Empowerment through Reading, Writing and Critical Thinking


This article celebrates the UN-observed  International Literacy Day, Sept. 8, 2014.




Maureen Littlejohn (R) and Ashley Laracy (M) present a Uniterra workshop to staff at Hanoi’s Bac Thang College

Reading and writing open doors of opportunity and provide a path to well-being–from securing a stable livelihood to maintaining a safe, secure home, to being able to understand human rights.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the country with the highest literacy in the world is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with a value of 100. The lowest is Afghanistan, with a value of 18.16.

Here in Vietnam, where I work with the World University Services of Canada (WUSC), 94 per cent of adults and youth (24+) are literate. It seems like a high and healthy rate, and yet there are problems. Gender, regional and ethnic disparities bar access to education and there is a 35 per cent illiteracy in remote areas. More than 75 per cent of the ethnic Dao and H’mong peoples are illiterate. High rates of poverty, poorly equipped schools and lack of information cause a high dropout rate in rural villages, perpetuating a marginalized population.

Many organizations have supported adult literacy programs here. UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning Literacy and Community Development Program is perhaps the best known. Since its inception in 2000, more than 12,000 participants (9,500 women) from 11 districts have enrolled in the program. To date 6,008 participants have graduated and now have basic literacy. With increased self-confidence and the capacity to solve problems, graduates have contributed to community development and experienced a decline in poverty as they use their new skills to generate income.


Navigating blindfolded: Bac Thang Long teachers lead students in a new communications game

The work WUSC is doing is also focused on the decline of poverty through better livelihood skills. Vietnam’s industrial zones are booming and yet education and training institutions are struggling to meet the demands of the growing labour market.  As a result, many literate youth are stuck in low-paying jobs. WUSC’s strategy in Vietnam, through its Uniterra program, targets better training, teaching and more relevant curricula so youth are better prepared to enter the modern job market.

Currently, Uniterra’s Skills Training for the Labour Market (STLM) project works to strengthen the skills of teaching and management staff in eight community colleges and TVET associations in Vietnam. Uniterra supports this target group through training and workshops, and the development of useful tools, methods, procedures and systems that are used to strengthen the colleges’ capacities to deliver better training to youth and improve their access to employment.


Workshop participants share ideas in problem solving activity

The STLM project is in line with the government’s strategy to move away from an educational tradition of memorization, and reshape curriculum and teaching methods to help Vietnamese become more effective problem solvers, critical thinkers, communicators and team workers. WUSC volunteers have mandates ranging from curriculum development, teaching methodology, soft skills/communication, partnership, and IT. Working closely with colleges to strengthen their relationship with key industry employers improves the quality of education students receive, as well as the employable skills that assist them to access quality jobs and support their families. As communications/marketing advisor for Bac Thang Long College, a vocational school in Hanoi’s largest industrial zone, I’m working with local staff to improve the website and promote the college. We’re also developing a marketing strategy to increase enrollment which has dipped due to an economic slowdown and a shift in admission requirements.


In 2013-2014, 37 Uniterra volunteers worked to build capacity through workshops and the creation of teaching tools. So far, improvements include knowledge sharing (i.e., preparing presentations and giving lectures online) and training of trainers in both economic development and education areas. Workshops have covered teaching methodologies, soft skills, career development, and partnership development. According to a recent survey, 96 per cent of participants indicated that they would apply what they had learned to improve their professional capacities.


Bac Thang Long teachers come up with suggestions

One of the biggest WUSC success stories is Hoa Sua School for Disadvantaged Youth (HSS) that boasts the highest level of graduates securing quality jobs. All partner colleges, including the one I work at, have agreed that the soft skills training, such as communication, teamwork, problem solving and presentation are important assets for the graduates.

Literacy is many-layered. Learning to read and write is just the beginning.

For more information, check out the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, Literacy and Community Development Program here and World University Services of Canada here.



Maureen Littlejohn

Maureen, a seasoned travel writer and communications consultant, currently lives in Hanoi and works with the Uniterra program as a communications/marketing advisor for a local partner college.

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