Getting the 3 Rs right

Early education programme

UNICEF Tanzania
First grade teacher using home-made phonetic wheel.
04 July 2019

Primary class teacher Rukia Mlyuka holds a cardboard spinning wheel up for the class to see, as the children clap with anticipation to see where the arrow lands. It rests on the phoneme “ba”. “What starts with silabi ba?” she asks her pupils, who eagerly raise their hands with answers like “bandeji” (bandages) and “baba” (father), and point to the corresponding colorful cards decorating the classroom walls.

This creative and engaging game takes place at the primary school in Mahalule, Njombe, where the Standard (grade) I students are learning to read.

The classroom walls are coated with colourful charts, pictograms and illustrations, and reading corners with story books. These new strategies in teaching and learning are part of the ongoing government efforts to establish solid learning competencies in first three years of early education, meaning pre-primary, and Standards I and II.

“This stimulating learning environment promotes a culture of reading, peer interaction, and engagement and learning,” said Rukia, who received training in 3R supported by UNICEF that helped hone her teaching style and content, including the curriculum.

The 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) programme is a multi- faceted national programme aiming to improve the literacy and numeracy foundation of young pupils.

It is implemented with the support of different partners in different regions to ensure effective coverage across the country. To contribute to this programme, UNICEF supports teachers’ training that builds their capacities to effectively teach and improve learning outcomes in pre-primary, and Standard I and II levels. As of December 2017, 98 per cent of the 1,583 schools had transformed their Standard I and II classrooms in 
Mbeya, Njombe and Songwe regions of Tanzania, which is the main intervention area for UNICEF Tanzania.

A critical factor for sustaining a stimulating learning environment in schools is a motivated school administration, and the Head Teacher of Mahalule Primary School, Pielino Paschal Mgimwa, provides just that. He has ensured that all pupils are learning in classrooms, not only because all his teachers are trained, but takes personal interest in monitoring the progress.

“At the pre-primary level, teachers ensure that all pupils learn basic skills (reading, writing and arithmetic) by the time they begin Standard I. Through the training, I also learnt about tools for measuring the implementation and progress as well. I know exactly where everyone stands,” he adds. Having a solid foundation sets the learning success curve of pupils as they gradually progress in the education system.

“As pre-primary pupils progress into Standard I, they are able to understand and learn, instead of just memorizing,” says Pielino, according to whom literacy is up and so is attendance, class repetition is down and from Standard III and on, “everyone knows their 3Rs”. This is particularly important because from Standard III, it’s back to more didactic teaching methods where the teacher stands in front of the class. The first year of pre-primary and the first two years of primary school are key to acquiring the basics. However, in Tanzania, only 8 per cent of children completing Standard II in 2014 could read competently or perform basic math tasks, and 6.7 per cent of children had to repeat Standard I the same year, according to the Education Policy and Data Center.

First grade students
First grade children in Mahaulue, Njombe learning with active methods.

Rukia gives the spinning wheel as one of the many examples of what she and her students have gained from the training. Child- centered teaching, classroom transformation and the development of stimulating materials are some learnings as a result of the comprehensive training supported by UNICEF. “It’s a fun way to teach phonetic construction and show children how words are formed,” she says. “Before, I just used cue cards. The students weren’t interested.”

Eight-year-old Rojas Charles Chongolo, who is a pupil of Rukia’s class, agrees. “Before this, we used to draw letters in the sand and trace them. Now everything is on the wall and in front of me, and it is easier for me to learn. Also, it’s more fun.” His classmate, Rufina Manyusi Mwinami, 9, says her favorite subjects in school are “reading, counting, writing”- the 3Rs by another name.

The programme encourages educators to get creative with available low-cost resources, and Rukia created her phonetic wheel with an old cardboard box, a nail and a slice of corn-cob. Another example could be seen in the school yard, where dozens of empty drink bottles, half-tucked in the grass, formed a giant map of Tanzania, complete with a section painted blue for the big lake.

“We don’t limit ourselves to the reading, writing and arithmetic, in fact we try to weave the 3Rs in all the subjects we teach,” says Rukia. “If we want to bring in any other themes, we do it through the existing subjects without cluttering the schedule and distracting the children.” Rukia has also passed on her learning through the training to other colleagues, creating what she calls a “ripple effect.”

This effect extends to the parents and village leadership too, and Pielino makes sure these key stakeholders are informed on the changes to support the children of the community. From the physical environment to the curriculum, the training promotes an appropriate learning environment in order to foster a good beginning to children’s journey through education.

The programme takes a holistic approach, ensuring not only the best learning methods for the 3Rs, but also a physical environment that is conducive to optimal learning. And since children cannot learn on an empty stomach, the school also employs two cooks, and all students receive a freshly-cooked nutritious lunch every day.