Yemeni Ministry of Education brings phonics-based reading to all first graders

By Jillian Slutzker

October 24, 2016

“When children can learn to read—and when all children get that opportunity regardless of social status or wealth—it changes everything for them.”

Joy du Plessis, Senior Reading Specialist at Creative Associates International

First graders across Yemen will have a greater chance at getting ahead in reading this year, thanks to the Ministry of Education’s adoption of the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach textbook in all first grade classrooms.

Adopted in September by Ministry decree, the textbook, called “I Read and I Learn,” was designed in 2014 by local and international educators, Arabic early grade reading experts, and education officials as part of the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach project.

“Men and women from all over Yemen contributed to the development of this program,” says Joy du Plessis, a Senior Reading Specialist at Creative Associates International, which implemented the USAID-funded project.

Within the Ministry of Education, multiple teams came together to collaborate on the development of the program and materials, including Ministry sectors focusing on curriculum development, teacher training, mentoring and assessment, psychosocial support and other areas. The rollout and implementation of the approach also involved education officials at the governorate and school levels, as well as parents and community members.

“The textbook ‘I read and I learn,’ which is a product of the program, is not a mere book.  It is a national project that brought all the Ministry sectors to work together in harmony for the first time,” wrote curriculum author Najilaa Thiban in an article on the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach Facebook page.

Based on phonics and active learning methodologies, the approach has proved successful in helping young learners develop literacy skills since its initial pilot phase, in which children’s reading ability jumped from just 5 words per minutes to 25 words per minute.

A national scale-up despite conflict

At the start of the program in 2011, the Ministry was very concerned about poor reading results in the primary grades and from the beginning took ownership of the approach and its national scale-up.

Despite ongoing war in the country, the Ministry of Education has continued to scale up the reading approach into early grade classrooms nationwide for better learning outcomes, most recently with the adoption of the grade one textbook as the official curriculum.

“Educators and the leadership at the Ministry of Education have realized that the early grade reading approach is a comprehensive national project for all educational sectors that requires the synergy and engagement of all departments and centers,” says the project’s former Chief of Party Atia Moor.

Moor explains that the Ministry’s recent adoption of the first grade textbook demonstrates a commitment to improving education in the country and sustaining literacy reform and progress.

“It signifies that the Yemenis are committed to moving forward in building a better future for the next generation,” he says, noting that despite the conflict, educators, officials and communities remain dedicated to this goal.

Spreading the joy of reading and teaching

For teachers, the official adoption of the Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach means simpler, yet more effective lessons. Its systematic approach helps learners develop an understanding of syllable sounds, word reading, listening and reading comprehension step-by-step and with lots of hands-on practice. Teachers meanwhile are supported with a teacher guide and come to be familiar with the patterns of their phonics-based lessons, explains du Plessis.

“In essence, teachers really see the value of this program. They see that if they follow the approach, then children can learn to read. They also understand that when children can learn to read—and when all children get that opportunity regardless of social status or wealth—it changes everything for them,” she says.

The Yemen Early Grade Reading Approach is centered on culturally relevant stories written by Ministry of Education authors so they reflect important social and cultural lessons, including cooperating with others, respecting parents and being honest and fair. Active learning techniques ensure children are constantly engaged in the material.

Du Plessis says these stories “make children think and predict” and encourage “curiosity and love of learning.” The end result: a growing culture of reading at school and at home.

“Over and over during my time in Yemen, parents, teachers and community members told me that children were happy when they were learning to read. Children were more eager to go to school on a regular basis and parents were more engaged with their children at home, helping them with homework and reading with them,” she says.

To continue to spread this culture of reading and promote the recent adoption of the first grade textbook, the Ministry and educators have taken to social media in a public awareness campaign that is engaging teachers, learners and community members across the country.

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