by Michelle Commeyras
In 2010 I began volunteering on the Kenya Reading Project and in 2011 on the Reading Sierre Leone Project. I volunteer with a Canadian nonprofit organization that collaborates with local organizations in Africa to design, deliver and evaluate literacy programs. I have become fascinated with the apparent explosion of interest in developing early reading education on the continent. This interest is related to U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s new Education Strategy to improve readings skills for 100 million children in primary grades by 2015.
School Attendance and Reading Performance
In 2010 UNESCO reported that the out of school population of 21 million in sub-Saharan Africa had been reduced by about 13 million (Van Der Gaag & Adams, 2010). With the improvement of school enrollment came questions about what were students learning. Results from large-scale assessments of reading literacy became a cause for concern. For example, the results from the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) of 2007 showed that on average 64.2% of grade six students in 14 countries were able to read for meaning, engage in interpretive, inferential, analytical and critical reading (Hungi, Makuwa, Ross, Saito, Dolata, Cappelle, Paviot & Vellien, 2010). Yet performance varied significantly by country as illustrated on the following chart. In some countries there were many grade six students still at the pre-reading, emergent or basic levels.
Table 1. Reading Performance on SACMEQ 2007
One of the significant initiatives has been to find ways of measuring reading attainment in the first three grades of primary school. The most widely used test is the Early Grade Reading Assessment developed by RTI International with funding from the USAID and the World Bank. It is a series of subtests some of which are modeled after the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills known to most educators in the U.S.A. as DIBELS. World-wide, EGRA has been used in more than 50 countries and 70 languages (Gove & Wetterberg, 2011). In sub-Saharan Africa is has been administered in 18 countries using whatever the language of instruction was in the participating schools.
Languages and Learning to Read
Africa is a language rich continent. There are thousands of languages spoken and being able to speak several languages is common. One significant factor in learning to read is the language. Beginning readers are likely to be faced with different challenges when reading different languages. Learning to read requires knowledge of the basic units of the writing system. Those basic units differ across languages.
Each country has a language policy that stipulates what language will be used for instruction in primary and secondary schooling. In some countries the language of instruction differs from lower primary to upper primary to post primary school. In the following chart some of the different configurations are illustrated. In some African countries primary school is taught in a Lingua Franca like Kiswahili. In other countries students begin learning in their mother tongue like Shona or Ndebele in Zimbabwe. In many countries students and teachers are expected to change to a colonial language for upper and post primary education. Less often the language of instruction remains the same across school levels (i.e. Kiswahili in Tanzania).
Table 2. Examples of Variations in the Language of Instruction by Country
In Sierre Leone the lingua franca is Krio, but it is not used as the language of instruction. Yet the teachers I have worked with readily admit to using it to communicate with their students. It has been documented by researchers that while government policies stipulate a language of instruction there is plenty of code-switching (code alteration) occurring in classrooms where that language is foreign to students (Rubagumya, 1998). Teachers who use more than one language while teaching are engaged in something difficult and complex. To date there is not enough research on effective bilingual pedagogy (Clegg & Afitska, 2011). The collective wisdom is that the use of mother tongue or native language as the medium of learning and instruction improves the learning of official/foreign/colonial language as a subject of learning.
There are complicated tensions involved in getting agreement on a language of instruction across all those with a stake in public education. Which language leads to higher education? Which language preserves indigenous identity and culture? Which language facilitates learning to read and write? Which language has books and other curriculum materials? What are the economic costs and benefits of the language of instruction?
Learning to read involves learning how one’s writing system encodes one’s spoken language. Each writing systems has its basic units. In alphabetic languages the basic unit is letters. In syllabaries it is syllables and in logographic scripts it is morphemes (Jukes, Vagh & Kim, 2006). Early reading instruction must take into account language differences with regard to orthographic features, subcomponents and pragmatics. English, French and Portuguese are three languages of instruction in Africa that are difficult with regard to decoding (Seymour, Aro & Erskine, 2003). English being the most difficult because “[i]n order to decode the most frequent 3000 monosyllabic English words at the level of the rime, a child needs to learn mappings between approximately 600 different orthographic patterns and 400 phonological rimes, far more than would be needed if the child could simply learn how to map 26 letters onto 26 phonemes” (Ziegler & Goswami, 2006 p. 431). The Early Grade Reading Assessment has a reading nonsense subtest. This makes sense for orthographically opaque languages like English but not for orthographically transparent languages like Kiswahili? It has been shown that children can read decode Kiswahili words that are not in their oral vocabulary. This is similar to reading nonsense words in English.
