The basic principles
ALEF's method is based on long experience of adult literacy and numeracy in a development context. It is inspired by several different methods such as Paulo Freire's "conscientisation" method, which was later developed into REFLECT, but also by the sounding method used in the Swedish school, and the Whole Language Method, in Swedish called Läsning på Talets Grund, LTG, and in French "Pédagogie des textes" .
A fundamental element of ALEF's method is that learning should be based on the specific life situation of the participants, relating to their challenges and needs. All learning must be relevant to the participants' perceived needs, desires and plans. The goal is for each participant to be able to go home from every group meeting and directly apply something learnt or talked about during the meeting.
It is important to always treat the participants as adults. They own the right and possess the capacity to formulate their own problems and to come up with the solutions. In the ALEF method, the given texts do not propose solutions nor do the group leaders suggest them. It is the participants themselves who through dialogue and reflection find solutions and make decisions.
Another fundamental principle in ALEF's method is that all learning should be based on natural and meaningful text in the mother tongue. Content and relevance are emphasized instead of simplifications and mechanical exercises. Reading is learned by sounding together real words in an interesting text rather than by mechanical repetition of syllables.
The fact that learning takes place in the mother tongue, and that the mother tongue is the language you learn to read and write, is another key principle in ALEF's method. Every person has the right to make full use of their own language in both speech and writing, to express their cultural identity and their thoughts and feelings in their heart language. In addition, literacy learning is faster and goes deeper when it is rooted in the language sounds which are natural and automatic for the learner. In addition to the mother tongue, a second language is always included in the program, usually the country's official language.
The study groups
ALEF's method is based on group learning. The study groups are usually called “Empowerment groups”. Each group consists of 20-25 participants aged 15 - 40, with no more than 3 years of primary school education. Many have never even started school. The groups meet in their village or district twice or three times a week for a couple of hours. A course lasts for 6-7 months and there are three courses, "levels", in each study program.
Each group has a leader who lives in the local area and who speaks the project language fluently. The group leaders receive a two-week training of the project management before starting to lead a group.
The groups and their leaders are responsible for finding a meeting place. Some may meet in local schools after the end of the regular school. Some meet in churches or other meeting rooms. But in many villages, the natural gathering place is under a large tree that provides shade. Each person brings a chair, and the group leader places the blackboard against the tree trunk.
ALEF's method includes a systematic follow-up of each study group. The local organization engage coaches who carry out monitoring visits to each group once or twice a month. The coach supports the group leader in his work, and makes sure that the participants make progress and that the group works.
All lessons in an ALEF course are built around a number of steps that recur in the same order in each lesson. This makes it easy for group leaders to conduct the sessions. Once the group leader has learned how to proceed with the various steps, he or she can easily carry out all the lessons but with the help of the manual where all lesson plans are noted.
Leading an ALEF group is something quite different from being a teacher in a regular elementary school. The group leader does not "teach" in the real sense, but leads a process where the group works together through the various stages of the lesson. Everyone participates by reading, talking, writing on the chalkboard and in their notebooks. There is a lot of movement during a group meeting, when the participants go back and forth to the chalkboard, or work together in small groups.
Each lesson is built around a theme selected by the field partner organization as relevant to the target group. The lesson is based on a short text around the theme, and in each lesson the climax of the lesson is a participatory discussion around the theme. The discussion results in decisions on how to handle the life situation described in the text. After the discussion, the participants create a text on the theme together .
Literacy learning takes place based on the theme text. Groups constantly move between two levels of the language: Full texts and individual letters. A few words become places for a quick stopover, but the main focus keeps moving between text and letter. By connecting the letters directly to meaningful text and constantly switching between previously learned letters and texts that you read together several times, it becomes easy to remember the letters and their sounds and to associate them with something that is interesting and relevant.
As the groups make decisions together on how to act, it becomes natural for the participants to ask each other how things are going. They build trusting relationships, and put a positive pressure on each other to really do something to change their lives. This leads to very concrete changes in the participants' everyday life, which quickly results in improved finances, health and relationships.
At the first level, participants learn basic reading and writing in the mother tongue. At each group meeting, you learn a new letter or letter combination. You learn the most common letters first. This means that after about 10 lessons you can read more than half of all the letters in the texts you are working on. Eventually, participants begin to crack the reading code, and after about 20 lessons, everyone can read words together and some read the entire text.
