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Testing Readers in the Early Grades in Pakistan

I wish you could have been there. The little girl, a third grader, in a sky blue uniform with a white sash sat across from the evaluator. Her manner was shy, her voice barely audible but her dark eyes were determined. She was going to do her best, no doubt about it, despite a bunch of strangers standing around to watch.

A young girl in Pakistan attempts to read the story of Rani, testing her reading and comprehension skills as part of an Early Grade Reading Assessment being carried out in Pakistan.  / Christie Vilsack

A young girl in Pakistan attempts to read the story of Rani, testing her reading and comprehension skills as part of an Early Grade Reading Assessment being carried out in Pakistan. / Christie Vilsack

The evaluator explained that she could help us understand how children read by participating in some word games. He told her about himself and asked her to do the same. He asked about the language she uses at home with her family.

Each page required a certain task. The first determined whether she knew where to begin reading on the page and in what direction. She used her pointer finger to show that she did.

Next he asked her to say the name of some letters, and then to name some simple words. She could do this also.

Then he asked her to say the sounds produced by letters (b is the sound made by the letter “b”). And then he gave her some made up words to sound out like pum and tep. Most of us remember this as phonics, which we learned in kindergarten and first grade. This task was more difficult for her.

When he asked her to read a short paragraph she stumbled through the words and the timer went off long before she finished. Anyone watching could tell it was the letter sounds that were tripping her up.

She was so busy trying to decipher the words that the meaning behind the story escaped her. She couldn’t tell the evaluator why the character, Rani, was scared of what was behind the door, or why she smiled when she saw it was just a mouse.

By now 33,000 children in Pakistan have been tested, a random sampling in each of Pakistan’s seven administrative units. The test that was used in Pakistan is called EGRA, the Early Grade Reading Assessment, and it was developed with World Bank and USAID support to RTI International here in the United States, starting in 2005.

EGRA is an essential tool in our educational toolbox as USAID invests in teaching 100 million children to read in 39 countries around the world. The EGRA instrument is translated into the local language and tests the foundational skills of reading as well as reading fluency and comprehension. It can help teachers know which skills need more attention and can help policy makers know which aspects of instruction need more attention and funding.

The evaluator in a primary school in Pakistan talks with the young girl about the reading assessment, explaining how it works and what she will be doing. Credit: Christie Vilsack

The evaluator in a primary school in Pakistan talks with the young girl about the reading assessment, explaining how it works and what she will be doing. / Christie Vilsack

If you’ve had a child in a U.S. school then he or she has probably taken DIBELS© or another oral assessment in the early grades to test her or his understanding of the key building blocks of reading.

EGRA was inspired by DIBELS and other early grade assessments and experts at RTI, USAID and the World Bank, other institutions picked the key skills and subtests that predict reading competency and can be tested in the context of developing countries. EGRA is so easy to administer that any of us could do it with our own children and get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

We can use the data we gather from the test to help ministries of education determine how best to proceed to meet the reading needs of their students and where to invest their scarce resources.  EGRA is also a diagnostic tool that can provide teachers and principals a roadmap for improving teaching and learning. USAID works to build capacity at the ministry level, train teachers and develop textbooks in a languages that children speak and understand, and produce supplemental reading materials so that government officials, communities, and parents develop sustainable programs that improve students’ reading skills.

In developing countries, the solutions are not difficult to understand. They mirror the solutions here at home. Those who work on these issues say it’s carrying out the solutions under difficult circumstances that is a bigger problem.

How do you administer tests if no one in the country knows how to assess early grade students? If schools are far from cities and towns and transportation is difficult? If schools have been closed by insurgents? How do you administer the test if an earthquake has suspended classes? How do you get to villages high in the mountains to administer the test? And if you get there and there aren’t the necessary number of students in the classroom to make the test statistically correct because they’re farming with their parents in the fields, what do you do?

It’s essential to find ways around such barriers because the most important person in the room is the child who wants to learn, who wants to know about the girl, Rani, in the story and why she smiles at the end.

The little girl before me smiles at the evaluator as the assessment ends, smiles shyly at all of us because she has done her best. We leave with a sense of purpose. It’s hard to teach 100 million children to read, but it’s not impossible. And, when we succeed, this little girl and many like her will be able to raise her own children, including her daughters, in a culture that values education and the economic and global security it ensures.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education

Working Together, Faster and Closer to Solve Development Challenges

In November 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Office of Science and Technology launched an initiative under which seven universities would act not just as colleagues in studying global challenges, but as USAID’s laboratories, testing real-time solutions.  This Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) is a network of eight Development Labs on seven university campuses and over 100 additional partners institutions in 38 countries that harness the ingenuity and passion of university students, researchers, and faculty to find, develop, and apply new science and tech-based solutions to the world’s most challenging development problems. HESN is powered by a conviction that advances in science and technology can bring the brightest minds in higher education closer to practitioners in developing countries who are trying out innovative approaches, as well as accelerating the expansion process for innovations that prove successful.

