Guardian Christmas appeal: school turns to technology to tackle poor literacy among students – and achieves remarkable results
In many ways, Suhum primary school is a typical Ghanaian school. As the sun rises over the lush green hills of Ghana's eastern region, dozens of children wearing yellow and brown uniforms line up in the dusty school yard, their voices becoming a deafening roar as they perform marching drills into their classroom.
Like many schools in Ghana, Suhum has struggled with a chronic lack of textbooks and poor literacy among students. But now, beside the knobbly tree trunks and in the densely packed classrooms , something unusual is happening. Children are sitting down quietly, reading the books of their choice.
Jessie, eight, sits beside a large black Polytank, which provides water when the taps run dry. She is reading Looking at the Weather, a story about children playing and helping their parents with household chores when they notice the skies darken and a storm approaching over the savannah.
"Look at the children. They are playing. It is a sunny day," reads Jessie – a wide-eyed girl with long eyelashes, dimples in her cheeks and hair shaved close to her head. For most schoolgirls in Ghana, long hair is regarded as a privilege for those who have finished school and entered adulthood. Jessie reads aloud, in perfect, softly accented English from a Kindle, the e-reader from online company Amazon, encased in a dark green and blue canvas holder, in which she has proudly written her name in permanent ink to distinguish it from the identical readers of her classmates.
The Kindle gives Jessie access to 140 titles, including textbooks, but mostly stories. Looking at the Weather is her favourite. "I really like this story," Jessie says. "The reader makes things better. It helps me to read and spell."
"Now it's easier for my parents to help me with my homework, because I always have the books I need."
The Kindles at Jessie's school have been distributed as part of the iRead 2 programme by Worldreader, a charity conceived by a former Amazon executive and book enthusiast David Risher who, during a volunteer trip at an orphanage in Ecuador, was disturbed to find the library locked and abandoned.
Concerned that children were being deprived of the opportunity to read, Risher created Worldreader to harness the then emerging technology of Kindles – which are less fragile, power hungry and connectivity-dependent than tablets and laptops – to make libraries more accessible. It piloted the project in Ghana – the West African country where, despite strong economic growth and stable democracy, rural areas in particular remain poor. Worldreader now provides Kindles to 3,600 students and their families at 10 schools in Ghana.
It's morning break time at Suhum and Martha, aged 9, is reading At the Beach, a story about a Ghanaian family who go to the seaside for the day. Despite living less than two hours' drive from the coast, Martha – who is so small she might be mistaken for a five or six year old, with the same close-cut hair as Jessie but black patent shoes and tiny, hoop earrings – has never been to the beach. But she says she enjoys imagining the experience through the adventures of Efua, Kofi and Dede – the characters in the book.
"I couldn't read very well before – I had to share a textbook at school and I could never take it home," says Martha, whose mother is a baker and father drives a cement truck. "I think all children should have one of these."
In the staff room – where piles of exercise books line up neatly on the shelves – Martha's teacher says it is not only the children who have been changed by access to their own books.
"The e-readers are really motivating the students to read," says Kofi Sem Michael, 27, who was inspired to teach by his own experience at school. "It has made the classroom exciting. Everyone has their own book, we can give them reading assignments and they are able to do them." Early results from the project at Suhum show concrete results. At this and other schools in Ghana, Worldreader has found faster reading speeds of an average of five words a minute in the students that have the e-readers than in control schools, as well as 30% faster rates of listening comprehension.
But more than just helping children to read, World Reader is trying to transform aspects of Ghanaian culture that many see as inimical to real educational progress.
"I think that one of the most profound things that we are doing is changing the culture and structure of relationships," said Beatrice Ani-Asamoah, from Worldreader in Ghana. "The parents are getting a lot more involved with what their kids are doing in school. In some cases, you have kids reading, and parents who would not have taken a second look at what their children are doing now reading together sometimes."
Part of the success of Worldreader seems to be its commitment to pushing local content onto the Kindles, so that the children can access books that relate to their lives. A favourite book of many of the children at Suhum primary school is Kofi has Malaria, a story which reflects many of their own experiences with the disease – which is prevalent in Ghana – and educates them about prevention.
"From the beginning we have found that the students are very attracted to local content, and that they read more when they have access to it, so now about 60% of the books they are reading are local content," said Joseph Botwey, from Worldreader in Ghana. "That is at the core of Worldreader."
The charity has also worked with cultural preferences in the deeply religious country to make the Kindles appealing to teachers, in an attempt to revolutionise their attitude to reading, as much as to their pupils. "We want to get the teachers to emulate the kids' behaviour, and to use the kindles in their classrooms," said Ani-Asamoah. "We found that if we pushed the Bible onto the Kindles, it really incentivises the teachers to read more, too."
"The Kindles have changed the way we teach," said Patrick Kyere-Koranteng, 30, an English teacher at the school. "And in class, if the children don't know a word, now they take the initiative to look it up on the dictionary in the Kindle. The attitude to learning they are developing is going to make a difference through their whole education."