On May 23, the Luminos Fund convened leading education experts to discuss the U.S. reading wars and refocus attention on the crucial task of teaching children how to read. This was the second webinar in the Luminos Method series, which also marked the launch of our latest Luminos Method element: Phonics for First-Generation Readers. This Method element is a user-friendly resource designed for governments and education organizations, combining the latest research on effective phonics instruction with our best practices developed through years of experience in some of the world’s most challenging contexts.
Emily Hanford, Senior Producer and Correspondent, American Public Media
Dr. Benjamin Piper, Director, Global Education Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Caitlin Baron, CEO, Luminos Fund
Watch the webinar below:
Journalist Emily Hanford, celebrated for her in-depth, investigative podcast, Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, set the scene by providing an overview of the current state of reading instruction in American schools. Dr. Benjamin Piper of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drew on his extensive experience working in low-income countries, and shed light on the journey of learning to read in such contexts. Of the many valuable lessons they shared, here are five that stood out:
1) We are facing a global learning crisis.
The global learning crisis transcends national boundaries, and the consequences of this crisis are far-reaching, hindering social and economic progress and perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality. In the U.S. and around the world, far too many children are not learning to read.
“7 in 10 kids worldwide can’t read at the age of grade three, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, that’s 9 in 10 children. 90% of kids can’t read by the end of their third-grade year, age 10… Learning levels in these foundational years have lasting impacts on children’s low learning trajectories and future life prospects overall.”
Dr. Benjamin Piper
2) All children can benefit from a phonics-based approach to reading instruction, especially those in low-income countries.
Research consistently shows that explicit and systematic phonics instruction is an essential part of a comprehensive approach to foundational literacy. This approach promotes inclusivity and equips children with the tools they need to become successful readers. This is especially important for first-generation readers who are growing up in homes without books or parents who can read to them — phonics-based instruction equips them with the tools they need to become independent, confident readers.
“We work with students who are often the first in their family to learn to read, coming from homes that may not have a single book and coming from environments where the printed word is not a familiar thing. Most importantly, many of the students we teach are actually learning to read in the language they don’t speak at home. When you think through all of these extraordinary barriers to learning to read, it starts to become clear why a systematic step-by-step approach to teaching kids to learn to read is all the more essential.”
Luminos students in Ethiopia practice their reading skills using readers with local stories and illustrations. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
3) Partisan political and ideological concerns have highjacked the debate on reading instruction.
The U.S. debate surrounding reading instruction has unfortunately become mired in partisan political and ideological concerns, diverting attention from evidence-based practices. It is crucial to refocus the conversation on research and best practices, ensuring that decisions about reading instruction prioritize the needs of children above all else.
“If you’re a mom of a kid who’s struggling to read, whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, or a Democrat or Republican, you still care about this issue… And I’m hoping that means we will start to get the politics out and just do what we know is best from a lot of scientific research about how to teach kids to read.”
4) The key to academic success and social-emotional well-being is grounded in foundational literacy skills.
Foundational literacy skills serve as the cornerstone of academic success and social-emotional well-being for children. These skills not only establish one’s reading abilities but also contribute to broader cognitive development, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Moreover, mastering foundational literacy skills empowers children, instilling confidence and a sense of accomplishment which positively impacts their overall well-being and engagement in the classroom. By prioritizing and strengthening foundational literacy skills, educators can set children on a path toward lifelong learning.
“If we put a bright light on the foundational skills and really make sure that kids are mastering those, that allows them to experience success in school.”
Learn more about how we grow our student’s sense of self-belief and ensure they are able to experience success in the Identity & Self Belief element of the Luminos Method!
Luminos students in The Gambia during a literacy lesson. (Photo: Lena Nian for the Luminos Fund)
5) Teaching children how to read is not easy, and teachers need support.
Teaching children how to read is undoubtedly challenging, and explicit phonics instruction can often be new to teachers. They need ongoing coaching and support to help children become successful readers. It involves adapting teaching strategies, providing individualized support, and fostering a joyful classroom environment.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in classrooms in Sub-Saharan Africa and India in the last 16 years having lived here. [In] well-designed programs where teachers are trained and supported to teach these programs that are not only phonics but include phonics, you see the magic of having these kids track with their fingers as their teacher is reading the word, and actually seeing the relationship themselves between the letter sounds and the words.”
Dr. Benjamin Piper
Equitable and Effective Reading Instruction for All
The webinar served as a platform for educators, policymakers, and advocates to contribute to the global conversation on one of the most critical issues facing education today: how to teach children to read.
