Promoting quality education for all.

Improving Literacy Instruction in Rural Schools

Katie Kerr, Impact Network, 
Improving Literacy Instruction in Rural Schools

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. —Kofi Annan

Impact Network works in the Eastern Province of Zambia to implement a wide-range of educational and technological interventions to improve the quality of education in rural communities. We serve over 6,000 students across 43 schools, covering early childhood through seventh grade. We have spent the last 3 years testing and refining our teaching of literacy.    

There are 775 million people in the world who are illiterate, with another 152 million children set to follow in their footsteps because they aren't attending school.  Literacy rates in Zambia are troubling, and fall under regional averages for young adults (58.5% for females and 70.3% for males). While we work to provide a high-quality education to our students, teaching literacy in remote and rural villages comes with many challenges.  Our students typically do not have access to literate adults and reading materials outside of the classroom to help develop their reading skills. These villages often do not have stores or street signs, or printed magazines and newspapers laying around which means children often do not see letters until they enter school for the first time, around age 7. In addition, our schools are often the only source of electricity in these rural areas, and most families do not have access to suitable light for reading.

In light of these challenges, a few years ago we decided to assess, review and improve how we teach literacy.  To begin, we conducted literacy assessments across 10% of our students and the results revealed several areas of improvement. One of the findings was that fifth grade students had significantly lower literacy levels than other grade levels. This is largely attributed to the fact that the language of instruction and assessment changes from local language (Chinyanja) in fourth grade to English in fifth grade.

Although overall the assessment results were positive, particularly in comparison to district and national scores on similar assessments, we felt it was important to address the issues that our fifth graders are facing. Therefore, we decided our first program would be a literacy-boosting program for this subgroup of students.

We began by testing various approaches and resources to help boost literacy. The Teaching at the Right Level method of literacy instruction has had great success across a wide range of Southern African countries and we were able to adapt it to suit the Zambian context with targeted instruction. We formed guided reading groups of two to six students, grouping students together at similar reading levels.   A  School Support Officer would work with the group of students twice a week for 30 minutes and guide them through particular readings to provide tailored support.

After several rounds of assessments and trying different approaches, it became clear that the targeted intervention for our students was working and having incremental impact, however the resources and assessment approach needed modification. For example, there were no leveled books with increasing levels of difficulty, ranging from very basic books to more advanced and complex books to suit all learners. Many books also featured pictures and stories that students in Zambia could not relate to, which affected their interest in reading. It also became clear that the diagnostic and formative assessments needed to more closely correspond to the resources used in order to provide more accurate and tailored support to students.

Last year, we introduced new reading materials made up of leveled books that are contextually appropriate for students to engage at their appropriate level, building a strong foundation in literacy. The accompanying diagnostic, formative and summative literacy assessments also closely aligned with different reading levels, allowing teachers to clearly track the progress of students from one level to another.   We have been able to use the learning and resources from this work and apply them not only to fifth graders, but to how we teach literacy across all grades.

At the end of last year, we did another literacy assessment and found great improvement over a one-year period.   The percentage of students in the fifth grade with improved English reading scores, of at least one reading level went from below 50% to over 80%.  The percentage of students scoring 0 on English reading assessment scores was over 20% at the beginning of the year, and fell to just 2% in one year.  Additionally, we found impressive literacy results across our entire program.  We are part of a randomized control trial in partnership with American Institutes for Research and the initial midline results recently released show a 103% increase in literacy in one year over the control group.  The learning gains – that is how much more Impact Network students learned than students without our program – are the equivalent of 22 months of extra schooling.

We continue to learn from others, track and monitor progress and make adjustments when the data shows we need improvements.  Teaching literacy in remote rural schools comes with challenges, but we have learned that we can move the needle drastically to help our students make progress. Recently, due to COVID-19, our teachers have been conducting one-on-one socially-distant home visits with our students to ensure that they are able to complete their homework packets and follow along with our Impact Radio programming.

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