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.
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 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.
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. (www.educatorsinternational.org.uk)
- 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. (www.sabretrust.org)
- 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. (www.universallearningsolutions.org)
- Jolly Learning: publishes the Jolly Phonics programme, which is used around the world for the early teaching of reading and writing. (www.jollylearning.co.uk)
- 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. (www.every1mobile.net)
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 http://phonicsghana.net/kg-teachers/. [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.
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.