Recess is over at a small church school on the edge of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Children wearing bright blue, yellow and white uniforms stream back into the classrooms. Seated behind brown wooden desks, with sweat just drying off of their little bodies, only a few children have pens and copy books. They are learning how to read.
Uniformed girls in school. Photo credit: Tamasin Ford
“Everybody pay attention on the board,” says the teacher.
“Because,” she says.
“Because,” the class says in unison.
“Monrovia, Monrovia,” they say again.
Together, the pupils repeat every word their teacher says from a list of twenty scratched on the blackboard with white chalk.
Most of these children were born in the middle of Liberia’s 14 year civil war. With fighting breaking out across the country, it was too dangerous for many children to go to school. Some parents were afraid if they let their child out of their sight, they would be snatched and forced into the life of a child soldier.
Education for everyone suffered, but it was the women and girls who were affected the most. The latest UNESCO figures show just five out of ten Liberian women over the age of 15 can read or write. For men it is six out of ten. The West African country now has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, ranked in the bottom fifteen according to UNESCO.
“Standing before you, my name is Erica. I am 9 years old. I go to the Christian Ministry Fellowship international school,” says Erica proudly as she stands tall and full of pride in front of her classmates.
Erica is among a new generation of students in Liberia who are being taught to read using new techniques not seen in West Africa before. She begins to read. “We took a hook down to the brook to catch a fish that we can cook. We crossed the brook and had a look. From the bank of the brook I threw in a hook. Up jumps a fish onto the hook.”
The Early Grade Reading Assessment study was launched in Liberia in October 2008. One hundred eighty schools were selected across seven of the fifteen counties to take part in the pilot project funded by the US Agency for International Development. They were chosen at random to include schools from both the rural and the more urban areas of the country.
“It was quite an exciting experience and also very challenging,” says Ollie White, who coordinated the programme in Liberia for EGRA Plus. “It was scary in the beginning because the entire approach to teaching reading is new in Liberia.”
The project concentrated on phonemic awareness and phonics. Children were taught to manipulate the sounds in words. They learnt how to link those sounds to letters to form spelling patterns, rather than simply repeating words or letters written on a blackboard. Coaches in the various counties were trained in the new style of teaching, and they in turn supervised and mentored the teachers in each of the schools.
And the results speak for themselves. The children were tested in oral reading fluency and reading comprehension at the start of the project. By the end of the two years, the scores on their test results, on average, had more than tripled. Children from the schools which took part in the full EGRA Plus intervention programme learned the equivalent of three years schooling in a year compared to their peers.
Back in the classroom, students smile and clap for Erica as she finishes her story about the fish by the brook.
“I feel happy,” she says. “It’s because of so many things. It [EGRA Plus] taught me phonics and how to read. I’m happy to see my teacher and I’m happy to see my friends,” she adds.
One of the unexpected results of the project was the outstanding progress in the girls’ reading abilities. Their test results had not only improved more than twice as much as the boys, many of them even overtook them by the end of the two year project.
“We found overall regardless of whether the coaches were male or female, there was a positive impact on girls learning to read on all of the full intervention schools,” says Marcia Davidson, the Reading Instructor Advisor of the project.
“One of the hypotheses of why that happened is that in this curriculum we select students to respond during instruction at random rather than children with their hands raised. So there was more opportunity to select girls to be participated and engaged in the instruction. That’s to a great advantage to young girls who might be a bit shy and not want to raise their hands,” says Davidson.
Phonemic awareness has been used in the Western world for years. In 2001, George W. Bush announced that it would be the basis of America’s federal literacy policy. Elsewhere, in England, phonics was introduced in 1998 as part of the National Literacy Strategy. But this is the first time these sort of techniques have ever been used on such a wide scale in Western Africa.
“We knew we had a problem in Liberia. Kids were not reading but we didn’t know how to solve the problem,” adds Ollie White. “With the coming of this programme and the way in which it is focused with systematic, scripted lesson plans plus materials in the schools, all of these things helped to make it a success,” she says.
The EGRA Plus programme has come to an end, but the Ministry of education and USAID have included the new way of teaching in its much larger Liberian Teacher Training programme. Early grade mathematics has been added to the schedule so phonetic awareness and phonics will be used to strengthen numeracy skills as well as reading skills. And the number of counties involved will be increased to ten out of the fifteen.
“I’m sure with this programme and the research and support of the teachers and parents, I’m convinced this is the best intervention we can provide for the student’s success,” says Deputy Education Minister Mator Kpangbai.
And for the future of the education system in Liberia, the Minister says he is confident it will only get better. “My assurance is that it will be a high quality education system, one that is in the 21st Century, and one that the students know how to read and write and complete with other students in the world.”