A year later, “TechCon 2013” in Williamsburg, Virginia brought together more than 200 representatives from the seven lead universities and their partners: The College of William & Mary; University of California, Berkeley; Duke University; Makerere University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Michigan State University; and Texas A&M University. The eight Development Labs demonstrated their individual progress, but equally exciting were the unexpected insights gained from the uncommon collaboration between members of the network. Epidemiologists learned from marketing experts, agricultural economists from software executives, and professors of mechanical engineering from post-conflict project managers.

That sort of collaboration — involving experts from disparate academic disciplines who might otherwise not run into each other on campus — was part of the vision of HESN. “The solutions that will truly be transformative, that will get us to scale, that will make us successful, that will save lives, are those that capture all of the university,” Alex Dehgan, Science and Technology Adviser to the USAID Administrator, said in his remarks to the conference. “We’re not looking for business as usual. We’re asking, are the things that you are working on going to result in innovations that are truly disruptive? Will you change the landscape as a result?”

“We’re not just trying to create grant relations with each of you,” USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told the conference by video link. “We are really hoping that you will be the extramural R&D hub for the agency that has significant global capabilities and sits at the center of the American government to achieve the goals that the President laid out for us.”

In the “Innovation Marketplace” exhibition area, Chris Bielecki, who is working toward a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering, was exhibiting his project that helps farming families in food-insecure Guatemala keep a photographic journal of their meals. “Interesting to see how HESN centers’ work are integrating with each other,” Bielecki observed on Twitter. ” Who says academia can’t break out of their silos!”

More than 40 students and researchers competed for conference attendees’ votes and a chance at $4,000 in expansion funding from IBM in the conference “pitch competition”.  Environmental engineering student Caroline Delaire delivered a sales pitch for an affordable way to rid drinking water of arsenic in rural Bangladesh — just add rust. Urban planning student Elizabeth Hoffecker Moreno pitched a project in rural Zambia that helps women protect their health by making menstrual pads with locally grown cotton.  The sales pitch that won the top prize, was by Brian Gitta, a sophomore at Makerere University in Uganda. When Gitta was sick with malaria he wondered whether it would be possible to diagnose the disease without piercing the skin. He and his classmates subsequently invented a device that shines light through the skin and sends the data to a cell phone, where the results can be quickly read and interpreted, even by non-medical personnel  far from a clinic.  Beyond the pitch competition, Esri sponsored a mapping competition that brought students together to map their activities and tell the story of the network.

In the first year of HESN, Development Labs developed 27 transformative innovations and conducted pilot tests for 20 of those; 4 of them have already been adopted by the targeted communities. Labs have shared their research in 25 publications and reports as well as via websites that have attracted more than 10,000 visitors. The labs have contributed instructional material for 11 new university courses on international development.  Almost 200 students have received field experience including more than 50 who completed overseas fellowships of more than a month.

At the end of the conference, USAID’s Dehgan said the gathering marked an important step in the evolution of the foreign aid establishment’s embracing of innovation. “I think it is the tipping point where we really went from vision and idea to the actual production of starting to get results — the creation of the ecosystems and the creation of the pipelines of services that we’re trying to do in development,” he said. “We’re starting to see a community of practice around development engineering, around the use of data, around the question of how we really harness innovation.”

To learn more about HESN, visit www.usaid.gov/hesn.

From the Field in Pakistan: Catch of a Lifetime

When the video team and I started out from Islamabad, Pakistan, early one morning, I didn’t know what, or whose, story awaited us. We were traveling to the remote outskirts of Jamshoro, a city on the banks of the Indus River (about 90 miles northeast of Karachi for a video shoot. It was during our interviews with community members that we met Imran Ali Mallah.

A world away from education, Imran once worked diligently as a fisherman, hauling up nets seven days a week to make ends meet. When we spoke with him, however, he was living a different kind of life.