The insights shared by our speakers reinforce the urgency of prioritizing evidence-based reading instruction for all children. With continued efforts and collaboration, the global community can strive towards equitable and effective reading instruction for future generations.
In The Gambia, the Luminos Fund is working hand in hand with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE) to tackle one of the most pressing education issues today — how to ensure all children have equal access to joyful, foundational learning. Together, we have created and launched an accelerated learning program that brings transformative education to out-of-school children.
The launch of this program marks a major milestone in our partnership with MoBSE. By leveraging the power of partnership, we are reaching the most vulnerable out-of-school children in The Gambia and helping them to catch up to grade level, reintegrate into government schools, and prepare for lifelong learning.
A Timely and Mutually Beneficial Partnership
The Gambia, a small country in West Africa, is home to more than 70,000 out-of-school children. With a population of just over 2.5 million people, the number of out-of-school children presents significant challenges for the country’s efforts to achieve quality education for all. For the most marginalized children, the effects of missed education often extend over a lifetime. As disruptions to learning caused by the global pandemic and other crises increasingly threaten children’s futures, education systems must act now to help the most vulnerable children get back on the path of learning, and strengthen their capacity to adapt to emergent challenges.
The Constitution of The Republic of Gambia acknowledges that basic education is a right to which every child in the country is entitled. While the government has made commendable efforts to increase enrollment rates for primary-school-aged children and provide education services to children outside of the formal school system, ensuring the functional literacy and numeracy of out-of-school children continues to be a challenge.
In 2021, The Gambian government requested Luminos’ expertise and support to develop a new accelerated learning curriculum that provides foundational learning to children who have missed out on basic education in their early years. We are piloting the curriculum in 20 classrooms during the 2022-23 school year, serving children aged 8-14 who have either never enrolled in school, or dropped out two or more years ago. The pilot program is a timely and relevant solution to the out-of-school challenge and aligns with key priorities identified by MoBSE and relevant stakeholders. It is also an opportunity to evaluate the impact of the curriculum and further refine it before scaling the program to reach even more out-of-school children.
The program provides students with foundational literacy and numeracy skills, helping them to catch up on three years of learning in just one school year, then reintegrate into local government schools. We partner closely with community-based organizations to maximize impact and deliver the program using an intensive, child-centered, and activity-based learning approach.
In The Gambia, our classes are taught by community teachers — young adults recommended by the communities we serve, as well as by MoBSE’s Second Chance Programme and the Gambia National Teacher Training College.
Emily Joof, Associate Director of Programs at Luminos notes, “When we began this pilot, the majority of the students could not recognize their letters or their numbers, and as time has progressed, we have noticed marked improvement with children confidently recognizing letters, numbers, and even beginning to read short words. In terms of education, every single child’s success is something to be celebrated. The pilot will allow us to change the lives of each and every student who has enrolled.”
“The pilot will allow us to change the lives of each and every student who has enrolled.”
Emily Joof, Associate Director of Programs, The Luminos Fund
The Journey so Far and a Way Forward
The challenges facing global education systems today cannot be addressed by any one institution, organization, or individual alone. Through innovative partnerships, founded on mutual respect and trust, we can reverse the learning crisis and ensure support for the most marginalized children.
“The issue of education is not something that any one person or organization can address in silos. The experience that these [community] partners will get from this partnership [with Luminos] can scale up when they implement other programs that they have or when they partner with other organizations in the future.”
Mr. Momodou Jeng, Director of Curriculum Research Evaluation and Development Directorate, Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, The Gambia
At Luminos, our model is powered by innovative partnerships at all levels of society. These partnerships have been integral to our program’s impact and success. In each country of operation, Luminos partners with ministries of education to strengthen education systems by sharing best practices, prioritizing shared goals, building capacity, advising on national education policies, and supporting research.
Since 2021, Luminos has been on this partnership journey with The Gambian government, working jointly to address the out-of-school challenge. Following regular working group discussions to develop the multiple phases of the accelerated learning curriculum, learning exchange visits to the Luminos program in Liberia, and stakeholder consultations with local community partners and research experts, we have developed a practical plan to support out-of-school primary-aged children in The Gambia to receive a second chance at education.
Our experience delivering the Luminos program across Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East shows that to build sustainable and resilient education solutions, you must draw from and amplify local systems and resources. Through our partnerships with government and the communities that we serve, we are able to refine, implement, and scale effective accelerated learning programs that are locally driven and contextualized to align with national priorities and goals.
