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Literacy and numeracy practices of market women of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Joan B Cohen-Mitchell, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Current policy statements concerning adult literacy in Guatemala state that Mayan women need literacy skills in order to better themselves and their families socially and economically and need to possess these tools and skills in order to participate in the emerging civil society. Responding to this rhetoric, and a chance to win funding, organizations that design and develop literacy programming have responded with adult literacy “classes” that focus on a single model of literacy learning for women that tends to be equated to a school model of basic education. Central to this single model for literacy learning, is a single conception of literacy, as a unified, quantifiable easily attainable goal. This reductionist tendency in Guatemala has led to focusing on a single literacy as the solution to the problem of indigenous women's illiteracy. Assumptions about the needs and desires of beneficiaries are made by literacy experts and planners without taking the time to understand the literacy practices that Mayan women and communities are already engaged in. Examining and analyzing the literacy and numeracy practices women are already engaged in is a very different approach to program planning than the hegemonic centralism of the more traditional autonomous model. By using ethnographic methods to conduct literacy research, a potentially empowering model for literacy programming can emerge that is sensitive to local context and needs. The following guidelines resulted from this study: It cannot be assumed (1) that programs designed for literacy acquisition are in the best educational or social interests of the target audience; (2) that “best practices” of teaching and learning developed and advocated by Western educators and planners are the most effective and successful in all contexts. Whole language approaches or learner-generated materials may work in some contexts and not in others and we cannot simply impose “state of the art” approaches in all contexts and expect them to work well. Any sustainable, meaningful literacy intervention in Guatemala would best be conceptualized as a long-term process that helps to establish an intergenerational network of communicative relationships that focus on the social, cultural, economic and linguistic processes of communities.

Subject Area

Literacy|Reading instruction|Adult education|Continuing education

Recommended Citation

Cohen-Mitchell, Joan B, "Literacy and numeracy practices of market women of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3163658.