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'Let's Learn to Read' Benefits Burundi's Students

Can you remember learning to read? What was it like? Did you have someone who read to you? Did you have a favorite book? Was there a favorite teacher who helped you?

Many of us look back on this time of our childhood with fond memories, but we may not understand what was happening in our brains when we were learning to read.

Contrary to popular belief, learning to read is NOT something that happens automatically. In fact, when we learn to read, we are literally rewiring our brains. To do this, we must have good teachers, books that interest us, and lots of practice during school and at home.

Why is reading so important? Because it is foundational for all other learning. Early grade reading is critical for retention and success in future grades. Children who are poor readers at the end of first grade almost never acquire average-level reading skills by the end of primary school. Children who do not attain literacy skills, including reading and writing, by third grade often struggle to catch up in future years.

According to UNESCO, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills. That would be nearly a 12% cut in global poverty.

A Learning Crisis

Unfortunately, not all children have access to the quality teaching and books needed to acquire these foundational skills. In fact, many children around the world go through school without learning to read. Approximately 387 million children of primary school age are unable to read proficiently. Of those, only 262 million are enrolled in school.

This is a learning crisis. Low levels of learning disproportionately affect children from poor households. This has lifelong effects on individuals, and also contributes to the downward spiral of poverty in communities. A Food for the Hungry (FH) program called “Let’s Learn to Read” (LLR) is addressing this crisis.

Improving Skills with ‘Let’s Learn to Read’ Program

‘Let’s Learn to Read’ is a teacher training program that builds teacher capacity in reading instruction for children in grades 1 through 3. In 2021, the FH Burundi team piloted this program. From January to June 2021, FH staff worked with the Ministry of Education to support ongoing training and mentoring of teachers with regular classroom visits, and with text message communications to maintain that support.

teachers in a group showing reading training materials

Teachers involved in the initial training.

In these trainings, teachers heard about how children learn to read and practiced the most effective ways to teach reading in early grades. They also learned how to make simple, low-cost teaching aids from materials that can be found in the local community to support reading development in their classrooms.

Early Results Show Promise

The pilot project yielded fruitful results. Primary School Principal Cédar Sengoro in Muhuzu listened to LLR third graders read aloud. Their skill level was so high, he wondered if they weren’t really reading, but instead had memorized the passages.

“I had to give them another text of my choice, because I did not believe what I was hearing,” said the principal. He reported that the third-graders’ reading was “far better than that of our secondary school students.”

teacher in classroom in Burundi standing in front of the room reading a book with photos

The ‘Let’s Learn to Read’ pilot showed improvement in reading skills within a short period of time.

FH conducted a study to determine the impact of this program on child literacy skills. The study showed that more children gained critical reading skills in LLR schools than in comparison schools (where teachers were not trained). For example, 14% more children in first grade were able to read frequently used words, and 13% more children in second grade were able to read simple sentences.

In a culture where girls’ education is often a challenge, results demonstrated that LLR made a difference for girls as well as boys. In LLR schools, the increase in the proportion of children who could read frequently used words was 21% for girls, and 26% for boys, compared to only 9% for girls and 10% for boys in schools that did not receive LLR. The increase in the proportion of children who could read simple complete sentences in LLR schools was 22% for girls and 26% for boys, compared to only 14% for girls and 6% for boys in schools that did not receive LLR.

Expanding ‘Let’s Learn to Read’

Since the success of the pilot ‘Let’s Learn to Read’ program in Burundi, FH has scaled up the program to more schools and geographic areas within the country and has begun a new pilot program in Uganda. In the Burundi pilot communities, the originally trained teachers are now providing training and peer coaching on the LLR approach for other teachers in their schools. Peer coaching enables teachers to share challenges and brainstorm solutions together. This has been shown to increase teacher collaboration and self-efficacy (Schleicher, 2018).

The pilot program in Burundi trained 127 teachers and administrators, and the scaled-up program has now reached an additional 288 teachers and administrators. This is indirectly impacting 26,049 children in grades 1 through 3.

In Uganda, the LLR program is currently being introduced in 10 schools in the Kween area. To date, teachers have received six out of eight planned training sessions. A baseline literacy assessment was implemented in early March in both project schools as well as a group of comparison schools that are not implementing the project.

This program will be critical for children in Uganda, who only began returning to school after two years of COVID-19-related closures in January 2022. They are dealing with significant learning loss. The pilot program in Uganda is training 54 teachers of children in grades 1 through 3, impacting 1,667 children.

Other areas in Uganda have also begun implementing LLR, including Mbale, where 35 teachers are being trained, and Namutumba, where 30 teachers are currently in training. In all, 119 teachers are now being trained in Uganda. 

The program has also expanded to train additional teachers in the Bugabira and Kabarore area programs in Burundi. A unique aspect of the program is the use of mobile technology for ongoing coaching and support for teachers. Coaches use WhatsApp to communicate with their group of mentored teachers, focusing on concepts and skills that they found more difficult to grasp during the training. Teachers also use WhatsApp to ask the teachers specifically about challenges they are facing in their teaching.

How can you help? 

You can:

  1. Give story books, textbooks, and other resources through the FH gift catalog to provide an education for a child in poverty.
  2. Pray for the success of the “Let’s Learn to Read” program in Burundi, Uganda, and other countries where it will be implemented in the coming year.
  3. Learn more about worldwide literacy through the story links below.

Continue Reading:

These Story Books Will Change the Next Generation in Burundi

Pursuing an Education Despite the Odds