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Timawerenga! We Can Read!

August 12, 2013

timawarenga booklets 2School is over for the day in Malawi, but parents, students and teachers have gathered in a classroom to make small reading booklets from loose sheets of paper. The teacher writes a short story of five sentences on the chalkboard using what is called a decodable digest. The teacher shows the parents how to copy each sentence, one per page, into a booklet. Children add an illustration. Parents who cannot read join in by tearing paper or sewing bindings. The teacher writes a new “decodable” story on the board and the process begins again. In an hour, each parent completes eight booklets and learns how to help their children practice reading at home.

Before the Timawerenga! We Can Read! project, few resources existed that would enable Malawian school children to practice phonics. Using low-cost, locally produced reading materials, Timawerenga! provides an instructional cornerstone that helps students become competent readers and boosts fluency and vocabulary.

‘Decodables’ boost reading

Decodable stories are specially designed with controlled vocabularies to help students learn letter sounds and combinations to correctly pronounce written words. Lesson templates follow a careful scope and sequence and encourage students to read slowly and pronounce every sound in a word until they can recognize the word. Stories are used for reading instruction with students and can be taken home for more practice.

Timarwerenga! digests give teachers lesson templates, about 100 decodable stories and basic supplies so that copies of stories may be reproduced easily and given to students. In particularly resource-poor classes, stories can be written on a chalkboard or as a single big book for the class.

One of the appeals of Timarwerenga! is its potential for going to scale, now that the pilot phase is complete. The project uses existing classes, teachers and support structures. Except for printing the teachers’ digests, materials are basic and can be found locally. Books for children can be produced for pennies per reader — the cost of paper and pencils. Teachers and communities are already taking ownership of the process and are thrilled to have reading material. By project’s end, Timawerenga! will have reached about 20,000 primary students in 80 schools.


In November 2012, FHI 360 lost colleague and friend Dr. Karen Weiner, the Timawerenga! project’s designer and chief advocate. Karen’s groundbreaking work received international recognition when she received the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development award from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which recognizes innovative interventions that promote literacy. Her work in early grade literacy took her to Ethiopia, Kosovo and Peru for FHI 360, supporting literacy assessment and teacher training to further improve reading instruction. Karen was a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her dissertation, which examined many facets of literacy instruction in Malawi, received high praise for modeling how education researchers can use their craft to give teachers a voice in shaping education policy. Her commitment, intelligence and infectious enthusiasm made it a joy and privilege to work with her.