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Phonics by Phone: children who can read get the best start in life! [Updated 5th Jan 2015]

To help tackle the shockingly poor reading outcomes of young children in poor communities, we propose to create a basic phonics course for teachers and parents, delivered directly to their existing mobile phone. Rather than taking adults from their community and teachers from their classes, we will develop a high-grade audio course in phonics, accessed by download to a non-smart phone, free on demand. The course will be backed by other materials viewed digitally or in hard copy, together with local mentoring and coaching. We will also develop a teacher-friendly means of assessing children’s reading ability to test the impact of improved teaching. All this to be developed in a phased manner, and fully piloted in different countries.

Photo of Kieran Cooke
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Our big idea is to help change the way children in very poor communities are taught to read, so that more of them become literate, and at an earlier age.
Why does this matter? Here are three key findings from UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report (2011 and 2013):
  • A child who cannot read will struggle to learn anything else;
  • If all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty;
  • A child whose mother can read is 50% more likely to live past age 5.
Despite recent educational gains (including higher rates of kindergarten and school attendance), far too few children in poor countries learn to read well.  By comparison with developed countries, this gap is massive - no sub-Saharan African country scores even 10% fluent readers by early primary age, whereas in developed countries around 80% of children regularly achieve this standard. [see footnote 1]
The main reason for poor reading outcomes in low-income countries is failure to teach early literacy correctly.  The children are as capable of learning as any other children!  They would succeed much better if their teachers knew how to use synthetic phonics (reading using letter sounds), rather than word memorisation.  If equipped with this same simple phonics knowledge, their parents could play a significant role too, by preparing their child for reading (developing listening skills, teaching and reinforcing letter sounds, and later practising reading at home).
Here is an extract from a recent (2014) international report on reading in one sub-Saharan country:
 “What do we know about the 2% of primary pupils who can read well?... Children who can read are significantly more likely to.... be able to pronounce the sounds of individual letters, and combine letter sounds to read words”.  
After two years of primary school, most children in African schools cannot sound individual letters, nor combine them into words and hence sentences – the phonic essentials needed by every child.
What problems would we have to overcome to double early literacy rates?
In poor countries, typically:
  • Classes are large (and growing) because there are too few trained teachers.
  • This shortage of trained teachers is even worse in hard-to-reach areas than in the big cities.
  • Initial teacher training techniques are often poor, and there is little ongoing support
  • Books and teaching materials are scarce and often culturally inappropriate – teachers and parents have had no hand in shaping them.
  • Many parents want to help teach their own children to read – but no-one shows them how, in a form they can access and understand.
  • Travel – either bringing trainers to the trainees, or the reverse – is too expensive..
The solution
The current set of problems holding back literacy outcomes requires a radical solution: a new way of training teachers that is better, quicker, cheaper and more universal.
We propose to bring training to teachers and parents– free or very cheaply – wherever they actually are, by way of the phone that is already in their pocket or bag.

A group of organisations and individuals with wide-ranging and complementary experience (the "Phonics by Phone" consortium) have come together for the purposes of the Amplify's challenge. This collaboration brings together organisations with substantial experience and knowledge of effective literacy education using the phonics method as well as wider experience of working in partnership with governments and donors in education reform. Each of these organisations has a shared vision of giving all children access to highly effective and proven methods of being able to read and write successfully and thus allowing all children the best start in life.

[Updated 17/12/2014]
The organisations which are part of this consortium are:
  • Educators International: a UK based charity using the skills of professional educators on an entirely voluntary basis. (
  • Sabre Trust: a Ghana-based charity supporting the Ghana Education Service to test new approaches to improve the quality of early years’ education, which can be replicated at scale. (
  • Universal Learning Solutions is a UK-based not-for profit organisation that has extensive experience of working with teachers and governments in delivering literacy programmes based on the synthetic phonics method. (
  • Jolly Learning: publishes the Jolly Phonics programme, which is used around the world for the early teaching of reading and writing. (
  • Every1Mobile: Every1Mobile delivers education, health and livelihoods content and services to young people in sub-Saharan Africa via the mobile web and social media for major international development agencies and NGOs. (

