Literacy Through Poetry Project (LTPP), Yemen

  • Date published:
    14 December 2009

Programme Overview

Programme Title Literacy Through Poetry Project (LTPP)
Language of Instruction Arabic
Funding World Bank, The Social Fund for Development (SFD) - Yemen
Date of Inception 2002


Despite often being overlooked as an instrument of literacy training and development, learning through cultural heritage (oral tradition) is a critical and vibrant means of helping learners to acquire reading and writing skills and one which simultaneously promotes culturally grounded lifelong learning and, by extension, preserves cultural heritage itself. The Literacy Through Poetry Project (LTPP), piloted in Yemen in 2002-2003, assisted women in acquiring reading and writing skills using their own stories, poetry and proverbs.

Background and Context

Although Yemen has laws that guarantee universal, compulsory and free education for all children aged 6 to 15 years, not everyone has benefited. Access to education is particularly restricted for girls and young women due to a number of socio-cultural factors that include: 1) the practice of early marriages which leads both to limited access to school and high school drop-out rates; 2) the tradition of family honour in relation to the chastity of girls that discourages some parents from enrolling their girls in mixed schools or allowing them to venture outside the home; 3) the general negative attitudes towards educating girls; and 4) a shortage of female teachers that prohibits the 'unrestricted' interaction of females with unrelated males. As a result, there is a huge disparity between male and female literacy rates. For example, the literacy rates for youth (15-24 years) between 1995 and 2004 were 91% and 59% for males and females, respectively. A similar disparity was observed for adults during the same period, with a male literacy rate of 73% compared to 35% for women.

The Yemeni government has been implementing adult literacy programmes in an attempt to combat illiteracy among youth and adults. However, governmental adult literacy programmes are less attractive to learners because 1) although the programme condenses six years of elementary school curriculum into two years, this is still too long for most adult learners given their familial responsibilities; 2) teaching is based on methodologies which are unattractive to adult learners, such as the use of heavily illustrated textbooks and rote learning; 3) most adults are not interested in pursuing the full range of the subject-based school curriculum, indicating in interviews that their reason for attending classes is primarily to acquire basic reading, writing and numeracy skills; and 4) examinations alienate a large proportion of adult learners.

Overall, state adult literacy programmes proved to be very unattractive even to young school drop-outs who wished to resume and complete their elementary studies. As a result, withdrawal rates from state adult literacy programmes were extremely high, estimated at 80-90 %, while the ability of graduates to read unfamiliar texts, even after two years of instruction, remained very low. The innovative Literacy Through Poetry Project (LTPP) was initiated to address these challenges and thus to promote literacy skills training through an adult-friendly form of pedagogy based on the story-telling and poetic creativeness of the Yemenis.

The Literacy Through Poetry Project (LTPP)

LTPP was piloted in two phases between 2002 and 2003 with funding from the World Bank and the Social Fund for Development (SFD, Yemen). The project primarily targets young and adult rural and urban-based migrant women. After consultations with the Ministry of Education, Phase 1 of the project was piloted in four rural and farming communities of the Sanaa Governorate and one urban literacy centre in Sanaa that caters to recent rural migrants to the capital, two of the areas with the greatest concentration of illiterate women. During Phase 2 of the project, the SFD added four urban classes, two of which were held in literacy centres in Sanaa and two in the town of Manakha. Only students with no previous formal schooling were accepted in Phase 2 classes. The total initial enrolment was 79 students with a 73 % completion rate.

Aims and Objectives

LTPP was designed in response to the high illiteracy rate (78.2 %) among rural women and the progressive loss of women's voice in the past 30 years. The project therefore offers women who have had limited (or no) access to education the opportunity to gain basic literacy skills (reading and writing) based on their cultural heritage, particularly through the use of local poetry, stories and proverbs. The project aims to:

  • combat illiteracy through literacy skills development among women;
  • empower women with basic literacy skills in order to enable them to perform basic tasks independently, such as taking medication, applying pesticides safely, using a cell phone, navigating urban environments, reading letters from migrant kin, and reading and understanding newspapers and/or the Qur’an.; and
  • enable women to make positive and meaningful contributions towards the development of their communities.

Project Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

In addition to working closely with the World Bank and the government of Yemen, the project also established strong partnerships with local community/village leaders, school principals and education directors. Local partners played a critical role in the recruitment of learners as well as in combating social resistance to the programme.

Recruitment and Training of Teachers

Teachers of rural classes are often secondary school graduates, most of them in their twenties, who live in the communities in which the project is being implemented. In Phase 1, the urban class was taught by the then Director of Illiteracy Eradication and Adult Education for Sanaa. She was the only one of the teachers with a university degree and formal training in pedagogy. As well as teaching programme participants, she played an important role in mentoring teachers and helping them resolve problems. In Phase 2, she trained and mentored the teachers but did not teach any of the classes.

