11 January 2016

Uganda: Primary Education Experts Hope Reading Performance Improves Soon

Tired of complaints about poor learning outcomes at P7, the education ministry has been making moves to end the problem as MOSES TALEMWA found out, on talking to sector officials.

This past week nearly 4,000 P1 teachers were put through their paces, in a bid to improve their teaching of literacy studies, through a seven-day refresher training, sponsored by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

The training, at 15 institutions across the country, drew in 3,893 teachers, and was held under the Early Grade Reading Achievement (EGRA) framework, intended to improve the reading abilities of pupils from P1 to P3.

According to the assistant coordinator for GPE, Ambrose Ruyooka, the trainings are targeted at the 27 districts, adjudged by the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) to be the poorest-performing in the country.

"We are following a cohort system," Ruyooka explained. "This year we are starting with P1 teachers in the affected 27 districts, then in December 2016, we shall train P2 teachers, so that those benefitting this year will be able to join when they are promoted to the next class. In December 2017, we shall then move on to P3 teachers and so on."

Some of the training institutions hosting the training include Tororo Core PTC (primary teachers' college), (for Bugiri district teachers), Kamurasi core PTC (for Kyankwanzi district teachers) and St Noa Mawaggali Core PTC in Busuubizi (for Mubende district teachers).

For instance, 250 participants showed up at Tororo Core PTC, with 18 facilitators for a training session starting January 3 and ending January 10. At Busuubizi, 280 teachers and 13 facilitators showed up for the training.

The training has seen the teachers get teaching guidebooks to support teaching of the thematic curriculum. It is expected that the model will roll out as each teacher and pupil will get a reading book, when the teaching resumes later this year.

The training is looking at improving on teaching methods for reading lessons and handwriting; and preparing simple instructional materials for instance bottle tops, straws, and boxes. The main thrust of the training is on fluency, vocabulary, phonetic awareness, alphabetic principles and comprehension.

EMPHASIS ON LITERACY

According to the principal at St Noa Mawaggali core PTC Busuubizi, Rose Akaki, the training was intended to address the challenge in teaching of literacy studies among pupils due to repeated poor performances at P7.

"Research has found that the problem is not in the lack of knowledge, but in the failure by pupils to read and comprehend; so, we are emphasizing that pupils learn to read in their local language, before they transition to English," Akaki said. "We hope that with these interventions, a P1 pupil will be able to read by the end of the first term."

Akaki's colleague at Tororo Core PTC, Tino Consolate Oriada agrees. She says the teachers are getting a good deal, which they will then pass on to their pupils.

"In most cases, we are revitalizing what they already know; we are only emphasizing multisensory teaching, so that the teachers are able to help their pupils grasp quickly," she say. "In this way, teachers are being encouraged to prepare teaching aides, such as charts and objects that the pupils can see, touch and feel to appreciate faster."

The teaching aides are being developed using simple materials such as used straws, boxes, bottles, strings and, where possible, the real object. According to Akaki, the teachers are being taught that the literacy lessons should be engaging for the pupils.

"We have what is called a literacy hour - 30 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of writing, which are connected by a short interval of singing and dancing," Akaki explains.

RESISTANCE TO ENGLISH

However, according to Gerald Bukenya, a language specialist at the National Curriculum Development Centre, the training is moving ahead amidst challenges.

"Many parents are reluctant to allow their children to benefit from the thematic curriculum as practiced in public schools," she says. They argue that thematic curriculum is simply teaching the children in the local language, yet it is more than that."

She explains that for some time the NCDC has been concerned about the way learning is conducted in schools, where schools teach in a language that pupils have only crammed but don't really understand. "The thematic curriculum, coupled with the new methodologies, is intended to address these challenges," she explains.

"Pupils start learning the normal curriculum in their local language, a medium they understand well, then by P4 they can safely transit to English."

Charles Ouma Musumba, a centre coordinating tutor based in Kisoko, agrees, before adding that they have noted that the biggest challenge comes with pupils who join P1 after a stint in nursery schools.

"Those who start learning under the thematic curriculum in P1 seem to cope better with local language than their colleagues who come from nursery schools, where they are first given a dose of training in English. Musumba argues that parents ought to support the thematic curriculum, since it is not true that pupils with an initial background in their local language perform poorly in school in the long run.

Bukenya jumps to his defence, citing studies by the NCDC that show pupils excelling in their appreciation of English, among other studies.

"Studies show that pupils understand most of the material taught to them better, once they first learn in the local language," she says. She also wants the government to make learning in the local language mandatory, where possible.

"You know they made an allowance for urban-based schools, since there are many nationalities there and it is hard to frame a proper local language," she explains. "Some parents are taking advantage of this to rush the children to urban schools, in the hope that learning in English is superior to [studying] in the local language."

Bukenya says pupils are being made to learn in English in nursery schools even when it is not the local language spoken in the area, but this could end soon.

"The government recently came up with a new Early Childhood Development framework for nursery schools; so, we hope that it will create a bridge in the teaching of the thematic curriculum between nursery schools and P1," she says.

However, she is concerned that the enforcement of this framework may be the challenge over time. This is a hope shared by Harriet Muwaganya, a head teacher at Iwemba PS in Bugiri.

"The challenge is with the attitudes of the caregivers in the nursery schools and the parents, who despise the learning of the local language. But we hope that this will change over time," she said.

