SMS brings local tales to Zambian school children

A mobile reading project that will bring reading to Zambian children who often have no access to books at home is one of 14 winners of a literacy innovation competition under the U.S. Agency for International Development’s All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, Creative Associates International announced today.

Developed by Creative Associates International and called Makahalidwe Wathu, the mobile storytelling project will complement its current Read to Succeed program in Zambia.

“Winners [of the competition] represent the most promising, creative and impactful solutions in literacy innovations and were chosen from a competitive process that elicited 213 proposals from 50 countries,” according to a USAID press release.

Makahalidwe Wathu, which means “our way of staying” in the local Chinyanja language, will use crowdsourcing to collect local stories, folktales and original content from community members in Zambia and the diaspora using cell phones, voice messages and a web-based submission form.

From this story bank, 54 selections will be edited to be language and age appropriate and sent via SMS to the parents of 1,000 primary school students—which will increase the children’s ability and improve their attitudes toward reading.

“There is a passion for storytelling in Zambia, and a strong desire to help children preserve their linguistic heritage while learning to read,” says Tassew Zewdie, who directs Creative’s Read to Succeed program in Zambia. “This innovation brings young people their own timeless stories as it capitalizes on their digital lives.”

(Read more about the Read to Succeed Program)

Few resources means poor reading performance

In Zambia, limited access to reading materials, especially in local languag­es, has inhibited children’s ability to master foundational literacy skills.

With so few mother-tongue books and materials at home, parents and community members rarely find ways to support children in reading outside of school. As a result, children do not have adequate opportunities to prac­tice reading.

It shows: The South African Consor­tium for Monitoring Education Quality noted in 2010 that only 27.4 percent of sixth graders could read at a basic competency level.

“Where children’s books are rare, it follows that literacy is low,” says Creative’s co-founder and CEO Charito Kruvant. “But we can look beyond these old limitations and innovate to bring reading to children and communities. That’s what Makhalidwe Wathu is doing.”

Although literacy is low in Zambia, rates of mobile phone usage are quite high. Makhalidwe Wathu capitalizes on this mobile technology to create and dis­seminate recreational mother tongue reading materials to families with early grade children in Zambia in a way that is communi­ty-based and scalable.

Local language, local stories, local partners

Creative is piloting Makhalidwe Wathu in cooperation with Read to Succeed, a USAID-funded program already working with Zambia’s government to improve early grade reading through more effective teaching and school-community partnerships.

Along with community mobilizers and Parent Teacher Associations, for­mal local partners are taking a leading role in implementing this innovation and ensuring Zambian ownership over the process and results.

In addition to Zambia’s Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education, associates include Lubu­to Library Partners, the University of Zambia, technology hub BongoHive, community radio station BreezeFM and tablet-based education provider iSchool.

By collecting these stories from community members and send­ing them out via SMS to parents of school-age children, Makhalidwe Wathu raises awareness about the importance of early grade literacy, and encourages a culture of mother-tongue storytelling and reading that will excite and ener­gize students.

The added time spent reading with family members also creates a stron­ger support system for young students to continue practicing reading outside of school.

The cost-effective model for Makhalidwe Wathu could eventually put reading materials into the hands of more than 8 million native Chinyanja speakers— and eventually every rural and urban schoolchild’s home in Africa.

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