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Ensuring parents/care-givers and children can read and write through using mobile technology.

It is widely agreed that children being able to read and write significantly increases their life chances and put most simply their life expectancy. But also a strong evidence base shows that children coming for illiterate households significantly reduces their chances of reading and writing. Having whole communities, both children and parents, who are literate and teachers who are equipped and enthused to deliver high-quality literacy tuition has been shown to have a transformative impact. The use of the phonics approach to teaching reading and writing, which has been shown to be highly effective, delivered through non-smart phones to teachers and households could make this a reality.

Photo of Kieran Cooke
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The use of the synthetic phonics method for teaching reading and writing has been proven to result in all pupils making significantly faster progress than those taught using convention methods (often rote learning of whole words). Examples of such studies are from Nigeria, where in Cross River State pupils taught using synthetic phonics improved their chronological reading age by 17 months after only 36 weeks of using the programme (see Or from India where pupils from slum areas in Hyderabad, who mostly came from illiterate households, taught using synthetic phonics made significantly better progress than those taught using conventional methods (see

Teachers in many countries, and particularly in hard-to-reach areas, not having the skills and knowledge to effectively teach reading and writing successfully and communities not having access to reading materials is holding many children back. Furthermore unfortunately many current literacy initiatives have failed using traditional approaches. The use of mobile technology will allow teachers, parents and children to access effective and contextually appropriate materials and approaches which have been shown to be highly effective.


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Photo of G. Quinque

Great idea Kieran!We as group believe that the synthetic phonics method for teaching reading and writing to underprivileged kids in Africa is the most efficient one. But the use of mobile technology is rather utopian idea when it comes to some of the poorest nations.

Photo of ISMI Group4

Amazing idea kieran! I am concerned though, how will the children get access of the phonics technology?

Photo of Dominic Bond

Hi Ismi - this concept has now been developed further in the ideas stage - you can read more here:

It might be worth re-posting your question in that forum. Though it might be helpful to clarify that the technology will be accessed by teachers and parents rather than the children themselves.

Photo of wekesa zab

Halo Kieran,
I find your post as a resource to my idea buildup kindly checkout -
And give me some tips and feedback

Photo of Jeff Benson

Hi Kieran. You state: "...many current literacy initiatives have failed using traditional approaches." Could you provide some examples of initiatives that have failed and/or a brief overview of why they failed? What do you think mobile technology solutions would do differently, aside from increase access?

Photo of Michael Stark

Hi Jeff. One of the literacy initiatives that has consistently failed has been "let's just do more of the same". Here's a good example. The Millennium Development Goals have brought higher children's enrolment in schools in poor countries - most will even meet the MDG target for this by 2015. But surprise, surprise - training of teachers has not caught up. So class sizes have risen sharply, especially in remote, deprived and rural areas. The result? - each child gets too little teacher time for a good education. In response, African and Asian Governments' have constantly tried to cram more and more teacher trainees through their existing face-to-face teacher training colleges (with their outdated curriculum). That has failed because it has been too expensive to create enough new teacher training colleges. Using mobile technology will reduce the cost and, as you say, increase access. - but even more important, it makes the training immediate and relevant. Approaches to literacy can be updated almost in real time. This engages the trainees in shaping their own learning and careers - and makes them much better teachers.

Photo of Jeff Benson

Hi Michael. I hear what you're saying, but I would counter that using mobile technology doesn't directly address large class sizes. And if new, better methodologies aren't being taught in teacher training colleges, what makes us think there will be better trainings available via mobile technology?

While mobile technology may in fact be a part of the solution, there still has to be a good curriculum to deal with large class sizes. Since class sizes don't seem to be getting any smaller, we may have to throw out the window the idea that good educational outcomes relies upon teacher-pupil ratio. Instead, we can say, "This is the challenge. How do we create a sound pedagogy in a big classroom?" I think there are ways.

Photo of Michael Stark

Thanks Jeff for hearing what I'm saying.

How right you are. Class sizes are not getting smaller any time soon.

To your question "Are there ways to create a sound pedagogy for the big classroom?" I say: you're right, there certainly are!

Let's break this down. One teacher per class doesn't have to mean just one adult per class. It doesn't in the rich countries, which have the luxury of salaried classroom assistants,. Their classes achieve a generous Pupil:Adult Ratio, even where the Pupil: Teacher Ratio isn't that great.

And poor countries don't have to suffer with just one adult per class either.