We propose to create a basic phonics course for teachers and parents, delivered directly to their existing mobile phone.  Instead of taking adults out of their community and away from their classes, we propose to offer them a high-grade audio course in phonics, accessed by download to a standard mobile phone (and/or other devices when available), on demand and in their own location. The first six of these audio units can now be listened to at [Updated 17/12/2014]
The course will be accessible via WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and/or radio, on the ordinary phones that poorly-paid teachers currently own - not just on smartphones.  Teachers (and later parents) will be able to receive the audio components of the course, with accompanying text-based coursework, quizzes and blogging/feedback, via a mobile-optimised website, which we intend to build into the first-ever phone-based social network of teachers in each targeted country.  The course will be based on international best practice in training of synthetic phonics.  It will link directly to an extensive and respected range of teaching materials developed since 1993 by a leading international distributor of synthetic phonics materials.

We hereby invite Amplify/DFID to host this website and make it airtime-free to access via a mobile phone; also to provide small incentives in the form of airtime credit for any teacher who a) registers on the site b) uses it actively, eg participates in quizzes etc; and c) qualifies through the different stages of the course.  Such teachers could be invited to become Phonics Leaders/ Champions and be rewarded for introducing parents and other adults in the community to literacy via phonics training.  They might qualify for extra training and attention from government and other training networks, perhaps later leading to employment or career benefits.

Why is this idea unique and “first”?
  • No African or Asian country is delivering substantial elements of initial teacher training via any type of mobile phone.
  • While some in-service teacher training apps are being developed for smart phones, no such efforts have been made for simple feature phones of the kind used by the vast majority of teachers and parents in poor communities.  Smart phones only reach the urban elite.
  • Though some teacher training in Asia is being delivered via SMS, no country is using the phone’s unique capacity to deliver audio training, whether in phonics or anything else.
  • The use of a “dot mobi” website (a low-cost, low-graphics, data-lean mobile-optimised website) is already established in Africa for propagating health and other useful messages.  But use of a mobile-optimised website to deliver systematic training of teachers (initial and in-service) would be wholly new anywhere in the developing world.
  • It would also be a first to involve serving teachers in the creation and voicing of courses.
What are the technical challenges?
The proposal will use existing equipment at all levels.  The units/lessons will require no high-tech equipment to record or prepare for broadcast: just a simple microphone and recording device (phone, MP3 device, laptop etc) - though access to a radio studio would be ideal.  Dissemination will be via a) the website, b) live radio broadcasts (from existing FM stations) and c) locally via computer labs using a laptop, memory stick, Raspberry Pi or other storage device. 
The ‘dot mobi’ site we create will be accessible even on a ten-year-old feature phone with a small screen using internet WAP settings.  Because our course (audio and text) will be data-lean, the unit costs of airtime will be low.
Our aim is to link intelligently all three elements of the course and its community:  the audio units (“course”), the linked written materials (explanation, illustration, quizzes and tests), and the social network (blogs, assessment, leader-boards, badges, rewards).  We would do this by creating an integrated pair of websites: a mobile-optimised one for voice, and another for text, graphic and other data-hungry applications (eg phonics support materials). 
While the priority of this proposal is teaching phonics, we aim also to achieve a closely related objective: to provide readers in remote locations with a wide range of attractive and relevant reading materials.  We would aim to hook up with suppliers of digital books such as Worldreader (see this link).  Worldreader is using proprietary software to make books downloadable and readable even on basic feature phones – thus minimising the need for e-readers, tablets or smart phones .  Even where screen size is too small for reading, the ability to download books and images to a feature phone would allow them to be read later on a larger screen when available.  We would like with Amplify/DFID support to test how many words/pages can be compressed onto the external memory card (Micro SD) accessible by different types of basic phone.

Footnote 1:  taking Ghana as an example, the May 2014 Early Grade Reading Assessment (see this link) shows that by the end of P2 ie typically four years of school, less than 2% of children in Ghana can read fluently and with comprehension; less than half can read a single word in any language; and 75% cannot answer a single comprehension question correctly after hearing a grade-appropriate short story read in English.

