Creating a Culture of Literacy in Ethiopia

By Bryna Jones, Communications Coordinator, World Vision

The Mishig reading camp is located outside a small village in Angolela Tera, a rural woreda (the Amharic word for “district”) about two hours northeast of Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. In stark contrast to the high-rise buildings, bustling shops, and traffic-congested streets of Addis Ababa, Angolela is open and pastoral: its blue skies arch over rolling landscapes of green and gold hills.

Men on horseback ride across landscape (Photo credit: Max Greenstein / World Vision)

Men on horseback ride across landscape (Photo credit: Max Greenstein / World Vision)

This village – one of many dotting the region – comprises a few family homes made of mud with thatched straw roofs. The reading camp is situated on the top of a small hill at the entrance to the village. The sounds of children welcome us, echoing out of the building’s door and windows. As the sun beams down on our group, made up of World Vision staff and community representatives, a slight wind carries the voices of the children down the valley and along the dusty, pitted country roads we’d bumped along to reach the reading camp.

A large group of children emerge from the building and stand in neat rows, clapping their hands to the beat of a kebero drum. As the song comes to a close, the children start to disperse – some into the camp and some start kicking a soccer ball around the yard. Apart from the choreographed welcome song, the scene is familiar. I can picture myself as a child here, laughing with friends, playing games, and getting ready to run into school when the teacher tells us recess is over.

It hasn’t always been this way for the children who participate in the Mishig reading camp. In fact, this is a relatively new way for them to play and learn – one that was desperately needed.

Ethiopia Responds to the Global Learning Crisis

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous county. Despite its growing economy, poverty rates remain high, with about 29% of its population living below the national poverty line. According to UNESCO, about 51% of its adult population is illiterate. As part of Ethiopia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Program, the Ministry of Education has taken steps to improve access to education. Since 1990, Ethiopia’s primary education net enrollment rate has increased, from less than 30% to more than 90%.

In 2010, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education, in partnership with RTI International, performed an Early Grade Reading Assessment in eight regions in Ethiopia, across six languages. The findings were grim: more than 50% of the children in most regions were unable to answer a simple reading comprehension question. Even with two or three years of schooling, a significant percentage of primary school-age children were illiterate.

Ensuring Literacy for Life

18-year-old Belihu hands out local language books to children during story reading time at the Mishig reading camp. (Photo credit: Max Greenstein / World Vision)

18-year-old Belihu hands out local language books to children during story reading time at the Mishig reading camp. (Photo credit: Max Greenstein / World Vision)

The ability to read with understanding is the most fundamental skill a child learns and is crucial to their future success. Literacy leads to better health, more employment opportunities, and stronger societies. Without literacy, there is little chance a child will escape the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

Reading camps are one component of an innovative, evidence-based literacy programme World Vision is helping the communities in Angolela Tera Woreda implement in order to support their children’s learning. The literacy programme also includes reading assessments to ensure that children’s literacy skills are being measured and tracked, as well as teacher training to help build child-focused classrooms and foster interactive teaching methods.

Reading Camp Facilitators Make Reading Fun

Eighteen-year-old Belihu Gebrehana was elected by his community to be a volunteer reading camp facilitator. Across the country, World Vision has trained over 9,000 youth volunteers, like Belihu, to lead 2,400 reading camps. Angolela Tera Woreda is host to 51 reading camps. “We’re assisting the children’s reading in many ways,” says Belihu. “We conduct weekly reading camp sessions that are meant to help children learn to read in a fun way outside of school.”

Belihu reads to children. (Photo credit: Max Greenstein / World Vision)

Belihu reads to children. (Photo credit: Max Greenstein / World Vision)

The reading camps take place on weekends and are meant to be exciting and engaging, according to Mastewal Worku, World Vision’s Literacy Specialist. “We want to differentiate this experience from the school environment,” says Mastewal. “The camps are meant to be a break from school, with the children learning in fun ways without the pressure they may experience in class.”

Mishig reading camp has 71 participants. Belihu runs three sessions for the children, with no more than 25 children participating in each session. The sessions are geared toward the children’s learning level, with emergent readers participating in the mornings and independent readers in the afternoons.

