Teaching Literacy in Jamaica

Ines Boumaiza, global education magazine, unesco, acnur, unhcrInes Boumaiza

Université ParisV – Paris Descartes, Paris, France

E-mail: ines.boumaiza@gmail.com


Abstract: Jamaica is a country of extremes. On the one hand, wealthy Jamaicans enjoy a modern, Western lifestyle. On the other hand, the poorest people in society, that is to say about 16% of Jamaicans, live below the poverty line. Although the abolition of slavery and emancipation laws led to the start of education for all, the descendants of Black slaves are often amongst the poorest classes in Jamaica. Thus, approximately 21% of Jamaican adults are illiterate. Therefore, the government is currently aiming at improving the education system in the whole country and one of its main goals is to increase cultural awareness of its people. This article focuses on two attempts to improve the Jamaican literacy rate as well as the educational level of its people and aims to raise people awareness on the situation of the country which is too often considered through prejudices. To do so, I briefly look at the data of the country and I explain how the Government and other kinds of organizations try to remedy this situation. Moreover, a volunteer who taught literacy in Jamaica tells us of her experience in an interview. Despite all the efforts made in Jamaica, illiteracy is still at high level; indeed 21% of adults are illiterate.

Key words: volunteering, literacy, illiteracy, adult literacy programs, equal opportunities, teaching, Jamaica, non-formal education.


  1. Definition of illiteracy

Literacy is commonly defined as the ability to read and write. Literacy also includes « a complex set of abilities needed to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture – alphabets, numbers, visual icons – for personal and community development »1. Some societies (especially the technological ones) encompass the media and electronic text in addition to alphabetic and number systems. However, these different abilities vary according to each country and its cultural and social context and needs. Illiteracy refers to the inability to read and / or write in any language. Nevertheless, we can distinguish between two kinds of illiteracy : functionnal illiteracy and what we might call « pure illiteracy ». Functional illiteracy denotes people whose reading and writing skills are not enough “to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level.”2. Even though a lot of different definitions describe functional illiteracy, they are in agreement that functional illiterate people can read and write very simple sentences but not enough to deal with the needs of daily life in their society. For instance, foreigners who are unable to use their reading and writing skills where they live, can be seen as functionally illiterate, so can native people who might read some simple words such as « tree » and « street », but are incapable of reading and comprehending newspaper articles, medical prescriptions, etc. Once again, it is important to say that the characteristics of functional illiteracy depend on countries and cultures ; indeed some demand better reading and writing skills than others. Pure illiteracy refers to people who cannot read or write in any context.

According to UNESCO, illiteracy denotes people who cannot, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life3. In addition, people who are only capable of reading names or expressions that they previously learnt by heart are also considered illiterate. So, the adult literacy rate, which is very often used for statistics, is the percentage of people aged fifteen and above who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement in their everyday lives. The ones who do not fit this definition are seen as illiterate people.

    1. The country and its context

Jamaica is a part of the Caribbean region. In 2011, about 2 751 000 people were living on this island of a 10,990 square kilometer surface area and the fifth-largest island of the Greater Antilles. Kingston is the capital and its population in 2011 reached 571 000 people.

Some key facts :

Table I. Economic indicators4

t1, Teaching Literacy in Jamaica, ines boumaiza, global education magazine

Table II. Social indicators5

t2, Social indicators, ines boumaiza, global education magazine

Jamaica has vastly improved the quality and the access to its education. The latter is basically modeled on the British system. Even though English is the official language of the island and children are taught Jamaican standard English (a mix of American and British English) in Jamaican schools, many of them grow up speaking Jamaican Creole at home.

The early childhood education is provided for pupils from one to six years old. The enrollment rate at this level (for children from four to six years old), reaches 62% which is one of the highest rate in the region.

Primary Education, also called Basic Education or Basic Level, starts with Grade 1 and ends with Grade 6. It prepares children from six to fourteen years old for Secondary Education.

Table III. Net Intake Rate at the Basic Level – 1990-19966

 Table III. Net Intake Rate at the Basic Level – 1990-1996, global education magazine

Table IV. Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) for the Basic Education Level for 1990-19967

 Table IV. Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) for the Basic Education Level for 1990-1996, global education magazine

Secondary Education is made up of Lower School (from Grade 7 to 9), and Upper School (from Grade 10 to 11).

To enter Higher Education, successful completion of education at the secondary level and diplomas such as A-Levels or CAPE examinations are required. In Jamaica, there is a difference between colleges and university. Indeed on the island, universities are the only institutions which may grant a degree. Some colleges cooperate with universities in order to be able to give students more than a college diploma.

Table V. Gross school enrollment rate in Secondary and Tertiary Level8

Table V. Gross school enrollment rate in Secondary and Tertiary Level , global education magazine

Nowadays, school is free for all children from kindergarten to Secondary Level and pupil participation at Basic Level has shown increases since 1990. In 2004, 96% of children enrolled at primary school9.