After learning about a USAID-funded teachers’ education program, former fisherman Imran Ali Mallah decided to study to become a teacher. Photo credit:  USAID Teacher Education Project/EDC

After learning about a USAID-funded teachers’ education program, former fisherman Imran Ali Mallah decided to study to become a teacher. Photo credit: USAID Teacher Education Project/EDC

Weary of the unpredictability of the fishing trade and inspired by an advertisement in the local paper for a USAID initiative offering training, he decided to become a teacher.

“I grew up in poverty,” Imran told me. “I know the pain and suffering that comes along with it.”

Imran enrolled in the two-year ADE teacher training program and committed himself to his new endeavor. He now travels four hours every day from his home in Jamshoro to the Provincial Institute of Teacher Education in Nawabshah. Despite the hardship, he has maintained excellent grades, and will receive his associate’s degree in 2014.

Imran is optimistic about his future, passionate about teaching and financially more secure.  Instead of toiling each day on his boat, he is able to support himself and his studies by teaching children two hours a day. He hopes to help give his students the opportunity for a better future. “Changing children’s mindsets toward learning and success is very important for the citizens of our country,” said Imran. “It enables personal growth. I hope to pass on this beacon of knowledge.”

Thanks to the USAID-funded Associate’s Degree in Education (ADE) program, Imran Ali Mallah is changing his life—and the lives of his students—as he pursues his ambition of becoming a teacher. Photo credit: USAID Teacher Education Project/ EDC

Thanks to the USAID-funded Associate’s Degree in Education (ADE) program, Imran Ali Mallah is changing his life—and the lives of his students—as he pursues his ambition of becoming a teacher. Photo credit: USAID Teacher Education Project/ EDC

Imran credits the USAID education program with his success, “The ADE program has been a source of inspiration. It enabled me to switch my profession from fishing to teaching. With its advanced teaching methods, it has brought classrooms to life, which has made both teachers and students open to change.”

More than 2,600 teacher trainees like Imran are enrolled in the USAID-funded, Government of Pakistan-accredited, two-year ADE program and four-year Bachelors of Education. ADE is one of several USAID projects helping millions of Pakistanis unlock their full potential. In addition to ADE, USAID has launched degree programs in education at 90 teacher colleges and universities, and is building new applied research centers at Pakistani universities that focus on energy, water and agriculture. More than 10,600 low-income students attend college in Pakistan with USAID-funded scholarships.

Learn more about USAID’s work in Pakistan.

Haiti Holds First National Reading Championship

The finalists with the Director General and Deputy Director General of MENFP and well-known author Frankétienne. Photo credit: MENFP

The finalists with the Director General and Deputy Director General of MENFP and well-known author Frankétienne. Photo credit: MENFP

Out of 11,000 students from 172 schools, the Government of Haiti recently chose 72 finalists to attend the first National Reading Championship. From this talented bunch, six were national finalists. The two shining stars who came out on top in the final round were Bruna Samika Délomme, a fourth grader from the Northwest, and Loveda Movin, a third grader from Nippes. After participating in community reading activities during their summer, they proudly walked away as the top readers in their country.

At the event, Minister of National Education Vanneur Pierre stated that the National Reading Championship was a stepping stone in efforts toward improving the education system in Haiti. “The country is at a difficult crossroads today where education is the only tool to get the nation out of this impasse. Fortunately, the government has chosen to put the emphasis on education,” he said.

Samika Bruna Delhomme (L) of Northwest and Loveda Movin of Nippes were named finalists. Photo credit: MENFP

Samika Bruna Delhomme (L) of Northwest and Loveda Movin of Nippes were named finalists. Photo credit: MENFP

The competition has set a precedent for the nation and for the students. By acknowledging and supporting the endeavors of its brightest students, the Government of Haiti is helping to instill a culture of reading in this country and to secure a better future for its students. Ensuring that children can read in early grades often determines their future educational success, thus opening the door to greater economic opportunities in adulthood.

The National Reading Championship was hosted by USAID and the Ministry of Education, helping students like Bruna and Loveda maintain their reading competencies and comprehension during the summer vacation.  In addition, it inspired Minister Pierre to initiate Reading Fridays, which will be implemented in public schools to promote and encourage reading fluency and comprehension.

Read more about USAID’s education efforts in Haiti.

Like USAID Haiti on Facebook and follow @USAID_Haiti on Twitter for ongoing updates in the region. 

USAID in the News

Devex featured a piece about USAID’s new approach to tackling urban policy through the use of crowdsourcing. A public comment period will be made available on November 7 as a part of the Sustainable Service Delivery in an Increasingly Urbanized World program. By soliciting public opinion, USAID hopes to find new ways to encourage the formation of local solutions that will allow the agency to partner with city governments and community groups to build on expertise and bolster development efforts.