Luminos is grateful for the expertise, enthusiasm, and commitment of The Gambian government to work collaboratively in addressing the country’s out-of-school children challenge. The road ahead will be long, but our journey has just begun. Luminos looks forward to growing our partnership with MoBSE in the months ahead and bringing thousands of out-of-school children back on the path of learning. By unlocking the light of learning, children can reach their full potential and fulfill their aspirations. Together, we can transform education in The Gambia and take one step closer to our vision of a world where no child is denied an education.
“It’s a good thing to have Luminos coming on board to partner with us in this great endeavor of providing education to all the children living in The Gambia. We value the partnership, and we look forward to a stronger, strengthened relationship and collaboration so that we’ll be able to achieve our goals.”
Honorable Minister Claudiana A Cole, Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education
Set in the rolling green hills of southern Ethiopia, Tsigereda’s village is a patchwork quilt of carefully tended fields, forest, and traditional homes made of earth and wood.
Nestled between the fields and the forest is a Luminos classroom full of brightly colored posters, handmade clay letters, and songs. This is where Tsigereda began her first steps towards lifelong learning—but it wasn’t always this way.
Tsigereda had spent earlier years of her life out of school, helping raise younger relatives about 124 miles away in a bustling fishing town called Ziway.
“Since she spent a lot of time in Ziway, it was hard for her to get used to rural life,” says Tsigereda’s teacher, Konjit.
Help children like Tsigereda get a second chance at education
After the death of her parents, Tsigereda’s grandmother became her caregiver, but with extra children to feed in her household, Adnaech had no money left over to send Tsigereda to school. Instead, she sent Tsigereda to Ziway to look after their relatives’ children. Child labor in Ethiopia can often take innocuous forms like this: caring for the children of relatives, tending to livestock, or simply helping around the home. Yet all of these tasks keep children out of the classroom, pulling them off the path of learning.
Tsigereda with her grandmother Adnaech outside their home. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
This year, at age 11, Tsigereda’s uncle brought her back to her rural home village to be raised alongside her cousins. Shortly after Tsigereda’s homecoming, her grandmother learned about Luminos’ free catch-up education program for out-of-school children like Tsigereda and enrolled her.
“My favorite activity is learning by songs! Because the songs we sing have a lot of knowledge in them,” says Tsigereda earnestly. Songs in the Luminos program help students internalize lessons on a variety of topics from the sounds vowels make to the importance of learning. These activity-based lessons are core to the Luminos curriculum, allowing formerly out-of-school students to catch up on the content of three years of school in just 10 months.
Emersed in a joyful learning environment, Tsigereda was thriving—and it didn’t take long for her teacher and family to notice. “Tsigereda has shown a lot of change,” says her teacher, Konjit. “Now she enjoys learning and spending time with her friends. She loves to read and lead activities.” For Konjit, seeing students like Tsigereda improve is her favorite part of being a teacher. “I feel like all my work pays off when I see them read and write,” she says.
Tsigereda sings about the importance of school and learning alongside her classmates as they begin the day’s lessons.(Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
The walls of Tsigereda’s classroom are decorated with colorful posters from past lessons, and handmade teaching materials. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Outside the classroom, Tsigereda takes a turn reading to her small group, supervised by teacher Konjit. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
In addition to her love of singing, Tsigereda proudly shares that her favorite subject is math: “I like working with numbers—it’s so much fun to add and subtract numbers!”
Tsigereda’s grandmother, Adnaech, observed Tsigereda’s rapid progress with pride saying, “They told me at her school that she is very clever—I have seen her improvement myself. She helps out others as well.” Adnaech is now very intentional about ensuring that Tsigereda has enough time for studying when she gets home. “I love to see her when she is studying, reading, writing, doing her homework at home,” Adnaech notes. “A person can only live a better life if they get an education—education is important for life.”
Tsigereda doing her homework after school. “Education is very important, because without education, you cannot get knowledge,” says Tsigereda. “Getting knowledge will broaden your mind, and you will be able to do good things for your community.” (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Looking to the Future
Tsigereda’s teacher, Konjit, goes one step further in describing the power of education: “Education is what brings you out of darkness and into the light.”
“Education is what brings you out of darkness and into the light.”
Konjit, Luminos teacher in Ethiopia
Konjit, Tsigereda’s teacher in the Luminos program. “I like teacher Konjit because she explains everything very well,” says Tsigereda. “There’s nothing I don’t understand when she teaches us!” (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
That light is shining in Tsigereda as she takes the next steps on her learning journey. After gaining the foundation skills in reading, writing, and math through Luminos’ program, Tsigereda recently transitioned into 5th grade at her local government school where her teachers report she’s at the top of her class.
When asked about the future, Tsigereda confidently replies that she wants to continue her education “until I get a degree from a big university.” After that, she is of two minds—on the one hand she would love to become a teacher like Konjit “because I want everyone to learn!” On the other hand, perhaps Tsigereda will go on to become a doctor “because I want to save the lives of people.”
