'Reading is the basis for academic success'
Fatouma Moussa, pedagogical counselor with the Djibouti Ministry of National Education, shares how the DEGRA project is boosting early grade reading skills
In Djibouti, most children speak Somali or Afar at home. But school is taught in French — meaning that many children are learning to read in a language that is not native to them. FHI 360 is working to confront this challenge and improve literacy through the Djibouti Early Grade Reading Activity (DEGRA), which is strengthening the reading skills of more than 55,000 children in primary school.
Fatouma Moussa, a pedagogical counselor with the Djibouti Ministry of National Education, visits schools, coaches teachers and principals, and collects data to identify areas where extra help is needed. She also trains teachers through DEGRA. FHI 360 recently talked with her to learn how DEGRA is changing reading education throughout the country.
What are the main challenges facing Djiboutian children who are learning to read?
Before DEGRA was introduced, research showed that about 50% of our country’s fifth graders were experiencing problems with reading. Djiboutian children do not have enough access to books that they can read for pleasure. This is necessary for children to practice reading — it is how they improve. Our young readers especially like fairy tales, and books with pictures help them interpret words more easily. We have libraries, but they are not within reach of all children.
We have a large literacy gap between children in rural and urban areas. More children in cities and towns grow up in households where French is spoken and/or where they have access to TV and the internet. They go to preschool, so they know their letters by the time they arrive in first grade. But children in remote areas often have parents who have not gone to school, who have never heard French and who have no TV or internet. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t good readers in remote areas, but there aren’t as many.
How is DEGRA improving students’ reading abilities?
Not being able to read interferes with daily life. And reading is the basis for academic success in all subjects. When students cannot read properly, they fall behind in school.
Through DEGRA, we have been able to revise the national curriculum and introduce new textbooks, workbooks and reading materials. The new curriculum emphasizes mastery of the French alphabet, as well as phonics — associating letters with sounds to make words resonate with the students versus learning them by rote memorization. The curriculum also focuses on reading comprehension and grammar.
It is also more inclusive of girls, and children with disabilities, through a more equitable portrayal of them in student manuals and workbooks. Now, there are illustrations of girls and children with disabilities in the text. And we have more girls and children with disabilities represented in positions of leadership and playing sports.
Additionally, we recently introduced reading corners in first- and second-grade classrooms in 30 schools. These corners feature sitting areas and shelves of books that students can read for fun.
We also reach students through diagnostic assessments, so the ones who need extra help can get it during reading support sessions. And we are contacting parents, so they will encourage their children to read at home. We have made posts on the DEGRA Facebook page and radio jingles reminding parents to read with their children. And we have held sessions with parents to give them strategies for supporting their children to read, even when the parent might not be able to.
What have been some of DEGRA’s major successes?
We have overhauled teacher training to make it less theoretical and more practical. We have introduced new materials and approaches, which cover learner-centered and gender-sensitive styles of teaching. Typically, teacher training has been done in the capital, which was expensive — and if teachers missed it, they had no chance to do it again. DEGRA has decentralized training, bringing it closer to the teachers across the country.
Teacher training is the most important part of DEGRA to me. A trained teacher can do anything!
DEGRA is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and aims to increase the quality of reading materials and instruction, improve access to books and encourage community support of reading.