Otília overcomes: Rural Mozambican girl outshines her peers in reading

By Valdimar Da Fonesca

January 24, 2020

MAPUTO, Mozambique — Otília Alves Manai, age 9, faces the same challenges as many young learners in Mozambique. High rates of food insecurity and chronic malnutrition, large class sizes, high levels of poverty and poor school infrastructure are just a few of these.

But unlike the majority of children in Mozambique who begin their formal education in Portuguese — a language fewer than 10 percent of children speak when they start school — Otília is learning to read in her mother tongue.

The USAID-funded bilingual early grade reading project Vamos Ler!/Let’s Read! is providing technical and material assistance to improve early grade literacy instruction in three local languages, Emakhuwa, Elomwe and Echuwabo. The project is also working on second language acquisition and literacy support to prepare children for a gradual transition to Portuguese.

Learning to read in a language they already speak and understand not only makes school more interesting and less intimidating for young students but also helps to lay a foundation for lifelong learning.

Otília is one of the 800,000 children benefiting from the program and was one of more than 13,000 students tested across over 500 schools in the project’s midterm early grade reading assessment.

She was by far the best of all young readers tested, reading nearly 40 words in less than a minute. This is remarkable given that the average number of words read by children tested was only 11, and in general boys tended to outperform girls in reading.

Her academic achievements are in stark contrast to those of her family. Neither of her parents finished primary school and none of her four older sisters can read, though two did complete primary school.

Turning the tide on illiteracy with mother tongue instruction

Poverty and illiteracy remain persistently high in Mozambique, particularly in rural areas and among women. The overall literacy rate for Mozambicans age 15 or older is 47 percent, but for women it is just 33 percent nationally and only 23 percent in rural area.

When Otília’s mother struggles to spell her own name to the Vamos Ler! team, Otília quickly comes to her rescue.

“She is the youngest of all my children, but she can read much more than her brothers,” says Otília’s mother. “She likes to read everything she can get her hands on to learn new things.”

Both her parents are illiterate and cannot help Otília with her schoolwork, but they encourage her love of learning and enjoy listening to her read out loud to them. They try to ensure she has time to study at home during the day, as there is no electricity for her to work at night.  

The Vamos Ler! program has been developing student learning materials in Otília’s mother tongue, Echuawabo.

The student textbooks, exercise books, supplementary reading books and posters have child-friendly illustrations and stories that are relevant to daily life in rural Mozambique. They also spark children’s curiosity and introduce new concepts that let them discover a world full of possibilities. 

When she started school in her remote village, Otília didn’t have many dreams for the future and never imagined having a life different from her parents. But when her teacher introduced the supplementary books developed by Vamos Ler! she was able to learn about different professions and what they do.

Otília decided that when she grows up, she wants to be a nurse, to take care of the people in her community that she has seen struggle with many different illnesses.

She is proud of her accomplishments as the program’s top reader and wants to keep on learning.

 “I like to learn all the stories that are in our books. I also like to read at home, because our teacher told us that if we read a lot at home, we will be able to read even better in the classroom.  I would like to be the best every year!”

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