Literacy & Education

To get the most out of education and church, people need to know how to read and write. To make audio recordings of the Scriptures, we need fluent readers. To learn how to read and write, people need an approach that works.

SIL has that approach. We work with local people and partner agencies. And together, we create spiritual change while we make life better in the community.

The Literacy and Education team supports programs for children, youth and adults. Mother tongues and local languages form the base of these educational programs, and we work with local communities, churches, governments and national institutions. 

As a staff member, you’ll plan and use literacy or mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) programs. You’ll work with language community members to train supervisors and teachers. Then they’ll teach people how to read and write. 

In this role, you hold writers’ workshops. You create teaching material and local language material. You run language workshops. You might also work with national and international agencies to advocate for better educational policies.

A rural village or a large city could be your workplace. And you might work anywhere in the world. SIL has literacy staff in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Pacific. Some staff work with displaced people groups.

Going forward, you can improve at what you do through mentoring. You can take workshops and training courses. SIL also encourages some staff to earn graduate degrees.So, do you enjoy teaching? What about networking and working with people? Are you good at solving problems and planning? If you answered yes, you’ll succeed as a Literacy and Education staff member. Have you taught in elementary or bilingual education? Those skills are even better!

The Joys of Literacy

Kay Smoes says she trained to become a missionary from the age of 19.

Her home church in Costa Rica was not a missions-minded church, and the Sunday school superintendent wanted to change that. She asked Kay and another person to teach a children’s class about missions. But the superintendent’s recruitment had an unintended consequence for the two teachers.

“Both of us became missionaries,” Kay said.

Growing up, she interacted with the many missionaries who came to her area of Costa Rica to attend school and learn Spanish. Kay and the other members of her church befriended the missionaries but were not focused on sending people from their own church to overseas missions.

“We did a lot of evangelism in our neighborhood,” Kay remembered. “So it was very evangelistic, but not like ‘Oh, we have to do something for the Great Commission outside.’ At the beginning it was kind of hard for my pastor when I told him I felt God was calling me to missions.”

Some people told her she should stay in college and finish her degree. But Kay felt a degree in psychology wouldn’t prepare her to be a missionary in the way God wanted. She knew God was telling her to go to Bible school instead.

Realizing God was calling Kay overseas, the church congregation agreed to equip her with financial support for her biblical and linguistic studies.

But even with her church’s support, Kay still wasn’t sure where God wanted her to work. Many of her friends had joined church planting missions. Other friends worked in the mountains with indigenous Costa Ricans, and Kay asked if she could work with them for a while. When they suggested she take linguistic courses in the United States, she went.

“I didn’t even know what the word linguistics was,” Kay admitted. But she told herself that if God gave her the support and the visa, she would go.

Each Sunday during that summer in the United States, different missionaries spoke to the students about their work. On one outing, Kay met a missionary who hadn’t shared her story yet. This missionary worked in literacy and told Kay about it.

“Oh, my heart just flipped,” Kay remembered. She thought to herself, “That’s me. That’s what I want to do.” Two days later she wrote to Wycliffe Bible Translators and asked to become a literacy worker.

At the orientation program, she met the American man who would become her husband. She told him that if they were thinking about getting married, they needed to think about going to Africa.

“When I first pursued missions, the last place in the world I wanted to go was Africa, so God had to do a lot to convince me,” she said. She started praying for Nigeria but then decided not to specify a country in case God wanted her to go elsewhere.

Their eventual move to Cameroon was harder than Kay thought it would be.

“Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, people said Costa Rica was a third world country,” Kay explained. “So I thought, ‘I’m from one third world country and I’m going to another third world country. I will help my husband from his first world country.’”

But when she arrived in Cameroon, she felt terrified. “Nothing was the same as in Costa Rica. Nothing correlated.”

One of the differences was the food, which tended to make her sick. But her husband, she noted, never got sick. Though the beginning was difficult, she still had the sense that God called her to Cameroon. And 17 years later, she enjoys the food.

