Moving in and Moving Out – Spreading Sustainable Literacy Solutions Around the World

Michael Stark has been leading educational change efforts for over 25 years in the UK and abroad. His most recent endeavor is as the founder of Educators International which developed the Phonics by Phone teacher education course. Below Michael shared with us how this organization and program came to be and what their impact has been since their launch.

I have been working abroad almost all my life. My very first job was as Desk Officer for Ghana in the British Foreign Office. From that experience to my work 35 years later setting up permanent pre-schools built by and for nomadic communities in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia, I have always been interested in promoting sustainable changes that transform educational outcomes for all children. This is a key goal that unites us at Educators International (EI) –a passionate belief that every child and young person in the world should get a decent education, including as an absolute minimum acquiring the ability to read, write and understand numbers. Shamefully, for most children, that still does not happen. Reading is a universal human right but across sub-Saharan Africa according to EGRA data, typically no more than 5- 10% of children can read fluently by age 10–even after regular school attendance for five years; the equivalent figures across developed countries are all above 87%. This is where EI’s programs Phonics by Phone, Maths by Phone and Assessment by Phone come in. 

Having led at the UK Department the introduction of  phonics based literacy training, and above all teacher-led oral assessment-across every primary school in England, and having seen the dramatic impact these changes brought (with the UK moving from bottom quartile in the OECD to top quartile in a period of just over a decade), I wanted to see how we could get these techniques into the hands of educators in the very poorest countries of the world. Phonics by Phone is the first-ever comprehensive programme that trains teachers (and parents) in developing countries to teach reading using phonics systematically using the power of a mobile phone to record and replay sounds accurately. It also is the first-ever literacy training programme available to download from the internet on a mobile phone. Not just on the latest smartphones–but even on basic feature phones, which in Africa and Asia are all many teachers’ budgets will allow for. And best of all, it’s completely free. 

The Phonics by Phone program of 108 audio-video podcasts – available for free download from www.phonicsbyphone.org – has been developed from scratch by Educators International. Together these units form a complete training course for teachers in the use of phonics– which is proven to be the best way to teach every child in every class to read and write. We start with the child’s mother tongue and build towards English with a series of bridges and canals. A bridge, for example, would be the sound “/s/” as “sun” or at the end of the word “bus.” People have yet to identify a language that does not contain that sounds of “/s/” therefore it is always a bridge. The second sound that we teach is  “/a/” as a vowel. “/a/” is used in almost every African language and most sub-continent languages but in China they do not use “/a/” so we would consider that sound a canal. Also in Spanish, where they do not use the same “/a/” sound, this would be considered a canal because the pronunciation is significantly different. Marking it on the teaching aid as a canal alerts the teacher to the need to go into this carefully, modelling numerous examples to highlight the differences, and listening and correcting students until the correct version becomes embedded knowledge. Educators International counts on a team of highly experienced professional volunteer trainers who guide teachers in how to implement these practices which replicate the behaviour of parents when teaching their very young child their own language.

Ghanaian classroom where Phonics by Phone is being implemented by the classroom teacher (Photo courtesy of Florentine Ansah-Asare, Edify Ghana)

At the same time we developed Assessment by Phone, a system of randomized individual assessments calibrated to the  USAID-funded  Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA – and its math equivalent EGMA) to track progress. While the normal practice in USAID-funded projects is to use this test externally (administered by outsiders to the school, at most once a year and only testing 2-3% percent of the students as a sample, we have found incredible benefit from using it internally, with teachers themselves assessing every student in their class several times a year – just as it is done in the UK and many other developed countries. In that way, teachers know from the very beginning what students do and do not know and can target those skills. In addition, by applying it relatively every week, students can also see their progress and be encouraged by their growth over time. Looking at the data from everywhere we have worked, we have never seen less than 200% growth of our scores and in some cases 300% growth of the average performance of each child by the end of the first year. 

                       Ghanaian teachers modeling assessment session during training.

(Photo courtesy of Edify Ghana)

The teachers discover by the midline of the year that they have achieved astonishing results with their students. They say to themselves “Well, that did not take me much effort, I think I am going to see if I cannot get every student to reach the top levels.” As a result, the gradient of their achievement actually steepens between the midline and the endline. In most programs, we tend to see the reverse because educators are in the hard grind of consistency and maintaining results as well as trying to support students who are still struggling. Overall we have seen that their success with Phonics by Phone moves so many of our teachers into another gear of professional satisfaction. Seeing as many have been dragged down by in a system that did not allow them any autonomy or afford them any personal growth, this experience to see change brings them a lot of joy.

Ghanaian children working on phonics lessons.

(Photos courtesy of Adwoa Nyantakyiwaa, Edify Ghana)

Phonics by Phone, Maths by Phone and Assessment by Phone, which started in Ghana, have spread across four continents: Africa (Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, Liberia and potentially Rwanda), South America (Colombia), the Pacific (Fiji, Samoa and potentially other islands), and Asia (Nepal and potentially Cambodia and Bangladesh) we are also discussing and scoping opportunities in China and several other countries. Our model is “move in, move out” once a country becomes self-sustaining. In Ghana, this happened after we had reached over 700 teachers. A key aspect of this approach is that our team does not just sit in an office in London and measure local results, but we invest in teachers and communities and stay highly connected and in touch. We look forward to continuing to spread this impact while ensuring we nurture and support these already established relationships which have taught us so much!

Liberia at a Phonics by Phone training: Essa Sheriff, Edify Education Specialist  with Educator International trainers Mandekh Hussein and Sir Alasdair Macdonald 

Photo courtesy of Edify Liberia

The photos in this blog are from schools in Liberia and Ghana where Phonics by Phone (PbP) is currently being implemented by an NGO we work with called Edify. The evaluation results from last year’s pilot in Ghana were so dramatic, that we recommended to Edify that PbP be implemented in numerous other nations in which the NGO works.  

During our interview we also learned an interesting story about Michael, that after living in Namibia for three years, he traveled back to the UK by land, primarily by local buses but sometimes by trains, boats, camels, donkeys and plenty on foot. What an experience and a global world traveler. Thank you Michael for sharing with us your story of education leadership and we wish you lots of success!

Thanks for reading!

Paula and Maxie

Meet Michael Stark

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