The ones who cannot afford to go to university or college, have access to vocational training through Human Employment and Resource Training (HEART) – Trust / National Training Agency (HEART Trust / NTA), which is a statutory organization created in 1982. This organization “is mandated to administer and equip all public sector vocational training programs to produce adequate numbers of skilled and semi-skilled workers to meet the requirements of sectors which are relevant to national development priorities.”10. All people above seventeen years old can access and benefit from HEART Trust/NTA’s programs. Moreover, these technical and vocational programs are available in thirteen areas and are financed from a compulsory 3% tax on private sector firms. In order to answer the needs of the Jamaican labor market, they are defined in collaboration with industries of the country and over the past ten years, the organization has worked to be even more accessible and to have a more coherent and relevant training system. Thus, between 1993 and 1998, 74.236 people enrolled on these programs and during this same period, 61.810 people graduated from them.

On the other hand, non-formal education for adults is seen as necessary. Indeed, it teaches skills to adults and leads to behaviors that improve individual productivity and the development of the country.

Thanks to these various initiatives and to the educational policies which had a great success, the National Literacy Survey carried out in 1994, indicated that 75.6% of adults were literate, with 81.3% of female and 69.4% of male. This rate is still increasing: between 1995 and 2005, 80% of adults in Jamaica were literate and, according to the World Bank, the adult literacy rate was last measured at 87.04% in 2011.

Graph I. The adult literacy rate in Jamaica, from 1999 to 201011

Graph I. The adult literacy rate in Jamaica, from 1999 to 2010, global education magazine

However, even though education for adults is one of the main concerns of the country, resources that are allocated to this field are not sufficient. What is more, the majority of adult literacy programs are made and implemented by NGOs, and levels of functional literacy remain low for national active population : about 70% of workers that have basic skills in reading, writing and numeracy are unable to use these skills in an effective and competitive way in a context of global economy. In a nutshell, the low level of literacy skills of Jamaican workers is a big barrier to their productivity and the development of the country.


In the light of this situation, some national and foreign programs have been created to increase the literacy rate in Jamaica and help the country dealing with its main issues, closely related to illiteracy. Let us examine two of them, a national one, and a foreign one.

  1. The Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy – JAMAL

In 1970, a study made by UNESCO indicated that about 50% of adults were illiterate in Jamaica. This result and the shock it brought, led to the creation of the National Literacy Bord in 1972, and two years later, an offshoot of it, called the Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy, came into being. JAMAL is a limited-liability company which aims at eradicating illiteracy in the country, improving the literacy skills of people and helping them following the most suitable course for them: either higher educational programs and institutions or programs of vocational training. The method used by JAMAL is a mass-literacy approach and it has had a great impact. Indeed, in 1975, an Adult Literacy Survey declared that the illiteracy rate had decreased by 32%. Despite this success, in the mid-1990’s, JAMAL included numeracy in its program, in order to cope with the technological and economic changes that settled down in the society . It replaced its mass-literacy approach by a “literacy on demand” approach as well. Nevertheless, in 1999, some surveys showed that two thirds of the adult population had not reached a level similar to Grade 2 certification. This is the reason why, in 2002, JAMAL decided to take care of this large part of under-educated adults. To do so, a new organization was established. Thus, the Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning was created in 2008. It followed and expanded JAMAL’s work and broadened its activities to life skills, computer and workplace education, high school equivalency, and so on. Since its inception, the Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning has worked hard on constantly reviewing its work and has increased its cooperation with various partners, which is what has made it successful until today.

    1. Projects Abroad

Projects Abroad is a non-profit international organization which came into being in 1992 in Great Britain. This non-religious organization offers various volunteering and internship opportunities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. Projects Abroad is among the biggest organizations in the world : it is currently represented in twenty-eight countries on the five continents and has organized 60,000 projects since its creation. Through its values (contribution, company, community and culture), the organization aims at offering the rare opportunity to be immersed, for at least a month, in emerging or developing countries. Thus, volunteers (who must be sixteen years old), are welcomed in host families and work in the community so that they can discover the culture of the country and forge strong links with people. The projects focus on various themes: care, conservation and environment, archaeology, arts, sports, building, agriculture, medicine, business, international development, journalism, law, human rights, and teaching. As it includes the Caribbean in the countries where it intervenes, and teaching in its programs, Projects Abroad is one of the rare organizations which offers projects in Jamaica. More precisely, it forms a partnership with the University town Mandeville in order to place volunteers in a lot of Mandeville’s community centers. One of the projects is teaching literacy to Jamaican adults. To learn more about it, here is an interesting interview of a young woman who volunteered in Jamaica. She enrolled in the teaching literacy project.


