By Peter Oliver Ochieng

In 2015, the Uwezo (ability) Kenya national assessment enumeration area report ranked Bungoma, Tana River and Turkana among the bottom 10 Counties in Kenya with low learning outcomes in literacy and numeracy.

This probably indicates that there is ‘too much schooling yet very little learning’ as hundreds, if not thousands of children across the country attend school but fail to acquire the basics in literacy and numeracy.

As such, the ZiziAfrique Foundation in partnership with other organizations among them Safaricom, in 2019 piloted a project known as the accelerated learning program aimed at ensuring that learners acquire foundational skills in both literacy and numeracy, to enable them ‘read with understanding’ and ‘reason with numbers.’

The project is largely home based, delivered through the use of tablets graciously supplied by Samsung. According to ZiziAfrique Senior Manager Virginia Ngindiru, the initial phase of the project in Bungoma will come to a close in March, 2022, with plans already up and running to ensure its sustainability.

“In Bungoma County, 20 schools were brought onboard in 2019 and as at 2021; the program has reached 61 schools with more than 10,000 learners benefitting from the intervention. The program is being implemented by Community Research in Environment and Development Initiatives (CREADIS) whose role is to support in the direct implementation of the program including hiring of the program officers, hiring of the teacher assistants, training of the teacher assistants and the overall monitoring of the program activities among other roles,” she said.

Children take instructions from ZiziAfrique official

Beneficiary public schools were selected based on a wide range of criteria, which include having over 40% of learners in grades 3 to 5 unable to read a basic text pegged at grade 2, schools in rural areas, schools that have consistently posted poor performance and schools with supportive school leaders, majorly head teachers.

Before a child is enrolled into the project, he/she is assessed to determine his or her strengths and weaknesses. The pupils are grouped into three phases: syllable, words and the higher level for a 30-day learning club spread over 10-day each, before progressing to the next state.

“After they are capable of reading, we now group them in a level termed as the reading club,” says Mildred Akinyi, a teacher assistant. Akinyi is in charge of a group of pupils, drawn from Wekelekha primary school, in Kanduyi constituency.

Wekelekha is among the 61 schools under the pilot phase of the project. The project has massively improved learning at the school, according to Margaret Mwangale, Head teacher Wekelekha Primary School.

“It has improved learning as a whole and it has gone viral in the community. Children who were slow learners can ably read up to a five letter word and this has attracted even the non-enrolled learners,” she said.

The teacher assistants work hand in hand with parent champions. As a parent champion, Beatrice Nyongesa has been entrusted with a tablet and a group of over five children who meet at her place every evening for lessons, christened digital learning.

Her daughter is among the beneficiaries, and Nyongesa admits that the digital learning gadgets have helped improve her reading and writing ability. “The use of tablets has really helped to improve the pupil’s results especially in composition. Most of them are now writing much better as compared to when the project started,” she said.

Children being taken through the paces by parent champion Beatrice Nyongesa

Her sentiments were echoed by Wakelekha primary school pupil, under the program. “I am now a better pupil, I can speak in both English and Kiswahili. I was not good at writing composition but now I am doing better,” said James Maina*.

He urged the project implementers to ensure that every pupil under the project has his/her own tablet. Currently, over 5 pupils converge at the home of the parent champion every evening for studies proving a major challenge to the learners.

“We leave school at 6pm. We have to rush home and take a bath, before rushing to parent champion for studies. By then, it is already dark. I request that they give each one of us his/her own tablet,” Maina* said.

The tablets are full of content ranging from short story books, audio and video clips; both in English and Kiswahili. The content is supplied by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD).

Ngindiru said the initiative is working. “The evidence from the intervention shows that more than 50 percent of learners can read a basic story pegged at grade 2 by the end of 30 days. Equally, over half of the learners attain proficiency in numeracy within the same period.”

ZiziAfrique Senior Manager Virginia Ngindiru

However, it is not all rosy. The manager addresses some of the challenges they face on a daily basis as such:

“The program relies heavily on the teacher assistants. Teacher attrition is a challenge as it comes with a cost of having to replace them with newly trained teachers thus putting pressure to the funds for supporting this component,” she said.

“It is anticipated that the volunteer model will help sort this problem as volunteers are less likely to move away from the community. Equally the compressed school calendar, affects the availability of the one-hour learning session where interventions around literacy and numeracy are carried out.”

Ngindiru added that they are putting in several measures to ensure the project’s sustainability. “As part of the sustainability plan, the program is currently piloting a concept of volunteers’ model to sustain learners’ support at the community levels. The volunteers are exposed to initial training where they are taken through basic concepts of identifying the learning levels of the learners and how to plan for instructions,” she said.

“The project also plans to leverage on the regular teachers to be inducted to the program to allow them to infuse the approach in their regular teaching. The use of technology in the households in Bungoma, a component in the pilot stage, is also aimed at exploring how we can leverage technology to sustain gains made at school.”

Besides Bungoma, the initiative is being implemented in Tana River and Turkana Counties.