Fluency rates are meaningful at the word level in some languages (English) and at the syllable level in other languages (Italian). Assessing reading fluency differs across languages because of word length. Agglutinative languages like Kiswahili have some long words and it takes beginning readers more time to read long words. For example the English word “food” is one syllable but in Swahili it is “chakula” a three syllable word. In some cases one English word such as “noon” calls for several words in Kiswahili “Saa sita mchana.” Variations such as these among languages present difficulties in developing internationally oriented assessments like the Early Grade Reading Assessment which includes subtests: number of letters read per minute and reading a connected passed of one minute. Comparisons of reading fluency across languages are recognized as being problematic.
It is important to remember that most of the research on teaching reading has been conducted in developed countries with European languages (Trudell, B. & Schroeder, L., 2007). While English has become the language of globalization it cannot be used as a generalized model for literacy teaching because its orthography if far more complicated than that of many other languages (e.g. Bantu languages). Teaching methods with regard to phonics and decoding need to be adjusted to the specific characteristics of a language’s writing system. Studies on European languages have found that children learn to decode more quickly languages with transparent orthographies (Ziegler & Goswami, 2006). Research needs to be conducted on teaching methods in sub-Saharan Africa where children are learning to read in both transparent and opaque orthographies.
Training Educators in Africa
I am learning that those like me who are invited as literacy experts from North America and Europe need information about the realities of teachers’ classrooms. Here are some of the questions that have been of concern to me in planning trainer and teacher workshops. I have continually considered how reading and writing lessons can be conducted in crowded classrooms with few resources.
- Which reading materials are available (textbooks, children’s literature, environmental print, teacher-made charts, and posters, etc.)?
- Which writing materials (blank exercise books, loose papers, sand) are available to the teacher and pupils?
- Which writing implements (pencils, chalk, markers, crayons, sticks) are available to the teacher and pupils?
- Is there room for the teacher to move among students to show illustrations when reading aloud from a children’s book?
- Does the physical size and layout of the classroom have space for literacy centers and other small group work or is the teacher limited to whole class instruction?
I have learned that teacher development projects need to involve those from outside the school who make decisions that affect the school. For example, in the Kenya Reading Project it has been important to have the Area Education Officer involved because he has been able to ensure that teachers receiving the training were not transferred to schools outside the project. He attended the three initial workshops for trainers and the three subsequent workshops for 90 teachers. Also in Kenya we had two quality assurance officers attend the Train the Trainer workshops. Their presence was important because they go to the schools to conduct evaluations. In the role as evaluators they need to know what new teaching methodologies and materials are being introduced. The situation in Sierre Leone was different because we are not working with government schools. Rather the focus is on schools created by rural communities where the teachers are considered by the government to be “untrained and unqualified.” There is no official oversight or economic responsibility to those schools by the government.
I think it is crucial that there be ongoing support to teachers and their head masters between workshops. Providing an interactive workshop with opportunities to try out new methods of teaching is a starting point. Those are seeds that will only grow roots in classrooms and schools if someone with literacy teaching expertise comes on a regular basis to work side by side with teachers on how to implement the new teaching methods. This is a big challenge for fiscal and logistical reasons. Just getting to the schools can be difficult and sometimes impossible in the rainy season when dirt roads are flooded. Also the availability of those who have the expertise to support the teachers’ implementation of new teaching methodologies is often limited because they are volunteers or otherwise busy in their places of employment.
Here are videos about teacher workshops in Kenya and Sierre Leone:
Clegg, J., & Afitska, O. (2011). Teaching and learning in two languages in African classrooms. Comparative Education, 47(1), 61-77. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03050068.2011.541677
Gove, A. & Wetterberg, A. (Eds.) (2011). The Early Grade Reading Assessment: Applications and Interventions to Improve Basic Literacy. Research Triangle Park: RTI Press. Retrieved from http://www.rti.org/pubs/bk-0007-1109-wetterberg.pdf
Hungi, N., Makuwa, D., Ross, K., Saito, M., Dolata, S.,van Cappelle, F., Paviot, L. & Vellien, J. (2010). SACMEQ III project results: Pupil achievement levels in reading and mathematics. Retrieved from: article
Jukes, M., Vagh, S. B. & Kim, Y-K (2006, September). Development of assessments of reading ability and classroom behavior. Report prepared for the World Bank. Retrieved from http://ddp-ext.worldbank.org/EdStats/KENwp06.pdf
Rubagumya, C. M. (Ed.) (1998). Teaching & researching language in African classrooms. Great Britain: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Seymour, Philip H. K.; Aro, Mikko & Erskine, J. M. (2003). Foundation of literacy acquisition in European orthographies. British Journal of Psychology, 94, 143-174.
Van Der Gaag, Jacques and Adams, Anda (2010). Where is the learning? Measuring schooling efforts in developing countries. Policy Brief 2010-04 The Brookings Institute. Retrieved from article
Ziegler, J. C., & Goswami, U. (2006). Becoming literate in different languages: similar problems, different solutions. Developmental Science, 9(5), 429-436. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&dopt=Citation&list_uids=16911438
Michelle Commeyras is a professor at the University of Georgia, email@example.com.