Monitoring and Evaluation: Keys to Improving Literacy in Africa
By Zev Lowe
Worldreader’s large-scale projects always involve considerable monitoring and evaluation to examine how e-readers and access to digital books help children read more and read better. Our latest work in Ghana takes this effort even further.
In 2010 when we launched our first pilot program, iREAD, we focused on providing access to required curriculum textbooks, supplementary reading materials, magazines, newspapers, storybooks and other equally culturally relevant content. In parallel, we wanted to see what impact access to e-books would have on students’ reading habits and levels. Within a few months, we found that greater access to books increased students’ performance on standardized tests, among other benefits highlighted in this report.
Today, with an ongoing aim to transform reading in the developing world, we are scaling projects across Africa and further developing our research efforts to better track student performance.
Ensuring Students Read More and Better
iREAD 2, which is funded with an All Children Reading grant sponsored by USAID, World Vision and Australian Aid, targets Ghanaian primary school students in grades one to three (young students averaging six to nine years old).
Why do a reading intervention with kids so young? Students who are not able to read after the first year of education lag behind for the rest of their education, according to research from Keith Stanovich, a leader in this field of study.
A principle goal of the program is to improve literacy skills among Ghanaian primary students by providing convenient and immediate access to a wide range of culturally-specific teaching and learning materials delivered via e-reader technology. The program’s effort is supported with:
Phonics instruction training for teachers
Device training, and
Developing reading opportunities outside the classroom
In order to better monitor and evaluate our impact, we are studying schools both with and without e-readers.
Worldreader and EGRA
To assess the students reading skills and capabilities, Worldreader employs a tool called Early Grade Reading Assessment, or EGRA.
EGRA is a globally-deployed student assessment methodology “designed to measure the most basic foundation skills for literacy acquisition in the early grades: Recognizing letters of the alphabet, reading simple words, understanding sentences and paragraphs and listening with comprehension,” according to this USAID website. Adopted in 41 countries and 79 languages, many countries use EGRA’s data as a way to improve student reading levels and to redesign their reading-related teacher training programs.
Our main interest is assessing the near-term educational outcome of providing younger primary school students with e-readers loaded with content that includes local and local-language books, involves the use of phonics-based literacy instruction, and creates opportunities for children to read outside the classroom. Worldreader’s focus, in all our work, is getting kids to read more and better.
With that in mind, we started the study with a baseline test to serve as a reference point of measure to track the students’ improvement.
We also believe it is important that the tests are always culturally appropriate. We applied to the testing process our core belief that children — especially young children who are learning to read — will read better and become lifelong readers if they have access to stories they relate to and can read in their mother languages. We offered the test in local language and modified the wording of questions to ensure that they would be understood by Ghanaian children.
In February and March 2013, we tested the reading performance of 1,200 participating students in two languages — Akuapem Twi (a native language commonly spoken in Ghana, and the language used to teach language and literacy in schools where we operate) and English (Ghana’s official national language and the standard language used for educational instruction).
An Akuapem Twi test had already been developed for Ghana but an English test for Ghana was not available. A close choice was an English test developed for Kenya, which, with the help of literacy experts, was tweaked to suit the Ghanaian environment and Ghanaian English. For example, in the Kenyan English EGRA test had a passage about a girl loosing her pullover. The word “pullover” was not culturally appropriate because most children don’t know it or use it in their everyday language. Thus, the passage was tweaked to match the vernacular used here, which in this case meant replacing pullover with the word pencil.
Establishing a reading baseline
There are 24 primary 1, 2 and 3 classrooms in the eight schools in the study, with 50 students in each classroom, for a total of 1,200 students.
Based on a trial with one class of 40 students, we anticipated needing four evaluators and one supervisor in each school to administer the EGRA test. We hired 40 evaluators in total and distributed the test over two and a half days at the eight schools. The evaluators, many of whom were retired teachers, were competent in the local Akuapem Twi language and English, and also had some experience in conducting reading assessment tests.
Some of the students’ results stunned us with their reading abilities both in Akuapem Twi and English, some performed as we had expected and others just couldn’t read.
The test data is still being analyzed. With those baseline results, we’ll better understand how the children are reading today and how their reading levels will change throughout the project. Over time, we’ll be able to assess these results and apply best practices to our other literacy and reading programs throughout Africa.
In the meantime, we are moving ahead with other components of the study.
As we mentioned earlier, an important part of iREAD 2 is phonics-based teacher training, which we offer via a partnership with the Olinga Foundation for Human Development.
Through teacher training workshops, refresher workshops, and biweekly, onsite teacher check-ins, literacy specialists from the Olinga Foundation support iREAD 2 teachers in implementing effective literacy instruction techniques involving the e-reader, particularly in the area of phonics.
Additionally, we are developing what we call “out of classroom experiences” to encourage children to become avid lifetime readers. We are creating activities that encourage after-school or leisure time reading, and are working with junior high students to create fun, weekly reading events with the primary school students.
Lastly, we helped create a School Management Committee to oversee and monitor the project. It is comprised of the head teachers from the four treatment schools, a member from each school’s Parent-Teacher Association, a Worldreader team member and a Ghana Education Service (GES) representative.
During the its first meeting in March, the committee set these goals:
Ensure that 20 percent of students can read and write in both English and Akuapem Twi by end of the current academic year. A test will be designed by Worldreader, the local District Education Office, Municipal Assembly and Olinga Foundation to assess this. The first of such assessments has already been scheduled for the first week of July.
Have 80 percent of students effectively using the e-readers by end of year.
All of us at Worldreader are very hopeful that the devices will have a major impact in the lives of these children. If previous research projects – namely, iREAD where standardized scores, interest in reading, and “tech-savviness” increased about 10 percent in just seven months – provide the precedents we’re building on, we expect to see tremendous change in the course of this two-year program.
We’ll have more news about these programs in the coming months. Check back here frequently, or sign up for our newsletter on our home page. You don’t want to miss any of this!