Adult Literacy and Skills Training Programme (ALSTP), South Africa

  • Date published:
    4 March 2016
Adult Literacy and Skills Training Programme

Programme Overview

Programme Title Adult Literacy and Skills Training Programme
Implementing Organization Operation Upgrade of South Africa
Language of Instruction Mother-tongue(s) and English as second language
Programme Partners National Lottery; ProLiteracy Worldwide; OXFAM Australia; Rotary Club of Umhlanga and the Rotary District Literacy Committee.

Context and Background

Although South Africa has made significant progress in providing universal access to education, an estimated 9 million people cannot read or write. A vast majority of these are adult women living in poor and remote rural areas. For example, it is estimated that the province of KwaZulu-Natal alone has about two million illiterate people. Furthermore – and similarly to other rural areas – only 26% of a total population of approx. 26,000 in KwaNibela (a remote rural area in KwaZulu-Natal province) is literate. High rates of illiteracy among most adult South Africans are a result of the segregationist apartheid policies and have been further exacerbated by a continued lack of development in rural areas. Illiteracy has a profound socio-economic impact on rural families, perpetuating cycles of poverty (due to limited productive capacity, a lack of the skills needed to gain formal employment, an inability to educate children, insufficient access to basic social services and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS). The challenges facing women are compounded by the increased migration of males to urban areas in search of employment. As a result, women struggle to sustain their families (averaging 5 children and 2 adult dependants) by eking out a meagre livelihood from family land. Needless to say, this has profoundly undermined their ability to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and educate their children. Recognising that illiteracy is both the cause and the effect of numerous social challenges, Operation Upgrade – a national NGO founded in 1966 to assist poor people with development projects – initiated the Adult Literacy and Skills Training Programme (ALSTP) in 2003 in an effort to promote social change and development in marginalised and socially disadvantaged rural communities.

Adult Literacy and Skills Training Programme (ALSTP)

Since 1966, Operation Upgrade (OpUp) has – with financial and technical support from many organizations, including Oxfam Australia, ProLiteracy Worldwide Int. and local chapters of Rotary International – been working with poor South Africans through literacy and development projects. In 2003, OpUp initiated ALSTP, which encompasses the KwaNibela Project that won the 2008 UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy. The ALSTP emerged as a proactive response to practical needs of and challenges facing poor, rural-based households. It is a multi-faceted family-based literacy and development project that is being implemented in socially disadvantaged and remote rural areas such as KwaNibela. The programme primarily targets adult women – and, to some extent, men, children and youth – aged 25 to 50 years.

Using an integrated approach to literacy skills training and community development, the programme offers mother-tongue literacy, English as a second language, numeracy and theme-based training in:

  • livelihood development: income generation, food production/security and preservation;
  • health education: HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, childcare, home-based care for the sick, reproductive health, nutrition and sanitation;
  • civic/life skills education: human rights, gender relations, conflict management and resolution; and
  • sustainable environmental conservation (see pictures below).


Essentially, therefore, OpUp views literacy not merely as the ability to read and write, but as a major vehicle for holistic social change and community development. In light of this, OpUp uses ALSTP to promote literacy among learners through developmental activities that addresses their basic and practical needs, thus helping them to break out of the cycle of poverty. As the OpUp Director, Pat Dean, said, to be effective “literacy classes must reflect the social context. So while English is an option for the learners, HIV and AIDS and food security are part of almost every lesson. You cannot be in a literacy class if you can’t feed your children.” This basic principle has shaped the objectives of ALSTP.

Aims and Objectives

The ALSTP endeavours to:

  • promote social change and development through adult literacy and adult basic education;
  • combat illiteracy among rural women in order to enhance their skills, thus making them more productive, enabling them to generate income and alleviating poverty;
  • empower women to be active agents of community development;
  • improve public awareness of fundamental and constitutionally-guaranteed human rights, including access to basic health and education services;
  • increase the capacity of women to fend for their families and thus to improve their standards of life; and
  • increase public awareness about healthy living, including nutrition and HIV/AIDS prevention.

