Through short sessions of playful reading and writing practice, Beatriz Diuk is catching up illiterate children with their peers and alleviating frustrated teachers by providing them with simple tools to address this gap. By approaching the problem of illiteracy as one of the education system, not as an inherent quality of “poor children,” she is changing perspectives and turning those who are furthest behind into successful learners.
La idea nueva
In Argentina, a significant number of children enrolled in school are advancing without ever learning to read and write. As a teacher and community educator for many years, Beatriz Diuk saw that this serious but invisible problem was going unaddressed – neither teachers nor schools have the tools to assist these students, so an increasing number are graduating lacking these necessary skills for citizenship. Beatriz has designed a way, through 25 minute-long sessions of playful learning, to catch up illiterate children with their peers and alleviate frustrated teachers by providing them with simple tools to address this gap.
In Argentina, unlike other countries in the region, there are not serious problems of access to or retention of students in the education system, especially at the primary school level -- primary school enrollment is close to 99 percent. The problems in Argentine education are instead related to the quality of learning. In 2007, 30 percent of students in third grade showed a low level of knowledge on standardized tests (with high, medium, and low categories). Perhaps most disturbing, 10 to 15 percent of Argentine children enrolled in third grade and above are not able to read or write. In public schools, the number is closer to 30 percent. These students are advancing in school without learning to read or write, which then poses major problems for society as a whole as these skills are essential for any learning and development.
In the last 15 years, learning levels in the Argentine educational system have been declining, and are low compared to other countries in the region. The system has failed to develop strategies to accompany children in poverty, which is widespread after the 2001 economic crisis. Although the children are in school, the curricula and teaching methods are generally unsuitable for schools in vulnerable areas and with these children from lower income backgrounds, particularly due to the low teacher to student ratio. Students from these contexts have often received less stimulation at home, arrive to school behind in learning, and need more personalized attention which the national curriculum, standard teacher training, and low number of educators per child all fail to address. As a result, students are falling further behind, yet schools, driven by need to maintain enrollment numbers, continue to pass failing students to the next grade.
Beatriz firmly believes that every child has the ability to learn if properly taught. With this vision, she worked for three years studying the challenges and contexts of vulnerable children to understand the multifaceted causes of the problem. This intensive research and her long career as a community educator led Beatriz to design DALE!, a program that creates the proper conditions for teaching even in the most complex environments.
DALE! began in 2007 as a pilot in the provinces of Buenos Aires and Catamarca. The teaching methods used in these pilots proved to have excellent results – among the nearly 100 students participating, after three months, 70 to 90 percent improved to match the reading and writing skills of the rest of their class. Since then, the methodology has continued to evolve, and is now in its third version.
The intervention consists of 25 minute-long sessions in which DALE!-trained teachers work and play with students individually. These sessions involve games, stories, and family histories, all with the child as the center. The activities are intended to improve reading and writing skills but also to develop an emotional connection between student and teacher as a basis for successful learning. Each session is divided into four stages: speaking; writing; reading; and homework. An example session: The classroom teacher takes a student to a quiet place while the rest of the class is doing another activity, or after school (in some cases, the teacher is a DALE! instructor, not the student’s regular school instructor). They begin with a conversation, which is a way for the teacher to show the student genuine interest in getting to know her, her problems and worries, and individual needs. Next, the student is asked to write a summary of some part of the conversation in a notebook called “My History” (with help from the teacher, as needed). In the second part of the session, the teacher refers to an envelope corresponding to the session number, and pulls out a card game. One deck of cards goes to the teacher and another to the student. With the cards face down, each guesses if the cards about to be drawn will begin with the same sound. Then they each flip over a card, and if the beginning sound is the same, then both win a point, but if each sound is different, then no one gets a point. This continues until the deck is finished, at which point the student practices spelling the full names of the drawings on the cards using mobile letters and writing in the notebook. For the third part of the session, the teacher reads a story aloud. To conclude the session, the teacher explains the homework that will be due during the next session.
For teachers, the impact of the progress of the most disadvantaged children is critical because it confirms their ability to teach and facilitates a classroom environment that is more stimulating for all children. The effect of the teaching skills and tools that DALE! provides to teachers has strong impact on the rest of the classes, benefiting all students -- even those who do not have deficits in reading and writing. The multiplier effect of more motivated teachers who have improved self-esteem and who are valued by the system for teaching success is strong.
DALE! has a staff of five educators in charge of programming and six volunteer teachers in charge of recruiting and training other teachers. The sessions are implemented in two settings: within schools and the formal education system and in community institutions. In both cases, the first step is finding and training the teachers or community educators who will work directly with the young people. Most teachers selected are part of an institution that has agreed to implement DALE!, and where possible, those chosen have a demonstrated commitment to working with vulnerable students. After the training, DALE! instructors are then supervised and monitored to ensure that the sessions are properly implemented. In some cases, teachers are filmed giving the sessions, and the DALE! team then analyzes the videos and sends feedback to the teachers with suggestions and corrections. In other cases, DALE! instructors visit the schools or community centers weekly or monthly to provide in person accompaniment. There are also DALE! gatherings where the team and other teachers present new resources and discuss practices.
The programs are funded by businesses and social organizations at a provincial level. To enhance the scope of the program, Beatriz has launched a website (www.propuestadale.com) that enables the spread of open training events and free download of all program materials. She aims to create a network of DALE! trained teachers who are committed to improving the education system. Currently, DALE! has trained 220 teachers from across the country. For Beatriz, this has reinforced the importance of bringing together teachers with a latent interest in the issue into a powerful network with a shared goal of improving education in Argentina and the region.
To strengthen the network, Beatriz organizes seminars for trained teachers to present the DALE! methodology and case studies as well as to conduct teaching workshops. The first was held in 2014 at the University of St. Martin and drew 90 teachers. While the DALE! movement does not have an institutional structure, it has worked with a team of highly committed professionals who aim to influence the formal education system. In the future, Beatriz plans to form an organization to frame and solidify this movement; however the project is still new. She envisions a network of teachers using the DALE! sessions throughout the country. Additionally, Beatriz plans to work directly with the Ministry of Education to influence a curriculum change based on the successful experiences of DALE! To prepare for this, she has convened a group of education experts from Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay to measure literacy in the region at the end of the second year of primary school. This study will provide a statistical framework to reinforce the importance of DALE!’s work in addressing this problem in an efficient, effective, and economic way.
Beatriz had a comfortable childhood in a middle class family. However, from a young age, she showed concern for people from vulnerable economic, social, and cultural backgrounds. Her teenage years were during the military dictatorship in Argentina. She was a founding member of her high school's first student center, and she immediately joined the new Social Action Committee. From there, she had her first experiences working with children in poverty, and she learned to be surprised by the infinite capabilities of these children despite an environment which could not even meet their basic needs.
At the end of high school, Argentina was in its early years of democracy and Beatriz joined CEDEPO (Ecumenical Center for Popular Education), convened by the need to consolidate efforts to build a better society. A member of CEDEPO invited her to join a project in Quilmes, a city just outside of Buenos Aires. Here again, working with children from vulnerable contexts to improve their chances of integration into mainstream society, Beatriz confirmed her vocation.
Beatriz then went on to study teaching, and in 1993 joined a group of community educators working closely with a vulnerable settlement. In this space, she connected again with the most vulnerable children and began to analyze the problem in a systematic and would allow her to develop a solution that, years later, would become DALE!. In those years, Beatriz also joined the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) as a Fellow. It was in this space that she designed, revised, and implemented DALE!. Beatrice sees this experience of researching as a critical component, allowing practice to be nourished with study and preparing for transformation of the formal education system.