Listen up! Radio and mobile phones used to improve children’s literacy in Zambia

Mother tongue stories authored by community members disseminated by SMS to parents’ phones so children can practice reading at home.

Listen up! Radio and mobile phones used to improve children’s literacy in Zambia

You may not think of radio as cutting edge technology—but it’s playing an important role in an innovative project in rural Zambia that’s bringing together mobile phones, radio, and local knowledge to help children learn to read. 

“Radio in rural Zambia is the most efficient and effective way to reach our target audience,” said Angela Musonda, coordinator for Creative Associates International’s innovative project.  “If there is anything that most people in rural areas like doing, it is listening to the radio.  As they work in the field, as they work at home, as they relax, they listen to the radio.”

Creative Associates is harnessing this love of radio to promote literacy through its Makhalidwe Athu (“Our Way of Staying”) project.

Victor Sinyangwe, Project Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor with Creative Associates in Zambia, uses broadcast radio to promote crowdsourcing and raise awareness with partnership with Breeze FM. Photo credit of Creative Associates International.

Funded by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, Makhalidwe Athu is seeking to develop mother tongue reading materials and promote parental engagement in reading in Eastern Province, Zambia.  Stories are authored by community members, then literacy specialists adapt these local tales to be grade-appropriate and “decodable,” meaning text that contains letters and sounds a student has already learned.   Stories are then disseminated by SMS to parents’ phones so children can practice reading at home.  Parents can engage further with their children by asking reading comprehension questions that also come by SMS.

Project partner Breeze FM, a popular Zambian radio station, is using radio to raise community awareness about the literacy project. “We want listeners to know we’re teaching children to read and to understand,” explained Musonda.  The radio is also being used to stimulate crowdsourcing of local folktales, fables and stories. People can submit stories online, via text, or by dropping stories off at the radio station.

Children receive local language stories, with comprehension questions, via SMS.

The radio station reads local stories on the air as part of contests.  Listeners call in and vote for their favorite story, building interest in crowdsourcing stories for children’s literature.

“Crowdsourcing is an important way for communities to feel that sense of belonging,” clarified Musonda.  “The stories have to do with their way of life.  They won’t find anything in them that is unfamiliar.”

The broadcast radio stories also include the comprehension questions to reinforce parents’ daily engagement with their children’s reading.

To evaluate the impact of the Makhalidwe Athu innovation, National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago is conducting a rigorous impact evaluation. Data will be collected through an Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA), household survey and learner questionnaires at baseline and end line.  About 1,200 students in 40 school communities are expected to benefit.

All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, a partnership of USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government, is an ongoing series of grant and prize competitions that leverages science and technology to source and disseminate scalable solutions to improve literacy skills of early grade learners in developing countries. To check out more stories from our grantees, partnership opportunities, or to participate in future competitions, visit or follow us on Twitter.