Contributing to literacy: Innovation Award

Library’s intensive literacy classes transform lives in Colombia

You are here

Kids in front of projector screen
Learning to read and write in Biblioteca Oasis del Saber.

Before, at the market, I had to ask people to help me to read the names of the products. Now I'm proud to do it for myself,” says Ana Cecilia Vera Pava.

At 78 years old, I learned to read. Now I can start fighting for restitution of the land I had to move from. I am reading about how to do this,” says Gildardo Jesus Cardona.

Maria Ospina Enith, the mother of two children living with disability, now knows how to obtain welfare support from the government for her children.

Gildardo, Ana and Maria are all graduates of an intensive 10-month literacy course run by Biblioteca Oasis del Saber (Oasis of Knowledge Library), which serves the agricultural region of Tolima in Colombia. The library uses digital technology to teach teenagers and adults how to read and write and to enable them to become active and engaged citizens.


The literacy programme was launched in 2014, shortly after the national census found that there were over 160,000 non-literate people living in Tolima, many more than in neighbouring regions. Librarians were also alarmed by school dropout rates: according to the census, over 350,000 children in the region dropped out of primary school, and over 165,000 treenagers did not finish high school.

“These numbers clearly showed the need to develop alternatives to school education,” said Natalia Isabel Sandoval, director of the library’s literacy programme, which is titled ‘Growing Adults’.

The library’s first steps in creating the needed alternative were to develop the methodology, and then to train a group of basic literacy and numeracy teachers. In November 2014, the classes began.

While the main focus of the programme is reading, writing and numeracy, classes also include civic education to improve learners’ ability to participate in local government; to know their legal and human rights, and what to do when these are violated; to understand the economic local context, and to build strong families and communities.


“Our aim is to develop the kinds of skills that will enable people to become active citizens and be able to manage their own lives and the life of the community,” said Sandoval.

Training is intensive, and all learners must complete the full course, attending 12 hours of classes per week, for 10 months. The learning group has 20 people, aged from 14 to 80, and classes take place in the evenings, from 6pm to 10pm, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

“We work in the evenings because we realized that our education model needed to be flexible, to take into account people’s working lives and family responsibilities,” said programme facilitator Eduardo German Contreras.

At the end of the 10-month course, learners achieve the same level of literacy and numeracy as grade three primary school students (aged about 7 - 9). The library works in partnership with The Association for Education Research, which is connected to the Ministry of Education.


The course combines lessons in basic literacy with lively discussion and debate, and fun. For grammar and spelling, there are online games and group tournaments. For reading practice, there are lively Karaoke sessions, in which learners sing the words of songs that are projected onto a screen. For writing practice, there are ‘Neighbourhood Interviews’, in which learners go out into the community with digital recorders, interview community members and write stories based on the interviews. A more relaxing class involves listening to - and then discussing - audiobooks and radio dramas, and, on Fridays, to end the week, participants enjoy and discuss an animated film.


The first round of training was a huge success and the library has already started training a second group of 20 teenagers and adults eager to learn literacy skills. Librarians say there will will be no shortage of learners - community members have already signed up for the next round of training, which begins late in 2016.

“It is clear that the community has begun to believe in the benefits of education. The families of the course participants recognize the benefits now that their  parents and grandparents can write and do math,” said Contreras.

Read about more innovative public library services contributing to education of children and adults. PLIP-EDUCATION