In rural Ghana, well over 60% of teachers are untrained. For them, the teacher training colleges are pretty much irrelevant. They teach, often for no salary at all, without hope of formal training, just for the sake of the children of their village.

These community volunteer teachers typically have a mobile phone in their pocket. And so do most of the other halfway-educated adults in their community.

The teachers all know from bitter experience that that trying to teach a class of 70 children to read is nearly impossible.

Huge question: could we upload to the mobile phones of that 1 teacher, AND ALSO seven other adults in the community, a simple phonics course? If so, would that empower and motivate those seven adults to join him/her in the classroom on a volunteer basis, at least some of the time?

If so, for literacy classes at least, the teacher could manage 7 groups of 10 children, not just one impossible group of 70!

It's been tried elsewhere. It's worked even without "phonics by phone". How much better would it work, given that extra new and direct line into the ears of, not just one but EIGHT adults, all willing to help their community become literate?

And not just in the classroom, but also back at home and in the community.

In developed countries, children don't learn to read in the classroom. Many of them are fully literate before they ever reach formal school. They learn to read through their families and friends, and through the written world that they encounter all around them. A good teacher reinforces all that - but the teacher isn't on his or her own.

Ghanaian teachers are telling us that engaging a really broad group of adults in the principles of reading will work. for the whole community.

Africans are proud of their phones. African teachers are beginning to see that 'phonics by phone' could break down barriers to literacy that the formal school system will continue to struggle with.

They're asking for help. from people with expertise in teaching reading, wherever in the world they may be. But they don't want it done for them, with a western accent, and patronising western assumptions.

Shouldn't we give it a try?

Can we help teachers like these - and by no means just in Ghana or even in Africa - to develop for themselves a fresh, dynamic, locally voiced course? A course that focuses on the fundamentals of reading? A course that the local teachers make themselves, speak in their own accent and for their own needs, and transmit to their peers? A course that doesn't rely on the dead curriculum of the colleges?

Yes, I think we can. This website, and this challenge, could be the means of developing that solution. Watch this space.

Hope you're with us on that journey, Jeff - and we're going to need the contributions of lots of others on this website!

Photo of kofi essien

Michael and Jeff I have applauded both of your contributions because you are all correct in your thinking.

I can not agree with Jeff more that while mobile technology may in fact be a part of the solution, there still has to be a good curriculum to deal with large class sizes. I also share your optimism, Micheal, that there are certainly sound ways of making this happen.

Our own work in Ghana as an organization (OLE Ghana) through our Ghana Reads program has shown that the use of the coaching concept, which provides a hands on holding hands support for the teachers, can be of immense benefit in supporting teachers gain he skills needed to teach the foundations of learning a language as well as handling large classes..

I see this Phonics by Phone project doing very well if a strong coaching component is introduced as a part of it.

I applaud this project. It will enhance reading and writing skills of children in low-income communities.

Photo of Jeff Benson

Hi Michael, I'd be interested in reading a bit more about the use of mobile phones to teach phonics in Ghana. I'm not sure if I missed the link in the string, but I notice a number of contributors have referenced Ghana in particular. Can you point me in the right direction?

Photo of Michael Stark

Hi Jeff. The best examples of use of mobile technology are those developed by Open Learning Exchange (OLE) Ghana, in particular the Ghana Reads programme currently being piloted in at least 28 schools in conjunction with World Vision. See this link: They use an eLearning Library housed on a Raspberry Pi server.

But this is just the start - there is lots more in development, both in Ghana and elsewhere, targeted at early literacy, and we will post more in the next phase of this challenge.

Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Kieran, interesting post! Any chance you could find an image to go along with it? Images help grab attention and tell a story with higher impact. You should be able to use the Update Entry button on the right of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there. We know occasionally people have issues uploading images so let us know by hitting the Feedback button at the bottom of most pages of our site if you face any problems. Looking forward to seeing more of your inspiring insights on OpenIDEO.

And here's more handy tips on the Research phase:

Photo of Purna Kumar Shrestha

Kieran, thanks for sharing your idea of potential use of mobile technology to improve children's early literacy in English language by using the synthetic phonic methods.

I've met hundreds of teachers who are striving to improve their teaching skills. Many of these teachers had not received any training yet they were expected to make positive impacts on children's learning. Therefore, building on Kofi's point, it is important to consider how these teachers will be empowered. From VSO's experience in several countries, it is through coaching and mentoring and modelling good practices, that teachers are likely to change their teaching methods.

Micheal has mentioned VSO's SMS story project in Papua New Guinea ( beside this VSO is also working in partnership with onebillion in Malawi where we used mobile game to improve children's numeracy.

