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Point and Counter Point: Rock of ages cleft for me – The state of advanced literacy in Belize

Posted: Wednesday, March 9, 2022. 3:59 pm CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Breaking Belize News:

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: My Mother, Mavis Leola Fisher, turned 99 last month, and as I reflected on her memorial the hymn “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” came to me, as this was one of the hymns, we sang in Church the day we buried her, seven years ago! As a St John’s Cathedral Anglican, I’ve sung Rock of Ages many times before. This time, though, the word ‘CLEFT’ readily stood out to me. It led me to question my own literacy in Standard English. I had sung the word ‘cleft’ hundreds of times before, but never realized I didn’t know what the word meant! For years, all that I was doing was to decode the word cleft and sing the text. This time, though, the word cleft really stood out to me. First off, it seems like a pretty old-school word that nobody in 2022 uses in their natural vocabulary. I mean there are lots of old ‘hymn-ish’ words I sing at Church and don’t really take time to consider what I am meaning by singing them. Like the line in the hymn that Reverent Goff always call when I am at his Albert Street Methodist Church, “Come, Thou Found of Every Blessing’ that says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer”. I mean probably 90% of the Church thinks of A Christmas Carol and Scrooge when they sing that line.

So, I was thinking what the phrase “Cleft for Me” means and I wrote it down so that I could look it up later. And I did. And I found it so helpful, that it not only shook my confidence in my own literacy but lead me to question the efforts of our schools and our teachers in providing the nation with the type of literacy in Standard English it deserves.

In the line “Rock of Ages Cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee”, I found out that what Charles Wesley was meaning when he wrote that line was that, figuratively, Christ is a solid, unmovable, sturdy, unchanging rock, and has something to do with being ‘Cleft’ or ‘Cleaved’ on for me – so there is a slit in the rock that I can hide in. This definition of CLEFT was what I had been looking for all my life since I learned to read, and after 22 years of formal schooling, most of those years in primary, secondary and Sixth Form schools and Churches in Belize. There is no doubt in my mind that our schools and our teachers in Belize are doing a very good job in teaching us the elementary skills to read, that is, to decode text and pronounce words, but I think it does a poor job in making us literate, that is, in providing us with advanced literacy skills, skills that have become a pre-requisite to adult success in the twenty-first century in Belize and the world!

By Advanced Literacy, I do not mean simply the ability to decode words and to read text fluently, as necessary as these elementary skills are. Instead, I mean the ability to use reading to gain access to the World of Knowledge, to synthesize information from different sources, to evaluate arguments, and to learn totally different subjects. These higher-level skills are now essential to young Belizeans who wish to explore fields as disparate as Law, Medicine, and Engineering; to succeed in post-secondary education, whether vocational or academic; to earn a decent living in the globalized labor market; and to participate in our country’s democracy that is currently facing complex problems. The purpose of this essay is, therefore, to reflect on the current literacies of the Belizean People, especially the current literacies of Belize’s Children and adolescents, and to move forward on improving it.

The question guiding my thoughts around this issue is: how do we define literacy in Belize, and how is this conception of literacy constraining our teachers and our schools in providing our citizens of the country with the type of advanced literacy that has become a pre-requisite to adult success in Belize in the twenty first century? Having reviewed the literature and having spoken to some local experts, my working thesis is this: given the economic demands, the educational challenges, and our citizen’s need for twenty-first century skills, policy makers must immediately broaden the concept of literacy in Belize to include a set of competencies that go well beyond the ability to recognize words and decode text.

From what I can see, the literacy challenge confronting children, their families and schools in Belize apparently has two parts. The first is the universal need to better prepare students for twenty-first century literacy demands. The second is the specific need to reduce the disparities in literacy outcomes between children from advantaged backgrounds and those from less privileged homes. With regard to the former challenge, teachers and our Language Arts curriculum are allocating way too much time on the elementary skills of decoding words and reading texts, and far too little time on developing the advanced literacy skills needed for success in the twenty first century. For example, at the Primary School level, of the 710 Language Arts Learning Outcomes to be covered over the eight years of primary schooling, over 85% of these learning outcomes are about developing the elementary skills of decoding text and pronouncing words, that is, 85% of the time is spent on phonetic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and fluency in reading in Standard English. Only 15% of the Language Arts Learning Outcomes addresses the advanced literacy skills of comprehension, summary, meaning making, and creativity. This I find unacceptable!

The second challenge is the specific need to reduce the disparities in the literacy outcomes between children from advantaged background and those from less privileged homes. As Dr Carrol Babb, former Chief Education Officer, and Dr. C. C. Richards recently pointed out, children from less privileged house holds need a lot more literacy resources i.e., quality textbooks and reading tablets like Kindle, than they currently have access to on their own. The current situation with regard to access to literary resources, is more ‘equal’ than ‘equitable’. Dr Richards further adds that “it is important for us in Belize to distinguish between equal and equitable. It is like when feeding pizza to a group of eight people. The equal thing to do is to cut the pizza into eight equal slices and give each person in the group one slice. On the other hand, equity is about considering the need of each member of the group. For example, some may have already eaten some slices of pizza today, and so do not need any more. Others may not have eaten for two days and so may need more than one slice. Some members of the group might not like pizza and so don’t want any, etc. Equity is about giving those who need more, more, and those who need less, less. Children from less privileged households, need a lot more literacy resources than others.

The long and short of it, from my perspective, is that given the economic demands, the educational challenges and our citizens’ need for twenty-first century advanced literacy skills, our education policy makers must immediately broaden the curriculum concept of literacy, and must begin to place much more emphasis on a set of new competencies that go well beyond phonetic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and fluency and significantly increase the emphasis on “comprehension” when teaching reading in our schools. To do this the Language Arts curriculum will have to be revisited and our teachers will have to be re-skilled, if our schools are to begin to provide the citizenry with the type of advanced literacy skills that have become necessary for success in a twenty-first century Belize.

Please feel free to use the column below to challenge any, or all, of the claims made above, and let’s get the discussion on advanced literacy in Belize going.

Dr. Dorian Barrow is currently working at Galen University as the Dean of the Department of Education. He has a long history of involvement in education in Belize, having served as a Lecturer at the University of Belize, and as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Education. Dr. Barrow is an eminent professional who is well respected both locally and abroad. He is serving as an editorial member and reviewer of several international reputed journals and has authored many research articles/books related to education. Apart from education, he is also a sports enthusiast.


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