‘Yo Sí Puedo’: How Cuba eradicated illiteracy

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

Some 99.8 percent of Cuban adults are literate, one of the highest literacy rates in the world and better than the rate in the United States.

Luisa Yara Campos, director of the Literacy Museum in Havana, was one of the 230,000 Cuban teenagers who left home in 1961 to eradicate illiteracy in the countryside.

Luisa Yara Campos speaks at IU's Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

Luisa Yara Campos speaks at IU’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

Campos spoke about her experience as a teacher and the ongoing global efforts in the lecture “Yes I can, Yo Sí Puedo,” Wednesday at IU’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Arlene Diaz, IU Bloomington associate professor of history, translated the lecture.

“Fidel made a call to city students so that they would volunteer to be the teachers of these peasants,” Campos said.

After delivering a speech to the United Nations promising to eradicate illiteracy within the year, Fidel Castro encouraged urban housewives, retirees and students to mobilize, train and move to the countryside.

A total of 230,000 volunteers worked from February until December of 1961. But despite the eventual success, not all country residents were initially welcoming.

“There was a lot of resistance in the beginning. Adults didn’t want to admit they couldn’t read and write,” Campos said. “The teachers had to use persuasion and a lot of love and patience to encourage them to go to the school.”

The adults expected formally trained teachers but in most cases received young girls aged 10-16 who were trained for only 15 days before moving to the rural communities.

“Because the teachers worked with them every day, they were able to persuade them to attend,” Campos said.

The lessons served two purposes: eradicate illiteracy and educate residents about the Organization of American States, which suspended Cuba’s membership in the organization from 1962 to 2009.

Teachers emphasized the organization – OEA in Spanish — in lesson plans because the vowels O, E and A are traditionally the first letters taught.

After months of night classes, teachers administered the final exam: Write a letter to Fidel Castro.  The Literacy Museum displays the letters, which illustrate the Cuban peoples’ appreciation for Castro’s role in facilitating the program.

The campaign was so effective, Campos said, because Castro emphasized the possibilities of teaching from the known to the unknown. Under his advice, the curriculum specialists created a concise six-page workbook that taught the alphabet by correlating letters to numbers.

“The teachers needed to teach it in a way that was familiar to the adults,” Campos said.

By matching letters with numbers based on frequency of use and learnability, the teachers helped the adult learners make connections with the number system they already understood from daily bartering and shopping.

Although the 1961 campaign failed to reach the country’s small population of Haitians and Jamaicans who spoke Creole and English, Cuba began exporting the literacy campaign and training teachers worldwide in 1976.

In 2003, the Cuban literacy campaign reorganized under the name “Yo Sí Puedo,” or “Yes I Can.” It spread to 30 countries and has taught 5 million people to date. It has been adapted in dozens of languages, including Braille.

The program uses TV, radio and video programming presented by native speakers. Cuban officials and Yo Sí Puedo workers hand over the curriculum but maintain quality control and help the new countries problem-solve.

“Cuba has made possible to teach this program around the world,” Campos said. “For us, it’s a gift Cuba can give to the world.”

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