Bloom in Kenya - A Teacher’s Story

Bloom in Kenya - A Teacher’s Story

Wawerũ Mwangi is a high school teacher who lives and works in Naiyasha, Kenya. He’s a linguist by training and has written numerous high school textbooks, as well as vernacular texts for primary schools and a teacher’s guide in the Kikuyu language, which have been approved by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD).

All this would be quite enough to keep anyone busy, but Mr. Mwangi also loves to write stories…

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When Children Need Books: Part 3

SIL LEAD is dedicated to helping communities use their languages to improve their quality of life. One way that we do that is by helping children learn to read in those languages. We are not the only ones engaged in this work, and this post, the last of three, will compare the International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL) and the African Storybook Project (ASP).


To fully understand the uses of the International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL) and the African Storybook Project (ASP), it helps to compare them. Their biggest difference lies in their goals. ICDL focuses on providing quality multicultural children’s literature. ASP focuses more on quantity, making a larger volume of literature available in under-resourced languages.

Search options in International Children's Digital Library. 

Search options in International Children's Digital Library. 

Another large difference is in the user interfaces. ICDL contains multiple ways to read, allows users to layer searches, and offers its interface in six different languages. The interface for the ASP is functional but still under construction. Users can search for books by language, type of story, and text level.

Currently, there are about 4,619 books in the ICDL, and about 2,412 in the ASP. While numbers are impressive for online collections, they are only a fraction of the 12,000 books available in a typical American school library. However, ASP’s collection is growing rapidly, with the number of texts increasing by about 70% in as little as four months. Because of the emphasis on quality, ICDL’s collection is growing more slowly, and activity on the site dropped precipitously after 2011. Still, both collections provide reading material for students that might otherwise have trouble getting reading material. Such students include Lumasaaba-speaking children in Uganda, who can now access 69 books on the ASP website. It also includes American students who speak Farsi with their parents, and who can now access 476 books on the ICDL website.

An example of the reading view on African Storybook Project.

An example of the reading view on African Storybook Project.

Getting books into the hands of children who need them most is still a challenge. Many children who need reading material the most have the least access to computers. ICDL contains copyrighted material, so nothing on the site may be printed or distributed. It is encouraging that ASP allows all of its materials to be downloaded for printing and other forms of distribution, but it is still a concern that books are only formatted for digital reading. In order to print and bind books well, users must reformat the pictures and text themselves to fit into the layout that they want. ASP is also using memory cards to distribute materials for reading on cell phones, which are popular in Africa. The project also suggests that the books be displayed using projectors in school classrooms, which may be more affordable than printing books for classroom use.


You can read more detailed descriptions of the two projects in the first and second parts of Children Need Books series.

Thank you to our contributing author Megan Sutton Mercado.

When Children Need Books: Part 2

SIL LEAD is dedicated to helping communities use their languages to improve their quality of life. One way that we do that is by helping children learn to read in those languages. We are not alone in this work, and this post, the second of three, will focus on the second project that helps children read in a variety of languages by providing them with greater access to books.

The African Storybook Project

There is a severe lack of children’s literature in African languages, and that can hinder children from gaining enough reading practice to be fluent readers. The African Storybook Project (ASP) seeks to remedy that by creating a collection of simple, interesting stories to help African children develop a love for reading. It began in 2013 with funding from the UK-based organization Comic Relief, and is hosted by the South African Institute for Distance Education (Saide). The project is partnering with organizations in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, and Haiti to create stories in languages and contexts that will be familiar to African children.

The project’s main goal is to create early reading books in local African languages. The website features folktales, stories set in contemporary Africa, songs, poems, riddles, and rhymes, with an emphasis on stories. The target audience is children ages 2–10, so all stories on the website are illustrated because of the crucial role pictures play in supporting early reading. The project focuses on very early reading books that feature a single word per page up to two to three paragraphs per page, as this is where the need is greatest

The library function enables users to sort the site’s books by language, reading level, or literary category. The variety of languages is impressive, with African languages composing about 75% of the collection. The five most common languages include English (498), Afrikaans (250), isiZulu (105), Kiswahili (121), and Luganda (103). English is the official language of several African countries, and stories in languages such as English and French provide a useful foundation for later translations into other African languages.

Beyond simply serving as a library, the site provides tools for creating and deriving new stories.  Easy templates are available for authors to use in writing and illustrating children’s stories. I’ve tried this and was able to create a simple, illustrated story in less than an hour. Once the books are written, authors can upload the books to the website to be published under a Creative Commons license.  Stories that are already available on the website can be downloaded, translated into other African languages, and uploaded to the website for further use. The templates also allow for stories to be published at different grade levels by varying the number of words per page. Access to the website is free, but users are responsible for their own distribution process, whether digital or on paper.

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The site has seen impressive growth in the number of books available. In April of 2015, there were 1,399 books available in 41 languages. Now, just four months later, there are 2,412 books available in 58 languages, a growth of 72% and 41% respectively. Given the versioning tools on the website, many of these may be adaptations rather than new works, but the capacity for growth is encouraging. If you’re a writer or illustrator with an African story to tell, or can translate stories into an African language, you can be part of this movement to provide books for African children. The project has even grown beyond the continent to the Global African Storybook Project, where stories from the website are translated into languages from other regions.

You can read about a similar project in the first part of When Children Need Books. And come back soon for the final post, which will compare them side-by-side.

Thank you to our contributing author Megan Sutton Mercado.

Is Language Boring? Last, but Critical.

This is the second half of a two part story about a USAID Uganda School Health and Reading Program  materials development workshop, written by SIL LEAD consultant, Agatha J. van Ginkel. You can find part one on our blog. And ‘like’ SIL LEAD on facebook to get notifications about new stories and continued updates about the USAID School Health and Reading Program.

While we have been developing the materials for grade 4 for the local language, the English team has been upstairs developing the materials for grade 4 English. Grade 4 is a transition year for the children. They will switch from having their local language as the medium of instruction to having  English as the language of instruction. The team realises that the children will still find that very difficult. There are so many words for the children to learn. The team is pondering, “Which words are keywords that need to be included in the materials for grade 4?” Luckily, in grade 4 English as a subject is on the schedule seven times during a week, so the children will have plenty of time. 

On a daily basis the Local language team and the English team discuss together how they can link the two languages. How can English make use of what has been learned in the Local Language first? Making use of what is known is called the ‘interdependence theory’ — what is learned in the first language will transfer to the new language once the learners have sufficient knowledge of the language. 

Another way this transition is facilitated is by integrating some key English vocabulary in the local language books. All the page headers are in English. Each new concept introduced in week 1, practised in week 2, and applied in week 3 is also given its English name in week 3. So, once the children are familiar with the concept in their local language, they learn the English word for it. That will make it easier to make the transition: They know the concept in their local language, they know the label for it in English, and now they can use it in English as well. (This assumes, of course,  that they have sufficient vocabulary to express themselves in English.) 

While everyone is writing, drawing and thinking, the typists keyboard all the outputs. They type away, typing both in languages they know and ones they do not know. While the typists seem to be the last people on the book development chain, their role is crucial. Their work gives the teams feedback about whether sufficient, too much, or too little content was written. The typists transcribe all the lessons directly into the book design program Bloom. It has been developed and set up in such a way that with a little training, they can design the books. 

Materials development for grade 4 is a dynamic process with many different parts. Excitement is in the room as stories are prepared, lesson are written, and illustrations are drawn. Facilitating this process is exciting and challenging at the same time. Days like today are good days—days in which I think I have the best job ever! 

You can read more about the USAID School Health and Reading Program here