In order to achieve these goals, the programme:

  • develops and implements a structured literacy curriculum that is relevant to learners' needs;
  • trains literacy facilitators and harnesses their social contacts and communication skills to spread information about community development, education and HIV/AIDS prevention and care;
  • develop literacy learning materials that support HIV and AIDS prevention and care, human rights, family health and livelihood development; and
  • ensure food security by constructing vegetable production tunnels and water systems, including rainwater harvesting systems.

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

OpUp's community-based programmes are promoted through a network of literacy facilitators and each facilitator is responsible for a group of 15 to 20 learners. Since the inception of ALSTP, OpUp has trained about 350 community-based literacy educators as HIV and AIDS educators and home-based care givers. Literacy and community development facilitators should fulfil at least some of the following criteria:

  • They should be nominated by their communities (i.e. they should be local people recruited through community structures).
  • They should have a Matriculation (school-leaving) certificate with passes in Zulu, English and mathematics. However, as most facilitators do not have English and Mathematics, OpUp provides them with basic training in these areas.
  • They should have proven their commitment to social services by undertaking voluntary community work.
  • They should demonstrate social and attitudinal maturity.
  • They should be self-motivated and good social mobilisers.

Facilitators receive ongoing training in adult education/literacy and community development for a total of 60 days, covering the following courses:

  • Introduction to adult basic education and teaching first-language literacy (20 days).
  • Teaching English as a second language (10 days).
  • Teaching numeracy (10 days).
  • HIV/AIDS prevention, counselling and home care (12 days).
  • Vegetable tunnel management (3 days).
  • Leather craft (6 days).

Most critically, facilitators are also trained in the use of various teaching-learning methods, including the use of cultural practices and a variety of teaching materials. In addition, theme-based instruction is provided in order to enable facilitators to, simultaneously, promote literacy skills acquisition, health and human rights awareness and livelihood or community development practices. Thus, the facilitators are trained to use relevant social issues and themes, such as domestic violence, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health, as the basis for their literacy classes. The language used by the learners themselves during theme-based discussions is then used to promote reading and word recognition. Similarly, numeracy learning often uses examples of income generation as the basis for learning how to recognise numbers and to calculate. Through the use of these socially-relevant themes and participatory teaching-learning methods, the learners acquire functional literacy skills and knowledge about a range of issues, rather than abstract reading and writing skills, and take personal or group action to address the key issues affecting their communities.

Apart from teaching methodologies, the facilitators are also trained to identify learners' concerns needs and address them using appropriate strategies and projects. They are also taught to design lessons and develop appropriate materials based on themes that they have identified.

Enrolment of Learners

The mobilisation and recruitment of learners is a collective endeavour involving the active participation of the community (through the community literacy committees – CLCs), trained facilitators, local leaders (such as church and community leaders) and OpUp. Once potential learners have been identified, the facilitators assess their learning needs before placing them in appropriate literacy classes. They also consult with them to formulate a teaching-learning timetable. The active involvement of learners from the outset is necessary not only to ensure community ownership of the programme but in order to design a literacy programme that best addresses the specific needs of the learners. It also cultivates and sustains learners' motivation to participate in the programme.

Teaching-Learning Approaches and Methods

The ALSTP endeavours to teach learners fundamental literacy and livelihood skills progressively over a minimum period of ten months. While the ultimate objective is to make learners functionally literate, the initial focus of literacy classes is to develop mother-tongue literacy skills, which are in turn used as the basis for learning English and numeracy skills. A variety of interactive and participatory teaching-learning methods are employed during literacy classes, including:

  • problem-solving;
  • role play (simulations);
  • drama, dance and music; and
  • story-telling and group discussions.

Facilitators are also encouraged to use real-life and relevant examples as the basis for teaching and learning. For example, during learning sessions, learners are often divided into groups and encouraged to discuss issues of relevance to their respective communities. The discussions are then used to nurture speaking, writing, reading, comprehension and word recognition skills. Often, a topic is first presented and discussed in the mother tongue. Thereafter, groups of learners are instructed to work on exercises designed to develop English-language vocabulary, accompanied by reading and writing activities on that topic. Plenty of dialogue work, role play and learning games are used. A similar approach is also used in teaching numeracy, with examples often being drawn from livelihood or income generation activities.


