Game-changer: mobile technology reaches teachers in remote areas with literacy instruction tips and training

Dr. Jacqueline Jere-Folotiya and Emma Ojanen share how GraphoGame is being implemented in Zambia, to help teachers improve their use of phonics and local languages in literacy instruction.

Game-changer: mobile technology reaches teachers in remote areas with literacy instruction tips and training

by Dr. Jacqueline Jere-Folotiya and Emma Ojanen

Early grade teachers in Zambia face a myriad of challenges in teaching reading.  Large class sizes, learners with limited previous exposure to books, and lack of tools and training make their jobs difficult.  It is in this context that GraphoGame™  is being implemented—to equip teachers to meet these challenges and open the world of reading to their students.

GraphoGame™, a mobile phone learning game for children with reading difficulties, was originally developed in Finland, based on the work of Professor Heikki Lyytinen from the University of Jyväskylä, the UNESCO Chair for Inclusive Literacy Learning for All. The game provides GraphoGrame logoindividualized support in basic reading skills, so each player gets the precise practice they need. GraphoGame™  is also being used in literacy research in more than 20 countries. It collects a range of data, such as knowing which letters are the most difficult to learn in a specific language, which is used to create better learning materials and teacher training.

In Zambia, GraphoGame™ has been translated into the local language of Cinyanja. Ten years ago we learned that it is possible to improve children’s literacy skills in Cinyanja with a few hours intervention with GraphoGame™, but this impact is limited without reinforcement from teachers. Many teachers in Zambia have been trained when literacy was taught in English, and so practicing letter-sound connections with GraphoGame™ seems useful for them as well. Teachers may be able to speak the regional or local language well, but because of their educational background, they might not be fluent readers in that language. Our research in 2010 found the best results happen when teachers play the game, too.

Our newest project with All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development helps Zambian teachers improve their use of phonics and local languages in literacy instruction.  We believe the best way to improve literacy scores is to provide teachers with evidence-based training in literacy instruction. Teachers learn good pedagogical practices in teaching literacy in a local language and how to support struggling readers. Furthermore, many teachers find themselves transformed as they see children learning in a fun and exciting way.  Observing their students learn through GraphoGame™ is inspiring teachers to create other game-like activities for their pupils.

Providing professional training with mobile phone and internet can help many teachers who are living in remote, rural areas.  In the All Children Reading project, which runs from 2015 to 2016, we are training 30 teachers in rural Eastern Zambia to use GraphoGame™ in their schools and anticipate up to 1,000 children will benefit.  Teachers will use mobile phones for self-studying literacy related information. Their progress is followed via online questionnaires by researchers at the Agora Center and our partner the Centre for Promotion of Literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa (CAPOLSA).  A previous study in 2014 in Zambia showed that teachers were able to conduct GraphoGame™ interventions with very little training.  Despite occasional challenges with power and connectivity, the pilot schools reported data via mobile phones at least weekly to the researchers.

Our aim is to develop a dissemination model by which teachers in Zambia improve their professional skills and provide support for children who are struggling with learning basic literacy skills.  Delivering training via mobile phones opens new possibilities to support teachers in remote areas.  In addition to the All Children Reading project, the Agora Center also engages in other efforts to support teachers.  The GraphoLearn Diploma uses a “training of trainers” approach in four African countries, including Zambia.  We participate in academic capacity building programs, such as CAPOLSA  in Zambia with Professor Robert Serpell, and supervising MA and PhD students. These combined efforts contribute to the progress of improved literacy instruction in Zambia.

Dr. Jacqueline Jere-Folotiya, CAPOLSA, Department of Psychology, University of Zambia, wrote her PhD on the use of GraphoGamewith mobile phones in Zambia. Her interests are supporting teachers in professional development.

Emma Ojanen, Agora Center, University of Jyväskylä Finland, wrote her Master’s thesis in Psychology on the data collected in Zambia in 2005. Now she is working on her PhD on letter-sound knowledge in Zambia using GraphoGamedata.