it its true human and social substance: the fact that a person who has become literate can, as a result, reach other levels of information and reflection means that he can take responsibility and play his part in making decisions that concern his own future and that of the community of which he is a member. It is a very profound and legitimate desire of every human being to 'mind his own business'. It has often been said that minding one's own business in order to be able to improve things is one of the aims of any literacy programme and the true meaning of the idea of functional literacy. The Tokyo Conference on Adult Education, held in 1972 , recommended that the functionality of literacy teaching, in the widest sense of the term, should enable all men and women to participate in the definition and realization of the objectives of change 'so that they may become active agents in the building of a new and better society'. In July 1975, the Group of Experts for the Evaluation of Experimental Literacy Proj- ects said that 'the concept of functionality must be extended to include all its d i m e n s i o n s . . , literacy must a i m . . , to enable the individual to understand, master and transform his or her destiny'. The Declaration of Persepolis, issued at the conclusion of the Inter- national Symposium for Literacy, in September 1975, confirms that the need for participation in the decisions of the community to which they belong is one of the most fundamental needs of those for whom literacy programmes are designed, literacy being 'inseparable from participation, which is at once its purpose and its condition'.

    Again, the idea of participation must be understood in the widest possible sense if it is to have any significance. It must embrace all forms of participation from the most elementary forms, in the places where people live and work, to the most important forms, such as those involving the alms of development, and including the definition of the content of training programmes and the choice of certain methods in economic relations.

    In a rural environment, it should be possible for the new knowledge and abilities acquired by adult farm workers through literacy courses to be used, by arranging for groups of peasants or villagers to take over tasks previously done by paid workers employed by the agri-

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    cultural services. There are many examples, in various countries, of such transfers of responsibility, at first on a very modest scale (the distribution and recovery of the necessary sacks for commercializing the harvests in Niger, or the supervising of weighing operations by village delegates in Mali, for instance), but they could be gradually extended to increasingly complex activities.

    As peasants who have become literate are capable of calculating for themselves the expense entailed in some new venture or by the introduction of a new production technique (such as the use of ferti- lizers or various methods of cultivation) and setting them against the figures for the results obtained at the end of a given period, they could, with the assistance of research institutes, conduct experiments on matters which concern them directly. This means that the whole task of getting knowledge to the people can be done in a radically different--and easier--way.

    The critical evaluation report of the World Experimental Literacy Programme denounced the view that the newly literate adult still has a certain inability to grasp and understand problems o f any complexity--a sort of hangover from his illiterate childhood and youth. In this connection we might mention a programme combining action and research conducted in Mali towards the end of 1977, on the initiative of Unesco, which shows how newly literate rural adults can participate in taking decisions regarding development prospects and important demographical questions. In four consecutive issues, the monthly journal Kibaru, which appears in the Mandingo language (Bambara-Dyula) published, in co-ordination with Radio Mali, the answers to a series of questions about the ideas embodied in devel- opment and its factors (the respective roles of human and financial capital in national development; the characteristics of family well- being; the future prospects for young people; the objectives and value of education for girls and women). The number, variety and quality of the answers received show clearly that newly literate rural adults are perfectly capable of expressing well-thought-out opinions in writing--and, it should be noted, in a language that was first written down only ten years ago--and of taking a very active and real part in the discussion of ideas about the aims and methods of development. If we are convinced, after studying these examples, that newly literate persons can play an increasingly important part in affairs and that this is an important aspect of post-literacy work, we shall inevitably inquire who can make decisions on the matter and bring into oper- ation the resources needed to apply this principle, and who is

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    responsible for seeing that newly literate people play an increasingly active part.

    At first sight, it seems that these questions can be answered in the same way as the questions concerning the creation of an environment favourable to the use of the written word--that literacy teachers have much less initiative and direct responsibility when decisions are to be taken concerning the provision of rural education workers or support for scientific, agricultural or meteorological experiments or obser- vations. The decision to reassign staff or reorganize structures so as to give the newly literate more responsibility, once they have had a gradual but definite training for it, is in the hands of those adminis- tratively responsible for agriculture, meteorology, the commercial- ization of harvests and so on.

    Do these authorities in fact do so? Is there any evidence that they are much involved in the study of the effects of literacy programmes on certain sections or areas of the rural population, or that they are called upon to help plan measures to ensure that such programmes are followed up properly? Even in certain countries which, since they energetically pursue a policy of giving national priority to adult education, set up committees with express instructions to see that at all levels and in all sectors, adult education is co-ordinated with the general development effort and with each individual development programme, there are agronomists, economists or directors of firms who are so absorbed in their technocratic knowledge that they do not see what changes a successful literacy programme could make in the way in which they work. And in the all too many countries where, even now, 'there are more gloomy statements on the subject of illit- eracy than vigorously implemented policies 'a and where there is no real political will, there is even less reason for us to be surprised if we find technocrats opposing fuller participation by the newly literate in the definition of objectives and the execution of develop- ment programmes.

    On this question of participation, then, we must conclude that no official authority~ whether directly responsible for literacy pro- grammes and adult education or not, will succeed in giving the newly literate a real chance to participate in responsibility, from which they have been previously excluded, unless there is a real political will for it at governmental level. This being so, the success of the newly literate in their quest for greater participation depends entirely on their own action, their skill in organizing such action, and the energy they put into it. This is probably the most realistic interpretation of

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    the reference which is frequently made to the relation between the success of literacy teaching and deep-seated social and economic change.

    Strategic questions: after or before?