Belihu has spent a lot of time making the reading camp environment look inviting. Local language posters – both handmade and printed – adorn the walls. Letter and word charts are strung from the ceilings. The Amharic alphabet forms a border along the top of the walls, and arts and crafts made by the children are everywhere.

Despite the informality of the reading camp, the session is structured into seven parts, including free play, song time, story reading, and activities that focus on improving reading skills. “[The children] enjoy reading in this way,” says Belihu. “Sometimes, I invite local storytellers to teach the children, and I play games like Bingo with them or sing songs.”

The reading camp curriculum supports the national education curriculum, and so the children’s learning is reinforced through formal and informal methods. Although the reading camp employs a more relaxed attitude toward learning than the children experience in school, monitoring children’s skills development is an essential part of the program.

“Each child has their own ‘report card,’ which hangs on the wall,” says Mastewal, as he points to a large chart written in Amharic. “You can see the children’s name, grade, number of words they read per minute. This is tracked over time so we can see their improvements.”

The children’s progress is also tracked in personal journals, which the facilitators use to make recommendations about how parents can strengthen their children’s reading skills at home. “As a reading camp facilitator, my responsibility is to also encourage parents and the community to support the children’s reading,” says Belihu.

Belihu leading reading camp (Photo credit: Max Greenstein / World Vision)

Belihu leading reading camp (Photo credit: Max Greenstein / World Vision)

Reading Is a Family Affair

Belihu’s 10-year-old niece, Seble, attends this reading camp. “Before the reading camp, Seble’s reading skill level was low,” says her grandfather, 62-year-old Gebrehana. “She struggled to read sentences and understand complex statements. Now she’s performing better at school. Her uncle and I also help her practice reading at home.”

Gebrehana has participated in parental awareness sessions on building children’s literacy skills at home. As a result, he and Seble built a reading corner together – a designated space in their home dedicated to reading. Their reading corner has a small desk and a bench for Seble to sit on while doing homework or silent reading. Strung between two walls is a book line, where books that Seble borrows from the reading camp’s book bank hang. The walls are adorned with crafts she made at the reading camp.

Seble proudly shows off her reading skills while we stand outside their home, speaking to her grandfather and uncle. “I love to read and borrow books from the book bank,” she says. “My favorite book is The Wise Girl, because I want to be wise like her.”

"Before the reading camp, Seble’s reading skill level was low,” says her grandfather, 62-year-old Gebrehana. “She struggled to read sentences and understand complex statements. Now she’s performing better at school.” (Photo credit: Max Greenstein / World Vision)

"Before the reading camp, Seble’s reading skill level was low,” says her grandfather, 62-year-old Gebrehana. “She struggled to read sentences and understand complex
statements. Now she’s performing better at school.” (Photo credit: Max Greenstein / World Vision)

Real Results Encourage Communities to Take Action

Since the program’s inception in 2012, it has been scaled up and now reaches approximately 900,000 children across 57 of World Vision’s child sponsorship communities.

A number of factors can be credited for the program’s success. Over 45,000 teachers have completed nine months of teacher training; 9,000 youth volunteers who manage the reading camps have been trained and parents and caregivers have been proactively engaged.

In collaboration with local book suppliers and universities, World Vision has created 386 book titles in seven local languages, and distributed over one million copies of these books to local reading camps.

“Mishig reading camp has 125 book titles in their book bank,” says Mastewal. “Children can borrow these books for the week, bring them back and exchange them for new books. Most of these children wouldn’t have books to read if we had not worked with the community to create and purchase them."

These efforts are working, as evidenced by two impact assessments carried out between 2012 and 2015. The first assessment, after one year of participating in literacy programming, showed a 35% increase in reading comprehension. The second impact assessment, carried out in 2014 and 2015, found that before the program began, only 3% of students could read with comprehension. By the endline assessment, 31% of students in the program were readers as compared to 14% of students who had not participated—a significant difference.

 “Because children can now participate in reading camps, they improve their reading skills faster than ever,” says Mastewal. “In addition, because children are coming to a reading camp, they enjoy going to school more as well. Their participation in school also increases.”

When asked why he volunteers at the reading camp, Belihu puts it simply: “I am passionate to serve the children in my community.”

spring 2016
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