From Drum Beats to Letters

From Drum Beats to Letters

Primary school teacher, Grace, works one on one with student Patience in Zimbabwe.
Primary school teacher, Grace, works one on one with student Patience in Zimbabwe.

​"School is fun!" says 11-year-old Patience, a primary school student in Kachamaenza village in the Hurungwe district of Zimbabwe. "I can now read things that I couldn't read before."

Reading is opening up her world and taking her imagination to places beyond her village of dusty roads, thatched huts and the daily chores of cooking, washing and fetching water. "I can read our English text book and read about information and how information travels."

"I read that in the past people used to light a fire or beat drums as a way of passing information. I also read that nowadays, people pass information by using the radio, newspapers and television," says Patience.

Though Patience herself now shares information through writing letters and stories about friends, gardening, and the folk tales that she grew up with, last year it would have been easier to do this by beating a drum like the one she has just read about.

For back then, her teachers say, Patience could not read or construct a meaningful sentence.

She was not alone.

Only 13% of students in grade 7 at her school managed to pass their end-of-year exams.The 310 children at the school were taught by only nine teachers. Of these, only four had received any teacher training.

In Katchamaenza village, a place far away from the modern conveniences of electricity and piped water, it's easy to imagine the sounds of drums sending messages across the savannah. Here, teaching was always a challenge. Until recently, the school had only six classrooms. The floors were cracked, the walls were bare and only two of the classrooms had desks. Apart from the lack of resources, the language barrier also presented a problem. "I only have seven children in a class of 50 who can read and understand English," explains Grace Tsiga, one of the teachers.

But after Save the Children rolled out its community-wide education package called Literacy Boost in the area, thanks to a donation from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation in honor of local education advocate Tererai Trent, Patience benefited from both the training that her teachers received, and the reading camps that were introduced to the community.

"After I attended the Literacy Boost training for teachers, and started implementing some of the things that I learned, I realized that my students had also improved," says Grace. Echo reading, one on one reading practice between student and teacher, was one of the techniques that were taught. This was particularly helpful to Patience. "Ms.Tsiga helped me to read and she also read with me. That is when I learned how to read," says Patience.

Patience reinforced what she had learned at school at her the local reading camp that meets twice each week. There, adults and children are welcome to sit in a classroom or the shade of a tree and practice their reading together, or share what they've learned from their books. A group of volunteers from the community, who were trained by Save the Children, look after the community's book bank and help the children practice.

"I have improved my English reading, but I do get a few new and difficult words that I do not know. Recently I encountered the words "completely" and "quietly" and I didn't know these words. I had to ask the reading camp mentor for assistance. I couldn't read or write the word "picture," now I can," she says.

Patience has come very far from the quiet student she once was. She is now more involved in class activities, reading aloud to classmates, writing letters in English and sharing her books with her mother at home. These days, she is drumming up support for reading in her village, and is happy that way.

More About Save the Children's Literacy Boost Program

More children go to school, increasing numbers reach grade 5, but research on reading skills in nearly 50 developing countries worldwide show that many children in the poorest communities, including those in Zimbabwe, are struggling to learn to read.

To address the gaps in learning and create a culture of reading, Save the Children designed the innovative Literacy Boost program, aimed at supporting young children through reading assessments, teacher training and community engagement. Everyone in the community – from parents to teachers to community volunteers to older children – is involved. Materials for learning are made by local workers whenever possible while children are lent books, spend time with reading buddies, and attend reading camps.

From the start, Save the Children tracks the progress of children's reading skills compared with their peers who do not participate in the program. Literacy Boost is grounded on the principle that early-stage reading ability is a catalyst for improved learning outcomes in low-income countries with limited resources.

Through support from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, Save the Children launched its signature Literacy Boost program in Zimbabwe in honor of Tererai Trent. The program is offered to nearly 4,000 children in Matau and surrounding communities. Read more here: www.savethechildren.org/oprah.