Making Literacy a National Priority
by Heidi LaFleche, Education Development Center
After decades of conflict that have battered the country and its education system, leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have taken a crucial step toward improving education by updating national education standards and the school curriculum.
For help in this process, DRC education leaders turned to EDC for its expertise in strengthening national education systems, which it has done in such countries as Pakistan and Lebanon. EDC currently directs the USAID-funded Package for Improving Education Quality (PIEQ) in the DRC, which aims to increase student learning by improving teaching and the school environment.
Overhauling the education system is no small feat in a nation where nearly one third of all people over age 15 cannot read or write, and more than half of all women are illiterate. Until now, classroom instruction in this sub-Saharan, central African country has focused primarily on teaching math and French, the national language.
For EDC's Mark Hamilton, education technical adviser for the project, a new shift toward teaching reading skills is a step in the right direction.
"Our project is responsible for 3,000 schools, approximately 32,000 teachers, and 1.2 million children," says Hamilton. "Yet that represents only a fraction of the total number of schools, teachers, and students in the country. The commitment to create a national reading curriculum has never before been made in the DRC. The potential to have a positive impact is high."
Developing a comprehensive, national reading curriculum involves teaching children the fundamentals of reading (such as the ability to recognize letters and letter sounds), and then building on those basic skills so that children learn to speak and read words, and construct sentences.
This is where PIEQ comes in. Using interactive radio instruction (IRI), the program uses audio lessons to bring new ways of learning to classrooms and support self-guided teacher training. The hope is that PIEQ's success can be replicated across the country.
Setting new standards
In late February 2013, EDC helped the DRC's National Ministry of Education convene a commission to study available data on reading and to set national reading standards. The group, which included ministry members, researchers, school principals, and teachers, met for one week.
"We looked at what skills children need to develop and what teachers need to do to develop those skills," Hamilton says. "For example, we look at reading fluency and ask: What is the number of words that a child in a certain grade will be able to read and understand in one minute? From there, we set target goals."
EDC and PIEQ will launch a comprehensive reading program in select experimental schools. The program is designed to enhance the impact of existing IRI while providing further support to improve the quality of teaching and learning. This program will provide DRC teachers with daily literacy-based activities to integrate into their regular practice.
This approach to classroom reading instruction draws on EDC's Read Right Now! Toolkit, an evidence-based approach that has been introduced successfully in other countries such as Mali and Rwanda. It highlights four instructional activities for effective reading and writing: oral language development, explicit instruction of component skills (e.g., the ability to recognize letters and letter-sound combinations, and to decode words), authentic reading, and authentic writing.
Hamilton says international literacy standards, as well as education gains and needs in the DRC, all factor into the process of establishing national reading standards. "Setting these attainable provisional benchmarks are important because they provide the Ministry of Education and teachers with goals to set their sights on," he says. "Then, we develop the curriculum to help teachers develop those skills in children."
So far, teachers who have attended PIEQ training institutes have shown substantial gains in their own grasp of subject matter, and an enthusiasm to practice new teaching methods in their classrooms. In 2011, a French language institute attracted some 30,000 participants. The 10-day workshop helped teachers improve their own language skills through a series of reading and writing activities.
EDC will continue working with PIEQ partners and educators this year to develop a road map for establishing national reading standards, and to test a new reading curriculum in pilot schools.
Hamilton says that literacy sets the foundation for all other learning and success-in the DRC and around the world. "If children cannot read, they cannot learn language, let alone mathematics, history, economics, or anything else they might need to succeed in life," he says. "Literally everything in terms of a society being able to develop and function comes down to children being able to read and write. That can't be overstated."