This week Alissa shares her experience teaching a group of children in Sierra Leone to read.
Hi OVP Supporters!
The nights here in Sierra Leone are amazing. The sky is wide and the stars are gorgeous. There is no electricity in the village so all the stars are visible, even the ones we can’t see anywhere in the states. However, my favorite thing about the nights here are my impromptu tutoring sessions.
A few days after I arrived in Pujehun, a wonderful group of children came up to me on the porch with a book and asked me to help them read it. This request has turned my porch into a learning hot spot in the evenings, where children of all ages crowd around a book and try to read it aloud in English while I help them learn the hard words and correct them if they make a mistake.
Most of the readers are in Class 4 at the primary school, but many older kids come to try and help (or learn as the case may more accurately be), as well as many younger children who don’t know how to read, but enjoy repeating the words and looking at the books/ spectacle. I have found that the main readers, two boys named Kareem and Frances and two girls named Iye and Kay, struggle with certain sounds, particularly words that feature -sh and -ch in the middle, so I have spent a lot of time teaching them those sounds. They are gradually picking them up.
I have also been teaching them that they can break down words they don’t know, sounding out each letter/ syllable, a method they don’t learn in school. The children struggle with p’s, b’s, l’s, r’s, g’s and j’s, and don’t always know the right sound a vowel should make. They also tend to miss the suffixes of words, not saying the –y,–s, -ing, -ed and –est’s, though they get the beginning of the words. I’m teaching them to slow down and pay attention to the words on the page.
It’s been interesting trying to teach the children, and they are very eager to learn. It can also be exhausting, giving me a much greater appreciation for teachers of my past. I find it challenging to teach and learn in these group reading environments. All the children are crowded around one book, which leaves many kids out. Another challenge is that the better and faster readers, like Frances, tend to take over the reading, leaving others like Iye and Kay in the dust. I’m trying to slow him down and am making the girls read a few sections alone to try and combat that problem.
We started with a children’s book, probably 1st or 2nd grade level in America, though these fourth graders were struggling through it. That didn’t surprise me since they don’t understand a lot of the things I try to say to them in English. After that book, we worked through two of their school workbooks, which they were able to handle better. The workbooks were a lot simpler and had tons of pictures. It wasn’t long before we finished those. Sadly, the children don’t have more books to read so we haven’t met in a few days.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are critical educational advantages in the states. Besides the obvious discrepancies in materials and a language barrier, there are other, less obvious differences. The other day, I tried to help my host sister, Jen, learn her ABC’s. She has spent weeks looking at a piece of cardboard that Leahai (my host father) had written all the letters of the alphabet on. After a week or two she could recite the alphabet in order, pointing to each letter and saying it. But if you asked her to point to a certain letter, or if you pointed to a letter and asked her which one it is, she can’t do it. She also confuses herself if she has gotten a letter wrong, to the point that she can’t even do the alphabet in order again.
I tried to help her by having her write out the letters A, B and C several times in my notebook, using my pen. It became clear very quickly that she has never held a pen before (she’s 5 years old) and has no muscle memory/strength. I realized that children here don’t spend time drawing or scribbling with crayons/pens/pencils as they are growing up (if they do these things it is with their hands or a small branch). This small difference causes huge repercussions. Because Jen had never held a pen, she couldn’t even draw a straight line, much less letters. I ended up writing them with her. It was not a successful experiment learning-wise, but she was so excited to use a pen that I realized this could be productive for her. Just the feeling of using paper and pens was enough to make her smile, and gave me hope that in the future brighter things will come.
These kids are all so sweet and eager to try. They truly enjoy going to school and are committed to learning. They are thirst for knowledge in the hopes that they will one day get jobs that will allow them to help support their families. The fact that they are held back by things that we tend to take for granted in America is eye opening, and makes you truly appreciate the advantages we are given. Sometimes it’s the small things that make all the difference.
Till next time,