Tapping the potential of literacy for conflict mitigation

Development organizations are increasingly being asked to provide education in places that have been torn apart by wars and other conflicts. Reading and writing instruction is often pushed to the forefront of education-in-conflict interventions, because literacy is a foundational skill for future education and success in the workforce. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) goal of improving the reading skills of 100 million children by 2015 emphasizes the value of literacy.

Importantly, literacy also offers the potential to mitigate conflict. Instructional materials to develop literacy can include stories that model peaceful problem solving, value diversity (through characters who identify with various ethnic groups, for example) and communicate important information about safety and emergency measures.

Despite the possible benefits, building literacy in conflict situations is complex. Common challenges, such as limited materials and infrastructure, militarized populations and psychosocial trauma, require substantial creativity and innovation in literacy programming. FHI 360 is addressing these challenges in three key ways:

First, we are gaining knowledge to inform practice. Education in conflict is an understudied field, and very little is known about best practices for literacy instruction in conflict contexts. In 2014, JBS International commissioned an important research report by Lesley Bartlett and Zeena Zakharia, which provided “the first steps in developing a framework for literacy education in conflict- and crisis-affected contexts.”

FHI 360 will advance this conversation on November 5th when we host a panel on literacy and conflict, featuring Dr. Zakharia and other representatives from local implementing organizations. The panel will focus on current research and practices for literacy instruction in conflict situations, including a discussion of challenges, such as high numbers of older students in early grades, the politicization of languages and strategies needed for community support.

Second, literacy experts at FHI 360 are exploring how to align best practices from the humanitarian and literacy fields. For example, various organizations and research publications recommend using checklists of psychosocial practices in the classroom, such as emphasizing student expression, participation and collaboration, in order to build students’ resilience. In light of this research, we are creating literacy activities that foster psychosocial development. For example, by asking students to work in pairs to solve a word puzzle, play a game with letter sounds, or engage in dialogue around texts, teachers can promote self-esteem, collaboration and the idea that learning is fun. These attitudes, combined with meaningful content, hold great promise for literacy to mitigate conflict.

Finally, as a core partner on the USAID-funded Room to Learn project in South Sudan, led by Winrock International, we are focusing our efforts on improving reading outcomes in formal and nonformal schools, drawing on our extensive history working with countries that are trying to rebuild their education systems in the wake of prolonged conflict. While the project is still in its launch phase, we are optimistic about its potential impact.

Today, International Literacy Day, provides an opportunity for FHI 360 and the entire education community to reflect on the challenges and solutions for literacy acquisition worldwide. Building literacy in conflict situations can provide education and workforce skills for the future while promoting peace and teaching conflict resolution. We look forward to continuing to tackle this complex challenge.

For more information about the literacy and conflict panel November 5, 2014, please contact Emily Koester (ekoester@fhi360.org).

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