Photo of Jane Betts

This innovative mobile technology with its wide reach in schools and households should help ensure the inclusion of children living on the margins and often excluded from educational opportunities. UNICEF states that some of the world’s most vulnerable children – especially girls, children living in conflict and children with disabilities – remain excluded from education systems. Further 'as of 2011, 250 million children – one in four young people living in lower and middle income countries – were unable to read a single sentence.' Inclusion in early years learning initiatives promotes vital developmental gains in children to stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives, and these gains are shown to be highest for those with maximum disadvantage. My hope is that this initiative will have a significant impact on these vulnerable and marginalised children, helping to ensure they have opportunities to learn alongside their peers and reach their full potential.

Photo of Andrew Betts

So many development projects fail to learn from the past experience of failed initiatives that are technology-led. In contrast, this proposal is led by established research and experience of what works for children in the early years and aims to use an established technology that every teacher and almost every parent has - a mobile phone - to reach its goals. It has massive potential, and would develop a model for other areas of teaching that could replicated far and wide.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Kieran, interesting proposition and definitely worth posting again in the ideation phase, esp. as you seem to have many potential team members. Do you any specific projects using cell phone and phonic that you could share with us? I saw you presented a couple of links on the value of phonic learning, maybe you could add them directly in your post so that people who don't read all the comments can get the information. Do you also have an example of using cell phones to deliver instruction? thanks!

Photo of Michael Stark

Anne-Laure, what are you saying: that Kieran needs to re-post now some of the existing material? or wait until the next (ideas) phase?

He and I, together with other team member, do indeed have specific projects to share.

The key project to look at is the VSO-led Papua New Guinea SMS teacher training programme at this link: And to summarise that fascinating piece of action research: "Most primary school children in Papua New Guinea are unable to read English. VSO successfully trialled a programme to see if daily mobile phone text message stories could improve English teaching and ultimately, children’s reading....After two academic terms, classes which received the daily SMS stories recorded a significant improvement in children’s reading skills compared to other schools. There were also major differences in the teaching and learning strategies used by the teachers. SMS stories recorded a 50% increase in the number of children who could read English. " We have ideas that build on that success and will take the story even further.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Hi Michael, sorry for being unclear and thanks for sharing some specific examples.
My suggestion was to add some links / references to these projects in the post so that community members who don't read all the comments (and there's quite a lively conversation on this post :-) ) can still read about the projects.
Looking forward to seeing how all these ideas inspire you in the upcoming ideation phase.

Photo of Kieran Cooke

Anne-Laure - thanks for your suggestions. I have now added the links directly into the post.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Great! Thanks Kieran.

Photo of Olubusola Eshiet

I have posted the report of a research that combined synthetic phonics method with the use of teachers' mobile phones.

Photo of Laura Schwecherl

Have you heard of the organization Impact Network? They introduce e-learning into the classroom is Zambia:

I also wonder what mobile technology adoption rates are like. Have there been any studies on how people in low-income communities react to integrating mobile technology in their day to day lives?

Photo of Michael Stark

There certainly have, Laura. The rates of adoption and integration of mobile technology into African lives have been phenomenal. There are already over 600 million live phone accounts in sub Saharan Africa - for a population of around 900 million which includes of course all small children! This link predicts a further 20 fold increase You will perhaps be surprised that sophisticated mobile applications like money transfer and banking are more advanced in East Africa than in Europe or the US. They're certainly much more widely used - 43% of Kenya's GDP flows through the mpesa system (see this link So when we talk about mobile phones for teacher training and adult literacy, we're going with a rapidly accelerating flow.

Photo of Laura Schwecherl

That's awesome. Thanks for sharing those studies!

Photo of Olubusola Eshiet

Well said Kieran. Combining synthetic phonics and the mobile phone technology achieves great results for teaching literacy skills as shown by a research in which I combined the synthetic phonics method and teachers' mobile phones. I share my conclusion and recommendation here. The full article can be read at:

The teachers liked to have synthetic phonics materials delivered on their mobile phones. In the words of some of the teachers who participated in the research:
"'I can listen to it anywhere, anytime"
"The phone is always in my pocket and listen to the sounds anywhere and anytime I want. "
"I prefer it on my mobile phone; my mobile phone is always on me."

" I listen to it very often, all the time, at least two times a day, even today, I forgot a sound and I listened to the recording for a reminder. I listen to it when I’m preparing my lesson ..... every day, and many times a day. Before I start teaching phonics lesson each day."

