Guatemala Hosts National Conversation on Writing Instruction
More than 300 Experts Share Latest Research
Writing well is not just a skill; it’s an art. This was the core theme of Guatemala’s first-ever National Writing Conference held from August 20-22, 2019. More than 300 educators and writing professionals attended this event. Héctor Canto, Vice Minister of Education, set the tone in his opening speech by reading The Motive, the first stanza of the Art of Writing poem by Lu Ji, one of the first literary critics and writers in the world (circa A.D. 300). The poem explores the causes of success and failure in the writing process. It’s an ode to those who teach writing or make a living with it.
In Guatemala, over 21 vernaculars originate from the Mayan culture. In a country with such a rich linguistic tradition, where the population is multilingual, mastering the art of writing can be challenging. This conference, supported by USAID’s Lifelong Learning project (Leer y Aprender in Spanish), was an opportunity to share the latest research on global and regional writing instruction, especially as it relates to inclusion, assessment, and second language learning.
The overall objective of USAID’s Lifelong Learning project is to improve quality education and access to indigenous children and out-of-school youth (15-24 years), based on gender and ethnicity. Project activities focus on improving instructional approaches, increasing time devoted to teach how to read, putting more reading materials in the hands of learners, measuring reading progress, and promoting parental and community participation to improve learning outcomes of children and youth. Another important activity, given Guatemala’s intercultural and bilingual context, is to improve teaching approaches that emphasize reading and writing acquisition in both a Mayan language and in Spanish.
Lifelong Learning is aligned with USAID’s Education Policy principles, particularly country ownership and promoting equity and inclusion. “We need to empower schools and teachers with the tools needed to develop writing competencies in our students," said Canto. “We all know how complex it is to develop the skills necessary for listening, speaking, reading, and writing […] especially when considering the many distinct languages that our student population is part of.”
This is especially critical in a country where only 35 percent of high school graduates demonstrate a proficiency in reading comprehension (2018) and many teachers struggle with questions about reading instruction. In a 2017 evaluation conducted by the Ministry of Education surveying over 20,000 teachers, only 50 percent of reading questions were answered correctly.
Learn more about USAID's education efforts in GuatemalaRead the 2017 Evaluation
Opening Doors to Writing Instruction
According to Raquel Montenegro, Spanish Language Specialist for USAID’s Lifelong Learning project and general coordinator of the 2019 National Writing Conference, reading and writing are fundamental skills for life. “Despite many efforts over the last few years, there have been few opportunities for teachers in Guatemala to be exposed to new approaches on how to teach and learn writing,” said Montenegro. “The Ministry of Education’s National Writing Conference was a unique opportunity to draw interest in this subject and offer new approaches to teaching and learning.”
The three-day conference included plenary sessions and more than 26 workshops on different aspects of writing, learning, and teaching. Participants interacted with different genres of writers to better understand the links between teaching writing and writing as a profession. Renowned writers from the fields of literature, journalism, theater, and cinema participated in the conference. Among these, there was distinguished Professor Francisco Alejandro Méndez, recipient of the 2017 National Prize for Literature, children’s book author Irene Piedrasanta, and audiovisual artist Julio Serrano.
Making Teaching More Accessible
The conference addressed various methodologies related to writing instruction and learning.
These included ways to develop various aspects of writing, such as coherence, ability to produce different types of texts, syntactic maturity, and developing fluency in reading and writing. Teachers from various parts of the country shared successful approaches and classroom experiences, including issues that are not often discussed, such as the level of sentence complexity in day-to-day communication.
Educators also had a chance to practice creating books with the Bloom software, a user-friendly, adaptable, and open-source software that enables users to develop teaching materials from scratch in many different languages. The software is a prize winner under the All Children Reading Grand Challenge, which USAID supports. The ability to easily develop teaching materials is especially important for Mayan language instruction across Guatemala. With the use of this software, teachers can produce and print their materials and then use them in their classes.
Focusing on Measuring Impact
The writing and evaluation panel discussion addressed the topic of assessment. Participants learned about this topic from both domestic and international speakers. They also learned about standardized evaluation versus classroom evaluation. Montenegro was one of the speakers on this panel, addressing writing evaluation based on the curriculum.
All evaluation, she said, must focus on core elements such as phonetics, alphabetical principles, legibility, fluidity, syntax, coherence, cohesion, spelling, and grammar. Students will improve both reading and writing skills as they master these competencies in their primary education. “When learning how to read and write,” she added, “students need teachers trained in the most effective methodologies, access to quality teaching materials and, to be evaluated regularly.”
Keeping Students Engaged is Vital
Dr. Sylvia Linan-Thompson, Associate Professor at the University of Oregon, emphasized in her presentation that writing is, “at the core an iterative process, not a product. It involves planning, thinking, outlining, drafting, reviewing, editing, and publishing.” Teaching and writing practice, in her opinion, go hand in hand.
Linan-Thompson also asked all teachers attending the conference, “How do we ensure that students remain excited about writing throughout their school years?” She encouraged teachers to give writing tasks anchored on content. Teachers, she said in her presentation, must help students develop different writing skills, promote learning through different teaching methodologies, and teach both language structure and writing strategies.
The 2019 National Writing Conference addressed the need to include writing instruction in all pre-service and in-service teacher training programs to ensure that writing instruction is not only an embedded part of the basic education curriculum but that it is actually put in practice. Participants acknowledged the need to strengthen writing throughout students’ entire education. Montenegro says she is confident that writing competency in Guatemala will improve over the coming years. With a focus on improving writing instruction, the Ministry of Guatemala is taking practical steps to ensure this will happen.