This week, Beyond Access is hosting a literacy app hackathon in Addis Ababa. As we planned the event, I began to reflect on my experiences teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia. When I would open the door to the new English Language Improvement Center (ELIC) at the Aman Primary School in southwest Ethiopia, children would push and shove to get inside to grab books and to look at the maps and various teaching aids on the walls. Young students would peek through the ELIC door, pointing towards the end of the room where the books and flashcards were located to get permission to enter.
In Ethiopia, 32% of children are out of school and 76% of youth have not completed primary education, according to the Education Policy and Data Center. Given these statistics, the young students in Aman surprised me with their eagerness to learn and read. It was even more powerful to see the students quiz each other, help each other with flashcard games, or even read a book together. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Ethiopia, I know the many challenges that children face at school and at home — especially when it comes to the ability to read.
One problem that I frequently saw was that parents had limited involvement in their children’s lives at school. To help address this, apps developed through the Beyond Access hackathon will focus on supporting more parents — even those who can’t read themselves — to engage with their children in education and personal development. Parental involvement is vital: Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) studies show that family involvement in reading is directly correlated with a child’s oral reading fluency. Children’s scores improve by 14.7 words per minute if the entire family is regularly able to help with a child’s school work, according to the Ethiopia Early Grade Reading Assessment.
However, I also know that community and family engagement is not enough. Even with the support of an engaged community, challenges will persist without resources such as trained teachers and educational materials — particularly materials in local languages. Ethiopia boasts a population of roughly 95 million people, making it the second most populous country on the African continent. While Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, the country also has 80 other languages, with close to 200 dialects.
In such a diverse country with so many unique cultures and indigenous languages, culturally sensitive educational resources need to be made available in local languages, and they need to complement a student’s daily life outside of the normal school setting. Community spaces like public libraries — equipped with well-trained staff, resources in the local language and fun literacy activities — are crucial in a country like Ethiopia. They’re also ideal institutions to promote community and family engagement in children’s reading.
Nine teams of developers are competing in this week’s literacy app hackathon in Addis Ababa, hosted in partnership with iceaddis and Save the Children. A total of 36 teams of coders applied to develop apps that will promote basic reading skills in Amharic and Oromifa. Ultimately, three of the nine participating teams will be selected to finalize their app design and have the opportunity to introduce their apps to Beyond Access partner libraries as they work to build community-based reading programs.
These apps will make literacy fun for children while allowing caregivers, parents and even older siblings an opportunity to be involved in getting children to read. Libraries can provide access to these apps along with a flexible, informal environment to accommodate children with different learning needs outside of the normal classroom setting. Furthermore, libraries and the use of apps at home can help improve reading outcomes because librarians, parents and caregivers are not constrained by inflexible curricula.
With the right support and tools — like those being developed at the hackathon in Addis — communities throughout Ethiopia can leverage technology and family engagement to boost children’s literacy skills.
Learn more about the Addis Ababa Hackathon.