Literacy levels in Ghana are low, particularly in the most rural areas including the Upper East Region. In 2013, the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA), used by the Ghana Education Service, showed that more than 80% of 6 to 8 year olds in the UER were unable to recognize letter sounds. By the end of our 3 year pilot in Sirigu schools, according to data (collected by World Vision in an independent exercise) the Let’s Read schools scoring 0 were reduced to just 3% for letter sounds. In addition, on our latest visit in November 2014 we saw some of the best teaching we have ever seen in schools in Ghana.
(For full details visit: www.letsreadghana.com)
Let’s Read focuses on developing early reading skills through a simple programme of phonics and sight words, developed through interactive teaching methods, and supported with a small number of teaching and learning materials (TLMs), as well as leadership development for head teachers. It is based on our many collective years working as teachers in primary schools in the UK as well as our experience of using the programme in other Ghanaian schools.
Good teaching is the key factor in effective learning. Traditional methods in Ghana tend to rely on repetition and memory, rather than developing the reading skills that enable children to read independently. Memory will only take most of us so far.
Teachers learning about phonics
In Sirigu we worked with a circuit of ten schools of differing sizes and condition. The teachers were responsive, the circuit supervisor was supportive and the children ready to learn. For children often used to sitting for hours each week without a teacher and sometimes with nothing to do either, anything was an improvement. When we visited a class of children and started telling a story or singing an action song, eyes would light up and children would engage with enthusiasm, even though many times they were clearly mystified by our activities!
But changing the attitudes of teachers was hard. It was not that they were unwilling to change but, for any group of people anywhere, change is tough. They only knew the way they had always taught and the way they had been taught themselves. In addition, the teachers had difficulty understanding our accents and were too polite to tell us, so it took longer than expected to get our information across.
Being teachers ourselves we were only available for short visits around holiday periods, so the Sirigu teachers had to battle on by themselves. At each visit we went into the schools, ran some assessments and held follow-up workshops. At the end of the first year we assessed progress – and most schools appeared to have made almost no progress at all. Were we expecting too much? Was it all just too hard?
Not at all! In the second year schools started to take off, some amazingly so. When we saw a child looking at the wall alphabet and working out that ‘u’ and ‘p’ made the word ‘up’ all by himself, we knew we were getting there. Now we needed appropriate reading books for the children. We could not find any so we made our own, two sets to take children through the basic phonics scheme.
Two children using a Let’s Read reading book
Our ten schools grew to eleven as another one opened. This little school set up in a very poor building was led by a P6 teacher who admitted that he knew nothing about teaching small children. But he quickly grasped the concepts on which Let’s Read is based and set off at a pace. Within a year his P1 children knew all their letter sounds and were blending them together to make simple words. No surprise then that this school topped the assessment tables.
But they were not alone. Once teachers could see that children were reading rather than simply relying on memory, they began to see the purpose of the changes. “My children in P2 are reading better than those in P3,” said one teacher. Some even began to tell others that “It is not difficult! Anyone can do it.”
Reading of course is more than just being able to pronounce words. We read to gain knowledge, to understand, to communicate and for pleasure. The lack of spoken English in the schools and in the wider community generally, is a real issue for the children. In our training we encourage teachers to use English informally throughout the day and to teach bilingually where appropriate so that children are broadening their vocabulary and also developing confidence. It is noticeable that schools where this is happening have the best assessment levels.
“English is our ladder to success,” said one head teacher.
Discussing a picture together
Developing competency in English is an ongoing challenge if we are to have a lasting impact on these schools. Although the EGRA results for the Let’s Read schools showed that children were doing far better in letter sounds and non words, their reading and comprehension assessments were still very low even if twice as good as in other schools.
There is no quick fix with literacy. Developing confidence in English, a focus on comprehension and the development of writing skills are ongoing targets for us all if children are to leave their primary schools with a level of functional literacy which will take them through to their secondary schools. We hope that our laptop project will inspire and encourage children and teachers to develop their English skills. Watch this space for more information on Let’s Read IT.
Let’s Read has now started working, in partnership with AfriKids and with a small amount of funding from the Big Lottery Fund, with an additional group of schools. Can it work successfully again? We are very aware of the issues discussed in Sally Vivyan’s recent blog about the dangers of scaling up too fast or too far. Our project is small and local. We aim to develop school-to-school support with Ghanaian teachers, circuit supervisors and recently retired head teachers eventually taking ownership of the programme so that many more children in the area become readers.
Literacy has lifted off in Sirigu, now we want to see it fly.
Enjoying books from our book boxes