The Fight Against Childhood Illiteracy in Venezuela

Around 65% of schoolchildren in the country fell behind in basic skills such as reading and writing and around 1.5 million are out of school. But several initiatives are working hard to revert this education catastrophe

Childhood illiteracy is a growing problem in Venezuela. It has many faces: for example, pushed by internal migration fostered by the gold rush in Guayana which fosters an environment where children are unable to read or write and end up working for criminal groups. However, there’s strong evidence that children are missing basic education all around the country. 

A 2021 study conducted by the research firm DevTech (in collaboration with UCAB, ANOVA, and Fundación Carvajal) reported the results of an Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) of 1,028 third-grade students in 207 schools around the country. This study found that 68% are significantly behind in reading. Furthermore, more than 40% only read 64 words per minute or less, when they should be reading between 85-90. 

This problem is not only affecting early elementary school students. It has also permeated into middle school and high school. The 2023 results of UCAB’s Online Assessment of Knowledge (SECEL), which measures educational performance of tens of thousands of students between the last year of primary school and last year of high school, found that 55,04% of students did not pass the benchmark (a 10/20 score) of minimum required knowledge in verbal skills and 78,37% of students failed the mathematical skills test.   

Empty stomachs, distracted minds

It’s not hard to imagine the reason for this emerging literacy problem. The Venezuelan education system has been uniquely affected by the country’s prolonged humanitarian emergency. The same report by DevTech found that a large majority of schools were acutely lacking in important infrastructure like water (56%), electricity (69%), and internet (85.7%). These challenges, combined with mass migration, malnourishment, and a myriad of other factors greatly diminish the capabilities of the school system to function and, in turn, create an environment where more kids are out of school. 

In fact, according to data from the ENCOVI survey, 1.5 million children didn’t attend school in the 2021-2022 school year, and about half of 3-5-year-olds are not in early education, which provides foundational building blocks to develop reading skills in the first grade. All of this sets a scenario where Chavismo’s once-proclaimed liberation from illiteracy seems far from reality. Add the results of the pandemic and the picture becomes even more concerning, especially when considering the emerging trend of a “Mosaic Schedule” in several schools around the country, where teachers only teach for two days of the week. In fact, according to the Red de Observadores Escolares, in Venezuela there were, on average, 3.89 days of class per week between January and July of 2023, leading to about 22.3% of the school calendar being lost in the first semester of the year.

However, despite all of these challenges, schoolchildren are still very eager to learn. Samuel Díaz Pulgar, director general at the NGO Nutriendo El Futuro and a consultant on social projects and public policy, described in an article for Democratización magazine how, in his work in schools in El Hatillo, he found children that “regardless of the barriers and limitations, wanted to learn and participate. Students were not self-conscious when it came to recognizing their shortcomings and were eager to ask for help “. 

The 2023 results of UCAB’s Online Assessment of Knowledge (SECEL), which measures educational performance of tens of thousands of students between the last year of primary school and last year of high school, found that 55,04% of students did not pass the benchmark (a 10/20 score) of minimum required knowledge in verbal skills and 78,37% of students failed the mathematical skills test.   

In addition, there are a myriad of NGOs stepping up to support them, and amid these conditions, mitigate the emerging literacy crisis. Some of them are using innovative methods of teaching like the UNIMET initiative “Leo Juego y Aprendo”. This program was created after the success of a similar pilot program in Colombia. It uses a different teaching philosophy: rather than teaching children to read by memorizing the sounds of syllables, it focuses on introducing the sound of each letter individually. Mariano Herrera, the program director, explained in an interview for Caracas Chronicles, that this method makes learning an easier experience: “You have to begin with the smallest unit, letters. For children, it’s easier to identify letters by the sound and not the name because sometimes their name is different from the sound they represent”. 

