When Building More Schools Is Not Enough
The Rights and Wrongs of Early Literacy Efforts in One Developing Country
Guest blog by Amy Awbrey Pallangyo
I am a teacher of teachers, living in Tanzania. I came six years ago to work with primary teachers, teaching them how to use a comprehensive literacy instruction approach and to integrate literacy strategies into content instruction. Tanzania is an interesting country, balancing between a traditional subsistence farming culture, and a 21st century future. It is rich in resources, and poor in economy. Typical of most developing countries, it has huge potential and big problems. Education is at the core of both the potential and barriers here.
Currently, I do not work in Tanzania - my work takes place in other countries. But each day, I watch my nieces and nephews make their way to local schools, to learn what they need to know to live in a new future, one that is changing so fast that almost no one can envision what it will be. Due to massive efforts of the Tanzanian government focused around the UN Education for All goals, more schools are now available to children. Any family in this country, that can afford uniform fees, should be able to provide school for their child. But is this actually the problem?
While more children are in school here, learning results have not changed. The same instruction that used to go on in a small number of schools continue now in a larger number of schools – lecture, few materials, poorly-trained teachers, and no common process to engage learners in the most basic education – learning to read, write, and communicate in ways that promote real understanding of their world, and support them in knowing how to learn from print in their environment.
The equation does not work - more schools do not equal better basic literacy. What to do? There are, I think, two answers: research-based professional materials and training, and a commitment to a new way.
A comprehensive literacy curriculum is needed – one that balances reading, writing and speaking, and applies literacy in all subjects as a learning pathway. This must come from the top down – with ministries of education and literacy experts building a high-expectation high performance country program for primary literacy instruction.
Then, the hard part: providing systematic professional training for pre-service and in-service teachers. Training must be supported by experts. However, re-starting literacy program training and implementation has to be built on a process of local capacity-building. Government agencies must partner with universities, local school districts, and external experts to construct and implement a new system. Organizations like IREX and the International Reading Association are critical in supporting training, and building local professional capacity to apply new instructional knowledge and skills. They can provide the needed expertise and models for teacher engagement, and literacy instruction.
In reflecting on what I have written here, I think it is important that I acknowledge just how difficult it will be to do what I am suggesting – to create a new infrastructure for primary literacy instruction from the ground up, and keep schools moving forward the best they can in the meantime. However, when a system does not work, you can’t simply tweak what you do, you have to take a new route – one that recognizes what is going right and wrong, the accepted best practices that we know will work, and to make a commitment to do what is necessary. In the world we live in today, we can no longer discuss uncertainties or confusion about what is needed to raise a literate generation for the coming century. We know what to do, we just need to accept the hard work, and get down to it.
Amy Awbrey Pallangyo is the former vice president of the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a teacher professional development organization in the US. She currently lives in rural Tanzania, and works with the International Reading Association as their Global Literacy Network Coordinator in Indonesia and Bangladesh.