This blog is adapted from a conversation with Alex Alubisia, Chief of Party of the Education for Marginalized Children in Kenya project (EMACK), based in Mombasa. He visited Washington, DC, where he spoke at the Society for International Development, and with staff at the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. office. EMACK is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, EMACK and the Reading to Learn approach will be featured at the 2013 USAID Education Summit in Washington, DC, August 6-8.

The Reading to Learn program enables children in early grades to learn to read much faster than traditional methods. It employs a holistic approach to reading, and starts from the child’s context at home and in school. Reading to Learn builds on the child’s context.

In teaching, you must always start from the known to the unknown. Here, the child’s known involves vocabulary: the words used all the time by the mother, the father, the peers, the grandparents, and other community people. A child gains a rich vocabulary informed by their own environment and experience. Reading to Learn builds on stories that have been told at home. The teachers encourage students to talk about their own stories and themes. The themes link to the syllabus but they allow the teacher to be creative and add other themes not in the syllabus. Then the teacher tells the children a story, first orally (following the children’s own stories). That story is written up and displayed and the teacher helps children to go through it, reading sentence by sentence.

It’s normally a one-page story to keep it simple. After they’ve written the whole story, they break it down into sentences. Then the children read the sentences one after the other, and they understand the context that they’re dealing with. Then the paper with the sentences is cut up, and the children are encouraged to identify the words and phrases in each sentence. First the whole text, then a sentence, then short phrases, then the individual words. After the individual word level, they spell the words. Then they start writing the words.

One Teacher Who Made a Difference

On the coast, there’s one teacher in Vishakani Primary School, in Kilifi County, named Cecilia. Cecilia did not receive direct training on Reading to Learn. She was trained by a peer who had received formal training in the technique. But Cecilia went ahead and trained others around her. It shows you the transformative power of education community practice: This teacher was so thrilled and so motivated by learning the Reading to Learn technique, she immediately put it into action.

Shortly afterward, we heard from our local partner, “Hey, there’s something interesting happening at Vishakani Primary School. Would you want to come and see?” I didn’t think much of it initially, but after they mentioned it a second time, I went there and ended up spending a whole day there. This teacher is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met. She was working with children. You could see the passion in the way she used her hands, in the way she organized her class, and in the way her face radiated ownership of the learning process. You could see that the children were following every word. The children were so engaged — they were kids about age 3 but they answered like kids in upper primary school.

The teacher really seemed to be enjoying herself. She discovered that Reading to Learn is labor-intensive but also that if she prepared well, many other things she would teach the children later would go more easily, and she did not have to work twice as hard. But she spent a lot of time preparing well. She said that Reading to Learn also helped her interpret the curriculum in a much better way than before. And she promised to pass it on to other teachers in her school.

She has trained all the other teachers on Reading to Learn in the Vishakani Primary School, and the school has taken over as the lead school in that cluster. Now Vishakani Primary School’s results on the primary schooling certificate are much higher. The students’ performance has been phenomenal because of what this teacher has done.

She’s an inspiration to me. She could be my mentor.

To learn more about the Education for Marginalized Children in Kenya project (EMACK), please click here and to learn about education in the Aga Khan Development Network, read our latest report, Learning about Learning, here.