“Mmmm-aaaa-ssss-aaaa,” says the young girl, looking up at her teacher for approval.
“That’s correct, Maasa is your name,” says the teacher. “Now, how many sounds did you hear in your name when you stretched it out that way?” Maasa holds up her hand, putting three fingers in the air, pausing, and then adding a fourth.
“Yes!” encourages the teacher. “There are four separate sounds.”
Maasa and her teacher, together with thousands more educators and students across the West African nation of Mali, are part of a program to improve the reading and writing skills of children in all public and community schools in that country.
In a nation where only 46 percent of adults can read and write, and the majority of students cannot identify all the letters in the alphabet by grade 4, the program is making inroads. Known as Road to Reading (PHARE), the program engages about a quarter of a million students using a variety of technologies.
Reading and writing in Mali’s overcrowded and impoverished classrooms have usually been studied through chanting, in chorus, short passages written on the board and copying isolated letters and word forms.
“In this environment, making changes in the classroom means not only providing teachers with new materials but helping them to reexamine their own understanding of what a student should be asked to do,” explains EDC’s Thelma Khelghati.
Interactive radio instruction (IRI) is now used to broadcast lessons in literacy and math to more than 4,000 classrooms, reaching some 250,000 students in grades 1–2. The lessons, which feature segments on reading and writing, songs, rhymes, and mnemonic devices, assist teachers in transitioning their students from their mother tongue to French (Mali’s official language) and reinforcing students’ French language and literacy skills. It is hoped that by the time students graduate from sixth grade, they will have achieved basic literacy skills in French.
“It might be counterintuitive to think of reading on the radio,” says EDC’s Helen Boyle. “But radio serves as a natural support. Carefully crafted radio programs can assist teachers and students to practice sound-symbol relationships, setting the groundwork for successful reading and writing experiences in the very first months of school.”
In addition, the radio programs have been recorded in MP3 format and will be used this year in Mali’s Islamic schools, which teach in Arabic and traditionally have not been strong in teaching the French language and developing literacy. These schools, where children begin French instruction two years later than in public schools, will receive training and supplementary support materials tailored to their context.
PHARE builds on the success of the FIER project in Mali, a pilot program that used radio to train teachers.
“The Ministry of Education originally just wanted to use IRI for teachers, but after the success of our first project, they wanted to use it more broadly,” says Boyle. “This project is finding new ways to use technology. We are now using radio to tackle the challenge of improving reading and writing in Mali’s elementary classrooms.”
PHARE provides training for teachers that helps them foster a more balanced development of literary skills in children. While much of this training is offered to teachers who are already in service, PHARE has a preservice component that is introducing video technological centers at teacher training colleges.
The program has also conducted a groundbreaking pilot using cell phone technology as a support tool for improved reading and writing instruction. In a first-of-its-kind program in Mali, PHARE staff drafted reading and writing lesson plans and posted them on a blog. They then trained a group of teachers in one school district to access and use the lesson plans using GPRS-enabled cell phones.
“Teachers didn’t have good lesson plans, so we bought them phones and showed them how to use them,” says Boyle. “We began texting them lesson plans based on the curriculum. The teachers were very into this and copied out the lessons in longhand to use with their classes.”
PHARE is a five-year project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. It is conducted in partnership with RTI International, Aide et Action, Institute for Popular Education, and Centre d’Appui à la Recherche et à la Formation.
Originally published on January 29, 2010