Africa: Innovative SMS Stories Improve English Literacy in Papua New Guinea

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The majority of primary school children in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are unable to read English, a fact that’s exacerbated by limited access to literacy resources in schools across the country. In partnership with the PNG Department of Education, VSO successfully trialled a programme to see if daily mobile phone text message stories could improve English teaching and ultimately, children’s reading.

Tackling literacy levels with technology

Like many schools in Papua New Guinea, Bunamgl School has virtually no access to reading materials, making teaching and learning English an enormous challenge. It is among several rural primary schools in the coastal region of Madang which took part in a research project to see whether sending daily stories to teachers via daily text messages could help improve children’s reading. Over a period of 100 days, a daily lesson plan and short story was sent to teachers by text message. The teacher would then write the story on the board, and teach that story to the children. While books and teaching materials are scarce in Papua New Guinea, nearly every teacher has a mobile phone.

‘We were really finding it difficult to teach English to our children’ said one teacher, ‘but these SMS stories encouraged students to come to school every day expecting a new story. They help us teach and make it more enjoyable for us teachers as well as the children.’

SMS Story was designed by VSO’s education programme manager Richard Jones in collaboration with VSO volunteers and local education specialists to support children in reading English, incorporating phonics and keywords. There was no formal training involved so teachers were given a cartoon poster that explained how to use the text messages. For 20 weeks, 50% of teachers received a daily SMS story and a lesson plan via mobile phone, while the other half did not and the children’s reading was assessed before and after the trial. The research was led by a VSO volunteer Nasiib Kaleebu with a team of young Papua New Guinean researchers.

‘SMS Stories cut down on our work-load especially for drawing up the lesson plans’ explains a teacher at another participating school. ‘During the few weeks of the SMS Stories, students were reading and also learning to write their own stories’ adds a teacher from Kunabau.

Success of SMS stories

After two academic terms, classes which received the daily SMS stories recorded a significant improvement in children’s reading skills compared to other schools. There were also major differences in the teaching and learning strategies used by the teachers. SMS stories recorded a 50% increase in the number of children who could read English. VSO volunteer Alison Gee helped coordinate the project,

‘It was a humbling experience and I was fortunate to be part of a team that made such a significant difference to those teachers and children. When we visited the participating schools, the children, parents and teachers were all determined to show us how well their children could read. Parents came to the schools to thank us, some had never learnt to read themselves but wanted their children to do well at school and saw the importance of the initiative.’

Following the trial, some teachers said they would like this approach built into the curriculum and the stories and lesson plans are being included in the new national PNG curriculum.

‘Schoolteachers here are very hard working but they get very little training, so this is a way of structuring their lessons for them’ adds Richard Jones, VSO education programme manager.

In the absence of reading materials and materials to help plan lessons, SMS Stories provides a simple and low-cost way to raise literacy levels. The cost was K2.01 per child (50p) and it is estimated this cost would drop further if the project is scaled up, as Richard Jones explains, ‘It’s a very cheap way of getting reading materials to schools – we found that no one has ever done this anywhere else in the world.’

Source: VSO International

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