At level 2, the focus is on the four basic math operations. Each theme text contains a math problem that participants find in the text and learn to solve. Then they practice solving similar problems. In this level they also learn the basics of a second language, usually only orally.
At the third level, learners read longer texts together where they learn new things. They publish texts that the group writes together. The group learns how to use maths for entrepreneurship, and they learn how to start and run an economic association or a cooperative or a savings club. They discuss human rights, and how the group can claim their basic rights from local authorities.
Below is a description of the steps in the lessons. Please also watch this video demonstrating a Level 1 lesson.
The steps of a lesson
At Level 1, the lesson begins with the participants going to the chalkboard and writing down the letters they learned in previous lessons. This activates the group and helps them remember what they have already learned.
STEP 1: Theme text
The text describes an everyday situation without providing solutions or values.
At level 1, the group leader writes the theme text on the chalkboard while the participants are watching. Then the group leader reads the text and the participants read after. The theme text is also printed in the participants' booklets.
Examples of theme texts are: “ Mary's baby had diarrhea for four days before he died. "Or" Tamale's wedding may never take place because his fiancee wants him to first test himself for HIV. "
At level 2, participants read the text directly in their booklets. In addition to the description of a life situation, the text also contains a numeracy problem. A typical level 2 text might be: “ Jane's mother sent her to the market to buy nine eggs. On the way home she started playing with some other children and had broke four eggs. When she got home she got a lot of punch." The numeracy problem hidden in the text is 9 - 4 = 5.
At level 3, the texts are longer, and more varied. They can be instructions on how to do something, argumentative or explanatory texts, letters and dialogues or literary texts, like folk tales.
STEP 2: A new letter or numeracy problem
In this step at level 1, the group leader writes a word from the theme text below the text. The word contains the new letter to learn. Under the word, the group leader writes the new letter.
Participants learn the letter and the sound it represents. They underline the letter wherever it appears in the text. Then they underline any other letters that they have learnt in previous lessons. After a few lessons, they find words in which all letters are underlined. They begin to read whole words, and eventually the whole text.
At level 2, a numeracy problem is found in the theme text and the participants learn how to solve it. They then practice solving similar problems.
STEP 3: Writing Exercise
At level 1, the group leader shows how to write the new letter. They first practice writing it in the air. Then the participants write in their notebooks. After some lessons they can write whole words, later whole sentences. Towards the end of the course, they write sentences where they express their own thoughts.
In step 3 in level 2, participants practice solving numeracy problems similar to the one presented in the theme text. First they work together on the chalkboard, then individually in the notebooks.
STEP 4: Group Discussion
At all levels, the group discusses the situation described in the theme text. The discussion is based on three questions:
Do you have similar experiences? - sharing one'sown experiences and feelings.
Why is it like this? - analyzing one's living conditions together.
What can we do about it? - common decisions are made to act.
The group leader encourages everyone to participate actively. No opinions or thoughts are considered “wrong”. Nor does the group leader tell the participants what they should do or think. The discussions conclude with the group making joint decisions about how they intend to act.
STEP 5: Creating texts
In this step articipants create a text around what they have discussed. In level1, the participants dictate to the group leader who writes on the chalkboard. When the text is complete, the whole group reads the text together while the group leader points to the words.
In level 1 the participants then underline all the letters they have learned. They look for words in which all letters are underlined and read them aloud. Finally, they read the text together several times. After about half the course, many can read the entire text without help.
At level 2, the groups either create a text together on the chalkboard as in level 1 or write a short text themselves in their notebooks. The texts are read aloud several times as a reading exercise.
In level 3 participants create longer texts together or in groups. The best texts are printed and laminated and placed on message boards in the villages. Many passers-by read and talk about the texts. On this level they also work on creating documents to be used in an association or a cooperative, e.g. statutes, application for registration, cash book and minutes.
STEP 6: Numbers and a second language
In this step in Level 1 groups learn to read and write numbers, usually up to 1000. They also learn to read and write dates. It is important for parents to be able to read their children's date of birth on various documents, and also to read the date of expiry on medicine packages. Phone numbers are another important application of numbers.
At level 2, the group begins to learn a second language, usually the country's official language. Usually they start with easy interactive conversation exercises.
At level 3, groups continue to work with reading and writing in a second language. They learn to read documents that they encounter in everyday life, and to fill in different forms, to orient themselves with the help of signs and notices. At this level, they also continue to apply numeracy, often with the focus on running a business or an economic association.