Spelling and Literacy in Cuba and Nicaragua

The Hispanic spelling system used in Cuba was simple enough before Castro's revolution, but in 1953 with more than half the children unschooled, literacy rates were around 42% in urban areas and 23.6% overall. Castro's guerrilla manifesto of 1957 included an immediate literacy campaign, with the watchword 'Revolution and education are the same thing'.

The 1961 National Literacy Campaign reportedly reduced the level of illiteracy to 3.9%, but without their simple orthography, it might have had much less success. The straightforward spelling made it possible to use Paulo Freire's conscientisation techniques of teaching reading and writing with high-school students as teachers. However, with English spelling as it is, a similar teaching method could not be used to teach literacy in English-speaking schools - as a simple experiment would show.

Lessons began with thirty key politicising words containing all letters and speech sounds, broken down into syllables from which new words and sentences can be created. To introduce the vowels and consonants, the fifteen Hispanic phrases first taught were Organisation of American States (from which Cuba had just been expelled) National institute of agrarian reform, the co-operative farm, the land, Cuban fishermen, the people's store, every Cuban a home owner, healthy people in a free Cuba, national institute of tourism, the militia, the revolution that wins all the battles, the people at work, Cuba is not alone, the year of education, poetry and the alphabet.

The technique, easy enough for the teenage teachers (significantly, called 'alphabetisers') to learn to teach, was a compound method combining global aspects with analysis and synthesis, emphasising initial arousal of motivation, and ability to write from the start. Ensuring fast progress was the key to morale and learning, to avoid the longterm slogging such as is usually expected in an English adult education class. The final test for students was at second grade level, since from then on, because of the nature of Hispanic orthography, learners could study independently, although fourth grade was considered functional literacy. There was a national celebration of the first area completely literate, and a museum commemorates the whole campaign. Leiner cites evidence of virtual elimination of illiteracy by 1979, and rapid advances in modern science and engineering. The next battle was to raise the entire population up to 6th grade level, with a further aim in 1986 for 9th grade. Cuban success can be attributed primarily to enthusiasm, but also to the advantages of an accessible writing system, taught by a suitable method, with a pool already literate to teach the masses. Finance was of less significance.

However, literacy campaigns in indigenous languages on the Atlantic coast of Cuba ran into problems - showing the significance of the political element, but also the problems of English spelling.

Two ethnic groups spoke Miskito and Sumo which have practically phonemic orthographies, like Spanish, but a third group were English-speakers whose origins were Africa and Jamaica. The key phrases for all three groups were translations of the Spanish ones, but the English teachers found what an observer, Jane Freeland, described in 1981 as 'linguistic obstacles'. The first five lessons set words like revolution and fighters, with analogy patterns such as action/motion, right/night, workers/farmers in order to have component parts to recombine. When students produced new words using analogical spellings, explanations about English irregularity had to begin. An expedient was to combine words into sentences from the start, with function words learnt by sight, many matching exercises for key words and patterns, and rote drill for irregular spellings. All three programs suffered from the complexities and emergencies of the political situation - but more information is needed about what finally happened, and to compare the results of the English, Miskito and Sumo programs, with their similar social content and context but different orthographies.

Nicaragua also showed that rapid literacy is possible with a consistent orthography in a context of revolutionary enthusiasm.

Fifteen days after coming to power in 1979 the revolutionaries announced a six-months national literacy crusade to reduce the 60-90% rural illiteracy, using armies of high school students, and Freire techniques.

The first phrase taught was la revoluçion which contains all the vowels of the Spanish alphabet.

An observer, Sheryl Hirhson, found that the apparently ideal method still had difficulties. Teachers and peasants found that the first step of enthusing dialogue was the hardest, so that drills might be resorted to after all. Many learners grappled with letters, sounds and parts of words without understanding. Instead of being able to work out the program in co-operation with the peasants, the very young teachers were often forced back on to prepared texts.

Nevertheless in five months absolute illiteracy was reduced from 50% to 23% of the population aged over ten.

About 130,000 people remained apparently unteachable - which may give pause for thought about the possibility of universal literacy , but may be related to inadequate teaching and materials - but over 400,000 had 'learnt to read and write in a war-torn and devastated country' sufficiently to pass a final exam at 3rd grade level.