The program is currently reaching around 58,000 children in 320 schools and has partnered with 10 other organizations including Fe y Alegría. Participating schools receive textbooks designed for first and second grade and teaching guides, as well as the opportunity to provide feedback and obtain further instructions through virtual chats. Moreover, students can also access a phone game called Graphogame, to further solidify what they are learning in school. It’s proven to be very popular among students: “The creators recommend 20 minutes of practice in the app per day. However, parents tell us that kids often play the game for over two hours”.

Feeding more than food

In the country, there are a wide array of organizations that are addressing the nourishment crisis caused by food shortages.  The UN’s World Food Program, for example, has delivered monthly food baskets that help cover the needs of more than 450,000 people in about 2,000 schools across eight states. Some of these initiatives are integrating literacy efforts into their existing infrastructure. For instance, Nutriendo El Futuro, a meal center in El Calvario, a low income area in Caracas, started to provide homework support for the children in the area about five years ago: “It all started as an initiative to guide children through their homework” said Diana Yanes, Nutriendo El Futuro’s General Coordinator. However, the program later became more structured. “It has been evolving to become a full educational support where we emphasize reading, writing, comprehensive reading, and math”. Children have the option to attend sessions from Monday to Friday both in the morning and in the afternoon. “It’s amazing to see how they start the year being unable to read and, in the middle of the school year, they can read, take dictation, and understand what they read,” Yanes added. 

Similarly, Alimenta La Solidaridad started implementing its education initiative after parents notified members of the organization of the emerging literacy problem: “Moms would let our representatives know that there were many kids that didn’t know how to read or write. Because of that, we partnered with the Fundación Eugenio Mendoza and made a first cohort”, mentioned Marlene Yepes, the organization’s education coordinator. This cohort was composed of “collaborating mothers” who support the different meal centers, help prepare the food, and are present in each site. They now would become “educating mothers” and would oversee the education initiative. 

Yepes referred to the program as pedagogical support because they focus on meeting the children where they are and addressing the specific needs of each community after conducting a survey. In the case of reading and writing, this usually takes the shape of 90-minute sessions from Monday to Friday, where the moms build a safe educational environment: “It’s wonderful to see how such a wonderful thing gets consolidated. The kids show you their notebooks and are excited about their progress, and so are the different educating moms. It’s amazing to see that we are positively transforming lives,” Yepes stated. 

Reading as a stepping stone

Nevertheless, literacy goes beyond reading and writing. It involves all the skills that are essential to communicate effectively in contemporary society: public speaking, conflict resolution, and interdisciplinary thinking. These skills are essential for people to know that the words they are reading and writing have a context and a purpose. This is very clear for Embajadores Comunitarios, an organization that focuses on developing leadership and soft skills for young people at risk. They do so through the lens of Model UN Simulations. But, according to Alexa Penas, the general director for Embajadores Comunitarios, their work is more than just debate practices. “We say that Model UN is just an excuse to develop leadership between these communities. So that they can visualize themselves as leaders and develop the tools to understand that they are not defined by their background”.

Their curriculum is built around weekend sessions over one year, where in addition to speech delivery and writing practice, they cover topics like research methodology, international relations, conflict resolutions, and even do a weekly news roundup where they have to present a relevant news story in under a minute. “What we do is to empower them. “We don’t teach them to write, we teach them to be better writers. We don’t teach them to speak, we teach them to be better speakers and that they say what they have to say when they have to say it,” said Luis Calatayud, the organization’s program’s operational director. “Learning to do this boosts your self-esteem and confidence and prepares you to enter a job, higher education, or even just life”.

All of these efforts are making a dent in an ever more complex crisis. The dedicated efforts of these organizations shows the resilience of Venezuelan educators, activists and organizers who, in the midst of difficult conditions, continue to find ways to ensure that education continues in the country. However, the work of NGOs by themselves is not enough to fully address the multi-layered humanitarian crisis in the country and it certainly cannot be a substitute for effective and comprehensive public policy, which in case of a democratic transition, will still need to be supplemented with humanitarian assistance. Until that happens, these organizations will need all the possible support because they truly are making a difference.

(Featured image: Ángel Álvarez Domínguez Basic School in Maracaibo. Nataly Angulo/El Pitazo)