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Literacy Development in Central America

Teaching LiteracyWhen Debra Gittler, Ed.M.’10, visited a classroom of kindergarteners in Corinto, Nicaragua she asked them what they thought would happen if children’s book characters Froggy and Clifford met. Not knowing what responses to expect from the group of young children, Gittler was delighted with what they had to say.

“Immediately one boy suggested that the two wouldn't get along because they both like to be the center of attention,” Gittler recalls. “But then, another girl raised her hand and said, ‘I don't agree. I think they'd be good friends since they're both so mischievous.’”

How did 4-year-old children with limited access to books and other learning materials come to adopt these analytical opinions about two literary characters? According to Gittler, it can be seen as the result of efforts made by ConTextos, an international nonprofit she founded in 2010, which focuses on literacy development in Central America.

ConTextos – the precursor of which was Learning Through Libraries, started by Gittler with classmates at the Ed School – began in El Salvador before expanding across the Central American region. The organization works to develop authentic literacy skills through an innovative program of teacher training and parent participation; the creation of libraries; and Soy Autor, a unique reading-writing program that incorporates tablet technologies.

“In El Salvador and throughout Latin America, students learn passively, almost exclusively through copying and dictation, rote memorization, and transcription,” Gittler says, adding that, according to the Ministry of Education, 75 percent of third-graders and 66 percent of sixth-graders in these areas read far below grade level with limited understanding of text. “ConTextos changes this paradigm. We are a literacy organization that goes beyond just teaching reading. Our students learn to think deeply, to interpret, to analyze, and to question.”

So while the children in Carinto may not have access to running water and electricity at home, ConTextos has been able to provide them with access to a library and trained teachers who can help foster more than just literacy. And these children are not alone.

In less than three years, ConTextos has grown from a start-up with a $50,000 annual budget, training 23 teachers and reaching 700 students, to a budget of $500,000 with in-kind support counting for an additional $100,000. Furthermore, not only does the organization train hundreds of teachers in the region — 150 of whom have been recognized as leaders in their field — but ConTextos directly serves over 10,000 at-risk youth in El Salvador alone, one of the world’s most violent nations.

In recognition of the organization’s innovative ideas and social promise, Gittler was recently awarded a 2013 Echoing Green Fellowship for her work through ConTextos. As one of just 20 fellows selected from an applicant pool of over 2,800 this year, Gittler now joins the ranks of past social innovators that have gone on to launch and lead some of today’s most important social enterprises throughout the world, such as Teach For America, City Year, and One Acre Fund.

With high aspirations for the future of the ConTextos organization, Gittler makes it clear that this is just the beginning. Currently spending half of her time in El Salvador and half in the United States, Gittler is working tirelessly to grow both the organization’s programming and its partners.

“We are very committed to constantly getting better, and in the future we will expand our networks to maximize our potential and capacity,” she says. “We’ve just launched a campaign to establish 41 libraries in 2014 and are partnering with individual donors and family foundations to expand our reach.”

ConTextos hopes to expand in other ways as well. For one, the organization is looking to facilitate a regional literacy collaborative with representatives from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and Panama — the countries represented by CAFTA — in an effort to establish best practices in the region and share resources and techniques. Furthermore, a year from now, ConTextos will also be working to launch an expanded digital literacy curriculum.

“Of course, we want to grow while maintaining a strong commitment to quality,” Gittler says. “We aim for every student in Latin America to have access to high-quality literacy exposure that builds a love of learning and a curiosity for the world.”


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