Whatever path she chooses, Tsigereda’s heart for helping those around her is clear and her future is bright.
Walk with Tsigereda on her way home from school!
Leaving the school compound of her Luminos classroom, Tsigereda starts walking home. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Tsigereda passes through several local fields on her way home. Here, families are growing corn. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Tsigereda’s home. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Tsigereda enters her home. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Tsigereda arrives at home after school and puts down her books. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Snack time! Tsigereda enjoys some sweet potatoes after school. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
After school, Tsigereda helps with household chores, including tending her family’s small farm plot. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Rolling green hills surround Tsigereda’s home. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Tsigereda feeds her family’s cows with plants from their farm. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
Chores complete, Tsigereda turns to her homework. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
While The Gambia is one of the smallest countries in Africa — with just less than 2.5 million residents — the value of education is clear, even if achieving quality education for all is still a challenge.
“People understand why they need to go to school and its direct impacts on their futures – like being able to live in a house and not a temporary structure, being able to speak English. The benefits and impacts of education are clear even to the youngest learners in The Gambia and it is something they yearn for,” explains Emily Joof, Associate Director of Programs at Luminos, who is based in Banjul.
At the request of The Gambian government, based on our unique expertise and program track record worldwide, Luminos is providing curriculum development support and advisory services to the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE) and co-creating a practical plan that will ensure all out-of-school primary-aged children in The Gambia receive a second chance at education.
“Every child deserves to be given the opportunity to explore and realize their full potentials through schooling,” says Mr. Momodou Jeng, Director of Curriculum Research Evaluation and Development Directorate at MoBSE and a key partner to Luminos. “This is my conviction.”
“Every child deserves to be given the opportunity to explore and realize their full potentials through schooling. This is my conviction.”
Mr. Momodou Jeng, Director of Curriculum Research Evaluation and Development Directorate at MoBSE
“When you look at the numbers of out-of-school children in the country, we are confident we can get 50,000 kids into school and learning,” says Emily. “This is a solvable problem.”
Although funding for education is scarce compared to the needs, teachers in The Gambia are fully committed to their students. Their passion often extends beyond the classroom, as they tend to wear many hats: nurturer, caregiver, health worker – even nutritionist.
However, there is a long road ahead. Public classrooms tend to be bare. Unlike Luminos classrooms, there are no colorful posters on the wall, no markers, pens, and few, if any, books for the students. Teachers need a user-friendly accelerated curriculum suitable for out-of-school and vulnerable children, as well as regular training, resources, and support.
“Regardless of how excellent our curriculum may be, if teachers don’t know how to teach it, it’s all for naught. Teacher training will be critical for The Gambia,” says Emily.
Mr. Jeng (center, in suit jacket) visiting a Luminos classroom in Liberia as part of the MoBSE learning trip.
In 2022, Luminos invited The Gambia’s MoBSE to visit our programs in Liberia, where they had an opportunity to see the benefits of continuous training and feedback for teachers.
“After each teacher training session, teachers would be prompted: What went well, and what didn’t go well? It is really important that we have relationships built on trust, because if not, we won’t be able see the transformation we want to see,” explains Emily.
For Emily, who recently moved back to The Gambia to work with Luminos, her interest in education is deeply rooted.
“Education is a big part of who I am. My grandmother was one of the first teachers in The Gambia. We have a lot of teachers in my family. We are proof of and the advocates for education as a tool to lift yourself out of poverty and reach your fullest potential.”
Emily Joof, Associate Director of Programs
“Education is a big part of who I am. My grandmother was one of the first teachers in The Gambia. We have a lot of teachers in my family,” she says. “We are proof of and the advocates for education as a tool to lift yourself out of poverty and reach your fullest potential.”
Looking ahead, Luminos is excited to grow our partnership with the government and realize our vision where thousands of children catch up to grade level, reintegrate into government schools, and prepare for lifelong learning.
“There is an eagerness for this change in The Gambia, which is really unparalleled,” says Emily.
Several years ago, photographer Rosie Hallam visited a pilot of the Luminos Fund’s Second Chance program in Sidama, Ethiopia. It was a trip she never forgot. Rosie met Second Chance student, Selamawit (also referred to as Selamaw in some news coverage), on that trip and spent the day with her family, taking a series of extraordinary portraits. This month, Rosie won the Royal Geographical Society’s prestigious 2021 Earth Photo competition with her portraits of Selamawit and her parents in a piece entitled, “A Right to an Education.” We spoke with Rosie about winning the award, getting to know Selamawit’s family, and visiting Second Chance classrooms in Ethiopia all those years ago.
