Recently, the HEART team received a request to investigate the practicalities of developing an early grade reading primer programme for a country with low levels of literacy and educational infrastructure. Experts in the field of literacy, children’s book publishing, and programmatic distribution were consulted and their responses synthesised into a guide. Below are a few highlights that we think are among the most interesting to consider when planning these types of programmes.
The road to a well-implemented, successful programme starts with well-researched concept design. Gather as much local knowledge as possible about every stage in the programme cycle in order to define which gap in the system your programme will fill. Questions to consider are:
- Languages of use and exposure to them at home and at school – What are the local languages in the area? Do they differ from the official languages of instruction, and, if so, which languages do children speak at home prior to beginning school? What is the exposure of children in urban/rural/remote areas to written language before they start school?
- Existing educational infrastructure – Is the purpose of the programme to supplement existing literacy teaching, or is a more fundamental approach required? How are letters, words and concepts introduced at present? What do existing primers/reading textbooks cover?
- Local printing and publishing capabilities and distribution networks – How developed is local printing and publishing? Are there existing distribution systems that can be used? Are there any security issues and do these vary across the country? What storage is available at the central/provincial/district levels?
Once concept development is complete, use that local knowledge to inform your methodological design. There are many fundamental methodological decisions that must be made before the design and development of the reading materials, which include the learning approach to be used (e.g. phonics or look and say), deciding on the desired level of parental involvement with the programme, the best format for the primers, and how (or if) teaching guides will be incorporated into the material.
Generally, the state education department will be the main stakeholder in any early grade literacy programme, as they will provide access to working within the state education programme and will also vet the acceptability of the reading materials before distribution. However, other stakeholders may be present, such as parent-teacher associations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and local language experts; consultation with all of these will help to ensure that your programme is acceptable to the state, the teachers who will be using the materials and the wider community.
Material design, development and production
The question of whether materials will be developed from scratch or adapted from existing sources is crucial and has significant implications on programme cost. Some reading primers already exist on universal topics such as the weather, and it may prove beneficial to adapt these for local conditions and cultures rather than creating new materials from scratch. However, although creating an in house design team from scratch may be problematic in the short term, it may prove to be cheaper and more effective in the medium to long term, especially in terms of the added flexibility gained in planning for multiple rounds of revision of materials.
The technical quality and expected longevity of the reading primers are key design decisions. Lamination greatly increases longevity, as does having a robust policy in place for tracking loss and damage in cases where children are allowed to take the primers home with them. Also, be sure to consider the technical aspects of local languages such as appropriate font size and spacing between letters, as this has a big impact on readability.
There are general cost considerations for procurement that are common to all programmes, such as reducing unit costs by ordering larger print runs. The question of whether to print nationally or internationally is not necessarily straightforward and is dependent on local printing capabilities and whether the programme has a remit to develop national capacity in this area. However, although unit costs for printing may be cheaper if organised through an international printer, if the printer does not have expertise with the local language to be used costly mistakes can easily be made.
The field testing will identify whether the chosen format is readily understandable for students and teachers. It can be a good idea to perform smaller pilots during the material development stage so that adjustments can be made before rolling out the wider field testing programme. Remember the contexts in which the primers will be used (urban/rural/remote, language groupings) and ensure that the field testing covers all of these contexts. Finally, remember to embed enough time into the process for learning and to make adjustments to materials – and don’t test using final copies as then it will be very expensive to make adjustments.
Distribution and storage go hand-in-hand, and a survey will be needed to establish exactly what conditions are available in-country and to establish whether there are pre-existing channels that can be used. Distribution can be quite costly, but there is sometimes the option to roll the price of distribution into the price of printing if the printing company can also perform distribution.
Evaluate parents, teachers and children. All three are crucial to on-going success. On-going supervision of, and feedback to, teachers helps teachers tie the process of teaching to learning and creates a positive feedback loop into the on-going programme.
Top 5 tips
1) Create scientifically good reading primers by: a) tailoring the order of learning in the primers to the order of learning in the school syllabus and expected learning goals; b) paying particular attention to how new words and concepts are introduced; c) carefully creating links from one section/topic/idea to the next so that the material and flow of learning is seamless.
2) Embed enough time into the process for learning – the material will probably need to go through several rounds of revisions at each stage – allow as much time as possible for this as it will create a much higher chance of success.
3) Local knowledge and supervision is crucial. Pick your local languages with care, and consider what exposure the children will have had to them pre-schooling. Field test with local children so that the primers can be checked for difficult or out-of-context words. Frequent supervision of teachers, accompanied by feedback from supervisors and children (through the supervisor), will help teachers to tie the processes of teaching and learning together, and drives improved pedagogical practice.
4) Think about quality, but also about storage. Longevity is as dependent on storage as it is on the primer technical specification.
5) Supervise, supervise, supervise, every step of the production and distribution chain. Get good local knowledge and act on it, especially where the security situation is variable. Distribution is often best managed by professionals, but this may not be possible where no pre-existing capacity is present.