Early literacy learning

Michael Riach reports back

Interview: early literacy and learning

Michael Riach, the Himalayan Trust’s Education Programme Manager, recently visited schools in the Everest region to learn more about the current teaching culture.

We asked him all about his recent visit and the Himalayan Trust’s pilot programme to improve early literacy and learning in schools.

What was the purpose of your recent visit to schools in Solukhumbu?

At the end of last year I visited seven schools in the Solukhumbu region, including the schools in Khumjung, Monjo, Ghat and Namche. My aim was to see how the early literacy improvement project could build on the existing teaching and learning culture in schools.

I was interested in observing a variety of class teachers, but particularly the teaching of Grades 1-3 (ages 5-8 years) to familiarise myself with school management practice, with the style of teaching, the constraints faced by teachers and students, as well as the availability and use of teaching resources.

While none of the schools I visited were expecting me, they were all very welcoming once I’d introduced myself and explained why I was there.

Can you tell us about the pilot programme to improve early literacy and learning in schools?

The Himalayan Trust and our local partner, Action for Nepal, recently launched a four-year pilot programme at 11 schools in the Everest region of Nepal that will involve the whole school community, including parents, in changing how literacy skills are taught and learned in the early grades.

Working together with the schools and the local communities, the aim of this programme is to build a successful and sustainable model for improving literacy and learning for boys and girls in early grades that can be rolled out to many more schools in the future.

It will involve a change to grade teaching rather than subject teaching for children in Grades 1-3. Many of the schools have a roll of less than 60 children and so the introduction of multi-grade teaching, which is also a Government of Nepal policy, makes good sense.

What are the main advantages of grade teaching?

The main advantage of grade or multi-grade teaching is that it allows teachers to be with the same group of students all day and to get to know the individual student’s needs, strengths, and what interests them.  It also allows helps build trust and understanding between the teacher and the students, allowing children the opportunity learn and develop in a safe, nurturing environment.

For most of the teachers involved in the programme, the transition from subject teaching to whole classroom teaching will be a major shift. Our education team are preparing strategies to help teachers get prepared and make this change, which will include coaching and support in the classroom.

We’ll be working with teachers to develop and source good literacy materials and how to use these materials effectively with children.  We’ll also help provide furniture where needed so that each classroom can have engaging materials on display and an attractive reading corner where teachers will conduct lessons and read daily to children.

What did you observe about the teaching at the schools you visited?

In the schools I visited, I came across teachers who genuinely wanted to teach well but were still tied to a teacher-centred practice that is common in Nepali schools. I found there was little understanding of group teaching and how to use materials they had available, other than basic text books. But some teachers really worked hard to make the most of scarce resources.

In one school, for instance, I observed two female teachers working to make their English and maths lessons as interesting as possible. Their teaching was interactive and had the children thinking, talking and playing games.

In another school, I observed some teachers who organised their classes into small groups, had an understanding of how to use teaching resources, and used a variety of strategies to manage the classroom. These are the teachers we really want our literacy programme to target and take to a new teaching level.

All the teachers involved in the programme will have regular in-school coaching on children-centred teaching and learning practices, and support with implementing these practices in the classroom. And to be useful to teachers in Nepal, our team really will need to think creatively on ways to make use of local materials as teaching resources.

For this programme to be a success, we really want to encourage teachers and head teachers to take greater responsibility for student’s progress. We also need to build awareness among the school community of literacy teaching, learning and expectations so they can support their children’s learning.

What resources did the schools have available?

Many of the Solukhumbu schools l visited are relatively well resourced. Those schools that are on or close to the tourist trekking trails in particular have attracted individual donations of things like books, science equipment and computers.

Some of the resources that are donated to schools simply aren’t appropriate for the Nepali context and so they are sitting gathering dust. For others, the challenge is to link these resources to the lessons they need to teach.

Our programme will work with teachers to develop and source the best literacy materials produced in Nepal and help teachers make the most of any resources already available at their school. We will also explore resources available in the local environment such as helping kids put together a maths kit using things like pebbles or buttons.

Did you notice anything in particular about the children and their experience in the classroom?

The Grade 1-3 children (age 5 – 8) in Solukhumbu have just as much potential and are just as intelligent and ambitious to learn as the advantaged students in private schools in Kathmandu. In a more child-centred, creative and supportive classroom environment, these children will have more opportunities to think, learn and thrive.

In several Grade 1 classes, I asked some of the children to write a story and to illustrate it, rather than copying out words from a book as they had been doing. The children came back with sentences, which with encouragement could become paragraphs. The children could in a short time be writing and publishing their own stories. These simple publications, written and illustrated by the children themselves, could become a source of inspiration and pride – tangible examples of literacy improvement.

With coaching in  child-centred  teaching and learning, our aim is that young children will begin to enjoy their early grade learning, grow in confidence and cognitive ability and become active participants in their learning.

What does a pilot programme mean and what happens next?

As this is a pilot programme, there will be continuous and careful monitoring, evaluation and improvement of the programme over the next three years by our education team and the staff and community at the 11 schools that are taking part.

With support from schools, parents and the community, and with careful monitoring, evaluation and improvement of the programme over the coming years, we are hopeful we can develop a successful and sustainable model for improving literacy and learning that can be rolled out to many more schools in future.

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