Supporting Mother Tongue Literacy in Uganda – Mango Tree’s Journey

Victoria Brown and Craig Esbeck

In 2008 and 2009 Mango Tree was trying to put together a proposal to fund a local language literacy pilot project in northern Uganda. We began the design process by thinking about the challenges of supporting literacy in local languages. We decided to clarify our thoughts by making a mind map. In the middle of the page we posed this question and put a circle around it:

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We immediately penciled in “writers” and “readers” on each side of the circle. We quickly realized, however, that these terms were too narrow and changed our terminology to look like this:

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Using these terms helped us to recognize that there’s a wide range of skilled individuals needed in a community to produce written documents. It also helped us to realize that there is a wide range of written text that is “consumed” by individuals in a literate community. Now our mind map looked like this:

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With this primary relationship between readers and writers more clearly defined in our mind, we could take on the task of articulating that amorphous group of ideas, institutions and individuals that must reside in the midst of this transaction between writer and reader. We gave this wide-ranging group the term “regulators of literature” and eventually came up with a mind map that looked like this:

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It seemed to us that the reading-writing transaction is regulated in three mains ways:

  • Through the transmission of literacy via instruction at all levels
  • Through defining and maintaining standards of language use
  • Through the businesses, institutions and laws that facilitate the distribution of the written word

education international innovation framework program planning mother tongue instruction learning development uganda children teacher

Eventually, the funding came together for our literacy pilot in northern Uganda. In May of 2010 we held our first workshop for all the literacy stakeholders in the region. We used this mind map to help us define the status of literacy in the region and identify where important gaps existed.

At this workshop, someone pointed out something that was missing in our model. “Where is the appreciation for books and writing?” someone asked. “If people in the community don’t value and appreciate writing and literature, how can we ever hope to find success in our efforts to improve literacy?”

In our subsequent discussion, the concept of a “culture of literacy” emerged. We defined a culture of literacy as, “A community of people with enthusiasm for and commitment to reading and writing in daily life.”

If the “regulators of literature” are the bedrock of a literate society, then “a culture of literacy” is the aspirational guiding star. We amended our mind map to include “a culture of literacy” at the top:

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Because of these early discussions our intervention, though primarily focused on improving instruction in the classroom, has always maintained components that address strengthening a culture of literacy in the community. To date, some of our initiatives that address larger “culture of literacy issues” include:

  • Working with the language board to revise the orthography of the local language, Leblango.
  • Funding a weekly radio show devoted to teaching the community about their local language and discussing literacy-related issues.
  • Developing a “transition primer” for individuals who speak Leblango fluently, but are uncomfortable reading and writing the language (this includes most teachers). This transition primer uses their knowledge of English to transition into literacy in Leblango.
  • Supporting lexicography workshops that add new terms and concepts to the local language so that it can function more effectively in the classroom, especially at an academic level.
  • Creating a local language dictionary for primary school pupils.
  • Sponsoring writing and illustrating contests to identify individuals with talent and then training and supporting them to develop new works for publication.
  • Employing local printing companies.
  • Translating report cards into the local language and improving how pupil progress is reported.
  • Developing simple assessment tools that parents can use at home to monitoring their children’s progress in reading.

Through the approaches described above, Mango Tree has successfully stimulated a passion for local language literacy and a love for reading in local language in the homes, communities and schools where we operate. As our program continues growing and evolving we realize more than ever that generating a culture of literacy is a challenging – but critical – task in a community’s literacy journey. And, for mother tongue language and education to thrive, it must remain central to the work that we do.

Mango Tree’s Education Impact

Mango Tree’s program has succeeded in substantially improving the teaching of literacy in early primary grades, resulting in children in Primary 3 in our targeted schools obtaining meaningful and relevant reading and writing skills in Leblango. End of year testing demonstrated substantial reading gains for pupils in Primary 3 – far above pupils in non-supported government schools and well above the results of other organizations operating similar programs in the Lango Sub-region.

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The results of Mango Tree’s program rank it among the most effective programs ever studied with a randomized control trial impact evaluation in the developing world.

The graphs below demonstrate the cumulative effect the program has had on pupil reading outcomes from 2014 to 2016, including letters identified per minute, words read per minute (in oral reading fluency tests) and reading comprehension (following oral reading fluency tests). The graphs demonstrate gains in the same cohort of pupils who entered Primary 1 in 2014, progressed to Primary 2 in 2015, and reached Primary 3 in 2016.

In all the graphs below, ‘no program’ schools are control schools who did not receive the program. ‘Reduced-cost program’ schools include schools and teachers supported only by government teacher tutors at a reduced cost for implementation (teachers still received the same number of trainings and materials, just a less expensive implementation approach using government staff). ‘Full-cost program’ schools are supported by Mango Tree’s field staff using the same materials, training and support approaches as reduced-cost schools, just delivered by Mango Tree’s staff.


                                             Cumulative Effect on Letters per Minute

 


                                             Cumulative Effect on Letters per Minute

 


                                           Cumulative Effect on Reading Comprehension
 

 

Craig Esbeck came to Uganda as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1997. He spent several years working in rural primary schools learning about the educational challenges faced by pupils, parents, teachers and administrators. In 2000 he established Mango Tree, a socially responsible business that provides grassroots educators with tools and methods that make learning both more effective and more fun. In 2007 he stepped down as the director of Mango Tree so that he could focus on his primary passion: local language literacy and publishing. Craig believes that educational reform in Uganda will never be successful until the country resolves its language of instruction issues. In 2017 he began work as the Content Director of the newly created Mango Tree Literacy Lab which continues to support literacy and publishing in local languages and English.

Victoria Brown, a former reading teacher in the United States, came to Uganda in 2007 as a volunteer for a local non-profit. Now based in Kampala, she has expanded her work since then across the region in education technical advisory, curriculum development, teacher training and support supervision, parent and community engagement, monitoring and evaluation, and impact evaluations under regional and national literacy programmes in South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania. Victoria runs a Ugandan-based education consultancy organisation and research institute focused on identifying relevant and contextual solutions to the challenges of teacher effectiveness and quality learning outcomes in an East African context. She is currently the adviser for the randomized control trial impact evaluation under Mango Tree’s Northern Uganda Literacy Program.

Photo Credits: Mango Tree

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