This originally appeared on the Global Partnership for Education Blog.
Newton G. Teeweh is one of Liberia’s deeply committed teachers. He is proud to be doing the critical but unglamorous work of teaching the nation’s children how to read so they can read to learn. He once had been a struggling reader himself, so it wasn’t always obvious that he would become a teacher.
In Maryland, Newton’s home county on Liberia’s eastern border with Côte d’Ivoire, teachers and students alike frequently struggle with reading English or using English for classroom instruction. When Newton crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire in 1991 to escape the civil conflict in his home country, it was as a senior in high school who still felt uncomfortable reading.
He started working as a public school teacher when he returned to Liberia a year later, and throughout his 18 years in the profession the discomfort with reading did not abate. “I still found it difficult to read an article fluently until I moved to the Reading Program of USAID’s Liberia Teacher Training Program (LTTP) in 2011,” he said. “That’s when I began to see a great change.”
Teachers need training
Newton now trains teachers, principals and reading coaches around the country in reading pedagogy – the same training that transformed him. Many of them – like Newton himself – became schoolteachers immediately upon graduating from high school without having ever received formal pedagogical training of any kind.
With his improved reading skills, Newton has been able to go back to university part-time. He is now working toward a Bachelor’s degree in education at a teacher’s college in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. “Reading has helped me to quickly and accurately gather information. It has given me self-confidence. When I’m sitting in an exam, I can feel relaxed because I don’t depend on someone else to help me understand what I’m reading.”
While Newton already serves as a role model for the teachers he trains, he has set his ambitions even higher. “I am interested in becoming a policymaker,” he says. “What we have started in Liberia must continue. We need to have people in relevant positions that will continue the focus on reading, even if donors leave Liberia.”
Liberia’s first national reading campaign
Newton is just one of many champions of Liberia’s first national reading campaign, which kicked off this last weekend. The campaign will help raising awareness across all groups of society about the importance of reading. President Johnson Sirleaf and other prominent figures have pledged their support to the campaign’s central message: When we Learn to Read, we can then Read to Learn. The campaign’s motto – Reading Brightens Your Life – has held true in Newton’s experience and in the experiences of many politicians and government officials.
Spearheaded by the Ministry of Education and USAID’s Liberia Teacher Training Program (LTTP), the campaign combines efforts of several ministries, international and local civil society organizations and corporations. The President declared September 9 – 14 to be National Reading Week, with the aim of inspiring schools and communities to come together to improve literacy among students of all ages. Following an opening week in Monrovia with reading competitions, book fairs, and read-ins, activities will spread throughout the country. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will then hold their own events in various communities reinforcing the campaign’s messages and momentum.
Reading is the basis for future learning
Followers of this blog probably already know that reading is a critical skill and the foundation for future learning. Children who do not learn how to read in the early grades face an increasingly uphill battle in later years as more and more of the material to be learned is presented in written form. Difficulty with reading makes students more likely to drop out of school, which contributes to illiteracy. This in turn imposes substantial economic costs at the national level. The good news is that the situation can be changed. Countries that have found a way to boost literacy rates by 20-30% have seen simultaneous increases in GDP of 8-16%. That’s not peanuts – and it is one of the reason why Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her Ministry of Education are so committed to the goal of improving reading skills in Liberia.
GPE’s Education For All Blog will follow Liberia’s National Reading Campaign with a series of guest posts highlighting the work underway to improve reading in the country. Teachers who have recently been trained explain how a new, intense focus on reading has transformed their student’s classroom performance. Parents who are themselves preliterate will discuss how learning simple ways to support their children’s reading development has changed how they engage with schools and the larger education system. Students whose self-confidence and love of learning has blossomed along with their reading skills will describe some of the aspirations that are coming steadily closer to realization.
Stay tuned for more stories coming out of Liberia’s National Reading Campaign and hear how reading brightens the lives of so many Liberians.
Learn more about USAID’s education programs.