The hard and essential work of literacy


Lots to celebrate on International Literacy Day and much more to be done

Several years ago, the Gambian government recognized it needed a new approach to teaching children to read. In 2009, more than half of second graders could not read, putting them at risk for lifelong illiteracy.

Taking a closer look, it became clear why: first grade reading instruction in The Gambia, took place entirely in English. In a country with five national languages, this meant the non-English speaking students were at a great disadvantage. In addition, the pedagogical method used to teach reading typically focused on recognizing entire words. It excluded phonics components that connected sounds with letters, a feature of most successful reading programs.

All that changed in 2011 when the Gambian government, with support from the Global Partnership for Education, launched a national pilot program called “Early Learning in National Languages.” Children in the pilot could learn to read in their own language, and were taught sound-letter correspondences so they could effectively blend letters into words.

New program shows rapid results for better reading

The result: first graders who took part in the program performed ten times better than other children when it came to recognizing letter sounds and reading simple words. Also, many children in the program were later able to transfer their new skills to reading English words.

As a result, the Gambian Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education decided to expand the pilot to reach more schools and more students: it is about to launch a unified approach to teaching reading from preschool to grade 3 across the country. The country is also sharing its experience with other countries in Africa that struggle with early reading performance.

The Gambia’s example is useful to keep in mind as we take a moment to observe the annual International Literacy Day. It tells us that illiteracy is not inevitable, that the world can drive down the unacceptable level of illiteracy worldwide, estimated by UNESCO at 781 million adults and 126 million youths.

But, more importantly, the Gambia’s story tells us that ensuring a high level of literacy is hard work, requiring sufficient resources and a tangible, thoughtful and long-term commitment to understand and eliminate the roots of illiteracy.


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