“How will Martha’s life be different because she’s learning to read?” I asked Dr. Mike Nkhoma, a Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Specialist in Malawi, as we were leaving the Mikombe Primary school. I had just watched this tiny first grade girl in a pink sweater struggle with the sounds that letters make in Chichewa, her national language.
Mikombe Primary is now funded by Malawi’s Early Grade Reading Activity, a government-backed program supported by USAID to improve reading for over a million Malawian children in 11 districts. This is an important commitment for a country that is the 17th poorest country on earth.
During my visit, I saw thousands of Malawian children in crowded classrooms and under trees. It’s not easy keeping hundreds of children focused and learning while they sit on the dirt or on cement shaping their letters with fingers in the air or with a nub of chalk on the floor. But their teachers have been energized by recent training in techniques for teaching reading and classroom management. As a veteran teacher myself, I was impressed with the results of teacher training that the program provides during vacation time and on weekends.
Part of the training involves coaching from Primary Education Advisors who observe classes and make concrete recommendations. The advisors might suggest a song to transition between lessons or instruct the teacher in more clearly pronouncing letter sounds unfamiliar to them. Teachers also learn to use impromptu day-to-day assessments that give them real-time feedback on what’s working. Reading instruction is closely tied to the Early Grade Reading Assessment, a test developed by USAID and used in the field globally to provide data to local ministries about learning outcomes.
So the U.S. is making an investment in Malawi–almost $100 million dollars over five years. But how is this going to change day-to-day life for a girl like Martha?
I asked Dr. Nkhoma about this. If Martha learns to read, he explained, she will be a more informed adult. If she goes into farming, which is likely because her village is surrounded by small corn fields, she will be able to learn about better agricultural practices. “If she can’t read, she’ll stick to the old ways of doing things,” says Dr. Nkhoma.
As a farmer, Martha might need credit, inputs, and price information—things that many smallholder farmers need but are unable to access. Women constitute 70 percent of the agricultural labor force and produce 80 percent of household food but they have poorer access to extension services than men. Reading is the first step in narrowing this gap and preparing girls for productive farming careers.
Martha will probably be a mother someday. Malawi’s population is growing more rapidly than most other developing nations, and 47 percent of children under 5 are stunted. We know that women who know how to read choose to space their children, have fewer of them, and are better able to understand nutritional needs. The result: children of literate women have a better chance of living past five years old.
Martha is one person. But as Dr. Nkhoma explains, “this one person sets an example for her daughters and her neighbors.
My father was the only person who had schooling in my whole community. He insisted that we had to go to school even if our friends weren’t going…When all the daughters in other families were getting married people laughed at my father for sending my sisters to school. My sisters ignored what people were saying…In the end the outcome of school was a better living. Parents whose children went to school are getting support from their children. The others saw this and said to my father, ‘I think you were doing the right thing.’ Then they wanted to send their children and grandchildren to school. It spreads out from one person and changes the community.”
When Dr. Nkhoma’s sisters were Martha’s age, they were the exception. At Martha’s school today, there are as many girls as boys attending through 4th grade. It’s our collective challenge to teach them to read and to keep them in school as long as possible. An investment in early grade reading means there’s hope for Martha and hope for Malawi.