PCV Project – Literacy at the Casa Materna

Yet another project idea for working with women in the Casa Materna! Isabel from TEFL 60 shares about her experience teaching the alphabet to women waiting to give birth…

I was fresh to site and looking for ways to get involved in my community. I tapped my Health 58 site mate Melissa who worked at the Casa Materna and told her I would love to put my interest in reading to use and do workshops with the pregnant women about the importance of early childhood literacy and how to read aloud to their kids.

There was a long pause from Melissa. “Well, the problem is that most of the women don’t know how to read themselves. Lots of women come in and can’t even write their name. So…”

Ohhhhhh. So, scratch that.

Instead, Melissa and I worked together to piece together a plan to teach the alphabet to the women staying in the Casa Materna while they waited to give birth. She said most women stay for about three weeks and we designed a 15 day curriculum to teach the women the alphabet during daily one-hour long lessons. The goal was that by the end of the classes, the women would leave the Casa Materna able to identify all the letters in the alphabet and write their own name.

M is for Materials. A is for Affordable. R is for Replicable. 

On a PCV salary, when it comes to teaching materials, I’m all about it being cheap and reusable.

I found downloadable and printable pdf books and writing worksheets to practice the Spanish alphabet on the website www.readina-z.com (or click here for the Alphabet Resources folder include the letter books, worksheets and alphabet flashcards). Each letter of the alphabet came with a book featuring pictures of objects that started with that letter and short simple sentences. Each letter also had a series of worksheets to practice writing the letter. We printed the books and worksheets at the Peace Corps office and made a few copies of each.

I had some plastic sheet protectors and at the beginning of each class, we placed the worksheets for that day in the plastic and had the women practice writing using whiteboard markers so that we could re-use them again later.


Reading in Action

The lessons followed the same general format–I came by each afternoon and worked with a small group of women. They found their name tag and we did an ice breaker to get them laughing and relaxed. I wrote the letter on the board and said it out loud. We tried to brainstorm words that started with that sound and I wrote them on the board so they could see if it started with the same letter already written. I showed them the book and we looked at the pictures on the cover of the book and figured out what word each picture represented and added those words to our list. I read the book the first time and the women followed along. We read the book a second time and the women took turns reading it. The repetitive nature of the book and pictures made it so that the women could actually read it and you could tell they felt pretty psyched about it. Then, I showed them how to write the letter and then they practiced writing it on the worksheets.

We used the books and worksheets as the meat of the classes, but we peppered in a good amount of icebreakers, games and dinámicas to lower their pena and keep them engaged.

What NOT to Do…

If someone can’t read well, they generally don’t like to publicize it. Our first big mistake was how we first recruited women to participate in the classes. A well-meaning, but overly blunt nurse wrapped up a charla on breast feeding by asking, “who here can’t read? Our next class is for all the women who can’t read. Raise your hand if you can’t read.”  When no one raised their hand, she looked at the sign in list and started publicly singling out women to attend based on how well they were able to sign their name. I think I was as mortified as the women selected to be our pupils. For women who hadn’t been in school for years or who had never had the opportunity to attend school, it wasn’t the best way to lower their anxiety and encourage them to jump right in.

After that, we more discretely identified women to participate. During their intake interview, a nurse asked the women through which grade of school they had completed. Melissa and I followed up with women who didn’t finish primary school and chatted with them in informal conversations and invited them to stop by the class. For women who were hesitant, we let them observe a class first. Usually after the first few minutes, they voluntarily joined in once they saw that it was low pressure and the women were having fun.

The biggest challenge in this project was the unpredictable nature of a due date. We designed the curriculum to last 15 sessions, working chronologically through the alphabet and teaching on average 2 letters per day. But, some women went into labor after learning only the first 9 letters and never finished. While other women joined the group in the middle of the alphabet and only learned the second half before delivering and heading back home. Very few women made it all the way through the alphabet.

It was a little disheartening that our original vision for the classes weren’t being met, but we figured learning some of the alphabet was better than not knowing any of it and we ended up printing a page with the full alphabet to give to each woman when they left so they could keep practicing when they went home.

Memorable Moment 

In the middle of reading a book, two of the women started whispering together. I stopped and asked if they had a question and they both shook their heads and looked embarrassed. We continued on, but their whispering kept on too. Finally, one woman quietly said, “discupleme profe, pero me daría permiso para ir al hospital? Mi bebé ya viene” Ohmygosh, ohmygosh, ohmygosh. I was way more panic stricken than that mom to be. My TEFL Peace Corps training didn’t really prepare me for what to do when a student’s water breaks in class. But, the Casa Materna staff was cool, calm and collected, and they whisked her into a cab and sent her to the hospital, and the rest of the students looked up at me expectantly waiting for class to continue–B. B es para Bebé.


More than anything, I think a huge benefit to the project was showing women who had never attended school that they were able to learn, that it wasn’t too late for them. It was cool to see women who were resistant or hesitant or penosa to start, enthusiastically identifying the letters they knew by the end and encouraging new women to participate in the classes too. One woman received a call during class and she said, “hija, no puedo hablar ahorita, estoy en clase. Siiiiiiií! Yo estoy estudiando.” There was a lot of sass and pride in her voice. It made me smile.


>> Before you can teach anything, you need to make the women feel really comfortable and relaxed. Break the ice, play games, have fun.  A light, informal environment helps the women feel less stressed and more willing to try.

>> We did an hour each day because that was all I had time for in between my TEFL teaching schedule. But, I think you could cover more letters and do 90 minute or two hour sessions each day to cover the whole alphabet more quickly and ensure that more women get through the whole alphabet before they give birth and leave the Casa Materna.

>> Don’t put anyone on the spot or single them out for not knowing how to read. Do informal interviews or casual conversations to identify women to participate in the classes.

>> Review the past letters learned a lot so that women who join the group late will be exposed to the letters they missed.

>> Write each woman’s name for her on the first day and have the women practice writing it each day. We used name tags and then used the names to identify learned letters in their own names and in each other’s names.

>> Give the women an alphabet worksheet showing the letter strokes for the full alphabet to take with them so that they can keep practicing when they go home.

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