To conclude, this article shows that a lot of efforts have been made in Jamaica, to decrease the adult illiteracy rate. Many Jamaican and foreign organizations came into existence to struggle against illiteracy on the island and these initiatives were a clear success. However, about 21% of adults remain illiterate in Jamaica. Since the issue of literacy is one of the main concerns of the actual government, we can hope this rate will quickly decrease, for where there is a will, there is a way !


Hello Ingrid, thank you for answering our questions about your project in Jamaica. Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us why you went to Jamaica with Project Abroad ?

Yes of course ! After I completed my degree in English, I wanted to travel all around the world. I did some research and I chose to enroll in Projects Abroad because it gave me the opportunity to go to several countries and did several projects that I really loved ! The first country I went to was Jamaica. I absolutely wanted to discover the island, beyond the prejudices and appearances we almost all have about it.

Are programs and projects that deal with adult literacy usual in Jamaica ?

Most projects in Jamaica are about medicine and childhood (mostly orphanages, specific centers for disabled children, etc.). When I volunteered there, “teacher volunteers” were a minority. Generally, only those who want to be teachers enroll in this kind of projects. And very few people were interested in the adult literacy project when I was there. Yet, this is such an interesting project!

In Jamaica, literacy projects are unusual and hard to establish for many reasons : people are self-conscious about not being able to read and write and sometimes feel reluctant to sign up for this kind of projects. In 99% of cases, these adults are women who are raising or have raised their children alone and come from a disadvantaged social background. In addition to teaching these women, I had to help promoting the learning center. A lot of people think of enrolling but they don’t dare to…

Does Projects Abroad offer a training course before starting the mission ? If yes, how long last this training ? Is it compulsory ? Did you do it ?

Projects Abroad doesn’t offer any training before the departure, whatever the project you want to enroll in, which is a pity. I already had some experience and teaching has always interested me. Starting the project and having a whole class of my own was 100% okay for me. However, I am against sending a volunteer with no experience and training at all before their departure.

Did you cooperate with other volunteers on this project ?

No, I worked alone.

What tasks did you have to do during this project ? Did you define them alone or with the help of the local team ?

Planning lessons for next classes, correcting exercises done during the last lessons, planning exams to test pupils and validate an upper level each time it was needed were my tasks. As I followed up with a former volunteer’s work, I worked on the same themes. However, I was free to plan my classes the way I wanted to.

Was the team you worked with, made up of Jamaican people only ?

Yes, the whole local team was made up of Jamaican women only.

Was there a specific team on your project, that is to say, people who were only working on adult literacy? How did you worked with them ? Did they regularly follow up with your job ? Did you feel independent in your job ? Did you have to follow a general pattern they “imposed” to you ?

Within the local team, each person was responsible for a project (teaching project, environment project, medicine project, etc.). There was no one responsible of the literacy program itself, my “boss” was the one responsible for the teaching project. There was indeed a follow up (one-hour-weekly meeting with all the volunteers of all the others fields), and someone regularly visited me on my work place (this person watched me, interviewed the pupils, etc.). I was very independent in my job because I planned everything myself.

You told me another volunteer worked there before you did. Do you know if anyone replaced you once you left ?

Yes I replaced someone when I came, but when I left, there was no volunteer to keep on working on this project.

Did you have any material for this mission (books, etc.) ? If yes, who gave it to you ? Do you have any comment on this material ?

Concerning the material, Projects Abroad gave several books to me and I had my own books. A lot of books were bought and left there by volunteers. After several years, we had a lot of books !

Where did you teach ?

I taught in Mandeville, a small town in the South of the island. Classes were given in the ‘ghetto’ part of the town : Greenvale. Before starting teaching, I had heard bad things on this place (murderers, fights, etc.). Not really reassuring !

When did classes take place ?

Classes took place every day (mornings and afternoons). I planned the lessons and correct them once I came back home.

How many pupils did you have ? Can you describe them to me (age, sex, job, etc.) ? Do you know if they are ‘typical’ pupils ?

I had four pupils :

Nessandra – 24 years old, unemployed – single mother of one little girl

Marge – 56 years old, saleswoman in a small grocer’s – divorced – one son

Letesha – 28 years old, unemployed – single mother of one little girl

Sasalee – 30 years old, unemployed – single mother of four children

They all spoke Jamaican Creole. As you can see, they all are, more or less, in the same living conditions : single mothers who have one or several children in charge. In Jamaica, this is very usual and this is a pity. They are indeed typical pupils. I never heard of male pupils for this kind of projects.

How did your pupils welcome you at the very beginning of your project ? Were they happy that you were there to help them ? Or did you feel a coldness or rejection, maybe some kind of self-consciousness coming from them ?

