With phonics even the youngest readers succeed

By Jennifer Brookland

August 5, 2013

First grade student Choolwe Chiwala shows off her newly-acquired phonetic reading skills.

First grade teacher Michelo Muleya wanted all of her young pupils to master the building blocks of education, but learning to read and write was proving to be a major challenge for many of them. Pulled away to complete household chores, forced to endure long commutes on foot or frustrated by their inability to quickly excel, children attending Chiparamba Basic School faced joining the nearly half of Zambian children who never finish primary school.

But with the introduction of a new phonics-based approach to reading instruction, more of them are getting the chance to gain the reading skills and confidence they need to succeed in their education early on.

The approach is part of a road map for improved early grade reading developed by Zambia’s Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education (MESVTEE), with technical support from USAID’s Read to Succeed Project (RTS).

RTS is being implemented in six provinces of Zambia to improve teacher effectiveness, school leadership and management and increase the use of performance assessment data to boost learner performance.

In Muleya’s school, all of the first and second grade teachers received training on the new reading instruction approach from the RTS project, which uses a structured, step-by- step teaching process focused on five key reading components—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension—as well as concepts of print.

Muleya found the new methods to be user-friendly, and quickly started applying the skills in her classroom. It did not take long before she started seeing results. Soon, her pupils could read short words. Before long they could even make some short sentences.

Muleya was as excited as the children were, and surprised to see such immediate progress. The new reading approach was resulting in literacy gains in just three to four weeks for even the youngest pupils in class.

In Muleya’s classroom, this was Choolwe Chiwala. Initially anguished by her inability to read, Choolwe had almost given up on school. Then Muleya began teaching her with the new phonetic approach.

“Only once in a while did I ever ask her to say something, but to my surprise each time she answered the question, the answer would be correct,” says Muleya.

As Muleya started paying more attention to Choolwe and using phonics lessons to help her learn to read, she was excited to see the RTS approach was working.

Now, Choolwe begs to be called on in class.

“I used to find a lot of difficulties in reading when I started school, but now I know how to read in Chinyanja (the local language),” Choolwe says, beaming with joy.

Muleya reports that Choolwe is able to read all of the vowels and consonants she has taught so far, and can easily form words and short sentences.

“I am very happy that teaching and learning to read has been made simple to the extent that even the younger pupils in class can develop reading skills in the shortest time possible,” Muleya says.

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