Rising from the ashes
By Kelsey Stiers
Cubu (pronounced choo-boo) has been a common household name around the READ for Life office, as well as the Early Childhood Development (ECD) education community in Gulu. For the entire year, Cubu was very popular in conversation and there was quite a buzz centred around the reading levels of pupils in Cubu, not in a good way though... “Oh dear, that’s almost as poor as Cubu…” “Wow, they definitely pulled a Cubu.” “That’s like something Cubu would do.” “I bet even Cubu could do better than that!”
In last year’s Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) testing, Cubu placed 75th out of 75 schools tested in the Gulu municipal area. Cubu was dead last. On average, P3 pupils were able to read six words in one minute. That’s about ten seconds for every word – pretty jolly slow! Measuring how many words children can read in one minute is a great indicator of their reading fluency. P2 pupils in Cubu could read an average of one word a minute and P1 managed to read a whole whopping zero words in one minute. Now, to be fair, Cubu teachers had never been trained by READ for Life or by our phonics program. They were among our control schools.
When I began my time with READ for Life in January, I was privileged to observe and assist at my first in-school training, where Cubu teachers were among the trainees. One teacher in particular really stuck out to me. She struggled hard to understand and was clinging to every word spoken throughout the training. She asked question after question and practiced her sounds religiously. Unfortunately sometimes after trainings, this dedication and excitement for phonics can be easily squashed by many circumstances: lack of strong leadership, lack of time, curriculum conflicts, etc. But her bubbly personality and excitement were contagious, so I really hoped she continued to carry that fire with her back to her classroom and also inspire her colleagues to be dedicated phonics teachers.
I’m not even really sure how many observations/supervisions Read for Life was able to manage throughout the year for Cubu, possibly about four, but let us fast forward to the end of third term a few weeks ago. READ for Life was back to the long slog of EGRA testing. This year, with the help of many volunteers, we managed to test 86 schools. Our supervisor, Beatrice, had done an incredible job organizing all of us into schools each day. After a couple weeks of long testing days, I had personally already been to eight or so schools, only a couple could read well. I had drawn some short straws. The last straw was when Beatrice announced the next day’s schedule: Kelsey and an assistant Martin – off to Cubu! I will freely admit that I rolled my eyes and sighed out of defeat. The next day, I rolled up to Cubu and told my boda driver to come back in only an hour because I KNEW I wouldn’t delay. The children would read nothing, which makes my testing job easier for that day (but overall, READ for Life’s work that much greater!) I sorted all of the details with the headteacher and began testing the P2 pupils. The first pupil knew 25 sounds and could read 4 real words. The second knew 56 sounds and could read 33 real words and 24 made-up words! I legitimately thought this child must’ve transferred from another better school. But the positive results continued child after child! 38 words, 64 words, quick passage reading, comprehension questions correct! I immediately texted Jody and told her I was at Cubu and I was currently crying (a little cheeky move on my part J) She responded, “It’s that bad?” I laughed and responded, “Tears of JOY!” The children must’ve thought I was crazy, but I just couldn’t stop crying or contain my emotions. I happily called my boda and proudly told him NOT to come get me. I would be there all morning because these children were READING!
I moved around the school with plenty of smiles and high fives ready for distribution. I sat with the headteacher, deputy and P1, P2, and P3 teachers. I asked each of the teachers for their feedback and this is what I received, “Children are picked from deep in the village and education is a tug of war. You start building knowledge from zero with every child. We were training reading using the cramming method and that does not help the children. We were trained by you (READ for Life) and immediately, we started to work using phonics. That practice really helped us and the children! We work every morning because practice makes perfect!” I congratulated them all for wonderful progress and encouraged them to continue with the spirit.
After only about 6 short months of phonics lessons:
P1 pupils on average went from reading zero wpm (words per minute) to 2.2 wpm.
P2 pupils on average went from reading 1 wpm to 17.7 wpm
P3 pupils on average went from reading 6 wpm to 51.5 wpm
According to research, comprehension begins between 45 and 60 words per minute. P3 children were far from understanding what they could read at the beginning of the year – but now they are well on their way to becoming fluent, independent readers!
The evidence is loud and clear. We are beyond excited and grateful for all the children, teachers and education staff who have willingly jumped into the phonics boat! Once again, we hope Cubu will be all the rage and that everyone will continue saying, “Wow, they pulled a Cubu” or “That’s something like Cubu would do!”