Norma Evans grew up speaking French and English in New Brunswick, Canada. She studied mathematics at university and planned to teach it. Then, while in graduate school in France, she took a linguistics course.
“The instructor presented the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, which says the language you learn determines how you view and interpret the world,” she says. “Coming from a bilingual and bicultural household, I was fascinated. People who come from different language backgrounds don’t necessarily interpret the same situation in the same way.”
Evans taught in Canada’s bilingual school system, where “being able to move fluidly between two cultures and translate what each one was perceiving became extremely valuable.” She earned a master’s degree in language and linguistics, then joined EDC in 2002 and embarked on an early reading intervention project in Guinea. Evans later led EDC’s program in Madagascar-Comoros. Now she offers technical support to basic education programs in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Evans is passionate about the power of the written word to transform lives. “It’s gratifying to see the spark ignite in teachers when they write a story and put their name on it,” she says. “These teachers instill in children an excitement about the written word.”
For the 759 million people who lack literacy skills (two-thirds of whom are women), learning to read and write can be the first steps out of poverty toward better lives. Norma Evans discusses her international literacy and development work in Africa.
What is literacy?
Literacy starts with one word. A child writes their name on a chalk slate or paper bag or box. They recognize that the word means “me.” Then they can read it to someone else. That’s the beginning of literacy—and possibilities.
For children in resource-poor countries, literacy is social and economic capital. It allows them to participate more fully in society and to access better jobs. People who have higher reading and writing levels also have higher income levels.
Early grade reading projects like EDC’s Road to Reading in Mali are providing children with the foundational literacy skills they need to be proficient readers and writers. So far, that program has reached more than 500,000 children in 40,000 classrooms.
What are the challenges faced by teachers in resource-poor schools?
Teachers are often not aware of the myriad skills that children need to develop to be able to read or write or how to teach those skills effectively. Distributed printed guides that describe how to deliver effective reading lessons often have limited results, partly because the teachers themselves have low reading levels and partly because the guides describe teaching practices that they’ve never seen used in a classroom.
As well, in many communities where EDC works, there is no “environmental text.” There are no signs in the villages. There are few written materials in the classrooms or at home. If children are to learn to read, they need access to reading materials—interesting, engaging materials that are at their reading level and that address issues they can relate to.
How does EDC help teachers improve their teaching?
Complementing the teacher’s guides with early grade reading interactive radio [IRI] programs can help teachers build a clear mental image of what the new reading practices look like and sound like in a classroom. Teachers also get to witness the impact of these practices on their students’ reading skills. This in turn can shift teachers’ beliefs about how children learn to read. A recent Mali study showed that teachers who use IRI are significantly more likely to believe that grades 1 and 2 students are more capable of developing basic reading and writing skills than do teachers who do not use the radio programs.
Video-based teacher training programs, such as those EDC developed for the Democratic Republic of Congo or Zanzibar, are also enabling teachers to better understand the effective reading teaching practices described in the guides and how to put them into practice.
What are some other strategies for improving literacy?
EDC is experimenting with a writer’s workshop to show teachers how to write stories for students. Teachers in Mali have produced a wonderful collection of beginning readers. I remember one story about a grandfather and his motor scooter—a primary means of transportation in Mali. Stories like this are powerful because they deal with everyday realities students can relate to.
The workshops show teachers how to get their students writing stories. It can start with a simple drawing accompanied by one or two sentences. The process gradually produces a library of reading materials for children to take home and read to their families. The texts produced are meaningful and at the right reading level for children. It is a low-cost and effective way of creating a local library of reading materials for students and families.
Originally published on July 20, 2011