Conclusions and recommendations
The teachers’ experience of having the tools for preparing their lessons on CDs and on mobile phones is that it was a valuable addition to the synthetic phonics method of teaching English. The teachers were pleased to integrate this form of technology into their lesson preparation as it was easy to use and they were sure of its usefulness. Teachers felt comfortable having the teaching aid stored on their mobile phones indicating that more attention should be focused on the use of the mobile phones as a tool for lesson preparation when necessary. Such aids should be those which require as little memory space as possible. As teachers become more familiar with a particular aid, (e.g. when they get used to the sounds and do not need to constantly listen to them anymore) they should be encouraged to delete those aids which are no longer needed so as to allow space for newer ones. Further research should be carried out to determine other tools which are readily available to the teachers and could be used to improve their skills at no extra cost.

I applaud this project. It will enhance reading and writing skills of children in low-income communities.

Photo of Alexander Fulcher

What a fantastic idea- literacy really is the source of expanding one's knowledge and resilience- and feature phones are the primary means by which young and old alike across Sub-Saharan Africa engage with. So by combing the two you are giving a platform for real growth!

Photo of Sheena Campbell

I have read through the many comments and contributions to this discussion and feel that many of the points I would have made have already been canvassed. I would however, like to add a couple of things. That there have been some excellent initiatives launched in Ghana to support early grade reading and particularly in the mother tongue. Despite huge investment by government and donors however, these initiatives have failed to have expected impact. The main problem was not necessarily let's do more of the same, but that let's try and make it happen in the same way ... so the challenge to success does not lie necessarily with the actual teaching programme but in terms of the way that teachers were trained and schools were supported to carry out the programme. The result is that the materials (teaching plans, big books, other resources) are mouldering in storerooms in schools, and education offices across the country. Training relied on training the few and then assumed a "trickle down" effect. By delivering the training direct to the teacher at "the chalk face" via a mobile phone, reliance on the "trickle down" is substantially reduced.
My second point is about the reading statistics that Michael Stark referred to ... that fewer than 2% of children in Ghana are able to read grade level texts with comprehension (in either their own language or English) by the end of Grade 2. Further information about that 2% of children is that, as well as having some element of phonics teaching during their reading development, they also have access to texts so that they can read alone and even more pertinent to this project, is the fact that they read or are read to at home. Reading is a life skill and as such its attainment cannot be contained within the few short hours a child spends at school. It makes perfect sense therefore, that not just teachers but members of the school community have access to these kinds of resources.
The bottom line is ... that I applaud this project.

Photo of Mike Cashman

Great initiative. I hope the Ghana Education Service will look carefully at what can be achieved here and then - if it works well - provide substantive support to rolling the idea out more widely.

Photo of Anita

Having recently returned from teaching synthetic phonics to teachers in Malawi's rural villages, I cannot stress how vital this is. The technology angle adds a different dimension that opens the door for discussions about entitlement, access and pedagogical approach utilising available resources. I agree with Linda Coveney: all children should have the opportunity to read and write ... and become life-long learners in the process.
Imagine trying to count change, if you don't know what the price is. Imagine trying to catch a bus, but not being able to read where the bus is going or what time it will arrive. Imagine having to give someone medication & not being able to read the instructions for the correct dosage. It could be life-threatening.
This isn't just about academia, but more importantly life skills, contributing to the community & preparing children for adulthood in a progressive and caring world. I wish the Project Team every success & more with this initiative. It is needed and I applaud their enthusiasm and dedication to make it happen!

Photo of Charlotte Cashman

Thanks for posting these insights Anita . It is indeed about life skills and enhanced life opportunities with the ensuing economic and social benefits to whole communities. We want to make our technology virtually free at point of delivery so available not only to teachers but parents and guardians of young minds.

Photo of Nick Parish

Using mobile phone technology to provide resources to teachers quickly and cost effectively is a truly innovative initiative. Everyone has a mobile phone, and this programme is using that starting point to create daily reading and writing activities for thousands of young children. Bravo to everyone who has been involved in developing this idea!

Photo of Peter Cashman

A very sensible use of technology for knowledge sharing and to improve children's literacy - which is absolutely vital.

Photo of Linda Coveney

This is such an exciting project. Children in all areas of the world should have opportunities to learn to read and write. Using technology is an excellent model to enable a greater number of children to access phonics.

