Reforça a Leitura e Escrita: Three Components of an Effective Early Grade Literacy Program

Planet Aid's Food for Knowledge (FFK) school lunch program in Maputo Province, Mozambique has been helping provide school lunches to rural children since 2012. The program delivers a daily fortified, protein-rich, corn-soy porridge to more than 88,000 children each day. In addition to the school lunches, FFK helps improve infrastructure and sanitation facilities, and works with schools to grow their own food. FFK has also developed a flagship literacy program, which is implemented in participating schools, with technical assistance from Cambridge Education.

The Planet Aid FFK program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the McGovern-Dole Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, and is implemented by Planet Aid's local partner, ADPP Mozambique, working in close cooperation with the Government of Mozambique.

Dr. Paula Green of Cambridge Education serves as a literacy component advisor for FFK's bilingual early grade reading program. After working on the project over the past three school years, here Dr. Green offers her reflections on effective components of successful program delivery. You can learn more about how the component was developed and the materials on our FFK blog.

Reforça a Leitura e Escrita: Three Components of an Effective Early Grade Literacy Program

By: Dr. Paula Green

The focus of materials development and training in the FFK literacy program is the five components of literacy learning: phonemic awareness (understanding that words are made up of sounds and that those sounds come together to create meaning), phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. When correctly applied in learner-centered teaching, these components have been proven to result in effective literacy teaching and learning.

Perhaps less scientifically, but based on keen participant observation of the FFK literacy program and many years' experience of similar programs in other sub-Saharan African countries, I suggest that the following three components are key in effective early grade literacy development programs:

Knowledge and Skills Development

Continuous development of knowledge and skills is the cornerstone of our program, but the learning curve has been steep. A key challenge has been the application, under tight time constraints, of newly acquired knowledge in the development of materials. This includes a range of learner materials and teachers' guides in Changana and Rhonga (the two local languages that our materials are developed for) for grades one to three, and keeping them aligned to the official governmental curriculum.

For the literacy coaches helping out at the schools, the knowledge and skills learning curve has been particularly steep. As former teachers, without prior specialized training in literacy teaching or in coaching, and after receiving only a little more training than the teachers, they have the huge responsibility of supporting the implementation of a methodology that is unlike anything they used previously; and in local languages, to boot!

Their challenge—to change their own ideas about teaching, and to assert with confidence the need for these changes with the teachers, some of whom may be resistant to them—has been enormous. Several of the literacy coaches have overcome this challenge, and have admirably acquired the necessary knowledge, along with effective coaching skills.

A great deal of expectation has also been placed on the teachers to apply new knowledge and skills. Teachers receive about six days of training per year in learner-centered, systematic reading instruction. After which they are expected to radically transform the content and approach of their literacy teaching, in contexts that are often challenging—large classes, often with children seated on sand under trees.

The teacher training, though intensive and practice-based, is on its own not enough to result in widespread radically changed practice. It is unsurprising then that during classroom observations we are still seeing traditional teacher-centered lessons. However, we are seeing improvements to some extent in every classroom. These improvements need to be celebrated; recognizing that change is a process that requires perseverance and patience.

We are greatly encouraged when we see grade three learners writing independently in Changana, and pairs in grade two classrooms working together to complete a reading and writing task. These are the small triumphs that signal knowledge and skills development is taking place at all levels.

Reflective Practice

Our aim is for all involved in this program to be reflective practitioners and learners, starting with the literacy team. Weekly meetings provide the space for critical reflection and decision making in regards to progress in all aspects of the program. Increased coaching support, the use of monitoring and evaluation data in teacher trainings, and a strategy to support the transition from local language to Portuguese are just three examples of reflection leading to changes in the direction or emphasis of the team's approach.

Coaches are continually encouraged to analytically reflect with teachers about the relationship between practice and progress. Classroom observation supports this process, seeking answers to the €œwhat€ and €œwhy.€

For teachers, the teacher's guide books provide clear guidelines about how to implement the methodology. The aim of these guides is to put a reference tool into the teachers' hands that, after the teacher training, they can use to deepen their understanding of the pedagogy and further their professional development.

The materials and methodology aim to develop critical thinking and reflection in the learners as well. Fun activities in the learner books encourage critical thinking and problem solving. The grade three learner book for example, prepares learners for more independent study, featuring a component that encourages thinking before writing, and reviewing after writing.

To prioritize the learning of reading for meaning, , there is a strong emphasis in the teacher training and in the teacher guides on the teaching and learning of comprehension skills.

Relationship Building

There has been continued emphasis in this program on the establishment and maintenance of a trust-based teamwork approach. This is true within the Food for Knowledge team, and outwardly with teachers, school directors, and Mozambique's Ministry of Education officials.

An early element of contextual challenge was the need to further develop a relationship of deep trust, respect, and collegiality with key Ministry of Education personnel. The FFK literacy team, with FFK leadership support, devoted time and effort to this, such that a strong relationship now exists at all levels. The inclusion of Ministry staff in the program, both as material developers and teacher trainers, is testament to this, and also a key indicator for the program's sustainability.

The power of relationships in the success of pioneering literacy education initiatives cannot be overestimated. Relevant materials, clearly delivered training, and school-based follow-up are essential components of any effective education program. However, this program places high demands on all parties (including students), and so the quality of the relationships makes a huge difference in the success of the program. That is why, when the program is evaluated, it is important to take account of the social and qualitative factors affording or inhibiting progress, and to validate the effort and time devoted to relationship building. Learner test scores are important, but while they can tell us about outcomes, they cannot give nuanced detail about the processes and contextual challenges within which the scores are achieved.

In Conclusion

The official goal of the literacy program is achievement of the quantitative target—45 percent of grade two learners able to read and understand a grade-level text—by 2020. While we are witnessing progress towards this aim, it is not the whole story. In order to reach the goal, we have been continually developing new skills and knowledge, reflecting on our practice, and being ever mindful of the importance of building and maintaining warm and respectful relationships. The process is as important as the product, and I am proud to be a part of this process.

Paula Green, Ph.D., is a literacy specialist with Cambridge Education, Planet Aid's partner on the literacy component of the FFK project. Dr. Green has extensive experience developing early grade reading programs in various southern African countries. She was a senior literacy specialist and national training manager for 16 years with the prestigious Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy in South Africa, and has been a key contributor to several USAID literacy projects.