Early learning in national languages gets 60% more kids reading
In 2009, more than half of all Gambian students in grade 2 could not read a single word. Not one! Reading instruction, which took place in English, focused on recognizing entire words—not on connecting sounds and letters. This made it difficult for children to retain what they learned in class. In 2011, the Gambian government, with the support of the Global Partnership for Education, launched a national pilot program “Early learning in national languages”. Children learned reading in one of the 5 national languages. These have a more consistent relationship between sounds and letters than English does, and of course, they are the languages in which the children think. This makes it easier for the children to learn. And they were taught letters one by one along with systematic combinations to blend into words. When the pilot was evaluated in 2012 the initial results were striking. Gambian children in Grade 1 who were part of the pilot did 10 times better than children who were not part of the pilot in recognizing letter sounds and reading simple words. Even better, many children in the pilot were able to transfer their new skills to reading English words. These results are even more promising when we account for the fact that teachers were only able to cover half of the 50 lessons planned in the pilot. Can you imagine the impact if they had been able to cover the full course?
Encouraged by the pilot results, the Gambia Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education has decided to expand the pilot in a second phase to cover more schools and more students. Officials from the Ministry have already presented the results of their pilot in Burkina Faso and in Rwanda, and large countries, such the Democratic Republic of Congo, have expressed interest in using the lessons from Gambia in their own programs. With 1.8 million people, the Gambia is one of the smallest countries on the African continent. It has about 500 schools and 8,000 teachers. But the tiny nation may have a thing or two to show its neighbors about how to teach children to read. I recently visited the Gambia and was able to see the results first hand. Have a look at the video below if you would like to learn more about the pilot and how it worked.