An insider look at bringing literacy education to children in conflict

By Natalie Lovenburg

February 24, 2017

Q&A with Fathi El-Ashry, Senior Associate in Instructional Systems at Creative

At the CIES conference on March 6, Fathi El-Ashry will discuss the divide between those who can read and those who cannot, and share best practices to bridge the gap.

Today, an estimated 122 million youth remain illiterate. School dropout, ineffective curriculum and displacement from conflict and crisis are some of the biggest barriers to literacy.

Creative’s Senior Associate in Instructional Systems, Fathi El-Ashry, shares his insights and best practices to remove barriers and improve literacy education for all children, including those living amidst conflict and crises.

At the annual Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference on March 6 in Atlanta, El-Ashry, will discuss the divide between those who can read and those who cannot, and share best practices to bridge the gap as a panelist on “The Role of Pre-Service Education in Producing and Perpetuating (In)Equalities: The Case of Early Grade Reading.”

With experience implementing education projects in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen, El-Ashry has supported teacher training and learning material development, early grade reading assessments and policy dialogues with the Ministries of Education, among other critical areas. El-Ashry holds a Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of Florida.

For a full schedule of Creative’s CIES 2017 panels, including panelists, times and locations, click here. Follow @1977Creative and #CIES2017 on Twitter for up-to-date panel coverage.

Do you have an accomplishment or programmatic result or activity that you are particularly proud of during your time at Creative?

El-Ashry: I started with Creative in July 2012 as a consultant for the USAID-supported Community Livelihoods Project (CLP) in Yemen. This project had just started to apply USAID’s strategy to support early grade reading in developing countries. During this time, I was able to leverage my previous experience with the USAID-supported early grade reading project in Egypt. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the language of instruction in early grades in both Egypt and Yemen.

I still consider the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach (YEGRA) to be one of the most successful, technically sound initiatives we’ve implemented. The learning environment in Yemen was very difficult and the literacy situation was a challenge to work around. One third of the children by end of third grade could not read a single word.

We worked closely with the Ministry of Education, especially the Curriculum Department, to develop quality teaching and learning materials and conduct teacher trainings. In the first year of the program, we worked in more than 700 schools, and then more than 1,000 schools in the second year.

During these two years, the Ministry monitored the impact and sent research teams to the Governorates and districts where the project was implemented. In time, the World Bank invested in the education sector in Yemen and brought the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach initiatives to scale to make an even larger impact.

Not only did the project produce quality teaching and learning materials and provide a training model but I think the greatest success was bringing the various Ministry of Education departments to work together for the first time in maybe the history of this Ministry.

Unfortunately, Yemen is facing on ongoing crisis that has affected education in the country. But even today, the Ministry still references YEGRA and applies it in many parts of the country, despite the harsh circumstances and conflict they are facing right now.

Do you have a favorite story of working in development?

El-Ashry: You can really see the impact of development in the places that are the most difficult to work in and in areas where the assumption is that people won’t change for the better.

I remember visiting a remote area in Yemen called Mawiyah District, located in a mountainous region of the country. It was very difficult to reach this spot, but what I witnessed there made an impression on me.

Parent groups or PTAs don’t really work well in most Arab countries. It is not uncommon for parents to not visit their child’s school and most of them don’t speak to teachers–especially in the most disadvantaged areas. But in this small, remote area of Yemen, I saw parents think to bring their children, especially their daughters, back into the school system once they heard about the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach.

I think an impactful reading program not only helps students learn how to read but it also encourages parents, and the community in general, to get involved in their child’s education and bring them back to school.

What factors or expertise are needed for education projects to flourish and be sustainable?

El-Ashry: First, to be successful in any new context, you need to bring the latest research in the field and the very good applications of the work you’re currently doing or learnings from past projects.

In many countries, we’ve seen an increasing demand for the quality of work you’re providing. It isn’t about just showing up in country, bringing your ideas and immediately implementing them. You must justify your project design approach, be knowledgeable of new field research and technically sound to build trust and partnership. If you don’t bring quality to your work from the beginning, it is set to fail.

Second, I think the support from project partners is very important. For example, in our Afghan Children Read project, which is funded by USAID, we have strong support from the Ministry of Education because they want to be successful. They recognize the problem and want sustainable solutions. When they believe in the quality work you’re bringing and you believe in their ability to lead the program along with you and once you’re gone, you’ve created an environment of mutual trust.

We provide the technical support but the expertise, reinforcement and implementation comes from within the cultural and country context. We work with the Ministry of Education to drive sustainable solutions by leveraging new research, innovation and their passion to bring about positive change.

What inspires you to continue to work in countries facing crises with challenging education environments?

El-Ashry: First and foremost, I’m driven by the need. When you look at the children in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, you see they really need our support. Creative’s history is filled with success stories implementing programs in unstable and stable environments. The countries in crisis face financial, economic and psychological crisis.

At Creative, we work to tackle the psychological trauma by applying a Social Emotional Learning component in our educational and literacy programs. For example, in the learning materials we’ve developed for conflict countries, the Social Emotional Learning components are woven into stories where children can read about resilience, how to be strong despite a challenge and be empowered to thrive–especially for young girls.

Seeing the children succeed and seeing the positive change in their lives has changed my life for the better.

To visit Creative’s CIES 2017 Special Report hub, click here.

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