On the occasion of World Book Day, You! takes a look at Pakistan Reading Project’s interventions in Gilgit & Baltistan, to improve the reading skills of children...
Five hundred kilometres up north from Pakistan’s capital, at a small school in the scenic region of Gilgit Baltistan, Nasreen, a public school teacher, reads out to her class. Despite an exciting story and her attempts to develop interest, she fails to do so. Most of the children in her class are found fidgeting with their stationary or looking here and there waiting for the clock to tick so they can pack their bags and head out for recess.
Naila Yasmeen, an educationist with a vast experience in teaching, is observing this and making notes. Naila is a School Support Associate (SSA) who works for the USAID funded Pakistan Reading Project (PRP) in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. For her, this sight is nothing new and neither a disappointment. In fact, it is an opportunity to step in and help teachers like Nasreen learn and improve.
In regions like GB, where libraries are rare, bookstores are few and literature festivals haven’t yet reached, the Pakistan Reading Project is training teachers to encourage reading, overcoming challenges of reaching in far flung areas, mobilising communities and supporting the government to encourage children’s reading.
It is a seven-year programme that is implemented in public and non-profit private schools across Pakistan. It supports the creation and publication of books in multiple local languages for new and emerging readers, professional development for teachers and heads. It also supports policies that reform the teaching and assessment of reading in Pakistan’s primary schools in coordination with Federal and Provincial governments, the Higher Education Commission, universities and teacher training institutes. Through these efforts, the PRP aims to create over 1.3 million readers in grades 1 and 2.
The project is worth $165 million and is being implemented in 69 districts and seven regions (Azad Jammu & Kashmir, Balochistan, FATA, Gilgit-Baltistan, Islamabad Capital Territory, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh) across Pakistan.
In far-flung areas like Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, ‘World Learning’ is implementing the Pakistan Reading Project. World Learning is an international non-profit organisation which has implemented projects in Pakistan since 2013 from basic education to systems strengthening and people-to-people exchanges.
While reaching out to areas like GB is complicated, PRP has provided support to as many as over 750 schools and close to a 1000 teachers in as many as 10 districts in the region. As a result of this support, the lives of 36,500 children have been impacted. This achievement, however, comes with a set of challenges.
Reaching out to schools in deep valleys and in the high mountainous region is hard. There are many logistical issues as well as lack of good teaching resources and support. There is also an added challenge of training teachers through PRP and their transfers to other parts of the country to find better work opportunities ending up with limited resource in GB.
Also, weather in the region can be quite extreme and unpredictable. For quite a few months every winter the region is disconnected from the rest of the country and this makes interventions a challenge. Yet, PRP has made significant contributions to encourage children to read. Some of them include seeking assistance from SSAs at public schools in the region, training teachers and also involving the community to help children develop an interest in reading.
Naila who is an SSA in Gilgit has been preparing public school teachers like Nasreen to raise readers since years. Her job is to work with them and help them develop an interest for reading in their children. She regularly visits schools with a time schedule and provides face-to-face training to teachers, head teachers and mentors, providing support to teachers in meetings. She also observes classroom teaching and feedback. She uses Teaching Reading Material to help teachers expand their ability and read in a way that grabs their attention. As a routine, Naila trains teachers on the basic components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary building, oral reading fluency and reading comprehension) and lesson plans. She also does regular follow-up visits to ensure these components are used in class.
After a while of many face-to-face trainings and group meetings with Naila, Nasreen can see her teaching practice improve. She is now aware of concepts like phonemic, phonic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension and uses them while reading out to her class. She knows how to use flash cards, charts and audio-visual aids, along with techniques like skywriting, tapping, clapping and read-aloud activities, to get the children involved. Every time Nasreen lowers her pitch to add a dramatic effect during storytelling; the children in her class get even more involved. The glare in their eyes shows it and their ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ can be heard from the class next door. Even their parents notice them turning into readers too.
Naila and Nasreen are just one example of the School Support Associate and teacher relationship. Through PRP, World Learning has set many such examples in Gilgit where SSAs and teachers are working together to help reading become an ongoing, automatic, pervasive classroom activity in public school classrooms.
The idea is that teachers like Nasreen will go on to share their learning with other teachers too. Nasreen now frequently meets other teachers in her school and discusses her observations and knowledge with them. She speaks highly about the importance of role-plays and techniques to create a print-rich environment for students at all levels. Offering young children opportunities to interact with different forms of print through wall-stories, bulletin boards, word displays, charts and even stories of their own creation, Nasreen and her colleagues ensure that children look at reading as a passion and not a burden.