The following project activities are used to further illustrate the way in which the methodologies used to facilitate literacy skills training and community development are linked within the ALSTP framework:

In response to learners’ demand for income-generation or livelihood skills training, OpUp developed three main projects:

The vegetable tunnel system


This project is used to teach literacy through the production of a variety of vegetables (market gardening) such as spinach, tomatoes, green peppers and chillies. OpUp provides a tunnel to a group of 20 learners who, in turn, manage it as a cooperative business venture. Accordingly, the learners are taught how to manage intra-group dynamics, organize work rosters, keep sales records, deposit money in the bank, and pack and market their products. Apart from being a source of secure and nutritious food for their families, the food tunnels also represent a small-scale business enterprise that generates income for the learners through the sale of surplus produce. The capacity to generate extra capital has enabled women to improve their families’ living standards and support their children’s education. Furthermore, and equally importantly, cooperative engagement has improved communal/social relations.

Leather craft


This project trains learners and establishes small craft projects.

The leather products – belts, earrings and bags – are manufactured to be sold to tourists, while traditional leather garments reflecting the local culture are bought by local people. There is also a strong local demand for leather Bible covers. Groups of literacy learners make and sell these leather goods.

Literacy for Health

The biggest challenge in South Africa and for OpUp in recent years has been the need to harness literacy classes as a vehicle for promoting public awareness of and addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis. Returning labour migrants have fuelled the HIV/AIDS pandemic in most rural areas and women are often forced to act as primary care givers. Women are also at risk of being infected and it is therefore imperative to provide them with information on HIV/AIDS prevention and access to medical services. Thus, literacy classes provide concrete educational opportunities for behavioural change, self-protection and care-giving. Essentially, therefore, HIV/AIDS education must now be an intrinsic component of any literacy and development programme.

To this end, OpUp has trained literacy educators to incorporate HIV/AIDS education into literacy training as well as to act as effective community-based HIV/AIDS counsellors and home based care givers/workers. HIV/AIDS-related stories are used as the basis for discussions and learning during literacy classes. Prevention and care have thus been included as literacy lesson topics, with many good results. The learners have generally responded very positively to the information on AIDS provided in the lessons and have gone on to establish community action projects to help people living with HIV/AIDS.

Programme Impact and Challenges

Facilitators and OpUp officials assess the programme’s achievements and challenges on an ongoing basis. Learning outcomes are partly measured by means of literacy examinations administered by OpUp at the end of the learning session (participants are also free to sit public examinations for literacy learners). Meanwhile, the effectiveness of livelihood programmes is often measured by assessing the extent to which community development projects such as the vegetable tunnels have improved participants’ living standards. The programme has also been evaluated by external professionals, including:

  • Crisp (2003): which examined and assessed the synergies between HIV/AIDS and literacy training; and
  • Rotary International (2008): which assessed the psychosocial impact (in terms of cognitive skills, personality, self-esteem, attitudes, etc) of literacy learning on learners in KwaNibela.

Overall, external evaluators have unanimously applauded OpUp's integrated approach, which focuses simultaneously on individual literacy achievements, skills development and change within the community as indicators of the programme’s on-the-ground relevance and applicability.


ALSTP has had a considerable impact on the lives of rural communities by improving literacy levels, boosting productivity, increasing standards of living and promoting awareness of basic human rights and HIV/AIDS. Each year, 430 learners attend literacy classes and benefit from other integrated projects.

Literacy levels among learners have improved significantly and, as a result, they are now able to conduct their everyday activities more independently. The following story bears testimony to the programme’s success:

  • «I have five children. Each child has a clinic card bearing his or her name. But if one of the children got sick, I did not know which card to take. I had to take the sick child and all five cards and ask the clinic sister to find the right one. The nurses laughed at me. I would delay taking my children to clinic because I was embarrassed and ashamed. This all ended after attending the literacy classes.»