At the beginning, they were kind of shy but one of them, Marge, 56 years old, she was something ! She was very frank, straight to the point and had no taboo. Gradually, they felt more and more comfortable which enabled us to speak frankly. Jamaican people are very broad-minded people. Finally, I think that a volunteer’s presence is very much appreciated there, culturally speaking. It is very enriching since we talk about our mutual cultures.

Did pupils always attend your classes ? Were some of them often missing ?

Yes, there were often people missing or people who registered but never came. I can understand them, this is a big deal going back to square one and learning everything from the start when you are in your twenties…

Did pupils show a real enthusiasm keeping on learning to write and read once your project was over ?

Yes, for sure, because they basically really wanted to learn. Since no one came after me, I left them some rules to follow and some readings to do before my departure. It is definitely harder with no teacher…

Do all Jamaican people master English language, at least do they all speak it ?

Yes, they do but they like keeping their own typical Jamaican expressions. Since the United States are close to Jamaica, a lot of cultural aspects come from the American’s culture (American movies, American food, etc.).

How is the English language seen by Jamaican people ?

They would never prefer it to Jamaican Creole, for sure. English is the language that is taught at school, everything is taught in English, we can hear or read it through the media as well. This is somehow, an insertion language, necessary to speak in the labor market. What is more, it is very important for them to speak it because a lot of them want to go into exile to the United States.

In your collaborative work with the local team, did you get familiar (through formal or informal way), with the Jamaican Creole ? If no, would you have liked to have basic knowledge of it ? Do you think this could have helped you in your mission ? If yes, how ?

Given that my host family and my pupils spoke very good English, I didn’t have any trouble making myself understood. Obviously they taught me the basics in Jamaican Creole and this is highly recommended to be integrated well in this culture. This is very worthwile as well to express oneself in their language, they are flattered by that.

Are there some Jamaican Creole classes in Projects Abroad’s program ?

There was a weekly activity about Jamaican culture. This activity was organized by new volunteers : cooking classes, some Jamaican Creole basics, History, etc. . Moreover, when I arrived, I was given a welcoming guide in which there were some vocabulary words in Jamaican Creole.

Do you know if Jamaican Creole’s classes are taught in the country ? Do you know what people do in these classes and what is taught ?

No, I don’t think so. Not through formal classes anyway. A lot of Jamaican people offered to teach me Jamaican Creole so that I could easily talk with them in this language.

Did someone tell you about their feelings about the official language (English) and Jamaican creole and their position in the country ? If yes, what did he say ?

No, no one told me anything about this. I don’t feel like they paid too much attention to it.

Were you struck by one or several things when your did your project in Jamaica ?

Yes, I was struck by all these single mothers who are alone to raise their children, with no husband. This is shocking and sad, for it is so usual there. What is more, I was sad to see that a lot of foreign volunteers only went to Jamaica to do drugs.

Nevertheless, I was really surprised by the children : they were fun loving, tenders and expressive. I am used to working with foreign children and Jamaican children are the most expressive that I met.

Is there something else, that seems important to you, you would like to add ?

Yes, that you have to feel free to contact schools or local organizations instead of going through an NGO.

Thank you very much Ingrid !

My pleasure.


  • Bibliographic references

UNESCO. (2006). Literacy for Life. Education for all, Global Monitoring report, Paris, UNESCO.

  • Webgraphic references

Centre for Literacy, http://www.centreforliteracy.qc.ca/about/literacy

Schlechty, Phillip C., Shaking up the schoolhouse: how to support and sustain educationalinnovation, http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/wiley031/00009570.pdf

UNESCO, http://www.unesco.org/education/wef/countryreports/jamaica/rapport_2.html

United Nations, http://data.un.org/CountryProfile.aspx?crName=Jamaica

World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.SEC.ENRR

World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/country/jamaica


1Definition of the Centre for Literacy, http://www.centreforliteracy.qc.ca/about/literacy

2Schlechty, Phillip C., Shaking up the schoolhouse : how to support and sustain educational innovation, http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/wiley031/00009570.pdf

3Education for all, Global Monitoring report, Chapter 6, Understandings of Literacy, UNESCO, 2006.

4Data from the United Nations, http://data.un.org/CountryProfile.aspx?crName=Jamaica

5Data from the United Nations, http://data.un.org/CountryProfile.aspx?crName=Jamaica

6Figures from UNESCO, http://www.unesco.org/education/wef/countryreports/jamaica/rapport_2.html

7Figures from UNESCO, http://www.unesco.org/education/wef/countryreports/jamaica/rapport_2.html

8Data from World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.SEC.ENRR and http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.SEC.ENRR

9Figures from the World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/country/jamaica

10Unesco, http://www.unesco.org/education/wef/countryreports/jamaica/rapport_2.html

11Adult literacy rate in Jamaica, World Bank, University of Sherbrooke

This article was published on 21stSeptember International Day of Peace, in Global Education Magazine.

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