Luminos: Congratulations on winning the 2021 Earth Photo competition! What does winning this award mean to you?
Rosie: It’s very exciting! And somewhat surprising in a way, because I felt the images I selected for the competition were quite subtle in how they might represent what Earth Photo 2021 was about.
I imagined a lot of people would think about climate change—images that people see daily of droughts and fires. But for me, it’s about the subtleties of stories. Telling individual tales about people. Amongst all the photographs I took in Ethiopia, Selamawit’s family particularly stood out for me. There was something about their dignity—I remembered them immediately and went straight to those images for the competition.
It’s a tale about a family. It could be one of millions of families around the globe. It’s quite a subtle tale of how they live their lives on a day-to-day basis.
I think education programs—lifting people up out of grinding poverty—are an amazing way of helping people, their communities, wider society, and the country as a whole.
It’s great that these photographs give people the opportunity to learn about the work that organizations like the Luminos Fund are doing. Photography is such a great way of telling those stories.
Luminos: Out of all your work, why did you choose to submit these three photos for the 2021 Earth Photo competition?
Rosie: It touched me a lot—it was just an amazing program. I don’t think any sort of charitable program has touched me as much as [Second Chance] has. Just how simple it seemed and yet how unbelievably effective it was. It literally transformed people’s lives with relatively small amounts of money.* People weren’t being given thousands of dollars, it was small seed funds. From that they were growing businesses and not just lifting themselves out of poverty, but everyone around them.
I met a lovely woman who was running a café, built from her savings group seed funding back then. Her son had completed the Second Chance program, and now all her other children were going to school because she now had the money to send them. Second Chance didn’t just impact that one child who did the catch-up program, it impacted all [the rest]. And then they’ll have children and their children will go to school. This small seed funding can impact dozens if not hundreds of people. I just thought it was amazing.
*In Ethiopia, as part of our program offering, Luminos runs savings groups for mothers of Second Chance students. Women meet weekly to save, form a business plan, and receive business and literacy training. They also receive seed funding to launch their business and are connected to local microfinance groups at the end of the school year. Eventually, mothers increase their economic stability and ability to cover the costs of future schooling when children transition to government schools.
Luminos: Where did Selamawit live and what was her life like?
Rosie: Selamawit lived in a small village with her mother, Meselech, father, Markos (also referred to as Marco in some news coverage), and three other siblings. The school was in the center and traditional huts were spaced around it. Selamawit hadn’t been in school before because her family couldn’t afford it. She was roughly 9 or 10—the same age as my daughter at the time.
Meselech hadn’t had an education and Selamawit was her first child who was able to go to school. This was at the very beginning of the program, and already her daughter could now write her name and was learning to read. I think the mother thought it was brilliant. Meselech was really engaged in the program and fully encouraging of her daughter: she said Selamawit was working hard and would continue her education after the program.
Selamawit enjoyed being at school and learning—being able to write her name was big news. The classrooms were absolutely amazing. As you approached the school you could always hear which one was the Second Chance classroom by the level of noise. All the kids were answering and everything was very visual—lots of handmade things and the students are all wearing hats. That’s what was so lovely about it—it was really vibrant. Seeing children that were so keen to learn and that were so engaged with what was going on. That’s what I really remember from going into the classrooms: these great levels of energy.
Selamawit studied at school, but then she also did all her daily chores: sweeping out the house, picking coffee beans, going to the well to collect water like all the other children. The day I visited her family, I stayed with them all morning and we ate lunch together. To watch that meal being prepared from nothing, all from the land, was mind-blowing for me. It was a really humbling experience.
Everything they needed they had to go and get. If they wanted to eat, they went into the field at the back of the house and picked some crops. To cook the food they had to go collect the firewood to build the fire. They had to go to the well to get water. To make coffee, they would pick beans from a few coffee plants on their land, dry them out, and roast them before grinding them for coffee. Every single thing they ate and drank came from their land.
You realize how fragile people are. You look at things like environmental changes—you’d only need a flood or a drought and that’s a family who’s not eating anymore.
The whole program was amazing really. I’m glad it’s still going, and I’m glad you’re running it.
Luminos: Why do you think education is important?
Rosie: I think education is important in every single society. In London, where I live, some people are more advantaged than others. Some people have better opportunities to get a decent education than others. It’s the same around the globe. Education is both a basic human right and a smart investment. It is critical for development and helps lay the foundations for social wellbeing, economic growth and security, gender equality, and peace. These really are the cornerstones of life. Everybody benefits from having a better education.