Written by: Mubuso Zamchiya
Liberia. Egypt. Ethiopia. Libya. Sudan. Tunisia. Morocco. Ghana. Guinea. Cameroon. Senegal. Togo. Mali. Madagascar. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Somalia. Benin. Niger. Burkina Faso. Côte d’Ivoire. Chad. Central African Republic. Republic of the Congo. Gabon. Mauritania. Sierra Leone. Nigeria. Cameroon. Tanzania. Burundi. Rwanda. Algeria. Uganda. Kenya. Malawi. Zambia. The Gambia. Botswana. Lesotho.
Congratulations! You have just read the names of the first 39 African countries to gain independence from western colonial rule. You likely did so in less than one minute. But, if you were a third-grade student in a high-poverty Liberian school, you likely couldn’t read these names. Only 21 percent of you and your peers would have succeeded. Just 5.8 percent of you would have succeeded at reading this list if you were a Liberian in second grade.
Of course, I am cheating a little. The names of the some of the countries above are multi-syllabic or multi-worded, both of which increase the reading degree of difficulty, especially for young children. So, here is an easier passage:
“Come down,” I said. “Can you see all the people?”
They asked, “When will we go to the water?”
But it was a cold day. So, I called each of them. “Look! I am about to write some words.”
This one also has 39 words. This passage is drawn from the Fry 100 Sight Words List. Sight words are high-frequency, commonly-used words that third graders should know and read easily. The words are often taught for memorization because they do not all follow the general rules of spelling, or conform phonetically to guidance on the six types of syllables.
Still, there is some good news for children in Liberia. The Luminos Fund, where I am Managing Director, has been active there since 2016, providing catch-up education to out-of-school children who have missed or dropped out of the first years of primary schooling due poverty, conflict, discrimination, and now COVID-19.
Over ten months, Luminos’ joyful, child-centered, play-based approach helps children learn how to learn and become literate and numerate. They then take the government placement exams and enter mainstream schooling in the third or fourth grade, reading at 39 words per minute on average.
Now, 39 words per minute may not sound impressive at first, but it is really good news. You see, when out-of-school children come to Luminos, most can only read 5 words per minute. That means, with Luminos, they make 10-month learning gains of 34 words per minute.
Take a look at the U.S. for context. According to the Oral Reading Frequency Norms (ORF), children in American schools at the 50th percentile start third grade at 83 words per minute and end the year reading 112 (a 29 words per minute gain). They enter fourth grade at 94 words per minute and end reading 133 (a gain of 39 words per minute.)
That is about the same annual reading gain as the Luminos children in Liberia – give or take 5 words per minute in each case. But Luminos gets this done at a tiny fraction of the cost. For reference, U.S. K-12 schools spend $12,612 per student annually, as compared to the Luminos program, which delivers three years of learning in 10 months at a cost as low as $150 per child.
So, here’s the takeaway. As Africans and friends of Africa come together and celebrate Africa Day on May 25th, please take note. If Luminos, as an independent NGO, can cost-effectively bring the most marginalized children in Liberia to reading improvement levels commensurate to kids in American public schools, then what might be possible throughout entire education systems? I mean, what could be achieved if we all unite around one straightforward idea: to concentrate education reform, innovation, and development efforts on improving oral reading fluency for all primary-age children across the landscape of the 54 African countries? Surely recovery from COVID-19 related learning loss would be tangibly within our grasp!
That’s it for my Africa Day message. But, before you go, allow me to make you smile. In 1979, when only three African countries—Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa—remained under colonial and apartheid rule, Bob Marley released a magnificent song called Africa Unite. In its final refrain, the song, at its best, offers some powerfully evocative words:
“So, Africa, Unite.
Afri, Africa unite, yeah!
Unite for the benefit (Africa unite) of your people!
Unite, for it’s later (Africa unite) than you think!
Unite for the benefit of your children.
Unite, for it’s later than you think!”
You are smiling aren’t you? It’s Bob Marley after all. But imagine if all African children received quality education: education that would allow them to read these very same 39 inspiring lyrics comfortably at third grade, even as they sing along to this remarkable Africa Day anthem. Wouldn’t that just light up their faces? We grownups had better not wait until it is too late to make it so.
Mubuso Zamchiya is Managing Director at the Luminos Fund, a nonprofit that provides transformative education programs to thousands of out-of-school children, helping them to catch up to grade level, reintegrate into local schools, and prepare for lifelong learning. Luminos has set 152,051 children across Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia on a path to lifelong learning.