Another of the programme’s major achievements has been the establishment, by the learners, of income-generating projects such as the vegetable tunnels. These tunnels are now a critical source of food security, providing participating families with both nutritious vegetables and an income. This has raised living standards in rural households and enabled them to access basic social services such as health and education for children. Indeed, the vegetable tunnel project has proven so successful that one of the groups (in KwaNibela) has been given a contract to supply spinach to a major South African supermarket group.

Public awareness of health issues (especially HIV/AIDS, nutrition, sanitation) and sustainable environmental conservation has also improved, as demonstrated by the wide use of rainwater harvesting systems. In addition, the HIV/AIDS programme has resulted in many infected people from learner families being taken to clinics for treatment or receiving effective home-based care. Overall, the programme has enabled learners to form a new sense of self in relation to the way in which they now interact with their environment.

The contribution of OpUp towards combating the scourge of illiteracy and promoting social change and community development through training has been widely applauded, both locally and internationally. As a result, the programme has received a number of awards, including:

  • the Rotary International Award for Service Excellence (September 2005);
  • ProLiteracy Worldwide’s Ann Michel Award for International Innovation in Literacy (October 2005); and
  • accreditation for OpUp's first-language literacy facilitator training course by the University of South Africa (1996).

In addition, OpUp has received two highly-coveted awards, one local and one international:

  • In 1996, President Nelson Mandela, together with the National Department of Education, presented Operation Upgrade with the 1996 Presidential Award for Adult Basic Education and Training.
  • In 2008, OpUp was awarded the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy in recognition of its sterling work and innovative approaches to literacy training and livelihood development.


Despite the positive impact that the programme has had, its success continues to be marred by practical challenges arising primarily from a lack of adequate funding. Key challenges are:

  • restricted personnel and resources, which limits the amount of follow-up training that programme graduates can receive;
  • a shortage of reading materials for home-based study (although income-generating projects were introduced to help maintain literacy and numeracy skills, most learners nonetheless relapse into semi-literacy if they do not have access to adequate reading materials);
  • a lack of remuneration for community-based mobilisers and facilitators, which has led to a shortage of personnel; and
  • the difficulty of identifying income-generating projects which require a minimum investment of initial capital yet are capable of generating enough income to meet learners’ needs.

Lessons Learned

The implementation of the programme has revealed critical lessons that apply to any literacy skills training and community development programme:

  • Community participation: the project depends on wide support from community, religious and political leaders. Chiefs have often provided land where group income-generating projects can take place, while a number of churches have sponsored literacy classes.
  • Investment in the training of facilitators: most facilitators are young people, whose commitment has been the driving force of OpUp projects. They have absorbed the training and gone beyond it to bring about social change, despite receiving little remuneration in return.
  • Relevance: adult basic education programmes should take account of learners’ specific and changing needs. As demonstrated, livelihood and health training must be incorporated into literacy programmes, as literacy alone does not address these social challenges and needs. Furthermore, relevant programmes sustain learners' motivation to continue learning, while at the same time encouraging their families to obtain an education after having witnessed its benefits first-hand.
  • Follow-up: training and the provision of reading materials for home-based study are critical means of sustaining and reinforcing the skills that learners have acquired. They also stimulate family-based, intergenerational learning.


The integration of livelihood and HIV/AIDS projects into literacy skills training programme is an innovative method that attracts learners and motivates them to continue participating in the programme. Moreover, high levels of illiteracy and poverty in rural areas ensure that the programme will continue to attract potential beneficiaries. In order to promote lifelong learning still further, OpUp publishes and disseminates up-to-date learning materials in South Africa's major languages. It also supports other community-based literacy groups in KwaZulu-Natal and in South Africa as a whole by training literacy facilitators and providing low-cost teaching and learning materials. However, without adequate funding, it will be difficult to continue to expand the programme.



Ms Stephanie Reuben
Operation Upgrade of South Africa
P.O. Box 371
Hyper by the Sea 4053
South Africa
E-mail:steph (at) operationupgrade.org.za

For citation please use

U. Hanemann (Ed.). Last update: 3 February 2012. Adult Literacy and Skills Training Programme (ALSTP), South Africa. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 2 August 2021, 20:39 CEST)

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