Adult literacy in Kadarko - starting October 2013

John Dada wrote "We have been requested to provide evening adult literacy classes. We expect that there will be a greater demand for this service than we can meet when we plan to start in October." - see Summer School in Kadarko. He mentioned this in our weekly Dadmac UK-Nigeria online meeting today. As an ex-infant teacher I was quickly playing with possibilities in my mind, so I've made these notes, and we can discuss the ideas together before the classes start in October.

The school

l haven't been to the school in Kadarko, but I know many poorly resourced schools in Nigeria, and I have no reason to assume this is any better off - so no electricity, certainly no Internet, and probably precious few books of any kind. With luck there will be a blackboard, and with luck all of the surface will be usable (and not in dire need of a coat of blackboard paint). With luck there will be chalks for the blackboard even if (as in one situation I knew) the students have chip in to pay for them. The students will probably bring their own exercise books and pens or pencils.

The language

I don't know if the literacy classes will be in English or in Hausa. I'm hoping it's Hausa. English spelling is so irregular. It is a challenge to learn to read English even if it is your first language.

Learning with too few teachers

If I had more help in Dadamac I'd get people to approach people connected with phone companies, or mobile learning projects, and find out what might be available and affordable. I think that would take some time, and I'd want whatever we found to be replicable and sustainable. Meanwhile John has an October start date for the adult literacy classes.

I'm thinking what I'd do if I was there teaching this group, with the available resources, and I'm wondering if my ideas would be a useful strategy for John and/or his team to implement.

So, here goes with some initial thoughts about teaching many adults to read with minimum resources. If we can find out how to do it better that would be great, but in case we don't, here are some ideas for starters.

Becoming a reader (and writer)

The key thing about literacy is knowing how to connect the written symbols with spoken words and sounds. That takes practice.

We need to get some people reading some thing out loud, accurately, as soon as possible. They need to see that they are getting to know some words and are becoming literate. Then we can build on that knowledge and establish the rules of how words are made up. Then, using that existing knowledge of words, new words can be tackled. As we get more words and more people we can cascade the learning, especially if we have a simple method that everyone understands and can replicate.

Students should know they are not just coming to learn to read and write, but to learn how to teach others.

The theory

This is what we need to do. We need to establish a core "sight vocabulary" - words people can recognise and say.  Then we can build from the known to the unknown.

We can take words from the sight vocabulary and using those words we can work out some rules related to phonics. We can find words that start the same, or end the same, or rhyme etc.

Using phonic rules we can build up a larger sight vocabulary. With the basics of a sight vocabulary and some knowledge of phonics we can move on. We can read texts with unfamiliar words using general skills of context and decoding to tackle the new words. (As a rule of thumb we can get the gist of things as long as we can read nine out of ten words - so if the texts don't get too much harder too quickly we can teach ourselves new words by reading them once we've got to a certain level of literacy).

Example for phonics

A list of everyone's names can be useful for phonics. People can look (or listen) for names starting with the same first letter, or find names with a certain pattern of letters "hidden" inside them (I don't know how easy this is with Hausa names, but with Yoruba names I think of how several different names might have things like "ade" or "wale" hidden in them). People need to learn to listen for sounds within words. Matching names that have the same number of syllables is another useful activity. (What other names go with "John" and "Pam", what other names go with "Comfort" and "Filo", etc. Clapping the rhythm of teh names helps to work this out.)

Over simplifying

I realise I'm over simplifying here. This is becoming a cross between a blog and a crash course in teaching reading.

Building the sight vocbaulary

Our first big challenge is to build the initial sight vocabulary - given we have few teachers and little, if anything, in the way of books.

This is what I suggest. Get everyone to make their own book, and then read the books to each other. I'm assuming that people will be learning to write as well as to read. Let's make books together that are similar but not identical. Then there will be group knowledge about the main words, but personal differences to make the books more interesting and rewarding to read. People can practice by reading their books to each other. When the books are familiar they will serve as reference books of key sight vocabulary.


So what should the books say? I think they should be factual and personal. The sentences should be short and simple at first with plenty of repetition. Illustrations should be added sometimes to act as reminders of what the words mean.

What will the starting level be? Will people be able to read or write their names? Will they have experience of holding pens/pencils and copying letters or do we have to start with pre-literacy pencil and paper skills?

Obviously the students will have levels of manual dexterity that young chlldren don't have. For simplicaiy's sake I'll assume they all have the ability to copy letters from the board, and i'll assume the students will able to see their names written somewhere so they can are able to copy them. I will assume that they are starting off unable to read anything.

The teacher must remember that people's sight grows worse as they get older and people do not have the glasses they need to see the board. The writing should be large and clear - larger than it would be for children. People must be seated where they can see to read the board. They may need to move from where they sat at the start. There is nothing to be ashamed of in having poor sight, we should not let it be a reason for people to drop out. Some people may need to write large letters in order to read what they are writing.