Helping Others Fly

Now Kay works as a Literacy Consultant-in-Training. She loves teaching people and watching them gain confidence. Some people get involved with literacy because they enjoy creating materials or developing classes. But for Kay, it’s the people she helps. 

“That is the best part,” she said. “Just that sense of equipping someone to fly. Even if the flight is not a long flight, even if the flight is not a high flight, they still flew.”

Her passion is to help people learn, whether it’s how to read their mother tongue for the first time, how to prepare a book or how to teach a certain methodology.

“I love walking the road with learners,” she said.

When she holds an all-day literacy workshop, she gets up early and travels to the workshop center. She prepares the room, and when participants arrive, they have devotions together. Then she leads the workshop attendees in what she calls an “interactive participatory teaching time.”

“I don’t like to teach them everything there is to say. I like to ask questions.” If participants’ answers are on the right track, Kay encourages them to go deeper. If answers are wrong, she gently guides participants in the right direction.

Kay recalled a particularly difficult workshop. On day three of the two-week workshop, a participant received the news that his baby daughter had died. But by the time he traveled the three days to his village, the funeral would be over. Still, Kay thought it might be best for him to go home.

But the man and his group told Kay they came to the workshop to produce a transition manual for their people group, and they would stay to finish the task.

Everyone at the workshop joined together to take an offering and sent the money with a message to the man’s wife.

“He felt not only that we helped him mourn, but we helped his family mourn, we gave his village a testimony that we were caring for him and he helped his group get this book they were producing,” Kay explained. At the end, she realized the workshop accomplished much more than just a book production.

Other times, Kay experiences challenges before the workshops start as she decides how to run the workshop.

“Sometimes the biggest challenge is slowing down for the sake of being able to go together as opposed to them following us or following me. A lot of the time we have this expertise and passion and vision, and we just can’t wait.”

Kay used a piñata analogy to explain her thinking. “You just want to break it so all the candies come out so everybody can see all the candies. But you have to help people understand what the piñata is, how they got the candies in and what the purpose is.” Sometimes, Kay said, you may be eager to bring joy to people’s lives. But their joy will be much deeper when they understand the process themselves.  

Once, Kay prepared a workshop for people working on transition manuals. A typical workshop could be completed in two weeks. But Kay lived in the area, and she knew the local people. She understood they would appreciate a different pace with plenty of time to process the new information.

Rather than host the workshop in two consecutive weeks, Kay decided to run a four-week workshop with one week each month. This schedule would give participants time to reflect on what they learned.

Though the schedule seemed slow, Kay told her workshop helpers the change would pay off later with participants having a clearer understanding of their tasks.

“When they produce a book, they understand the reason behind every step,” Kay said. “I tell people afterward, ‘You will be able to help some other people group because you understand how to do it. You didn’t just answer the questions, you understood why.’”

Training for the Future

Currently, Kay spends much of her time working on her master’s degree.

“I don’t think it is always necessary to have a master’s if you’re working in literacy, but having that degree opens another level of doors. It gives you, for certain audiences, a little more credibility when they see those little letters next to your name.”

When she teaches at a local level, people care only about the experience she has. But to train teachers at a government level, she’ll need credentials, not just experience.

She’ll begin working through the steps to become a literacy consultant. She’s been assigned to mentor a national colleague, and she’s excited to mentor someone in the same way she’s been mentored. She’ll also be promoting multilingual mother-tongue based education to the government.

Kay suggests working in literacy for a couple of years before earning a master’s degree.

“If you get your full master’s degree before coming to the field, sometimes you don’t even know why you’re doing your classes,” she said. “There are many things about literacy that you learn from those on the field and those you’re serving.”

Gaining experience in literacy and figuring out where you might want to specialize is like going to an ice cream parlor, Kay said. Working on the field gives you the opportunity to try different flavors, or specialties, before deciding on your favorites for the master’s degree.

“That makes you even better for when you go back,” Kay said.