Community Literacy Leaders help improve reading in Ethiopia
By Michael Greer, Programme Manager, Child Protection and Education, World Vision US
With a huge smile, Sara moves among her students with the command of a seasoned teacher as she calls on them to respond with “letter of the day” example words. Surrounded by colorful learning aids and storybook displays, students are visibly excited, and they eagerly raise their hands to give answers.
Sara is not a schoolteacher, however, and this is not a school. She is a trained volunteer who co-leads a reading camp for elementary-grade students on weekends. Referred to as Community Literacy Leaders (CLLs), Sara and her fellow CLLs are a key part of the USAID/Ethiopia READ II project that World Vision implements in partnership with Creative Associates as lead. The overall goal of the project is to improve students’ ability to read, using World Vision’s Unlock Literacy early grade reading programme. Unlock Literacy helps children learn to read by focusing on the five core reading skills: letter knowledge, sounding out words, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The programme uses a multi-faceted and community-based approach to supporting literacy, including reading assessments, teacher training, and community action – including CLLs and reading camps. These components address children’s literacy holistically and help create a culture of reading – in school, at home and in the community.
Sara’s reading camp takes place in the donated space of a community centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This arrangement was reached as a result of concerted READ II efforts prompting communities to contribute to their children’s education. This reading camp is one of 3,750 like it, starting in villages and towns across Ethiopia.
According to USAID’s Education Policy, “reading is the foundational skill necessary for all other academic progress” and “local champions among parents and caregivers, and community and school leaders are necessary to build the capacity for scaling and sustaining successful literacy programs.”
Community literacy leaders
Unfortunately, parents in Sara’s community expressed concern that their children were not learning to read as well as they should. She says, “This is the capital city, but a lot of children are struggling to read. Ethiopians value education, so we want them to read.”
The main reasons parents say students are struggling include large numbers of students in each classroom, limited one-on-one attention from teachers, and lack of opportunities to read outside the classroom.
As a mother of two children herself, 3 and 7 years old, Sara is passionate about ensuring children learn to read at an early age. In fact, before the project, Sara brought children together on her own initiative to work on their handwriting. “I want to help change this problem,” said Sara. “Parents realise this problem is great and that this programme can help.”
Sara believes the training she received on how to be a CLL was a more interactive approach than what she has seen in standard classrooms. Children are encouraged to speak up, facilitators have close relationships with children, and learning involves stories, illustrations, and dancing.
Most importantly, students are encouraged to borrow story books and read them at home. This encourages students to develop reading habits outside of formal learning environments with family members who can encourage them. Sara loves the access to books that the reading camp provides and says her daughter now reads by herself, following the illustrations in the books.
Community action for long-term success
Reading camps are most effective in improving students’ reading proficiency when implemented with partners as part of a comprehensive community outreach intervention. For sustainable development to happen, community members must believe they have a role to play in making their communities and villages places where students can thrive.
Communities can do their part to support the camps, including local authorities, educators, community-based organisations, and parents, by donating a community space (such as in Sara’s case), contributing resources to build a space, or providing localised incentives for CLLs.
Reading camps should be closely linked to a nearby school so that the teachers of that school can oversee the nearby reading camps to support and reinforce mother tongue learning that takes place in schools.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, parents need to be educated and encouraged to support their children’s literacy development. The READ II Parental Awareness Workshops help parents of any literacy level understand how they can develop homemade resources or reading spaces at home to supplement children’s learning opportunities.
It’s my passion to support children both at home and in the neighborhood. --Sara, Community Literacy Leader
Currently, 1,400 CLLs lead 700 reading camps across the seven regions in Ethiopia. In the coming year, that number will expand to 7,500 leaders and 3,750 reading camps in those same regions.
Reading camps have already made a difference in Ethiopian children’s reading ability in other locations. In addition to establishing the camps in READ II, World Vision has implemented over 2,400 camps with 9,000 volunteers elsewhere in Ethiopia. Although programming differed slightly from READ II, the results of that programming indicated that in one year of programming, 35.1 per cent of students became new readers, compared to 19.3 per cent in comparison schools.
With the dedication of CLLs like Sara, thousands of Ethiopian children will become better readers. When Sara was asked why she volunteers to help so many other children, she responded, “I want to be responsible for others as well. I learn when I’m in the reading cam, too, and that helps me with my own children. It’s my passion to support children both at home and in the neighborhood.”
Sarah is committed to helping every last child who shows up to her camp. “Even if [more come than planned], I can’t turn them away and I want to accommodate them.”
Imagine if all 7,500 CLLs could inspire children to read as Sara does. Students’ report cards would positively reflect an entire community effort by volunteers, parents, and schools.
DISCLAIMER: This story is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of Creative Associates International and its partners and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.
 World Vision’s literacy programming was developed from the organisation’s experience piloting Save the Children's Literacy Boost model from 2011-2016. Literacy Boost is a proven literacy programme designed, developed and owned by Save the Children.
 USAID (2018) USAID Education Policy. Retrieved from: https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1865/2018_Education_Policy_FINAL_WEB.pdf
 Lisa Sorensen, Ann Munene, Dita Tefera, Garoma Wakjira, Melaku Birhanu, Elliott Friedlander, and Mastewal Worku, Literacy Boost Ethiopia Endline Evaluation Report, Save the Children/World Vision (2013).