Content and approach

The teacher will write on the blackboard the words that the students will be using in their  books. The teacher may need to demonstarte the best way to form the letters. If peopel are real beginners then it si good preactice for everyone to "write" the letters several times as huge letters on an imaginary blackboard before trying to write them small in theri books. Everything that is written on the board will be read back several times by the whole class before copying it, with the teacher pointing to each word as it is read aloud. This is how we want people to read their books to each other, to reinforce each others sight vocabulary.

We could write something like this.

Page 1 (NB This is the same for everyone. Students need to notice that at the end of every sentence there should be one dot, called a full stop.Teh teacher can tell the students the names of the letters as a matter of interest, but not as something to remember at this stage. Students may need to be told to leave a finger space between each word.)

This is my book.
This is my story.

(This is simple vocabulary, but a powerful idea. These books can be the start of a rich resource about life in Nigeria in the early 21st century if people choose to share their books more widely later. When people have written their first page they should read it aloud to others who have finished writing, pointing to each word in turn as they say it.

When everyone has finished the teacher will move on to page 2 - but before moving on to page 2 the teacher may like to invite someone to read the first page of their book to the whole class - emphasising the idea that later everyone will be doing this with a full book that tells their own personal story. We want to keep building the vision of becoming a successful reader and writer.

Page 2.The teacher introduces the idea that the books will become different now. Sometimes there will be dots written on the board - at those places people will put in their own facts instead of the dots.

My name is ..........

The teacher must make sure everyone has an example of their name ready to copy into the book. No-one must feel inferior at this point for not knowing how to write their own name. The teacher may need to write all the names on the board, and then read the list several times. This can be done in a "repeat after me" way. It will give people a break from doing their own writing (which can be hard work for any students who have never had to form letters before). If the names list can be made with additional memory joggers, such as using different coloured chalks for some names instead of all written in white, it will make it easier for people to recognise their own name in the list afterwards.

Then the teacher explains about the next part of the book where there will be choices of sentences on the board and the students will copy the appropriate one.

I am a woman.
I am a man.

I live in Kadarko

If this in not true for everyone the teacher will write on the board

I live in ........

The teacher will write up names of Kadarko and other places as requested by the students.

Then a choice of sentences again:

I have lived in ..... for all my life.
I have lived in ..... for some of my life.

This is probably enough for the first session. It doesn't matter if the writing is not clear and the letters are not well formed. The important thing is that each student has captured something in writing and can read it to others. Everyone should go home feeling that "I know what it is like to be a reader... all I need to do now is to learn some more words.. just like when I learned to speak" 

There are various ways the books can continue - but no-one should ever be excluded. Whatever is written for one person should have other versions sufficient to suit every other person in the class.


Obviously some people will miss some sessions. The teacher needs to prepare "catch-up books". These will be books that have the previous blackboard sentences inside. The students who have already done those sessions from the blackboard can help the catch-up people to read the choices from a catch-up book and decide what to copy into their own books.

More content

It would be stupid of me to make detailed suggestions without knowing if this is appropriate (and if it is, then how the first session goes). Plans need to be adapted in response to the learners, but here are some hints and possibilities. The trick is to find topics that can be covered in short simple sentences and everyone can write their own version, but no-one will feel uncomfortable about giving the information. In some groups it might be fine to write about marital status, in others it might be intrusive to ask people to write the true version of "I am married." "I am widowed" "I am divorced" etc.

Obvious topics are related to the family, and common events like going to the church or mosque (unless religion should be avoided), going to the market, etc. If everyone is farming then crop planting, harvesting etc are other possible topics.

There can be other things too, such as "Some local wisdom" or "Rhymes from childhood" with examples suggested by the students. After a session of copying the wisdom sayings or the rhymes, students can choose comment sentences to add, for example after writing two or three rhymes they can complete comments like "I like ...... better than ........." (anything to make the work in each book personal).

Moving on

Things can get more interesting once a basic sight vocabulary has developed, and writing is becoming easier for people. Work should be increasingly useful and relevant to every day needs, and using topics suggested by the group.

Increasingly, as skills develop, people within the class can help the teacher to write the model sentences on the board, working our how to spell unfamiliar words with help from classmates

As time goes by the teacher should get a good feeling for how much work, and what level, the group can do. The teacher may need to have a mixture of some easy work that everyone can copy, and some harder work that only the most able will get around to doing. Students should be encouraged to read through their books to each other every session so that the early words are revised.

There are lots of other things to consider, such as letter formation, learning the names of letters, use of capitals and lower case, the alphabet, benefits and disadvantages of spelling lists etc - but basically all of that can be covered as and when it feels appropriate.

Simple plan

For now the important thing is to have a simple plan of how to teach basic literacy to a lot of people, in October, with very few resources, in a way that will enable them to cascade their learning. Maybe John already has something better lined up, but after our meeting today I couldn't resist thinking what I might do. I'll publish this and email him the link. 

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