The Times of India reported on a USAID grant that was awarded to three Indian companies to help them share successful low-cost agricultural innovations with African countries. The grants come through the USAID India-Africa Agriculture Innovations Bridge Program, which seeks to improve food security, nutrition, and long-term sustainability by sharing Indian innovations with farmers in Africa who will benefit from them.

Administrator at at The George Washington University’s Feeding the Planet Summit, where he announced the Feed the Future Innovation Labs. Photo credit: Joslin Isaacson, HarvestPlus

Administrator at at The George Washington University’s Feeding the Planet Summit, where he announced the Feed the Future Innovation Labs. Photo credit: Joslin Isaacson, HarvestPlus

AllAfrica covered USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah’s announcement of 10 new Feed the Future Innovation Labs that will partner with American universities to tackle the world’s most challenging agricultural research problems. A part of the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, these labs will work to address the challenges of climate change in agriculture and research ways to produce food in an environmentally sensitive manner to ensure global access to nutritious and safe foods.

Zawya reported on a joint effort between USAID and the Caterpillar Foundation, which seeks to provide intensive technical training to youth in Jordan. The program equips trainees with the skills to fill technician-level positions in key industrial sectors of the Jordanian economy. Rana Al Turk, the International Youth Foundation (IYF) Jordan Country Director says that the program aims to fill job positions, “while providing youth with a comprehensive employability approach that includes the technical training and soft skills they need to enhance their employment prospects and lead successful lives.”

Citizen News featured a story on a USAID-funded program that provides students in Kenya with laptops to enhance their educational experience. According to Jaribu Primary School headmaster Mohamed Gedi, the project has triggered a spike in the performance of the 300 hundred students that benefit from the laptops.

The Express Tribune reported on USAID’s hand over of a state-of-the-art Expanded Program on Immunization Coordination and Planning Resource Center to the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulation, and Coordination in Pakistan. The center is equipped with technology and software that will allow the government to track vaccine supplies throughout the country. USAID Health Office Director Jonathan Ross, who inaugurated the center, reaffirmed the U.S. Government’s commitment to improving health indicators in Pakistan through continued health development assistance.

USAID in the News

AllAfrica reported on a newly-announced USAID partnership with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund USA and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust, which is aimed at supporting the proposed Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. The new hospital, scheduled to open in June 2015, will provide high-quality medical care to children regardless of their social or economic status.

A statue of Nelson Mandela was unveiled on Sep. 21, 2013 at the Embassy of South Africa in Washington, DC. Photo credit: USAID

A statue of Nelson Mandela was unveiled on Sep. 21, 2013 at the Embassy of South Africa in Washington, DC. Photo credit: USAID

The Express Tribune featured a story about the fourth National Youth Peace Festival in Lahore, Pakistan, which is being supported in part by USAID. The organizers expects to see 500 young people from across Pakistan attend the festival, the theme of which is “One Nation, One Agenda; Democracy and Peace.” Politicians will attend the festival in hopes of engaging youth by taking up issues that are relevant to them.

Jamaica Observer reported USAID’s tool donation  to 105 cocoa farmers in Jamaica as a part of a two-year project, which focuses on “protecting rural lives, livelihoods and ecosystems” in communities affected by climate change. The tools will be used by farmers to combat the negative effects of climate change on agriculture.

Vibe Ghana detailed USAID efforts to support the Western Regional Health Directorate in Ghana. USAID contributions to the health directorate include training, performance-based grants, and equipment that will be distributed throughout district hospitals and health care centers. Dr. Edward Bonko, Leader of the Focus Region Health Project of USAID, explained that the efforts would assist with “maternal, reproductive and child health, HIV/AIDS and malaria preventions and neonatal care” in the Western Region.

Pakistan’s The Nation reported on the visit of a group of U.S. government officials, including USAID Mission Director for Pakistan Gregory Gottleib, to the Jamshoro Thermal Power Station. The power plant will provide an additional 270 megawatts of power to the national grid.  In addition to the Jamshoro power plant, USAID is working to rehabilitate thermal plants in Muzaffargarh and Guddu and a hydro-plant in Tarbela.

The website OpenEqualFree detailed a USAID effort to educate student gardeners in Liberia through the Advancing Youth Project—a partnership with Liberia’s Ministry of Education and community organizations that offers “alternative basic education services and entrepreneurship training for young people across Liberia.” The initiative will provide agricultural experts to train students to grow their own gardens and teach them the about agribusiness as a possible career choice.

