What would life be like if you were illiterate?Can you imagine what your life would be like if you had your vision but you could not read a newspaper, identify which bus to take, and are forced to rely on other people to read contracts and annotate documents for you? While many of us take our abilities to read and write for granted, 40% of kids in Africa won’t ever be able to read this and will miss out on the opportunity to build economically and socially secure lives.
According to the U.N., much progress has been made in ensuring that children worldwide have access to education, and primary school enrollment is at an all-time high of 91% globally. However, in countries like Tanzania, children who do attend school still face many challenges that impede their learning and ultimately growth.
In Tanzania, the average child doesn’t attend pre-school during the critical years of their cognitive development. When they do start primary school, they are placed in a class with one teacher and 177 kids, and will most likely never own a single textbook. As a result, despite attending school, 33% of students in Tanzania learn so little that they grow up to be illiterate.
So, what more can be done to help kids in Africa learn how to read and write, and ultimately break the cycle of poverty illiteracy creates?
Ubongo cartoons are helping more than 5 million kids in Africa learn.
Ubongo, which means ‘brain’ in Swahili, is a grassroots social enterprise that creates fun localised edu-cartoons for kids across Africa and reaches them through the technologies they already use (TV, radio, and mobile phones). In only two years, we have become the largest classroom in Africa. Our shows Ubongo Kids and Akili and Me are watched by over 5.1 million East African households weekly, plus hundreds of thousands more watch on digital TV in 27 countries in Africa.
How much can a television show help kids in Africa learn?
A whole lot!
You see, kids in African countries like Tanzania have to endure a very rigid and boring teaching style. Both parents and teachers value discipline over fostering curiosity and a love of learning. As a result, kids are taught to cram (and even cheat) rather than understanding concepts. In contrast, Ubongo’s cartoon shows educate kids in fun and relatable ways, with great results.
In fact, a randomised control trial, conducted in partnership with the University of Maryland, has shown that after just one month of watching Akili and Me, kids who watched the show were significantly outperforming their classmates in the control group (who watched alternative preschool cartoons) by 24.0% in counting, now we are ready to tackle literacy!
Teaching pre-literacy skills through cartoons.
After months of research and prototyping with four-year-olds, we have developed a new way of teaching kids the alphabet that is more engaging, interactive and effective than the previous season’s content. It involves actively engaging children in finding the letter while they learn, rather than passively watching a lesson. The method was created during a two-day letter identification prototyping workshop, where the Ubongo team created, tested, and iterated 16 ways of teaching the alphabet with 15 preschool children.
This new manner of teaching was tested in a short-term pilot study conducted in a Dar es Salaam nursery. According to Cambridge University scholar Joe Watson, who assisted with the research, “results from the final sample of 34 children (17 control and 17 treatment) suggested that watching Ubongo videos had a very positive effect on children’s ability to identify first letter sounds, as well as their Swahili and English vocabulary. Children also performed much better in a test of writing skills.”
It takes a village to raise a child — African proverb
Transforming our research into video segments that will help kids identify and spell out each letter of the alphabet is going to require a lot of resources. However, we strongly believe that this is the first and most important step to helping more kids in Africa become literate and escape generational poverty.
But we can’t do it alone. We need you.