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Going back to the basics: Promoting literacy in Malawi

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Global attention is increasingly being drawn to learning levels of students in school, particularly literacy. Students in low income countries often drop out of school early, and leave either illiterate or with very limited reading abilities. For those who do remain in school, they are often found to have very poor reading skills, even in later grades. Reading fluency is a skill that is related to academic performance, and acquiring this skill in early grades is crucial. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, reading levels of students are far below grade level, and Malawi is no exception. Recent results of the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) used by USAID and the Ministry of Education Science and Technology indicate that student reading levels are very weak, with 72.8% of grade 2 students unable to read a basic story, and 41.9% of grade 4 students unable to read a story.

The MVP Education team has paired up with education psychologist Dr. Helen Abadzi, to try and resolve these challenges in literacy by breaking down the basics. MVP Education team will be using Dr. Abadzi’s prescribed methodology for teaching literacy, which focuses on local language and uses strategies and tactics informed by neuroscience.  This methodology has been tried and tested in other places like the Gambia with successful results. Therefore it is nothing new or innovative, but stresses on steps that are backed by the science of learning. This method explicitly teaches students one letter at a time, with letters spaced out and in big font, allowing students to differentiate between different letters and symbols. According to Dr. Abadzi’s methodology, literacy instruction needs to happen everyday, with one new letter introduced per day, focusing on the sound the letter makes, and slowly incorporating other letters to form two, three, and four letter words. By the end of 100 days, students should be able to identify letters and decode, at the very least, with continuous practice to increase speed, fluency and vocabulary.

MVP Mwandama is piloting this initiative through its village learning center program, which is run by a group of volunteer community education workers (CEWs). Twenty seven CEWs will pilot these materials over the course of the next three months, focusing on teaching students the proper sounds each letter of the Chichewa alphabet in order to equip them with the skills to decode short words. The idea is that these decoding skills will also translate later into English reading, when the identification of letters and the sounds they make can be added onto with the additional phonetic rules in English.

So far, an adapted version of the EGRA test implemented nationally has been piloted and vetted, and four of its subtests are being used to gather a baseline of the literacy levels of the students in the selected sample. The subtests will be conducted in Chichewa, and will test student knowledge of letter names, letter sounds, familiar words, and reading comprehension, in a series of timed tests. Knowledge of letter sounds, reading fluency, and comprehension will all be measured from baseline to end line.

mwandama_eduA supplemental textbook introducing one letter at a time includes blended sounds, short words, and basic sentences has been developed by the MVP education team in conjunction with the Primary Education Advisor in the district. The MVP team in collaboration with the local education government staff in Malawi created this supplemental textbook. This material was also field piloted with students, with necessary adjustments made based on student reactions. The goal behind this innovative program is to see if students improve in their basic reading skills after three months of instruction with this supplemental textbook. Such projects have been previously tested in other contexts such as the Gambia. Conducting it in Malawi, in a non-formal setting, during school vacation with a mix of students from different grades is a unique opportunity to test out this method in a community setting.

A training for community education workers is scheduled for July, along with close monitoring from the MVP Mwandama team throughout the next few months. An end line survey is scheduled for September, to measure the progress the students made. Stay tuned for further updates…

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