The West African country of Guinea has a rich oral tradition of song and storytelling. But when it comes to teaching children to read and write in French, the country’s official language, those traditions had been abandoned in favor of recitation and memorization.
Since 1997, EDC has been working to improve literacy instruction in Guinea as part of a comprehensive school reform program known as the Fundamental Quality and Equity Levels (FQEL) Project, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Central to the reforms that FQEL brings to Guinean schools is a “blended” approach to literacy education which combines explicit instruction in a variety of age-appropriate reading and writing strategies with increased opportunities to read for pleasure and to engage in personal writing. Students are provided with relevant and engaging texts written for and about Guinean children, and teachers are encouraged to incorporate traditional songs and stories in their instruction.
“Literacy instruction in Guinea had long been dominated by an emphasis on decoding individual sounds or syllables, at the expense of reading for understanding,” says Norma Evans, senior research and development associate at EDC’s International Education Systems. “Schools have tended to teach just that one skill rather than the breadth and variety of skills young students need to negotiate the meaning of unfamiliar texts. Children need to know the letters of the alphabet and they need to be able to recognize common, familiar words. They also need to be familiar with the basic concepts related to print, such as understanding that reading moves from left to right, that every page has a top and a bottom, or that sentences begin with a capital and end with a period. Beginning readers need to be taught these concepts explicitly, particularly in an environment like Guinea where the dearth of books and other print materials means children come to school unfamiliar with the conventions of written texts,” Evans says.
FQEL—which has reached more than 6,000 schools and one million children through teacher training, radio-based instruction, and other educational materials—has brought extensive teacher training to many schools across the county and also introduced a host of new literacy materials. For instance, project staff produced a series of children’s books featuring stories about Guinean life. “It was the first time children in Guinea had books about their own lives to read in French,” says Evans. “We produced a total of 24 stories that are graduated in complexity and vocabulary. They have proven to be very popular with the teachers and children.” Project staff hope to produce additional books soon, as the current number is not sufficient.
The project has also taught teachers to produce their own big books, working from recycled flour sacks. Because teachers typically don’t have colored markers or crayons, they used scraps of local cloth to enliven the pages. Teachers use the big books to introduce children to what books look like and how they work before moving on to the smaller, individual story books. In addition, the program developed radio-based lessons to promote French oral language skills in grades 1-4 across the country. The French segments are designed to model spoken French for the children. “Typically, the only people they hear speaking French are their teachers,” explains Evans. “The radio programs bring other French voices into the classrooms.” The programs include conversations between young characters and are designed to get kids talking to each other in French. They also include songs which have proven very popular among the children, given Guinea’s rich musical tradition. The IRI programs have been effective in developing oral comprehension and production skills, and for introducing basic French vocabulary, according to Evans. She hopes that the next generation of IRI programs will include a reading and storytelling component.
Research Initiative Targets Teacher Beliefs
Despite the advances in educational training and practice brought by the FQEL reforms, research conducted by EDC under the FQEL project shows that young children in Guinea lack some of the basic reading skills required to become autonomous learners. To understand why, EDC recently launched a new educational project called LINKS. “LINKS builds on the successes of FQEL while incorporating a new research component focused heavily on reading instruction,” says Evans. “The Ministry requested that the new project help staff understand why children are not developing the reading skills that they need. We are working with the Ministry to conduct diagnostic assessments of the skills students in grades 2 and 4 use when faced with unfamiliar texts. The Ministry hopes that this new information will allow them to make informed decisions about the best ways to improve instruction,” says Evans.
EDC is also helping the Ministry conduct research on teachers’ beliefs about how children learn to read. “Our preliminary research showed that teachers willingly participate in trainings on new approaches to reading instruction and accept new instructional materials, but when they return to their classrooms they don’t use the new methods and materials as intended. We suspect that the beliefs teachers have about the way children learn to read are in conflict with the new methods and materials we introduce.” As an example, Evans points to classroom observations that indicate teachers place a great deal of emphasis on having students memorize the 25 story books, rather than teaching them strategies to negotiate meaning. Not surprisingly, students are able to recite the story books by heart, but can’t identify individual words that are pointed out to them. “It seems these teachers believe memorization is a necessary precursor to reading, so they filter the messages they receive about effective instruction through some tacitly held beliefs about how children learn to read. We need to understand what these beliefs are so we can use them as a starting point when engaging teachers in a dialogue about reading instruction,” says Evans.
In addition to the research studies, LINKS is also helping to redesign the French methodology courses for preservice teachers and to develop a new French language arts curriculum for grades 1 and 2 that clarifies for teachers the breadth of skills and competencies that students need to develop to become autonomous readers and writers.
Originally published on January 1, 2006