Reading Liberia

Our Director of Development, Sean Maddox, and I have just gotten home from a trip to Liberia, where we officially launched CODE’s newest program, Reading Liberia, and helped facilitate a series of demonstration workshops for teachers on how to teach reading and writing.

We were joined by other external partners (Critical Thinking International, the Children’s Book Project of Tanzania, SPARK Netherlands and the People’s Educational Association of Sierra Leone), Liberia’s Vice President Joseph N. Boakai, Minister of Education Dr. Korto, and 100 or so enthusiastic Liberian educators and authors.

For the rebuilding of the educational system to be such a top priority in Liberia, after all the nation has been through, is inspiring, even though I imagine at times it must seem an almost impossible task. While Reading Liberia offers little in terms of building physical infrastructure, we are confident that it can contribute to the quality and relevance of formal education once children are in school.

Throughout the week we focused on two themes, including the connection between them --- first, ‘the how’ of upgrading the qualifications of educators in the teaching of reading, writing, critical thinking and problem solving  and ensuring that those foundational skills are passed on to students --- and second, ‘the how’ of increasing the supply of quality, relevant books and educational materials.

While this is a concern across much of the developing world, its important to note that CODE’s invitation to participate in the initiative and to discuss the specific reality of  Liberia comes from two people with a deep appreciation of the critical importance of all learners acquiring the skills of reading and writing.

They are Mr. James Roberts, Deputy Minister for Planning, Research & Development in the Liberian Ministry of Education and Mr. Michael Weah, the founder and co-Director of the We-Care Foundation. They are outstanding advocates for Liberian readers and writers and as well, excellent ambassadors of Liberia itself.  We thank them for welcoming us aboard.

We are referring to Reading Liberia as being a comprehensive program because it aims to bring key concepts together that on their own, simply do not produce sustainable literacy.

We know that good books can make an enormous difference to the ease and quality of the learning, but we also know that books alone don’t do it… we need skilled teachers who know how to identify good books and work effectively with them.  We also need writers who appreciate what learners and teachers need so they can write good books, and we need publishers who can make the links across the book chain by connecting educators and writers and editors and illustrators and designers and printers to ensure that good books are published and available. Bringing this together is what this project is all about.

What we are proposing with Reading Liberia is to first establish a pilot program, one that can be both innovative and carefully monitored so that improvements can be made and best practices understood and institutionalized. 

The vision is long term just as sustainable development of textbook supply or teaching professionals must be long term. The short to medium term objective is to create a locally-responsive, comprehensive literacy program in select primary-level grades in approximately 8 to 10 schools. These schools will be supported with workshops that provide a model of the teaching of reading and writing that is research-based, designed to enable teachers to effectively incorporate children’s books into their teaching, across the curriculum. They will also be supported with workshops on book evaluation and book development in the classroom itself, as well as a supply of engaging English-language children’s books from other African countries. These schools can serve as model sites that can be sustained and expanded nationally.

A second strand of workshops would be conducted simultaneously -- a workshop series for Liberian authors to prepare them to create suitable books for children, written on levels and in formats that can be readily used in schools.

A further phase would focus on how private sector publishing and distribution can be  encouraged in order to support, through market subsidization, the publication and distribution of supplementary reading materials – culturally relevant, enjoyable, engaging literature that make strong connections with the national school curriculum.

A program of library development would additionally be undertaken along with a program of capacity development for the regional book trade. This latter point is important for two reasons.

One is that both the population and the purchasing power of Liberia is limited and through regional collaboration such as co-publishing, its possible to create savings while increasing the diversity of titles. Publishing is, by its very nature entrepreneurial, so this kind of collaboration comes quite naturally to publishers.

Second, no one publisher can do it all. We want children to know and respect themselves by reading literature that they can relate to, that reflects their own reality, that acts in a sense, as a mirror. But we also want children to know and respect others, to enter their world, to have access to literature that acts as a window to new worlds.   To this end it’s a very positive scenario where Liberia would publish its own books but additionally could source books from Sierra Leone, Ghana and beyond just as we would hope that Liberian books too can travel and be appreciated outside the country.

As to how it can be done, Reading Liberia is fortunate in that it will benefit from the experience of the Children’s Book Project in Tanzania, which will provide a concrete example of how national publishing can be developed when the vision exists. A recent evaluation of CBP describes the organization as a “centre for innovations in education in Tanzania”, one that “plays a unique, exemplary and unparalleled” role in national publishing.

Finally, there is Assessment and Evaluation, which we consider to be critical to any pilot. A key message here is that the project is framed around the long-term involvement of all stakeholders so that activities can be followed and results articulated.

One of the goals of this project is to introduce sound instructional strategies and good books into classrooms, so it only makes sense to monitor the difference that such books and strategies actually make. We’ve proposed baseline assessments and post-intervention assessments of teachers, and for criteria and standards to be developed both for the kinds of books that are wanted and as well for teacher performance in the teaching of reading and writing. 

Furthermore we’ve advocated for the eventual articulation and adoption of a national book policy, which would serve both as a legal tool to be adopted to guide the development of a country’s book publishing industry, and to encourage a concerted effort by all stakeholders to promote the development of a literate environment.

 -Scott Walter, CODE Executive Director