Teachers in Phase 1 participated in a five-day intensive training workshop and three one-day follow-up workshops. Teachers in Phase 2 were trained intensively for just four days, after which they attended three follow-up workshops.

Recruitment of Learners

Classes ranged in size from 20 to 32 learners aged between 15 and 70 years, with the majority belonging to the 18-30 age group. While the urban class only accepted students with no previous literacy experience, approximately 25 % of the students in the rural classes had some experience of schooling, ranging from a few weeks to a year. The intergenerational composition of classes constituted one of the project’s strengths, as it enabled older learners to learn from younger students, a majority of whom had basic literacy skills, while at the same time enabling older learners to transmit the story-telling and poetic traditions of their communities to the younger students.

Teaching Approaches and Methodologies

The project teaching methods combine content drawn from local culture with the Freirean emphasis on learning through dialogue. Community literature is used for the development of student stories. In other words, the project is based on learner-centred, participatory and activity-based teaching methodologies with the learners' cultural heritage as the basic teaching resource.

Learners are encouraged to create their own texts through their stories, poems and rhyming proverbs. Alternatively, lessons can begin with a discussion of a photograph of a scene familiar to the students or a topic of their choice. Students are then encouraged to insert poetry and proverbs into their discussion, as is their custom when discussing issues of importance to them. With the teacher's help, the class develops short stories based on the discussion. These stories, along with the poems and proverbs generated during the discussion, are written on a large piece of paper using, initially, the local dialect spoken in the community. The written text is taped on to the wall and is used as the principal teaching aid through which students learn to recognise and read letters of the alphabet, words, phrases and sentences. In order to reinforce letter and word recognition, texts often centre on specific letters, words or syllables.

Since standard Arabic is used in most published materials and media texts, the rules of standard written Arabic are gradually introduced as the students’ literacy skills develop. Each text is then typed, photocopied and returned to the students so that they can learn to read their stories and poems in print as well as in handwritten form. Finally, the typed texts of each class are collected and bound. At the end of the 6 to 9-month training period (comprising 220 to 272 contact hours), each student who completes the course is given a book that she participated in writing, thus giving her a powerful sense of achievement and an increased interest in learning.

Justification of Teaching Methods

The literacy teaching approach sought to respond to the following fundamental questions:

  • Why are students encouraged to include poetry in their discussions and stories?

As in many other Arabic speaking countries, the vast majority of rural Yemenis above the age of 35 can compose or improvise short poems of two to four lines which they sing while they work in the fields, at home, on construction projects or while carrying out a number of other tasks. These poems express their innermost feelings about their family situation as well as local and international issues. It is common for short poems and proverbs to be inserted into conversation to make a point, and poetry competitions are integral to Yemen's heritage. Poetry is used regularly in conflict mediation to persuade the two sides to compromise. However, women's oral traditions have been threatened by socio-economic changes, new media such as television, and imported conservative interpretations of Islam that denounce women's oral traditions as un-Islamic. While some genres of men's poetry have been enhanced through the use of audio cassettes, it is now rare to hear poems sung by women.

  • Would incorporating local poetry into literacy classes attract rural students and sustain their interest in acquiring reading and writing skills, and would this participatory approach enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning?

The pilot project was designed to address these two questions. It was also hoped that recognising and affirming women's poetry – their traditional form of public expression – would empower them and encourage younger women to revive and continue their mothers' poetic traditions.

Programme Impact and Challenges

Monitoring and Evaluation

The project was evaluated on several levels. Following guidelines for participatory monitoring and evaluation, teaching methods were continuously adjusted in response to comments made by supervisors, teachers and students. Supervisors visited classes regularly, mentored teachers and tested students' skills acquisition. Teachers evaluated students informally throughout the project and administered formal examinations. In some cases, these exams were more demanding than those given to students in government-sponsored literacy classes. The students’ skills acquisition was evaluated on the basis of these examinations, which was not the project’s original intention but developed as a response to teachers’ and supervisors’ demands for a formal means of comparing the skills acquisition of students in this project with those in other literacy classes. One consequence of this practice was that several of the older students refused to attend class when supervisors visited or when the teachers scheduled an examination. This had a negative and distorting impact on the rates of completion and skills acquisition.