The Hill featured a piece written by Representatives Albio Sires and Mario Diaz-Balart spotlighting USAID efforts to combat tuberculosis. The story, which describes legislation geared toward encouraging development of health care products in low-resource health systems, includes an overview of USAID’s contributions in the area of research and development in global health, saying, “As a leading funder of breakthrough products for global health, USAID is a key partner in later-stage research that ensures the development of safe and effective health tools.”

USAID at UNGA 2013: Day Two

This year’s United Nations General Assembly focuses on the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and inclusive development goals for persons with disabilities. 

UNGA Day Two: September 24, 2013

Highlight:

President Obama delivered an address to the United National General Assembly. A number of outlets are reporting on the President’s announcement of an additional $339 million in humanitarian assistance to Syria.

Announcements:

  • As a part of the Better than Cash Alliance anniversary event, USAID announced that it is on a path to incorporating language into all grants and contracts to accelerate the use of electronic and mobile payments into its programs across the world.

Recap of Tuesday’s Events:

  • Yesterday afternoon Administrator Shah and DFID’s Justine Greening hosted the “MDG Countdown 2013 – Women & Girls” event. The event highlighted the progress made against the MDGs and focused on the work needing to be done over the next 828 days. The event included Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, Geena Davis, actress and UN Special Envoy for Women and Girls in the field of Technology and was moderated by NY Times reporter Nicholas Kristof.

Happening Today:

Learn more about this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and its focus on the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and inclusive development goals for persons with disabilities.

Follow @USAID and @RajShah for ongoing updates during the week and join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtags #UNGA and #UNGA2013.

Educating A First-Time Mother

It was the height of the Indian monsoon season and I sat cross-legged on a concrete floor in the slums of outer Delhi. An excited chatter filled the air from the 25 new and expectant mothers packed into the small room. There, I met a young Bengali woman, Manali. Manali is a recently married 18-year-old who, less than a year ago, traveled a very far distance from her family’s village to join her now-husband in India’s second largest city. She sat shyly in the corner of the room.

Mother and child. Photo credit: MAMA

Mother and child. Photo credit: MAMA

I soon learned that she was expecting her first child. While she had the same joy in her expression and excitement in her voice as other expectant mothers I’ve met around the world, I realized there was something different: her knowledge level.

My colleague Daphne asked Manali how she will know when she is in labor, where she plans to deliver, and what to give her baby if he is sick. Second- and third-time moms will usually jump in to supply the information. Manali, on the other hand, smiled shyly and shrugged her shoulders. Surprisingly, the majority of women in the room had a mobile phone in their hand–basic “candy bar” phones, many with broken screens–but all had used their device to receive calls. When this is the case, these phones can be used to deliver vital health information and knowledge to mothers, especially first-time moms like Manali who need this information the most.

In two weeks, Johnson & Johnson will head to New York City, where the world’s global leaders will come together for the United Nations General Assembly to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the world, including meeting the Millennium Development Goals. With fewer than 850 days to 2015, we are far short of our goal to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health.

Progress has been made: 13 commodities have been identified by the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities to address preventable deaths in women and children. Countries such as Nigeria and Tanzania have put together plans and begun to implement these recommendations, saving millions of lives. However, less action has been taken to inform the women themselves of these life-saving commodities.

For example, if a mother knew about oral rehydration salts solution (ORS), which would help manage her baby’s dehydration from diarrhea (and that ORS solution costs just a few cents), she could seek out this simple treatment. If she knew about the warning signs for pre-eclampsia, she could recognize them and get to the clinic early for treatment with magnesium sulfate.

The World Health Organization recognizes that a lack of information is a contributing factor to women not getting the care they need. A first-time mother is especially vulnerable. She is younger, less experienced, and often feels isolated and less empowered amid her husband’s family. Mobile messages delivered via voice or text are a simple way to inform, support, and educate her with accurate health information.

The model to address this opportunity is an intriguing example of the power of public-private partnerships. MAMA founded by USAID, Johnson & Johnson, UN Foundation, Baby Center and mHealth Alliance, is getting this vital health information out to mothers through partnerships around the world. These stage-based messages—developed by BabyCenter, a Johnson & Johnson company, in partnership with global health experts—are timed to coincide with the stage at which the mother needs them. The messaging is adaptable, i.e., easily translated into other languages and dialects.

