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The background to various international projects

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 19, 2014 10:04 pm    Post subject: The background to various international projects Reply with quote

I've started this new forum especially to highlight some very worthwhile educational projects taking place in far-flung places with many wonderful people pulling together internationally in different ways.

The internet is a fantastic way for people to link up, to describe their projects, to share their stories, to appeal for support where necessary, and to offer support as the case may be.

Here at Phonics International, one way that we have tried to support people internationally is by the provision of open access to plenty of good information about the teaching of reading, spelling and handwriting. We also provide a number of very practical free resources such as our range of Alphabetic Code Charts and we provide free e-tutorials and an advisory message forum.

People are welcome to contact me for specific advice - and they do.

Amongst the many people who have contacted me for suggestions is Andy Robson. Andy is involved in a very worthwhile project in Mumbai, India - with Vision Rescue - and although I haven't had a great deal to do with Andy, nevertheless, we continue to keep in touch and I shall do more to describe Andy's project when he moves to Mumbai from England and can further develop the phonics aspect of the project - so more about this in time!

More recently, I was contacted by Stephanie Dobrowolski who was seeking phonics guidance for exciting projects in schools in West Africa.
I started a thread about this some time ago which you can read here:
Debbie Hepplewhite
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PostPosted: Wed Mar 19, 2014 10:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Even more recently, I was contacted by Eileen Bower who is coincidentally involved in another school in West Africa and seeking phonics advice and resources for the school.

It seemed to me that it would be a good idea if Stephanie and Eileen could share their experiences of the schools' needs as their projects have much in common - even if just in terms of mutual encouragement. Here in England, 'networking' amongst school communities is very highly regarded for school improvement and support.

So, using a group email system, Stephanie sent such a full description to bring us up to speed with the schools concerned that I asked if she, James and others would be happy for me to share this information in the wider domain. They certainly are!

Here is what she wrote today:

Dear Debbie and Eileen,

Eileen, it's very nice to "meet you". I enjoyed reading your update when you first sent it and I have read it again just now as a refresher.

To explain a bit more, I'm currently based in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and am working on both our non-profit initiative and a low-cost private schooling start up with a colleague based in London. The latter has involved a very interesting past month or so hosting focus groups with parents around the country, visiting schools and speaking with teachers and principals, and just now we're finishing up a nation-wide survey of households and schools. Needless to say, the past month has kept me busy! And has also involved a whole lot of learning which has been great.

In addition to our low cost private schools initiative, I'm also working on our non-profit literacy education project called Life Literacy: . My brother and a Liberian refugee named James started working together about 10 years ago, after they met on a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana. From there grew the idea to focus specifically on literacy education, especially for kids who have been displaced by conflict and been out of school. We're now operating a literacy education centre outside of Monrovia, Liberia, which focuses primarily on literacy and numeracy education, but also does provide other core subject lessons as well.

After a few years working together and doing literacy assessments with the students, it became increasingly clear that despite the best of intentions and hard work by the teachers, the kids were just not learning to read phonetically. We'd continually try to find new ways to emphasise the need for a phonetic approach to reading with the teachers, but given they themselves had learned to read through memorization, we couldn't seem to break the cycle.

So, one sunny morning in Oxford I finally came across Phonics International and sent Debbie an email!

Eileen, I'm sure our school/literacy education centre in Liberia faces many similar challenges to the school that you're working with in The Gambia. As you said, it's an enormous task! The community in which our school is based is sufficiently off the beaten track that the kids are exposed to essentially no written language in their surroundings or at home. Many of them have been in and out of school, or have never attended at all. So we organise our classes based on age and ability, with a "remedial" class specifically for older students (14 and 15 years old) who are just now learning to read. We have no power, definitely no internet, and the only books are those that we've managed to carry in ourselves over the years. Our teachers too, despite being a great group of people who have the kids' best interest at heart, lack basic teacher training.

All of that to say - I feel like we're likely overwhelmed by similar challenges, and are largely seeking the support of someone like Debbie and Phonics International for similar reasons. For our purposes, we were really keen to find a detailed, comprehensive, and highly organised programme that would provide very clear instructions and a high level of support for our teachers. We basically needed something that would take the teachers through the process of teaching English literacy one small step at time. As much as I would have been interested in some sort of tech-based mode of delivery, it didn't make sense yet for where we're working. And perhaps I'm out-dated, but I felt like each student would really benefit from something paper-based, in their hands, that belonged uniquely to them. That way they could keep it and take it home, and write, draw and colour in it.

As Debbie mentioned, she very kindly compiled the most essential learning materials and developed her series of 8 "all-in-one" ebooks. Initial discussion with the teachers last spring was very positive, and they responded really well to the idea of implementing and testing out the programme. We had a few bumps in the road that delayed our timing, but I finally traveled to Liberia at the end of January.

When I was there, I assessed student literacy levels and provided James with the ebooks and some supplementary materials on a memory stick. I had printed the first ebook for him, and then we found a guy who could photocopy one for each student. To make 80 copies cost us $100 USD. Once their term wrapped up, and they had rearranged their schedule and held a parent meeting, they gave one copy to each student and got started. So as of the start of March we have been using the ebooks. And initial early days feedback has been very positive!!

