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How Numbers Have Helped 8 Million People Learn How to Read

Wikicommons: Blue Plover

More than 8 million people around the world can read because of a Cuban education program started during the nation’s revolution. The program, “Yes, I Can,” has been used in rural and poverty-stricken communities across Latin America, Africa, and even in Australia and New Zealand. The curriculum embeds teachers in communities and uses knowledge of numbers to teach people to read and write.

Leonela Relys started the program in 1961 during the early days of the Cuban revolution. At the suggestion of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the writer and educator developed a system using numbers to represent letters of the alphabet. This approach is based on the idea that illiterate people are often still familiar with numbers because of their need to use them in trade and barter situations.

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The program, also known as “Yo Si Puedo,” reduced Cuba’s illiteracy rate from 23.6% to 3.9% by the end of the 1960s. Since then, the program has become a central part of Cuba’s international aid projects and has helped millions of people around the world.

Cuba exported the curriculum and teachers initially to nations in Latin America with shared political ideology. Relys herself coordinated the project’s implementation in Haiti and Venezuela and supported its use in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Guinea Bissau, and Colombia.

In the last 50 years, the program has been implemented in more than 30 nations. In Angola the program helped more than 300,000 people learn to read. The courses were even used in distant nations like East Timor, New Zealand, and Australia. In 2015 and 2016, successful pilot programs were run with Aboriginal communities in Australia.

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The full education program includes three stages: life skills and numerical literacy; core literacy skills; and continuing discussion topics that reinforce reading and writing through lessons on geography, history, and biology.

Instructors, many of which are Cuban, in local communities are supported by distance-learning tools like DVDs of example lessons and broadcasts on radio and television. These embedded teachers tailor the programs to local cultures and needs.

"You have to understand these women's routine,” said instructor Keyla Guzman Velez in a BBC profile of a Yes, I Can project in El Alto, Bolivia. “They get up at dawn, they often have to leave their children behind at home, then they work all day and when they get home they still have to do the housework.”

Guzman adapted to her busy adult pupils’ schedules and held one-on-one instruction sessions at their market stalls so they would not have to interrupt their work.

Through the efforts of teachers like Guzman, Yes, I Can helped lower Bolivia’s illiteracy rate from 13.28% in 2001 to 3.8% in 2014.

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In 2006, UNESCO recognized the program’s with the annual King Sejong Literacy Prize that honors outstanding contribution to literacy.

Cuba’s approach to literacy training could be a global tool to help the estimated 775 million illiterate adults take further control of their lives and futures.