    The World Experimental Literacy Programme did much to gain acceptance for the idea that literacy teaching is not an end in itself, but should be planned and carried out so as to take account of the needs and aspirations of adults and the communities they live in~ at different levels: 'There can b e no hope of eradicating illiteracy without an overall view of the situation that extends over a sufficiently long period. '~ This means that the organization of post-literacy work is now regarded as an essential part of a real effort to combat illit- eracy: literacy teaching that is not accompanied by post-literacy work is self-destructive~ its effects are gone in no time. Therefore the approach, methods and content of literacy programmes should be such as to give adults, as individuals and as groups, a real desire for post-literacy teaching~ and this means that care must be taken, from the outset, to ensure that what is taught is useful, that the groups of learners work well together and make progress, that their horizons are widened, and that they discover the pleasure of learning and of overcoming intellectual difficulties.

    P L A N N I N G

    I f it is agreed that all the above-mentioned dimensions of post- literacy must be taken into consideration, together with all the problems they raise, it will be seen that literacy and post-literacy programmes must be planned as carefully as possible, so that all the factors required for the success of a task of such magnitude will be available at the right t ime and in the right place. Obviously the first step must be to get a clear picture of the situation, but plans should also be made for enabling the people to participate in the preparation and carrying out of the programmes, and the planning of post- literacy work must be properly co-ordinated with all other educational work and with the general or regional economic or social development plans. Above all, in this, as in any activity that requires planning, in the first stages definite targets must be set, to be attained by a specific date.

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    So it will be seen that post-literacy work, instead of coming afterwards, should be considered and defined before the actual literacy programmes are begun, and that, since it takes time for certain pre- conditions to be fulfilled and for certain extremely difficult arrange- ments to be made, post-literacy work should begin before literacy work not only at the planning level, but also at that of operational activities. Consider, for example, the time it takes to prepare people's minds, take decisions and obtain practical results in the field of language status, or in that of the organization of publishing, or again in that of the reorganization or establishment of institutions that are suitable for adult education: it is easy enough to see that one must begin with certain aspects of post-literacy work.

    N O N - P L A N N I N G

    While it is obviously desirable to plan the work of literacy and post- literacy teaching as a whole, such planning cannot be expected to meet all requirements. The actual situations that literacy teachers have to deal with are so complex that it often proves necessary to treat plans with a degree of elasticity such that they become unrecognizable.

    This happens, for instance, when those responsible for the literacy programme--realistic and, perforce, modest though their estimates and programmes may be--are not sure of being able to count on a sufficiently regular supply of resources for proper planning, and also when they are suddenly presented with unexpected opportunities for using exceptional material, human or financial resources; or again when the person responsible for the literacy programme, mindful of the spontaneous enthusiasm of groups of newly literate people, and anxious to intensify and increase it, has to put to one side other projects he has planned.

    I f such situations, which in fact cannot be planned for, are to be turned to account, normal planning procedures must be much more flexible, and arrangements must be made to ensure that opportunities which present themselves can be grasped at once (and indeed sought and initiated) and that they can be exploited to the full in order to strengthen and extend the literacy programme. In such cases, what has to be done is not merely to plan the use of available resources, but, if one may put it so, to plan the unforeseeable!

    This is also true of aims, and more profoundly true than of resources or methods, in those cases where there is no 'political will', at the highest decision-making levels, for a literary programme and for

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    full-scale post-literacy work (i.e. work which has the three dimensions referred to above, and particularly the third). Sometimes this attitude is due less to genuine obiection than to more or less sincere scepticism as to whether adults who have always been regarded as ignorant and backward are capable of making their contribution and taking on responsibilities which were previously entrusted to executive per- sonnel. I t is clear that in such cases a plan which does not conceal the fact that it has ambitious aims for the participation of the newly literate will encounter insurmountable opposition, even before it is put into operation, in its initial stages. The way to get over this difficulty is to refrain from planning the attainment of all the normal aims of post-literacy work until they have become credible as a result of experiment and achievements that are beyond all dispute.

    Paradoxes are inseparable f rom post- l i teracy w o r k

    In view of all these paradoxes, which are not the fruit of the imagin- ation, but taken from actual experience--they will be familiar to post-literacy teachers--and which reveal so much inconsistency and so many discrepancies and problems that seem insoluble, it is only too likely that the literacy worker will lose heart.

    This is obviously not the aim of this report. On the contrary, it should be noted that the greatest danger in adult education campaigns is that the literacy worker as well as those who are learning may be disillusioned or discouraged when unforeseen and indeed unimagin- able difficulties come up during the course. Awareness of the magni- tude of the task to be undertaken and a knowledge of the obstacles to be overcome are essential for those who seek and apply the resources needed, and even more so if they are to have the determination and perseverance without which a literacy programme cannot reach the stage of successful post-literacy work and genuine adult education.

    Actually, it can never be said often enough that literacy teaching and post-literacy work are pointless unless accompanied by economic and social change. Any group of human beings resists change, and there is nothing surprising about the fact that literacy programmes come up against obstacles, some proper to literacy work as such and others connected with the changes which accompany it.

    All this makes one wonder whether a post-literacy programme can be considered valid and successful if it has not encountered or given rise to the various difficulties we have mentioned, and whether the

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    quality of post-literacy work cannot be judged by the number of paradoxes it has brought to light and overcome. But the reader will probably think that this is carrying a taste for paradox too far.

    Notes

    I. The Experimental World Literacy Programme: A Critical Assessment, p. I I8-X9, Paris, The Unesco Press, z976.

    2. Simoni Malya, 'Creating Literacy Surroundings in Tanzania', Literacy Discussion, Vol. VIII, 1'~o. 4, winter, x977-78 (International Institute for Adult Literacy Methods, Tehran).

    3. r and Recommendations of the Director-General to the Executive Board and to the General Conference on the Ways and Means of Implementing the Literacy Pro- gramme', Paris, Unesco, 25 August I978, p. 7 (20 C/7x).

    4. The Experimental World Literacy Programme..., op. cit.

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