Photo of Charlotte Cashman

Thanks you for your support Linda. Reading is a skill we so easily take for granted in the UK but is of course utterly life changing. Children, and especially girls who are educated go on to be better mothers and their children have an improved life expectancy. Th economic gain for communities in the longer term is huge.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Interesting thoughts, Kieran. Previously on OpenIDEO we've heard about some great mobile teaching initiatives. Perhaps you'd like to explore these further (via Google?) and add some examples and reflections on your post? Would be great to collect learnings from various initiatives so that we can all think innovatively for our upcoming Ideas phase. Hope to see you there!

Photo of Kieran Cooke

There is lots of research/evaluations into both the phonics method as well as the use of mobile technology. How is the best way to share this research - shall I just add the links or can you attach the PDF's to your contribution?

Photo of Chioma Ume

Hi Kieran, I wanted to share the link to this site - an initiative that is underway in Tanzania that you might find interesting - we came across them during our research in advance of the challenge:

Meena can add to the answer to your question here - but I think a great way is to write a short paragraph explaining what some of the key findings of the research you want to share followed by a few points outlining the highlights. Definitely share the link too - so that those who are excited about it too can learn more!

Photo of Meena Kadri

Yep – that's great advice, Chioma. Kieran – we're excited for you to share more info on your post. As Chioma mentions, create a paragraph on each (with some summary highlights) and include a link. Tip: to activate links in your post, hit the Update Entry button up there on the right, then follow the instructions here:  

Thanks for sharing these valuable insights!

Photo of Charlotte Cashman

thanks for the link Chioma. it looks really interesting . we have had a number of interesting debates over the issue of teaching children in their mother tongue as opposed to English. I personally believe there is a place for both, building phonic knowledge through using L1 and leading on into English where it is the language of instruction

Photo of Michael Stark

Kieran, thank you for this excellent thoughtful contribution.

There is no question that early reading success opens the way, whether for a five or a ten or a fifteen year old child, to the rest of the curriculum and hence all lifelong learning opportunities.

In the vast majority of rich countries, 95% of children at the end of primary school (say, around age 11) achieve the PIRLS lower benchmark of reading, and 77% of those countries' children even achieve the intermediate benchmark, which is a lot more demanding. By contrast, there is not a country in sub Saharan Africa which reaches anywhere near these figures. Just as an example, in Ghana the proportion of children who at the end of P3 can read an age-appropriate piece of text fluently, in any language, as assessed by recently-published Early Grade Reading Assessment results, is less than 2%. This is after 5 years of regular attendance at KG and school classes, and in a stable, peaceful country which invests heavily in education (spending over 6% of its GDP). It's despite parents making real sacrifices to send their children to school., full of hope, doing their best to succeed. Only 2% - one child in 50 - is being enabled to achieve what in every European and developed country is taken for granted.

This almost unimaginable gap between rich and poor countries is of course substantially an effect of poverty itself. But even more it arises from a failure to use proper techniques of teaching reading. This in turn arises from the shortage of trained teachers in those countries, and more importantly from failures to train them properly. There are two points here. First, conventional (face to face) teacher training is simply too expensive, too slow and too inefficient to cope with the teacher deficits in Africa and Asia without a whole further generation - at least 20 years - of children failing to learn to read adequately. Second, with rare exceptions, current teacher literacy training in poor countries does not focus at all on phonics - yet this is demonstrably the quickest route for children to learn to read, in almost any language under the sun.

This is why your proposal to use mobile phone technology is so crucial. The teacher in Africa has a phone in her or his pocket! Let us bring training to the trainees, rather than sucking them out of their community to be trained elsewhere.

I am sure we will come in the next phase of this study to some of the practicalities - the hows as well as the whys. Equally, I'm sure it can be done.

Photo of Charlotte Cashman

I completely agree that this idea of using mobile phone technology to train teachers to teach children to read makes absolute sense. I know of trainee teachers in deprived areas of Ghana who are desperate to be given some guidance and support in teaching reading. To have it delivered to their phone in their pocket without great cost involved has got to be the way forward!it is only through learning to read that a child can read to learn.

Photo of Kieran Cooke

The use of the synthetic phonics method for teaching reading and writing has been proven to result in all pupils making significantly faster progress than those taught using convention methods (often rote learning of whole words). Examples of such studies are from Nigeria, where in Cross River State pupils taught using synthetic phonics improved their chronological reading age by 17 months after only 36 weeks of using the programme (see Or from India where pupils from slum areas in Hyderabad, who mostly came from illiterate households, taught using synthetic phonics made significantly better progress than those taught using conventional methods (see