When A is not for Apple

We learn to read by connecting letters and words with sounds and ideas we already know—so why do we teach African children using texts about marshmallows and ponies, asks Connie Nshemereirwe

In the village surrounding the university where I used to work in rural Uganda, I regularly met neatly dressed boys and girls walking home from school. I often stopped to talk with them in the local dialect—asking them how school was, where they were going, or where I could buy some tomatoes. They always gave me well-articulated and thoughtful responses, revealing a definite personality as well as a strong awareness of themselves and their surroundings.

However, when I met these same children at their primary school, where I was setting up a reading club, I noticed a stark contrast in their behaviour. Gone were the confident kids of the village paths. At first I wondered why, but now I know: Their loss of confidence is at the heart of problems with the education system in Uganda, and much of Africa. 

At the reading club, which the children joined in their third year of primary school, the first thing we did was to gauge their reading proficiency. We did this in English, as by then, they were supposed to be able to read and write in both English and their home language. But we found that the third-year learners could often barely read the first-grade reading texts, let alone those set for their own grade. 

This puzzled me, as the texts were simple stories about children playing with their friends. So, I asked to see the first graders’ classroom to understand how these children start their reading journey. Their teachers told me things were a little bit confused because they were switching from the old-fashioned alphabetic method to one based on phonetic sounds. Although they had received charts with the basic 42 phonic sounds in English, the teachers themselves did not know what these sounded like, and still used the alphabet chart and the usual reading texts. 

A large alphabet chart was displayed prominently at the front of the class, and looked like a hundred others that I had seen in the past. It started off with the usual “A is for apple” and B is for… wait—hold on—A is for what? 

That was the moment it all made sense to me. Of course these children struggled to learn how to read. In this location not a single child would have seen an apple. They would have seen bananas and pineapples and jackfruit, but no apples. Taking into consideration that these children likely had no television at home, no books, and were probably encountering the English language for the first time in this very classroom, what were they to make of “A is for apple”? 

Lost in the woods

Developing literacy, the ability to read and write, is a complex meaning-making process, where a child learns how the symbols they see on a page sound, and how they relate to their surroundings. Our primary education system makes the assumption that the children who enter school will have some experience with letters and simple words, because they should have attended pre-school. But this is rarely the case for children in rural Uganda.

By starting with “A is for apple”, these children were being told that this strange drawing on the wall represented that other strange drawing on the wall, and to repeat after the teacher: “A is for apple”. 

On this same chart was a photograph of a rotary dial telephone next to the T—another contraption I was pretty sure these children had never seen in their lives. But the most bizarre picture on that chart was a boat, stating that “Y is for yacht” (misspelt as yatch!). Now, this is a word that many Ugandans would struggle to pronounce, let alone know what it means.

Looking through the standard texts used to teach reading to first-graders, I discovered more problems. The books depicted scenes of children running through “the woods” or “roasting marshmallows”.

There was also “Tiffany” pestering her parents for a “pony”. Even the names in the books would have been difficult for the kids to pick out. “Tiffany” could have been anything! It is no wonder, then, that the otherwise bright and creative children that showed up for my reading club could only read haltingly—some could not even manage one word—after three years of schooling.

A failing foundation

This disconnect between Ugandan children and their teaching material sets them on a course that will serve them poorly for the rest of their education. Unable to pair the strange symbols and sounds they are exposed to, learners are left with a single choice: memorise it. And since everything in the education system is conveyed in a strange language, using strange concepts, it receives the same treatment.

Uganda’s Ministry of Education has tried to address this situation by mandating that children be taught in their home language for the first three years of primary school, with English being taught on the side until grade four, when it becomes the only language of instruction.

The ministry’s policy has run into several obstacles. Some are logistical: Uganda has more than 30 languages, and there aren’t enough teachers to teach in all of them—not to mention that some teachers are posted to areas where they do not speak the local language at all. There also aren’t enough learning materials in all the languages to serve the policy. And in communities where more than one language is spoken it is difficult to settle on one for teaching.

But the policy was also resisted by politicians who sought favour with their rural constituencies. Parents in the rural areas felt that children who began their education in local languages were not getting as good an education as the wealthier, urban children who were taught in English from the start. Not enough sensitisation had been carried out to highlight that starting a child’s education in a familiar language promotes literacy and results in better educational outcomes. 

A is for anthill

At the moment, Uganda’s literacy rates are not good. National assessments over the past decade have repeatedly found that almost seven out of ten grade-three children are unable to read second-grade texts. Even after seven years in school, two in ten still cannot read grade-two texts. Rural areas, as always, often perform the worst, and worryingly, the most recent assessment indicates that the situation is worsening.

Interestingly, however, the assessments found notable differences in the literacy levels achieved in areas where local languages were used for teaching. For instance, it found that children from homes where the language Acholi was spoken, and who were taught in Acholi in their first few years, were twice as likely to have achieved reading competence as those who were not. 

It is true that the deficits in our education system result from a myriad of interrelated factors. But making small changes to the learning process, especially early on, could yield a lot of benefits. 

What if new alphabet charts were distributed that showed that “A is for anthill”—a ubiquitous sight across the African landscape? Or that “M is for maize”? And what if we could rewrite some of these early reading texts to tell stories of children running through the banana plantation and not the woods? And roasting sweet potatoes and not marshmallows?

A is not always for Apple!

Connie Nshemereirwe is a Ugandan civil engineer turned science and policy facilitator. She has a PhD in educational measurement, is a current co-chair of the Global Young Academy, and serves on the steering committee of the Africa Science Leadership Programme based at the Future Africa Campus of the University of Pretoria in South Africa.