In its first two years, the model is showing promise. A growing alliance of partners–235 organizations across 59 countries–is reaching 530,000 new and expectant mothers. New MAMA child messages are now also available, developed in partnership with MDG Health Alliance, GBC Health, and UNICEF.

For first-time moms like Manali, the information delivered increases their knowledge, helps to develop their confidence, and connects them to life-saving commodities. While phones cannot and should not replace doctors, nurses, or community health workers, the ubiquity of these devices offers new mothers the opportunity to have a healthy pregnancy and give her baby the best start to life.

This blog first appeared on the Huffington Post’s Global Motherhood page, as part of a month-long series in partnership with Johnson & Johnson to highlight the successes and remaining opportunities in the Every Woman Every Child movement. With the aim of improving the lives of women and child around the world, EWEC was launched by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 2010 to accelerate progress against the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). To learn more, click here.

Liberia: “When We Learn to Read, We Can Read to Learn!”

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.

Student and teacher in Liberia. Photo credit: GPE

Student and teacher in Liberia. Photo credit: GPE

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. 

South Sudan Educators Acquire Skills to Teach the New Nation

September 8 was International Literacy Day. Below is a story of  how USAID is advancing education in South Sudan.

At Ligi Primary School in South Sudan’s Central Equatoria state, the majority of the school’s 11 teachers lack any formal teacher training. Only three have teaching certificates. Overall in South Sudan, only about half of teachers have professional qualifications and a third have only a primary school education. A quarter of those teaching students are volunteers.

The background of teacher Gaga Simon is typical. He completed high school in neighboring Uganda because South Sudan was immersed in war throughout his childhood. After returning to his homeland, he has taught for the past eight years without any formal teacher training.

According to UNESCO’s 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report on South Sudan, “South Sudan has some of the world’s worst indicators for education. Around 1 million children—half of the primary school age population—are out of school. The primary net enrollment rate is second to the bottom in world rankings, with a net enrollment rate for girls at just 37 percent. In a country with a population the size of Sweden, fewer than 400 girls make it to the last grade of secondary school. There are desperate shortages of classrooms and books—and just one qualified teacher for every 117 students.”

Gaga Simon shows his fellow teachers at Ligi Primary School how to make a lesson plan. Photo credit: Poni Allen

Gaga Simon shows his fellow teachers at Ligi Primary School how to make a lesson plan. Photo credit: Poni Allen

USAID supports the Ministry of Education’s efforts to deliver training to teachers like Mr. Simon through the South Sudan Teacher Education Project. The objective is to build and professionalize a South Sudanese teacher corps. The project is improving the quality of education in South Sudan’s schools by training teachers and providing children with a supportive environment in which to learn foundational literacy and numeracy skills.

As a result, Mr. Simon is now able to create a lesson plan and confidently apply a child-centered teaching approach that focuses on his students’ needs, abilities, interests and learning styles. He acts as a facilitator of his students’ learning, frequently requesting their input into classroom activities and even the assessment measures used.

“I intend to make the most of this training opportunity,” says Mr. Simon, who teaches mathematics and English to third and fifth graders.

After the training, Simon shared lessons learned with fellow teachers at his primary school and held mini teaching sessions throughout the school year where he taught teachers new skills he had learned. “I need to grow and support other teachers to grow along with me in the teaching profession,” he said. “I take my time with my fellow teachers and I explain to them what I learned so that we can all progress at the same level.” Together they are now more effective in helping the pupils learn by utilizing participatory teaching methodology, which encourages active learning through student participation instead of the traditional “chalk and talk” approach.

“We are now able to apply the child-centered learning [approach] and use any materials around us to demonstrate a lesson to the pupils … this helps the pupils to learn better,” says Peter Dara, one of the teachers who benefited from Simon’s experience and support. “This has made learning fun and interesting both for the teachers and learners.”

Headmaster Taban Philip Elema has noted a great change in Simon’s teaching style and class management since he completed the in-service training, including using local materials to explain key concepts. For example, Mr. Simon uses sticks and stones to teach basic numeracy concepts and to create fun math games. “It is a learning process,” says Elema, “and I am confident that by the time they complete the training, we will have all teachers in this school qualified and able to teach as professional teachers.”

This program is unique because teachers are receiving an accelerated certification. USAID is helping teachers get high-quality professional training quickly to alleviate the dire shortage of trained teachers in South Sudan. The certification includes an intensive focus on reading instruction, helping primary teachers learn to accomplish what is arguably their most important task in a country seeking to improve one of the world’s lowest rates of literacy.

Learn more about USAID’s education programs.

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