How to build a culture of reading and literacy in Ethiopia

By Cadence Quaranta

June 7, 2018

A Q&A with literacy expert Joanie Cohen-Mitchell

Despite the growing enrollment of Ethiopian children in primary and secondary schools, only 63 percent of adolescent boys and 47 percent of girls complete school able to read and write.

The new READ II project aims move that number closer to 100 percent.

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Joanie Cohen-Mitchell, Senior Advisor for Literacy and School Readiness at Creative.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, READ II strives to increase literacy through support to teachers and students— ultimately reaching 15 million children during the five years.

Implemented by Creative Associates International with partners Education Development Center, World Vision, IRC and InEHD, READ II focuses on equipping teachers with the training, support and materials to effectively teach reading. By supporting literacy efforts at the community and household level, the project works to help develop a culture of reading outside of the classroom so young learners can succeed

For the most vulnerable learners, including girls, refugees and internally displaced students, READ II will provide specialized support, a crisis modifier, to ensure that those learners most at risk of dropout and irregular attendance can stay in school or have opportunities for extra support.

At a higher level, the project will partner with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education to systematically improve literacy education and reach students in need.

READ II builds on Creative’s holistic “whole child, whole teacher, whole school” approach that combines teacher professional development, curriculum and policy development, school management and community engagement.

In this Q&A, Joanie Cohen-Mitchell, Senior Advisor for Literacy and School Readiness at Creative and READ II Project Director, explains the obstacles to reading in Ethiopia and the program’s unique approach to increasing literacy.

How do low literacy and education obstacles affect vulnerable populations in Ethiopia?

Joanie Cohen-Mitchell: The low literacy levels and low functional literacy levels, meaning basic reading and writing abilities, hurt the most vulnerable the hardest. We’re talking about refugee communities, internally displaced people, minority language groups, poor people, rural people, nomads, pastoral people. And they are marginalized even more when they don’t have access to reading and writing and haven’t “cracked the code” to the functional literacy level. Economically, socially, mobility-wise, they are really hit the hardest.

READ II is specifically looking at internally displaced peoples in the Somali and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ regions, and in other parts of Ethiopia as well, and refugees. But we’re also focusing on disability and inclusive education, looking at ways in which we can make learning accessible to children with different abilities.

The other big focus of the READ II project is on adolescent girls. The research has shown us that they might get through primary school, but the drop-off rate as they go through puberty is quite significant. And if there’s not an enabling environment at school, at home and in the community to support girls to stay in school, that becomes a really big issue.

What are some of the biggest challenges for teachers?

Cohen-Mitchell: Lack of materials is always huge. Do they have textbooks, do they have teacher guides, do they know how to teach reading?

In the last 15 years or so, there’s been a lot of scientific research and evidence-based practice about how to most efficaciously teach reading and writing. It’s a phonics or a balanced approach, but a lot of teachers aren’t exposed to those methodologies and even if they are, they don’t have ways to sustain the support around them. Maybe there aren’t teaching guides, or maybe their supervisor doesn’t understand the new approaches to reading, writing and literacy and they’re not supportive of the teacher changing his or her behavior. You really have to look at what the system is doing to support those teachers.

The other piece is that there is a lot of movement in Ethiopia, and teachers are in and out of different schools. Maybe a school principal has done a great job of developing this cadre of teachers at the primary level, but then they are placed somewhere else. Mobility can create a new set of teachers who might not be able to do what they need to do to help kids learn to read and write.

How will the READ II project support teachers?

Cohen-Mitchell: The focus of the change is really on the teacher, but we know that it can’t just be the teacher alone. We need to make sure that the educational system around the teacher is also supportive. While the majority of our interventions are targeting that single teacher in the classroom who is teaching reading and writing, we’re also spending a lot of time teaching principals and supervisors how to be coaches and how to mentor teachers, which means that they too have to understand this new reading pedagogy. We know that the teacher is at the center, but we are also looking at what’s around him or her, and the supports that need to be put into place.

Another piece is looking at the multiple layers in the Ministry of Education, figuring out how we can strengthen systems so that the work is sustained. And it really does take all those pieces working well together to create long-term change.

What makes READ II unique?

Cohen-Mitchell: We’re going to focus at the teacher level, and we’re going to work with our partner Education Development Center to start linking in-service and pre-service teacher training, because right now they’re two distinct systems. We’re trying to link those systems so that there’s more of a continuum before someone becomes a teacher and after they enter the classroom.

This project also has a very unique component in what’s called a crisis modifier. There are ongoing crises in Ethiopia, with refugees and internally displaced people who don’t have food, don’t have money, whose families are struggling. So, our mandate with the crisis modifier is to intensify, in a very rapid way, educational outputs or activities to bring children back to school. For students who have been out of school temporarily, supplemental activities like after-school summer programs and extracurriculars can get them back on track. If they have been out of school long-term, programs like accelerated learning can help them return to the classroom.

How will READ II address the additional hurdles that female learners face?

Cohen-Mitchell: The focus on adolescent girls is very unique to this project and previously hasn’t been done in a systematic way.

We’re going back through all the educational materials that have already been developed and looking through a gender lens. Are girls and women portrayed well? Are there gender stereotypes? Are the materials pushing some of the boundaries and some of the social taboos to really promote equity and equality for adolescent girls?

We’re also doing a radio series, a program we’re calling “Let Girls In, Let Girls Learn, Let Girls Lead,” which is focused on girls’ agency and empowerment. And that is intended to be a safe space for young girls. Adolescent girls need a safe space where they can problem-solve together and be supported by a mentor, a woman in the community or a leader outside the community to help them see the possibilities. So that’s a really exciting component!

Cadence Quaranta is an intern with Creative’s Communications team. She will be studying Journalism and International Relations at Northwestern University in the fall.

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