Teaching to improve literacy, numeracy

A child enjoys a counting game as her peers look on. PHOTO/PROMISE TWINAMUKYE

What you need to know:

  • Teaching at the right level is in line with the slogan no child should be left behind in literacy and numeracy skills.

Aidan Musinguzi, the head teacher of Nyakamuri I Primary School in Isingiro District, says it was not a good feeling when four learners made Division U in 2019. Not only their parents, but also the learners themselves were crushed.

Because they border Tanzania, Musinguzi believes the intermarriages between Ugandans and Tanzanians lead to many children adopting two languages at the same time. Teaching them English therefore proves harder than it should be.

Things however, Musinguzi says, changed for the better after introducing teaching at the right level (TaRL). The teachers, even those who teach above the level the methodology targets, took it up and incorporated it in their teaching style for  better results.

The school that had only 620 pupils increased to 1,004 pupils just a year after the methodology was introduced in the school. This, he says, is because they turned classrooms which were like academic prisons, by using child-centred methods which kept the learners motivated and active. Therefore, they attained better grades.

“Starting with literacy where children started comprehending pronunciation, spelling, and writing short stories, the performance even in other subjects improved,” the head teacher says.

The following year, even the children who came in Grade U passed and the school achieved a first grade. Musinguzi says this had never happened before in Nyakamuri I Primary School.

The method
TaRL is a counteractive teaching method that began as a joint venture between J-PAL and Pratham entities in India. The evidence based teaching approach then spread out to different countries in Africa (TaRL Africa), with their headquarters in Kenya. The approach has also been implemented successfully in Zambia, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast.

The 5.5billion teaching approach targets the root of the learning crisis by transforming the structures that lead it. It aims at improving learners’ foundational literacy and numeracy skills. 
This method does not group learners by age or grade but by their learning level.

Through periodical assessment, learners are grouped by their learning level. The assessment is carried out by assessing each learner individually, which takes up to 10 minutes, using simple but standardised assessment tools. 

Classroom activities
Essentially there are five learning levels, both for literacy (beginner, letter, word, paragraph, and story) and for numeracy (beginner, 1-digit, 2-digit, subtraction, division). The specific classroom activities are organised by the teacher for each group of learners, focusing either on foundational literacy or foundational numeracy. This takes place every day, before or after regular class hours.

Elizabeth Luganda, district support coordinator VVOB(the Flemish Association for Development Cooperation and Technical Assistance) in Isingiro District, says they have developed reading materials in different languages, so it is easy to follow for both the teacher and learners. 

“There are the syllable charts in different languages to help learners understand and it eases their learning transition from their local languages to English,” she says.

In Uganda, TaRL is scaling in Kasese, Adjumani, Isingiro, Madi-Okollo and Terego since 2020 from pilot, now to scale level. This initiative has been supported by Unicef, the Lego and Hempel foundations.

George Mainja, the district education officer of Kasese, says TaRL was unknown in Kasese until 2020. However, their approach came as a deliverance message after the assessment from Uwezo, which indicated that the proficiency levels in literacy and numeracy was low. This methodology came targeting primary three to five.

“When TaRL came on board with evidence of success from Zambia and other countries, we were ready to fill the teaching and learning gaps in our country. This came as a relief in line with our slogan ‘no child should be left behind’ and now there is evidence of improvement in literacy and numeracy proficient levels,” Mainja says.

In phase one, Mainja says they started with 24 schools and they have rolled up to 80 schools. The testimonies from these schools, he adds, have attracted the remaining government schools to apply the same for their learners.

Starting with government-aided schools (because they need it the most), Mainja says this methodology will eventually reach private schools since it applies to everyone.

“With the approach of TaRL, there is an element of assessing and grouping. Teachers assess the learners on a one-on-one basis. After the assessment, the teacher is able to tell the level where a child falls,” he says.

This works as opposed to general tests given to learners to grade their level since it leaves out learners that take time to grasp certain concepts. The level also caters for those whose knowledge catches up faster with skills and not book-based learning.

“When TaRL came, it included guidance and counselling, assessment on time takers (the children who take time to learn) and life skills. When a child is not performing at all in class, we call their parents, talk to them about career guidance for their children, especially those who are quite advanced in age,” Musinguzi says.

He adds that a child may be slow or cannot utter a word in English. This method helps them to become something in future as they slowly catch up with the rest of theory practice learned at school. To contextualise the TaRL methodology, Joris Rossie, country programmes manager VVOB,  says the name is being rebranded to a Ugandan term U-catchup (Uganda catchup), loosely meaning helping every learner in Uganda to catch up and not get left behind.

“This is a remedial course which helps those lagging behind to catch up with the rest.
U-catchup will add more features that those of TaRL. One of the features includes socio-emotional learning (SEL), day-to-day skills that will be taught to learners. These skills include communication skills, working in a group, life skills such as tailoring. 

Teaching at the right level (TaRL) method does not group learners by age or grade but by their learning level.

Through periodical assessment, learners are grouped by their learning level.

The assessment is carried out by assessing each learner individually, which takes up to 10 minutes, using simple but standardised assessment tools.