Main feedback thus far has been that both the teachers and the students are really enjoying the first ebook. Debbie, I apologise for not having shared this with you yet, but it's been really very exciting so far! I've been told that the students are absolutely thrilled to each have their own copy. Most of them have never had a book of their own, so they've loved having something that belongs just to them. They've been colouring in the books, filling in the practices' pages, and taking them home with them to practice. This makes the task of printing and photocopying totally worthwhile.

James has also commented that, as the head literacy instructor, it's really lightened his teaching load because the activities are all so clearly laid out, and he does not need to spend time trying to figure out what the next step in his lesson plan needs to be. He's also then spending more of his time coming up with creative games and songs to go along with the ebooks.

He was telling me last week about the "ah HA" moments too that the students (and teachers) are already having. For example, when they learn that the sss sound of the letter s, as in snake, sounds the same as the letters ce in palace. He said you could just see their faces light up as they made this discovery. It definitely sounds like the systematic way that the ebooks provide will lead the teachers and students through the English language is going to be so beneficial for them.

I asked James as well whether they had had trouble with anything yet, or if there were activities/words that didn't make sense maybe to the students given their context, but he said no. I enjoyed the way he saw it as well, that when they come across a word like igloo for example, which makes no sense to the kids whatsoever obviously, they use this as an opportunity to discuss and learn about other places and culture. So other than some possible spelling differences (they use American English spelling) it sounds like there's no real need to think about making any material changes.

So overall, things are moving along slowly but surely, and initial feedback has been encouraging! From my perspective, it's massively reassuring to know that the teachers are working through a well-thought out programme, that provides a high degree of support to both the students and the teachers. And I love that each student has their own copy of the ebook.

Actual progress in their literacy skills will be more formally assessed in June, using the same assessments as we used in January, so I will remain hopeful and optimistic until then! We've talked a lot about the need for demonstrating results, certainly from the student progress perspective but also in order to seek funding and hopefully scale up our initiative in the future. I think the teachers and especially James have really bought into the idea of pilot testing the programme, and are excited to be part of the process of finding out to what extent Phonics International and the ebooks especially can make a difference for their students' learning.

Ok, well before I get any more carried away with this email I will wrap it up! Eileen I hope that this has given you somewhat of a better idea of who we are and what we're working on. I guess I should also mention that we're working on a couple other initiatives in Sierra Leone, as part of a Canadian-based charity that we've set up, the Solon Foundation: so we're hoping to start using Debbie's ebooks at our school here as well. Although that school as a whole host of other challenges...!

Please do let me know if you would like to speak about any of this further. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this mammoth email (sorry!) I apologise for the slow response, but I'm very happy to be in touch and will do much better at responding in a far more timely manner.

And Debbie, thank you for always being so positive and supportive! I hope you and David are doing well Smile

Take care and all the best from Freetown,


So, as you can see, it is early days for these schools' adventure into phonics teaching and learning - but we shall continue to tell the story as it happens.

When I am approached by various people for advice, their context and their specific needs are foremost in my mind. Scenarios such as schools without the internet and with no printing of photocopying equipment need a different kind of practical support and advice compared to others with well-equipped contexts.

Because of lack of equipment, internet and so on, I asked Stephanie about the possibility of a local firm printing out an eBook for each child.

In the end, Stephanie managed to locate someone local with the facilities to print the books at some cost - but affordable - thus saving transport difficulties.

[My initial hope was that a local firm, such as an energy firm, would even print out the eBooks free of charge to support charity-based schools and contexts.]

I suggested that what these schools also needed in addition to the actual eBooks per child is a large-scale Alphabetic Code Chart as the main reference visual aid. The eBooks themselves 'build up' the alphabetic code in each book - and also provide all the code information that the adult requires to support their teaching knowledge.

The 'Series of 8 eBooks' has been designed as a pick-up-and-go version of the Phonics International programme with sufficient support and information for both teachers and learners.

The pdf below provides a description of the rationale and content of these very unusual books and, over the months ahead, we'll learn more from Stephanie - and possibly Eileen and Andy - as to whether they are truly effective. I really look forward to that.
Debbie Hepplewhite
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PostPosted: Thu Mar 20, 2014 2:02 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

This bit of Stephanie's message really gave me the goosebumps:

I've been told that the students are absolutely thrilled to each have their own copy. Most of them have never had a book of their own, so they've loved having something that belongs just to them. They've been colouring in the books, filling in the practices' pages, and taking them home with them to practice. This makes the task of printing and photocopying totally worthwhile.

Even in England I have to work very hard to persuade and explain to teachers why it is so important that EVERY pupil has his or her own phonics material - there are SO MANY REASONS.

But, how utterly amazing and heartwarming (but sad) it is for me, I admit, that the first ever book some of these children have ever owned is their Phonics International Unit 1 eBook!

Well, words cannot even describe how I feel about these projects. All I can say is that our collaborative work and effort give me a glowing-inside-feeling when there is the possibility that we might have supported people and children such as these in some small and practical way. Very Happy
Debbie Hepplewhite
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