The Children Are Watching

How do you lead a literacy conference without books?  That was our question going into our second teacher workshop at Hope Primary School.  Last year’s conference brought with it evidence that the teachers themselves were not very strong readers. In fact, the illiteracy rate in South Sudan is over 80%.  Remember, most of these conference participants are not actually trained teachers; they are parents who volunteered to teach because they didn’t want their children to go without education.  Add to that fact the reality that they are mostly English language learners and it puts them quite a bit behind the curve.  They speak English and they teach in English, however, reading and writing it are another level altogether. Yet, they persist to teach, still without pay, in order to bring a better future for their kids.

So how do we teach them to teach reading if they cannot read very well themselves?  How do they learn the foundations of the English language as sometimes their 3rdor 4thlanguage? What is the answer?  By reading of course.  In order to be a teacher of reading, you must read yourself.


We decided to go all the way back to the basics, with a twist…teach them to fall in love with reading first. We believe the desire to read is built within all of us.  We are created curious, so a good story draws us into it.  We carefully selected a book of the day.  Each morning, one of our team, Winnie, who is from Uganda, read a picture book.  Her accent was not an issue as ours would have been.

Being a teacher of small children, her delivery was just what was needed. Inflection, expression, voices, and perfected page turning combined to draw the teachers into each story.  They were mesmerized.  Their eyes glued to each picture and their ears open for every word.  Before long, the children who curiously gathered each day to see what we were doing, began to gather outside the windows to listen.  They would carefully peek to see the pictures, and then draw back into the shadows to hear the next page.  Their heads were bobbing around trying to follow the stories being told, without being “caught.”


It was quite amazing to watch.  Between sessions during the day, we put the books out on a table for the participants to look at.  Our excitement grew as some of them began to take them back to their seats to try to read for themselves, giving up their snack break to read instead.  Our plan was working, but how to give them the ability to teach it was still a mystery.



Our sessions were divided into phonics, fluency, and comprehension. The very first one we did was phonics, and once again Winnie taught, since their phonics are different from ours.  She showed them the sound chart and expressed how they need to teach the letter sounds before teaching the letter names.  A simple concept, but light bulbs were going on all over the place. It seems most of the teachers didn’t know the letter sounds at all.  They wanted to keep going, so we played an I-have-who-has game with letter sounds.  We segmented words into sounds and blended the sounds back together into words.  We played hide and seek with sounds.  The participation was excellent, and being mostly men, we were surprised at their willingness to admit they didn’t know these sounds.

When we had our make and take session, they made the sound chart to use in their classrooms.  One man, who learned to speak English in his late 30s, told us he was taking his chart home to practice the sounds, so that 30 years after he learned to speak the language, he could finally understand how to read the words.


The readers theater scripts we brought to teach fluency, were a big hit. Written on a third-grade level, they were a challenge for some teachers, however, the over and over rehearsal showed them how to make reading practice fun.  They even began to act the parts, creating much laughter and quite a bit of silliness. The Fox Without a Tail had the chairman of the School Management Committee delivering his lines as if he was on Broadway.


In the comprehension session, Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears, was a big hit.  Mosquitos are a pesky problem in Africa, as they bring Malaria, so the story was relevant but also funny.  They predicted by playing four corners.  They answered questions from all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. They created a Somebody-wanted-but-so-then summary. They learned how to clarify words that were unfamiliar and self-monitor for understanding as they read.  It was all new to them, but exciting to see them catch the ideas.



My favorite part was when we went back the next week to see the kids.  We had the opportunity to read a story to several classes.  I am not sure they completely followed our accents, but they were sitting with their mouths hanging open, completely engaged in the pictures.  Once again, the windows and doors were filled with children’s heads, who were no longer hiding between pages, but stood openly straining to see the pictures.  They were falling in love with books.  Even though they couldn’t read them yet, they wanted more.  It was the same day we delivered our 500 lbs of supplies, including many picture books donated for us to take, as well as some leveled readers we brought along for small groups. While we were there we also ordered $3,000 worth of textbooks, which is about half of what one school needs.  However, they were ecstatic at the idea that they would soon have books enough for 3 or 4 children to share.


Creating a literacy rich environment is difficult when you have to remove everything from your classroom each day so it won’t be used for fire starters. Having to lock the books up each night will be a challenge, but otherwise the termites will eat the pages. Creating charts of everything you teach to hang, so that students can see what you are teaching, is time consuming to say the least.  It is a harsh environment, but these teachers are slowly making steps towards literacy. When they do, they are taking the children with them because…the children are watching.

Our next conference is going to be in May, where we will continue to focus on literacy. We hope to take more books, and more teachers in an effort to build a library of resources for the refugee teachers to use for their students.  Message me if you are interested in more details.

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