Mercy Sharon Nsubuga, an ECD tutor at Shimoni Core PTC, has some advice for teachers dealing with pupils who come through the nursery school system.

"The teachers may need to separate pupils coming from nursery schools and those coming straight from home to P1, as they have different needs - especially relating to their appreciation of the local language," she said.

TEACHER REACTIONS

When asked about the training, Julius Musenero, a P1 teacher at Busanzi PS in Bugiri, was one of many who were welcoming.

"We love the fact that the training is emphasizing reading, which skills have been missing. Reading and interpretation have been a problem, all the way to P7," Musenero said.

Scovia Nabirye, a P1 teacher at Nambo PS, also in Bugiri, added that she was happy with the new literature. "We have been using mixed Lusoga, but now with the new literature that we are getting - the pronunciation, and spellings are clear for us," she said.

However, for Sifa Mukebezi of Muyimu PS, also in Bugiri, there is the added burden that they were educated in English and are now struggling to train the pupils in the local language.

"We have been using the English alphabet of 26 characters to teach in the local language, yet the Lusoga one has 34 characters. The lack of instructional materials had made life very difficult, but now things are better," she said.

LEARNING AIDES

However, there are challenges. Musenero admitted that he was one of many teachers struggling with preparing learning aides for his pupils due to a high enrolment, amid a policy that dictates one teacher per class.

"For me, I had a class of 157 last year, and making instructional materials can be tiresome.

His colleague Ivan Kabandize at Ssaka PS in Mubende agrees.

"For me I would tell the children a story, but now we are realising that there are ways of preparing instructional materials," he said.

But for Sarah Namukasa, a P1 teacher at Kasasa PS, preparing the instructional materials is only worth the effort, if the school can improve security on the campus.

"Some of us operate in classrooms without doors and windows; so, if you prepare these materials after a long struggle, anyone can come in from outside, after the classes, and tear our learning aides," she said.

But both Rose Akaki, the principal at Busuubizi, and her colleague at Tororo, Tino Consolate Oriada, believe that teachers need to be encouraged to make do with what is available.

"The teachers need to be innovative; in preparing the instructional materials. They need to look at what they can get from the environment around them," Akaki says.

"If they maintain an attitude of never wasting anything, then they will surprise themselves by what they find. In addition, they can ask their colleague teachers or the older pupils to help out."

OTHER ASPECTS

The training also introduced the continuous assessment aspect to the teachers. According to Musumba, one of the facilitators at Tororo, the teachers are required to assess pupils regularly.

"You can assess five to eight pupils a day, so that by the end of the week, you have addressed most of the class," he explains.

The education ministry is establishing a personal identification number system, where the progress of every pupil joining P1 this year can be tracked, even if they leave to another school. His counterpart at Busuubizi, Michael Edward Ochom, told us the teachers were also required to do more as role models for the pupils.

"You are supposed to make your lessons very engaging, through song and dance," Ochom said, much to the amusement of the teacher. "You are also required to chair class meetings with pupils, and address their concerns ... some of you will be surprised that they also have views."

He also asked the teachers to take an active role in budgeting for their classes, and sharing their plans with the school management committee. This matter caught the particular attention of Namukasa and Kabandize.

"We will be requesting for an increase in the number of teachers in lower primary - as the pressure and need at that level is too high," Kabandize said, before Namukasa chipped in. "For instance, the whole of first term we never make any progress. In the first month some come, and just as you are settling to move to another topic, more pupils come in and you have to address their needs as well."

In Tororo, Sifa Mukebezi of Muyimu PS, was quick to add, "We want more teachers to be recruited ... many times, you are the only one in the class, and after a few hours the pupils get fed up of looking at you".

Mukebezi is also hopeful the EGRA will address the challenges of inclusive learning, by providing braille materials for pupils with special needs and training teachers on how to handle such children. Scovia Nabirye is also emphatic about this matter.

"We are urging schools to reprioritize lower primary education and give more to the lower levels. For instance, if a child's handwriting is spoilt at lower levels, it is hard to correct it."

According to Akaki, the training will change the way teachers conduct their lessons. We are incorporating a daily reflection in the lesson preparation process. In teachers would only evaluate the lesson after the fact - now we want them to prepare before hand, then learn to look at the critical behaviour of a child, during the lesson. Ultimately the reflection will be continuous."

However, Akaki is also concerned that teachers are not very keen on reading, yet they will be required to read more in lesson preparation. Benedict Wadelo, a centre coordinating tutor from Mubende, was one of the facilitators in Busuubizi and adds that the training is breaking ground.

"We are telling the teachers that spellings of words at the beginning are not very important - what we need more is sounds and correct phonetic expression. It would be good to bring on board the caregivers to join this scheme to improve at length."

LOOKING BACK

As the week ended, most of the participants were happy with the training. However, there were a few niggling comments. For instance, NCDC's Bukenya is unhappy that EGRA is not considering a sensitisation programme for parents, leaving it to school head teachers.

"Funds permitting, the training should have brought on board the parents, since they are critical to how schools work," she said. "The teachers and some head teachers say they are under pressure from parents, to do some of the things that they should not be doing."

Hajji Abdul Sekabira Lukooya , the inspector of schools for Mubende, believes the training should have incorporated private schools.

"To keep them out is not helpful, since they also provide the same service as the public schools. Also in some areas, they are the majority. For instance here in Mubende, I have 416 schools, yet only 218 are government-aided schools."

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