When you Unlock Reading for Children, you Unlock the World — Krista McKee

Frederick Douglass, the African-American social reformer, writer and statesman said that “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” while Kofi Atta Annan, seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, opined that “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.”

These hard truths perhaps propelled the American University of Nigeria (AUN), a development university, to organise two programmes to  achieve these goals. In this chat with Vanguard Learning, Krista McKee, Vice-President of AUN Schools and Educational Programming, and Karon K. Harden, the university’s Academic Liaison for Community Engagement and Service Learning, speak on the two programmes and what they hope to achieve. Excerpts:

What we do:
Said McKee: “We are doing beautiful work in literacy. Right now, we have two programmes, one is called STELLAR (Students Empowered through Language, Literacy and Arithmetic), the other one is Jolly Phonics.
“Jolly Phonics is a wonderful way to help children understand the basics of reading. We are teaching letter sounds and letter names and teaching them how to blend those sounds together until they form a strong baseline for reading. Right now, we are doing a pilot study in six primary schools out in the community and they are doing so wonderfully,” she enthused.

Explaining the involvement of AUN students in the programmes, the Academic Liaison for Community Engagement and Service Learning at AUN, Karon K. Harden, who teaches Introduction to Applied Community Development (CDV 101) with a focus on literacy, “STELLAR was founded in 2012 at the AUN and most of the project activities are carried out by AUN students enrolled in CDV 101, a service-learning course, under the close supervision of an AUN faculty member who serves as the project director.

The students not only learn academically but are also actively engaged in community projects in the field. So when they sign up for CDV 101, they study the role of education in national development, the challenges, advances and progress that Nigeria has made and what still needs to be done. They run an after-school tutoring programme twice a week in 203 primary schools in Yola, teaching primary two, three and sometimes four pupils the basic skills especially reading, because reading is the foundation for all the other learning. If they cannot read, it is going to affect their science and other subjects so we are trying to reinforce their basic reading skills.”

“The university students are trained to work with young children. We give them materials, we train them and then we go into the community schools and do after-school tutoring in reading. It’s making such a difference,” said McKee.

“I have been observing in each of the classes (I try to see them once a week) and they are just blooming and beginning to understand the basics of reading and on that foundation, we can build their entire reading cradle. When you unlock reading for children, you unlock the world. So we are so excited. The children are excited; they really come back after school. Their parents come and watch their children learn to read and the teachers are dying for our materials; they love it. It is changing the face of literacy and education because the children are truly excited.

The parents are so supportive and the teachers are also learning new techniques. So we are making a huge difference in the reading level here in Yola and hopefully, through out Adamawa State. If I am given the opportunity, I will try to take the Jolly Phonics nationwide,” said McKee.

Harden noted that the students also write children’s books because the children do not have enough reading materials. “So we are studying to produce our own.  So far, the reading has been in the English Language although about half of our tutors speak Hausa or Fulfulde so they can use some Hausa or Fulfulde in  the tutoring session. We do have plans to make some materials in Hausa and Fulfulde because from a linguistic point of view, if you learn to read in a language that you understand first, then it will strengthen your English literacy later.

“Over 95 per cent of our kids do not speak English at home and they never hear English outside the school so they don’t have the comprehension. They can decode the word, you can make them repeat it  for you but they don’t comprehend. Obviously they have some isolated words and some vocabulary but as far as full understanding of stories is concerned, they are unable to pick up a story, read it and understand it because they don’t have the English.

So they need to acquire the reading skills and the English language, the vocabulary, the sentences and how you put the words together in a sentence and what they mean when you put them together. These are actually two separate skills fused into one because they are trying to learn to read and to understand the language at the same time.”

Moving forward:
“If this pilot is successful, then this wonderful programme will be implemented throughout Adamawa State and there is even discussion that it will be implemented throughout Nigeria so we are on the cutting edge; we are leaders in literacy and literacy training for children from five to eight years  and we feel that it will make a difference. It’s a game changer in reading.  In 2010, there was a study done in Adamawa State and children aged five to 15 were tested in reading. The illiteracy rate at that point was 77 per cent; we can change that percentage, we can make a huge difference,” stated McKee.

Montessori Vs Jolly Phonics:
On the difference between Jolly Phonics and Montessori method, McKee said: “I am Montessori-trained. Montessori is an overall method; yes it teaches children to read phonetically so that is one of the components of Montessori and the AUN Academy (elementary section) uses a lot of Montessori materials so Montessori is this huge overriding philosophy and method while the Jolly Phonics really just hones in on the reading process.”