One of the most interesting aspects about Gilgit is that people from varied sects and the cultures inherited the region. Their customs and traditions are diverse yet the culture and concept of community is very strong. People in GB believe in the power of a close-knit community and come together despite difference in cultures to understand, celebrate and help each other. PRP identified this trait about GB’s culture and used the close-knit community for its benefit. Getting children to develop an interest in reading is not entirely the teacher or the school’s responsibility. It takes much more than that. Parents and communities have an integral role to play.
Any programme’s implementation is impossible without the involvement of the community. To involve the community, PRP included parents through various activities like parents awareness sessions, their participation in school-based events, meetings with parents and communities and collection drives within the community for books and other reading resources. PRP has supported the formation of mother groups where the School Support Associate meets mothers of students of a particular grade to increase awareness about reading. These groups often raise funds to buy books for the school library so children can collectively have access to better reading material.
Sessions are also held with both parents at schools and in common community spaces to raise general awareness about reading and its benefits. These efforts are done to mobilise the community because the community in GB is generally aware about the importance of education. These efforts help in channelling that awareness to the right direction and collectively finding solutions to address the challenges in the region. Community’s involvement is evident in Shigar particularly, where people have come together at several occasions to built a library or donated books to public schools. These libraries are not only assets for the schools but also a sign of the community’s commitment towards education and reading in specific.
Despite the lack of school facilities and extreme weather that renders most schools inaccessible during the cold winter months, PRP has covered 100 per cent of GB’s districts. The primary level results have improved so significantly that the Department of Education completely owns PRP interventions and is looking to replicate its various approaches at schools that are not supported by PRP. This shows that the project’s efforts have become a model in Gilgit-Baltistan guiding the Department of Education (DOE) to benefit from its expertise and scale it up to every school in the region.
The DOE believes that PRP trained mentors, teachers, head teachers and academic supervisors can add great value to all schools in the region. It is now looking at ensuring all schools in the region implement allocation of reading instructional time, revised scheme of studies, reading performance standards and the involvement of community and parents as ensured in PRP supported schools. The government plays a huge role in scaling up efforts of the development sector and this is the real achievement of PRP that will help in sustaining the programme even after it ends.
Among other achievements of the project in GB, an extra period for Urdu has been added in PRP supported schools to ensure children become fluent in reading Urdu and truly understand and enjoy their reading material.
Keeping PRP’s achievements in mind, one cannot overlook at the underlying question of how can these be scaled up? This is where the government steps in. The Pakistan Reading Project’s efforts in Gilgit-Baltistan have been thoroughly appreciated by the government and institutional support has been offered by the state as well. Over the years, PRP revised scheme of studies, developed professional development framework, teacher licensing and certification road map and reading performance standards. The government reviewed these and approved scheme of studies for all government schools in the region.
Director of Education Baltistan Region, Syed Nabi Shah, appreciated the contribution of Pakistan Reading Project - World Learning in improving reading at early grades. “This practice needs to be further extended to schools not supported by PRP. Considering the importance of reading and success of PRP and WL’s intervention, the education departments will continue the best practices as part of routine activities to develop reading skill of children. There is some provision of budget at districts level which can be utilised for teachers training and providing books for children at schools to contribute in improving reading,” he stated.
The Directorate of Staff Development (DSD) in GB has also allocated budget specifically for this purpose. The directorate will work on professional development of the education staff to ensure all schools in the region have access and availability of trained teachers. Efforts like these can truly scale up PRP’s interventions and efforts.
Children should love books
Since 1995, UNESCO celebrates World Book Day or the International Day of the Book on 23rd April, every year. The idea is to promote reading, publishing and copyright.
While the day is globally recognised, it is still rarely celebrated in Pakistan, where it may be perhaps needed the most. The culture of reading in Pakistan is declining. It’s a sad sight to see bookstores close down. Libraries are rare and few and visiting them is not a norm. In a scenario like this, the World Book Day gives us an opportunity to celebrate authors, illustrators, books and most importantly, the habit of reading. Here are a few ways to develop children into lifelong readers and lovers of books:
Begin early: It is never too early to begin reading out to children. Once the child starts understanding you, they’re ready for a story too.
Read out to them every day: Make it a habit to read out to your child every day. Even if it’s a small story or a part of it but if you read out to them on a regular basis, they will end up becoming fond of the stories and will read independently too.
Make it personal: Telling stories to your child often creates another engaging experience around language. Don’t worry if you’re not creative. Start with the story of what you did today.
Be a good example: Parents who read have kids who read. So be an example to your children. Read in front of them and they will grow up to be readers.