Who will benefit from this idea and where are they located?

This programme is primarily targeted at teacher trainees – especially unqualified community volunteer teachers – in low-income countries. Initially it is mainly directed at countries where English is the major language. There are 250 million children actually attending KG and primary school in the 17 English-speaking DFID-priority poor countries (see note below) and if we divide by 50 (assumed PTR) this suggests at least 5 million teachers could benefit immediately from better techniques of teaching early literacy in some combination of mother tongue and English. Source: UNESCO GMR 2013 Table 5 (2011 primary enrolment in Bangladesh, Burma, Ghana, India, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, S Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe) [Updated 17/12/2014] Engaging with Parents Phonics by Phone offers accessibility to information about how to teach phonics to parents as well as teachers, and these are some of the ways the project will engage with and support parents: • Many parents who want to support their children to learn to read but do not know how will have some readily accessible resources/support to do so through the Phonics by Phone programme. • Where printed materials aren’t available, the phonics songs and rhymes can still be used effectively by parents to support the learning of sounds. • It is a resource which can easily be promoted and shared by teachers amongst parents to gain parents/community support both in and outside the classroom to support children to learn to read – our experience in Ghana shows kindergarten specific Parent-Teacher Association meetings to be particularly effective in this respect. • Where the Phonics by Phone project is supported by additional resources (access to online resources and training on the ground by local NGOs and Community Based Organisations (CBOs) education networks), the way children in KG and above are taught to read through phonics could be transformed; parents will be supported to teach their children to read at home, and teachers better equipped to teach literacy in school.

How could you test this idea in a quick and low-cost way right now?

[Updated 17/12/2014] The first three things we plan to do are to a) re-record some audio units from English-voice to local-voice; b) actively gather feedback from the teachers who have piloted these units; and c) begin to create a value-added measurement tool, based on standardised early grade reading assessments. If we had more than a month we would d) trial our units in a second English-speaking country. We have begun the piloting of this project in Ghana by: • Hiring a Ghana based coordinator, funded by a small grant from Vodafone Foundation • Acquiring two websites, and . Both are live but in need of further development and user testing. • Beginning to create the first audio units, which have begun to be uploaded onto We have so far created the first six audio units which are on We would plan to further refine these audio units using the substantial experience of our consortium partners but also learning from the experience of the OpenIDEO community. In developing these audio units we will be heavily relying on our strong partners in Ghana to ensure they are contextually appropriate as well as ensuring these units combine to ensure a comprehensive programme of literacy education. • Beginning to build a team of people capable of not just creating the units but working with early years teachers and parents to trial their use to gain user feedback so we can further improve the units. Again it would be great to here to get feedback from other IDEO community members also. Our next steps are now, by the end of March 2015 to have: • Established an active user group of teachers and parents who have registered on and are accessing it regularly (metric: how many hits/downloads) and are finding it useful (metric: feedback on the accompanying blog and instant surveys) • Established a small group of Phonics Ghana Champions (teachers and educators helping us to create, develop, test and embed the teaching in kindergarten classes). By the end of 2015 we plan subject to funding (IDEO, help us out here!) to have • Developed an assessment methodology that allows parents and teachers to measure the success of 5 year old children in pre-reading/writing and early actual reading/writing. •Extended this project to multiple countries

What kind of help would you need to make your idea real?

[Updated 17/12/2014] This proposal does not emerge from thin air. It has been the subject of much thought and development, and is now going into a piloting phase in one country. We have established a consortium to carry it forward. We would need some seed funding to enable the consortium to deliver larger opportunities. We look forward to continuing to receive ideas and input from the community members and exploring how other ideas in the 'refinement phase' complement ours, and vice versa.

Is this an idea that you or your organization would like to take forward?

  • Yes. I am ready and interested in testing this idea and making it real in my community.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Tinotenda Dube

This idea is indeed worthy of action. You have mentioned that you propose to provide training for teachers and parents whether "free or cheaply". I could be off the mark, however I don't think it is viable or even possible to provide large scale training such as this at a low cost. Maybe research the kind of training these communities are already receiving and perhaps relate that to your idea. Great idea nevertheless!

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