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Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as Foreign Exchange

Foreign Exchange

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Guatemala is turning to its young people to help erase adult illiteracy there.

The culturally diverse Central American country last fall began requiring high school students to search out and teach adults who cannot read or write.

The Guatemalan education ministry estimates that some 55,000 students have signed up for the program, along with about 400,000 adults.

Initially, in order to graduate, students had to spend 200 or more hours over six months teaching at least five adults the basics of reading and writing. When some schools balked at the load, education officials backed off, and now let students teach fewer adults and for less time.

Still, the goal of the program is to cut the nation's 45 percent illiteracy rate in half by 2004.

One of the challenges is overcoming language barriers. Spanish is the major tongue in Guatemala, a country of about 12 million people, but more than 20 dialects of indigenous languages are spoken—and are often the primary languages in rural areas.

Though most people seem to agree that the literacy program is well intentioned, it has its critics.

Some private schools have sued—unsuccessfully—over the government's right to force them to comply.

Other private schools are making the best of the situation.

Barbara Barillas, the director of the American School of Guatemala, said the 100 seniors in her school in Guatemala City are participating, but had some difficulty finding adults to commit to classes.

On discovering the students were required to come up with adults to teach, some adults tried to charge the youngsters, she said.

While many hurdles have had to be overcome, such as teaching students how to teach, the program is starting to pay off, at least for students.

"In many ways, it sensitizes students to realities they've not confronted before," she said. "But just how successful the program is [at teaching literacy] is not clear."

—Robert C. Johnston

Vol. 20, Issue 39, Page 8

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