Like many Liberian youth, Saah Millimono has lived through the civil conflict and instability that has affected his country for decades. Unable to speak or hear, he expresses his ideas through creative writing. His work is now part of a collection of locally created reading materials that Liberian teachers are using to kindle youth interest in reading.
Millimono is the author of Sonie’s Story, about a young woman growing up in Liberia. Though she’s a fictional character, Sonie faces challenges familiar to Liberian women: how to earn money without turning to prostitution, how to cope with pregnancy, how to avoid contracting HIV. Despite obstacles, Sonie learns to make good decisions for her health, relationships, and work. Eventually, she becomes a leader who resolves conflict and motivates others to engage in community service.
Liberian authors, like Millimono and many others who suffered loss in the war, were inspired to create stories of adversity, survival, and hope. The plots ring true for new readers, and the results are stunning. “We saw mean reading comprehension scores for males jump by 115 percent and for females by 393 percent,” says EDC’s Katy Anis. “Students are hungry for content.”
The reading materials were created for use in the Alternative Basic Education Curriculum, developed by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Core Education Skills for Liberian Youth (CESLY) project, implemented by EDC. And EDC has just received a five-year grant to build on the work.
What makes this reading program and others like it so effective is the participation of local authors who produce content that is engaging, age- and reading level-appropriate, and rooted in the realities of youths’ lives. These are then integrated into a school-based reading program, in which students are encouraged to write their own stories.
Other books include The Adventures of Pehn-Pehn Ben, about a motorcycle driver who stands up for justice; Fatu and Saah, about two youths who learn work skills to support themselves; and Yes, We Can! an anthology created by Liberian educators, principals, teachers, and students that includes poems, life narratives, traditional animal tales, legends, riddles, and jokes.
Prior to the CESLY program, few classroom reading materials existed, and teaching methods were rote. Says Anis, “If there was a storybook, students would read it so many times, they’d memorize it rather than actually read it.”
Teachers—many of whom were classroom volunteers with limited literacy skills before the war—benefited from CESLY training in effective teaching practices, which featured teacher manuals and student workbooks to accompany the new texts. Overall, CESLY trained 1,436 teachers and 1,263 ministry officials, while also providing classrooms with some 330,000 instructional materials and 384,000 textbooks.
Across the continent in Somalia, youth-inspired stories are likewise getting students reading, writing, talking, learning—and thinking about the future.
The Somali Readers Series began as a collection of traditional oral folktales adapted for early-grades reading materials. Colorful storybooks were published as part of the USAID-funded Somali Interactive Radio Instruction Program (SIRIP) and used as supplemental materials for math and literacy lessons. EDC led the publishing effort, which made previously unavailable children’s books a reality.
The program also sponsored a nationwide writing contest, where students from Somalia, Somaliland, and Puntland contributed original stories for middle and high school reading. Many wrote of the harsh realities of growing up amid violence, poverty, uncertainty, and corruption.
“How do you build on what’s positive within a culture after so much suffering?” asks EDC’s Kit Yasin. “Writing is a way to do that.”
Titles in this series include Of Drugs and Dark Places, Choice and Marriage, Honesty and Trickery, and The Power of Knowledge. Books were distributed to schools, IRI learning centers, public libraries, and youth centers.
Overall, SIRIP reached 330,000 in-school and out-of-school learners and 40,000 marginalized children, trained 10,000 teachers, and provided supplementary reading materials to learners in both formal and non-formal schools in the region.
EDC is leading writers’ workshops in other African counties, including Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The power of locally authored stories in teaching reading and writing is evident, and not just in improved literacy scores—but in students’ outlooks for the future.
“Reading gains can tell you a lot,” says Anis. “But beyond the numbers, it’s about a student who says ‘Yes, I feel better about myself. I believe in myself.’”
Originally published on January 24, 2012