By Katie G. Nelson for RTI International
With a shy gaze and a smile from ear to ear, Justine Nakyejwe proudly listens as her mother, Agnes Nansere Nassaka, explains how her once struggling daughter blossomed into a skilled, multilingual reader.
“In the past, [Justine] used to read but not so well,” Agnes said. “Now, she has good pronunciation of the words and she really cares to get it right and understand it.”
Justine, a bright nine-year-old from the rural town of Masaka, Uganda, is just one of 4.4 million students across the country who are learning to love reading thanks to two USAID-funded Early Grade Reading (EGR) programs implemented in partnership with Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES). These programs — the Uganda School Health and Reading Program (SHRP) and the Uganda Literacy Achievement and Retention Activity (LARA) — aim to improve the reading skills of young Ugandans while strengthening teacher support through streamlined teaching methodologies and easy-to-use curriculum materials.
By the end of program activity, learners who attended SHRP program schools were on average almost 3 times more likely to be reading 60 or more correct words per minute in English than learners in control schools.
At the core of these EGR programs is an emphasis on learning to read in a local language, an approach that encourages primary school students to learn how to read in one of 12 mother tongues before transitioning to the official language of English.
Learning materials that are culturally and geographically appropriate and build on linguistic familiarly can help students transition from their local language to English more quickly and with more fluency than other approaches.
“[Justine’s success] is attributed to the way she is being taught. Now, she has good pronunciation of the words and she really cares to get it right and understand it,” Agnes said.
Training teachers for success
Patricia Jane Nambalirwa, Principal at Ndegeya Primary Teachers College in Masaka — one of 23 Primary Teachers Colleges that are actively benefiting from the EGR programs — agrees. Not only are primary school students improving their reading skills but so are the 860 student teachers currently enrolled in her college, she said.
Many of Nambalirwa’s aspiring teachers also struggle with reading English, particularly when it comes to pronouncing the sounds of letters, a core principle of learning and teaching how to read.
“All along we’ve been struggling with teaching student teachers the sounds of the letters — ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ — those kind of sounds,” she said. “All reading begins with knowing the letter sounds; if you don’t have the sounds you can’t read.”
But thanks to the EGR programs, Nambalirwa’s student teachers’ reading skills quickly improved. She credits the streamlined methodology, additional training, and an emphasis on reading in one’s mother tongue for her teachers’ newly-found success.
“Originally, we used to learn vocabulary alone and then grammar, and you didn’t see how it could be put together with structure,” she said. “In this methodology, everything is put together. You see it really flowing very well with all the approaches.”
“I find it a friendly model … that builds a learner as a whole instead of having fragments taught in separation,” added Antony Mugerwa, a tutor for student teachers at Ndegeya Primary Teachers College.
Mugerwa uses the EGR approach to help hundreds of student teachers prepare for their careers as primary school teachers across Uganda.
Oscillating between the chalkboard and his instructor’s manual, Mugerwa calls out words, articulating their precise pronunciation. His students follow along in their textbooks and repeat back.
“This is a diary,” he said while holding a black notebook in hand. “Say it with me: Diary. Di·a·ry.”
“Di·a·ry!” the students repeat.
Mugerwa’s classroom is a busy hive of young teachers who are eager to master this new methodology. They are the gateway to helping hundreds of thousands of primary school students learn how to read.
“[The EGR program] is helpful because there is articulation … and also active participation. It makes it easy to learn the lesson [because] learners are always active within the class,” said Rebecca Nassaazi, a student teacher at Ndegeya Primary Teachers College.
“The impact here in college is that teachers have learned phonetic awareness … which, in the past, wasn’t so much emphasized,” Mugerwa said. “[Now], they are quite aware of the sounds that are used to build words. We call these foundational skills, like alphabetic principle, fluency and comprehension. So, you find that reading [is easier] unlike in the past.”
Gaining skills and confidence
Four hours north of Masaka in Luweero, Uganda, teacher Betty Nakitende said her students are not only improving their reading skills but also gaining confidence across multiple courses thanks to the EGR approach.
“When I received them in the first week, they had a challenge of speaking English,” said the primary school teacher at Nakawanga Primary School. “But as we moved on with the program each year and practicing the skills, they tried their level best and they are doing it better. They are confident.”
Nakitende said the approach to reading, which relies on identifying the sound for each letter and combining those sounds to pronounce the whole word, allows students to grasp a better structural understanding of language even if they’re not familiar with the English word at first glance.
“Before, we used to teach just the content, bringing in the content and just teaching it to that child. But right now, you break everything from a sound,” she said. “The curriculum is not different but the way of teaching is.”
Saidat Nambejja embodies that confidence. The 11-year-old student from Luwero said reading makes her happy, and that Nakitende makes it easy to learn English by teaching in her mother tongue — Luganda — first.
“A teacher can explain anything to you and you will understand,” Saidat said proudly. “I love my teacher.”
Back in Masaka, mother Agnes and daughter Justine are still smiling.
Agnes said that before SHRP and LARA, Justine was often asked to complete household chores after school. But thanks to the emphasis on practicing reading outside of school, both Agnes and her daughter gained an appreciation of the importance of reading. Now, Agnes carves out time every day for Justine to read her textbook.
“I really am very proud of my daughter because she can read. I hope that my daughter can be better off and go far in her education,” Agnes said. “As a parent, I see a brighter future now that my daughter knows how to read. The future is bright.”
Principal Nambalirwa also shares that same hope for her college students.
“When the methodology came, the reason why I liked it so much is because there is a window of hope for our children. There is really a window of hope,” she said. “Children will be better off if they go through this methodology.”
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RTI International is the lead USAID implementing partner for SHRP and LARA. Through these programs, more than 7,400 schools, 53,000 teachers, and 4.4 million children across 82 districts and 12 languages have benefited from an approach that emphasizes improving teacher training and support and providing quality, language-appropriate materials to every primary school child in Uganda. The early grade reading model developed and implemented under SHRP and LARA has been adopted and expanded by the Uganda MoES under a Global Partnership for Education (GPE) grant to reach 31 additional districts and currently covers more than 80 percent of government primary schools throughout the country. The Uganda MoES is committed to expanding the EGR program into its remaining districts.