  • Given that most participants had little or no formal literacy training prior to joining the project and the fact that the literacy course is so short, the literacy acquisition rates surpassed expectations. After three months of instruction, most learners could recognise letters of the alphabet, sound out words and take dictation in commonly used words. By the end of the course (after 6-9 months), 36 % of the students tested could read and write new texts fluently. Another 38 % could read and write slowly, and 12 % could read but not write new sentences. In Phase 2, more than 62.5% of students could read new texts fluently. In other words, between 62% and 74% met the basic goal of the project (i.e. acquired fundamental literacy skills) and another 12 % could sound out new words. This compared to just 25% of students in the government programme who were adept in recognising letters of the alphabet and 20% who could read unfamiliar texts after two years of literacy instruction.
  • Student interest in the project has remained high, as demonstrated by retention and completion rates between 74 and 81%.
  • The project empowered both teachers and learners. The teachers appreciated the opportunity to learn and practice new teaching methods and noted an improvement in their students’ ability to ask and respond to questions, and to express their opinions on topics discussed in class and events in their lives. Learners reported being accorded more respect within their families and showed a greater interest in their children's schoolwork. Students voted in national elections and initiated health interventions in two of the pilot villages. They also participated actively in national events by presenting their poems. Furthermore, the creativity inherent in poetry has helped students to adapt to their changing environments.
  • The project has also helped to promote lifelong learning as almost all older students asked for another year of classroom instruction, while many younger graduates have proceeded to enrol in government literacy programmes.
  • A notable and valuable outcome of the project has been the change in public perceptions with regards to educating women. A number of community members who had initially assumed that adult women could not learn to read and write were impressed at the skills that students acquired. As a result, the demand for adult women's education increased.
  • The project is now "owned" by Yemeni nationals. The Social Fund for Development financed and implemented Phase 2 of the project with no help from outside consultants.

Challenges and Solutions

The project has encountered some problems, the most significant of which are:

  • social resistance: despite wide consultation with community leaders before the launch of the project, some males were openly opposed to the programme, possibly because it empowered women. In one village, for example, young men raided the classroom, destroying learning materials and overturning chairs. It took the intervention of the school principal and community leaders to halt the attack.
  • scepticism regarding the teaching method: initially, some community members were doubtful whether "real learning" could occur through poetry and without textbooks. Learners' complaints about the lack of textbooks forced some teachers to supply written materials, such as calendars and newspapers, although the primary intention of the class was to enable learners to gain literacy skills using their oral poetic traditions.
  • the perception that cultural traditions are outdated and unsophisticated or the fear that modernity and urban lifestyles would have a corrosive influence, which led some young learners in rural settings to pretend not to know any poetry or proverbs. Women from well-off families displayed initial resistance for similar reasons. To overcome this, one urban teacher invited rural students to attend her class. Upon arrival, they were greeted with traditional welcoming verses and had no choice but to respond with verses that were even more creative than those of their hosts, thus enhancing their social standing and dispensing with the fiction that oral poetry was alien to them. The fact that urban women were seen to improvise poems furthermore helped to dispense with the "rural" and "low status" stigma of oral poetry.

Lessons Learned

  • Local heritage is a critical facet of development, including literacy training. It not only provides identity and a voice to even the most impoverished of populations; it also facilitates social change.
  • Participatory approaches to adult literacy increase the rates of skills acquisition among learners. They are also critical in ensuring the effectiveness of the project and the sustainability of acquired literacy skills.
  • Literacy skills acquisition is more durable when based on local knowledge systems. Similarly, literacy training is easier when it builds on local knowledge, skills and traditions valued by learners.
  • The interest generated by stories and poems renders words and content easy to learn and remember, enhances critical thinking skills and maintains enthusiasm for learning.
  • Learning based on students' oral skills makes student feel valued by their teachers, both as students and as artists.


Despite continued demand from learners, adequate project funding, and official recognition as an innovative example of a "best practice in women's empowerment" from the World Bank, UNESCO and the Centre of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR), the Yemeni Ministry of Education has not authorised the continuation of classes using this method. However, while the sustainability of the project in Yemen is currently in doubt, the project can be adapted to other countries.


  • Najwa Adra, 'Literacy Through Poetry: A Pilot Project for Rural women in the Republic of Yemen': In M. Miller & I. Alexander (eds.) Women and Literacy: Moving to Power and Participation Women’s Studies Quarterly 32: 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 2004; also available at: http://www.najwaadra.net
  • Najwa Adra, Learning through Heritage, Literacy through Poetry, dvv international: Adult Education and Development, Vol. 70, http://www.iiz-dvv.de/index.php?article_id=731&clang=1
  • Kim A. O'Connell: In Yemen, Fighting Illiteracy Through Poetry, National Geographic News (January 27, 2004), http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/01/0127_040127_yemenliteracy.html
  • Poetry, Literacy, and Empowerment for Rural Yemeni Women.
  • Street, Brian V., Alan Rogers, and Dave Baker (2006). Adult Teachers as Researchers: Ethnographic Approaches to Numeracy and Literacy as Social Practices in South Asia. Convergence, 39(1):31-44.
  • World Bank (2005). Improving Women's Lives, World Bank Actions Since Beijing. Washington, DC. Zipsane, Henrik (2007). Heritage Learning: Not so Much a Question About the Past as About the Present, Here and Now. Adult Education and Development, 68.


Najwa Adra
E-mail: najwa.adra (at) gmail.org
Website: http://www.najwaadra.net/

For citation please use

U. Hanemann (Ed.). Last update: 25 July 2017. Literacy Through Poetry Project (LTPP), Yemen. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 27 September 2021, 00:06 CEST)

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