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Strengthening Malawi’s Literacy—Even During COVID

Around the globe, teachers know that reading is a building block of education, which is itself foundational to health and wellbeing. The government of Malawi understands this, and has teamed with USAID’s Abt-led Yesani Ophunzira (YESA) Activity to increase the country’s literacy rate. But true literacy is more than memorizing words. It is a complex skill, requiring a structured, evidence-based teaching approach from phonemic awareness to reading comprehension. Teachers must be prepared to help students with a variety of skill levels, and know how to provide the right support.   A crucial element for the YESA strategy is the continuous assessment and remediation (CA&R) approach for learners, which also provides feedback to teachers on improvements needed in their approach to reading instruction.

Unpacking CA&R

CA&R is the cyclical approach teachers use to evaluate students’ reading skills on a regular basis and correct or intervene where needed. YESA is aligned with the Malawi’s National Reading Program curriculum, which incorporates CA&R. After a teacher presents four units, he or she administers an assessment in the fifth week.  During this week, teachers assess the children’s competencies and develop strategies to support them according to their skills needs.

“This remediation is not ‘one size fits all,’” says Stella Kachiwanda, Abt’s deputy chief of party in Malawi. “It’s really specialized. The CA&R assesses basic reading skills ranging from lower to highest, meaning it addresses letter name, letter sound, syllables, word, sentence, story and comprehension.”

Based on the assessment, teachers, with Abt’s support, help students to improve their reading, regardless of skill level.

Teaching the Teachers

To maintain this degree of differentiation, the teachers need to stay focused and be able to connect with a variety of different learners. CA&R plays a role here, too. In addition to the CA&R implementation training, teachers also participate in school-based learning activities, including what is popularly known as Teacher Learning Circles (TLC). “TLC is part of continuous professional development for teachers,” says Florence Pwele, Abt’s community mobilization and engagement specialist. “It’s a mechanism that keeps teachers engaged and with their training top of mind.”

TLCs are monthly gatherings in which elementary-level Section Heads meet with teachers who are implementing the National Reading Programme. Together, they brainstorm classroom issues and develop solutions. Those solutions are then disseminated to all the teachers in the TLC participants’ school. The Section Heads then track the TLC participants’ performance to see if they are adhering to the agreed-upon strategies.

“We went in for monitoring, and each district’s TLC was up and running and schools have adopted [the approach],” says Kachiwanda. “It’s an opportunity for us to capitalize on CA&R and institutionalize that core concept.” Even during COVID-19, teachers have continued to use online forums established at District, Education Zone, and School levels to share best practices, and provide coaching support to their peers.

Secrets of Success: Parents

The extra engagement with teachers has increased engagement with parents and other community members during COVID-19. Using WhatsApp, some teachers have shared videos and reading exercises to parents who can access them. The parents, in turn, present these resources to their kids. As it turns out, parents are one of the secrets of YESA’s success, working closely with school administrators to make sure their kids are participating.

Beatrice Nachiola, a teacher at Naze Primary School, demonstrates how parents can practice reading activities with children at home.

“We send through the message they need to be engaged,” says Kachiwanda. “Even in the absence of teachers, parents should be supporting their children to read at home.”

Parents are told to ask their children what key concepts they’re getting from the books they’re reading, and are provided with simple assessments they can conduct at home.

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