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Back to Basics: Tackling Low-Levels of Learning in Chichewa


My work takes me to very different countries each time- Ghana, Nigeria, India, Malawi. These countries are very different in terms of the language spoken, food, culture everything. In the many years that I have been travelling, I have noticed a few common things. Visiting classrooms, we often see a teacher standing in front of the class and asking the children to repeat after him/her. Children dutifully repeating after the teacher, as some look outside the window curiously looking at the visitors… but the repeating doesn’t stop. Very few textbooks and children sharing the few tattered textbooks they have. I usually carry some simple text with me just to see if they can read some simple materials. Many times they are unable to. This unfortunately has become a very disturbing trend in most developing countries. Children are in school, I can often hear loud chants of children repeating after their teachers, yet when I ask them to read big bold simple texts they are unable to do so.

For those of us in the education sector, low-levels of literacy is not new to anyone. We have intensified our work related to teacher professional development. Have conducted numerous teacher trainings, but the situation still remain grim. Tens and thousands of dollars are spent on creating lesson plans for teachers, creating thick manuals for teacher training sessions, creating long lists of activities with locally available materials, refreshing our practices on constructivists approaches. All sounds to be leading in the right direction. Yet, I don’t see any difference in the learning levels of children in the classes.

Folks, if you are in this situation I have some good news for you! Before I go any further, here are a few things to reflect upon. Do you think we, let alone the teachers, have the time to read an 80 plus page teacher manual once a year? If we are being lectured for 7 days continuously on how we can become better teachers, do you think you can stay awake after the 2nd day is over? If we are given 40 activities from which to choose from and then prepare materials that go along with them, do you think you will look at those activities again? Or will you rather rely on your memory to quickly scramble something to do teach a class of 70 students? Even with a Ph.D. it is hard for me to understand the meaning of  “constructivism” and its classroom based practices.

In Mwandama Millennium Village of Malawi we started yet another literacy project to improve learning levels. By now, I have almost lost hope of improving basic literacy levels. Our local education volunteers seem diligent as always, each child was given some reading materials, the project team as enthusiastic as ever. By now, this was a common pattern that I saw everywhere. Our site team took a few of us around to see these Village Learning Centers that were held in community donated spaces in the open. I was told that all children attended nearby government school. Our team walked through a very typical (beautiful) village in Malawi. Almost at the end, saw a crowd of students sitting with some pages in their hands.

The class looked very different from the “traditional” style of teaching. The teacher was pointing to a letter on her copy with the same material. She asked the students to indicate the same letter on their pages and went around to see if he children were pointing out correctly. The letter happens to be M. She sounds out the letter “mmmmm” and the children repeat “mmmmm”.  I am told like Hindi, Chichewa (Malawian local language of the region) is a transparent orthography, meaning what you write is how you say it. This avoids the complication of predicting the word and having list of common words like we have in English.  It was interesting that to teach the letter m, the teacher didn’t have to teach as “EM”. The methodology called for teaching letter sounds first, building in combination of letters and then adding more letters together to make words. The teacher moved to teaching “m-a-m-a” and the children now sitting in smaller groups were pointing towards “mama” and saying m-a-m-a rather than “em-ay-em-ay”. This made sense since “em-ay-em-ay” doesn’t lead itself to saying mama.  The teacher went around to all the groups correcting their fingers and repeating “mmm” when necessary, while older children helped the younger ones to be on the same page.

letter mI also noticed that the letter in the m was introduced m different sizes on the first page. According to cognitive neuroscience, children have not developed what is called the perceptual- constancy when they are very early readers. m , m and m though same, maybe perceived differently are all the same. If we imagine letters to be faces of people, the more we see the same faces the more familiar we become. Otherwise we tend to confuse them. Seeing unfamiliar faces in their side- profiles is as confusing if we don’t remember them. Similarly, introducing capital letters is done at the end when all small letters are complete. Otherwise for every sound we are asking them to remember two characters m and M. Therefore, more things to remember and therefore more things to get confused.

What I explain here is all backed by cognitive neuroscience. The Millennium Villages Project is bringing the science back to help us focus on learning. There is a reason why certain orthographies have survived through centuries. If they were so difficult to learn, people would have stopped learning them, thus making them extinct. Simpler orthographies need simpler instruction. Teachers essentially follow a simple routine of 5-6 steps: (a) demonstrating the shape and sound of a letter, (b) showing combinations with existing letters, (c) ensuring that all students focus on the target letter, (d) asking students to practice reading individually for about 20 minutes a day, and (e) passing by every student and giving corrective feedback for a few seconds; (f) encouraging the students to stay on task and thus improve in executive function.  A new letter will be introduced every 1-2 days and blended with those taught in previous lessons.  A parsimonious set of activities is expected also to require less intensive training.  Essential instructions may be integrated at the back of the textbook to ensure that teachers who do not receive the training understand the methodology.  Training of 3-5 days is expected.  This simple 6 steps routine is easy to follow and monitor.

A textbook for reading practice is the only Teaching learning Material (TLM) that is created to follow this learning methodology.  A key component of the method is daily and substantial reading practice. A volume of text would be needed, structured into a suitable grade 1 textbook and supplemental reading materials.   The first version of the textbook has been created and piloted in Malawi by the MVP education team in conjunction with the Government’s Primary Education Advisor in the district.  This material was field-piloted with students, and necessary adjustments were made based on student reactions. It would need further updating to incorporate changes from the currently running community classes.  To prepare textbooks quickly, the existing and open-source available books with phonics will be used. They will be supplemented with extra pages and stories also from publicly available sources, such as the African Story Book Project. The materials will be printed locally, and every student will receive a stapled textbook. The project may also buy reading books for extra practice to be used after students have learned all the letters.

One sub-objective of the project would be to estimate how many pages of text would be required to bring an average child to a reading speed to 45-60 words per minute. This fluency measure is highly correlated with comprehension (r=.83 or higher). At baseline the words-per-minute indicator is given in the Figure below.

Figure: Results for performance on the third subtest, reading familiar words. Note, that only students who were able to identify at least 1 letter name were allowed to try this subtest. Those who could not read any words in the first row are not included in these results. Source: Karim, A et. al. (2014). Mwandama Literacy Project.

The results of the familiar word-reading EGRA subtest indicate that students in grade 1 and 2 are generally illiterate, and that even in grades 3-5 fluency levels are far below what they should be at that level.  Not all children in grades 4 and 5 have the required fluency rate which means that they are either unable to read at all or most likely unable to comprehend the text they read. The Mwandama literacy project is currently in progress in 27 community based classes with around 1000 students. The endline will be collected in November 2014.

Local languages like Chichewa from the Bantu language family or Hindi from the Devnagiri script are much easier to learn. They don’t have the usual complexities that we see in English. Imagine learning “Through” or  “Caught” in English when you are beginning to recognize letters. Learning one letter at a time, building on analogies, building bigger chunks from smaller chunks with a lot of practice and constant correction are steps that are doable and concrete.

Finally, EDUCATION for all will literally mean LITERACY for all and not just ENROLMENT for all!

Please note that this literacy project closely follows the recommended steps as given by Dr Helen Abadazi. For more information please read: Abadzi (2013). Literacy for All in 100 days? A research-based strategy for fast progress in developing countries.  


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