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‘Please, sir, can I have some more?’ How ‘Feed the Monster’ can end literacy starvation

| November 16, 2020 | 0 Comments


South Africa’s literacy statistics reflect an undisputable fact about education.

Children cannot read at a proficiency level that affords them a basic comprehension of text and access to primary education after age 10,1 let alone secondary and tertiary academia. There is no curriculum to offer if the children cannot read the material. There is no fourth industrial revolution in which these children can participate if the requirement is literacy, either visual or linguistic. There is no global economy for them to join if it is based on written language. There can be no scientists, entrepreneurs, economic shapeshifters, software coders or other 21st century workers if the fundamental ability to read is lacking.

The core of the crisis

The research is clear. Children need repeated exposure to highquality, well-structured literacy instruction to learn to read. At the core of the education crisis in South Africa is poor literacy instruction,2 and the challenge of introducing young readers to reading in their home language first before pursuing it in another language for teaching and learning.3 The language debate in South Africa is understandably complex. Sadly, many languages are marginalised, despite concerted policy efforts to ensure that African languages permeate our national curriculum. There are insufficient resources available – that being teachers, schools or materials – to afford every child the opportunity to master reading in their home language, or any other.

Bellavista took bold action

Drastic times call for urgent measures. In 2017, Bellavista S.H.A.R.E., the Education Resource Centre of Bellavista School, an independent school in Johannesburg, put its hand up to make a difference. It is time to introduce technology, not just textbooks on tablets, to learners in the educational system, and get South Africans literate in more than one language – now. Being a school that intervenes for reading difficulty, the insight into effective reading intervention exists within its members and associated colleagues internationally. Accordingly, Bellavista set out in pursuit of a scalable, evidence-based technology solution that it could develop and share with South Africans rapidly. The desired innovation needed to be accessible across socioeconomic barriers, trustworthy and inclusive of all the languages in the country. All 11 official languages were to be regarded as equally deserving of development – not only to preserve their heritage, but to ensure that no one was left behind. These objectives were realised in ‘Feed the Monster’: a joint venture of the Apps Factory based in Abu Dhabi,4 the Centre for Educational Technology (CET)5 and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).6 This award-winning app was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the software declared open source, following its pilot efficacy in Syrian refugee camps.

Bellavista found a corporate partner in the MTN Foundation7 and a tech partner in Curious Learning, based in Boston in the US,8 and was then able to localise ‘Feed the Monster’ to South African English, isiXhosa, Tshivenda, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Xitsonga, siSwati, Afrikaans, isiNdebele and Setswana. Swahili is already developed too, to support the many Swahili speakers in the region.

Say ‘hello’ to ‘Feed the Monster’

By deploying accessible cellular technology, a solid, researchbased and award-winning literacy application, ‘Feed the Monster’, presented in an instructional and gamification format, can be delivered directly to learners and get them literate. Readers aged between the ages of six and eight can access reading instruction via a specially designed curriculum that can take them to an early Grade 2 level on a National Curriculum Statement (CAPS)9 measurement basis, matching letters with sounds, and learning that sounds together make words, then words together make sentences that carry meaning. The app addresses the foundation of all reading. ‘Feed the Monster’ bridges the gap between literacy skills and fluent reading. In essence, technology helps make learning the fundamentals of reading more meaningful and fun, thus reaching a wider community. Technology is not a pedagogy or even a teacher. It is an enhancer to get South African children literate – now.

In essence, this project will ‘scale up’ literacy impact by localising and distributing two learning apps: the first focuses on fundamental reading skills, and the second on providing a collection of interactive e-books that act as ‘training wheels’ for young readers – providing assistance to bridge the gap between literacy skills and fluent reading. Together, these apps will be enough for many children to begin their journey of learning to read.

Can children learn to read from mobile software?

The simple answer is yes. Here is a summary of three studies, linked to more detailed descriptions:

Curious Learning’s pilots in the US, Ethiopia and South Africa10 show that it’s possible for children to learn the fundamentals of reading (letter names and sounds, phonemic awareness and sight word reading, for example) by playing with mobile apps. Further, it’s possible that these apps accelerate learning for children with access to formal education.

Over several years, at least six of 20 children in Curious Learning’s Ethiopia pilot project11 learned to decode words, read simple passages and answer reading comprehension questions correctly.

An experiment in India12 found that a personalised technology tutoring system led to greater learning than formal education, in less time, for less money. Cost-effectiveness is estimated to be five to 10 times that of formal education, and lower-performing students benefit more than advanced students.

Another research study shows that interactive e-books can deepen parent interactions with their children,13 increasing behaviours that prompt engagement and learning by up to nine times. Bellavista’s second app will create a library of 20+ such interactive stories, to let children build on the fundamentals of reading.

Similar case studies

A few examples of similar campaigns that have already been
implemented include:

• Orange – preloading devices with learning content: In West Africa, mobile network operator Orange sells smartphones preloaded with education apps.14

• Turkcell – brick-and-mortar marketing: Turkcell developed a free app, ‘Hello Hope’, to help Syrian refugees learn Turkish, and used its network of agents to distribute it to more than 150 000 Syrian refugees out of the 600 000 with smartphones.15

• Google app store features: Google featured its original Arabic FTM version in its app store in Lebanon and Turkey, leading to 30 000 downloads in just a few days.16

• Vodacom – zero-rating educational apps: In Mozambique and five other countries, Vodacom is allowing its users to download a set of education apps for free, including a free digital library.17

Who is on board to make ‘Feed the Monster’ a success?

Bellavista School, with its collective institutional experience in teaching literacy and training educators in best practice, engaged the assistance of a neurolinguistic scientist, Dr Stephanie Gottwald, from Tufts University in Massachusetts in the US, who has worked with Bellavista to improve literacy instruction in South Africa for nine years. Gottwald is director of content on this project and ensures a pedagogically sound delivery to the children. Bellavista School, with its broad-based and skilled staff with local insight, will work with Gottwald and the US-based team. Bellavista is also working in tandem with the World Bank, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tufts and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), among others, which are doing the same for other languages in other countries.

Potential partners that are set to benefit from ‘Feed the Monster’ at no cost to themselves

• Mobile networks and airtime vendors: Mobile network operators benefit by increasing literacy (which increases demand for mobile data in the long term). There is good branding advantage available to corporates in Africa that are being socially responsible and improving the lives of future generations.

• Community organisations: Community organisations, including schools, can improve the lives of their stakeholders by sharing apps that provide learning opportunities.

• Content portals: Any organisation that offers curated digital content, such as app stores/learning platforms, could feature early learning games, providing them for free to their users.

• Airlines can promote the app as a smart alternative to onboard entertainment.

• Celebrities/social media influencers can share the app because they believe in the mission, or have kids themselves and enjoy the app.

• Government organisations: Government programmes that aim to improve education can easily show value to citizens by sponsoring or promoting learning apps.

• Employers can offer a valuable benefit to employees with children.

• Parents and caregivers can be empowered and become literate, too.

• Journalists can share an interesting story on social media platforms.

What devices are needed to run ‘Feed the Monster’?

Android devices that run at least Android 5.

What are the data requirements for distribution of ‘Feed
the Monster’?

The app ranges between 50MB and 100MB, depending on the language and how many levels are included. It plays on most Android devices, both smartphones and tablets. Once downloaded, kids can play offline, and the app will report very small amounts of usage data. When connected to the internet, the app will check for updates, which can be downloaded from Google. A parent or grandparent can share their phone with their child just three times a week for 10–15 minutes to learn the content well and see gains in literacy, despite or including the educational offering available at school. There will likely be some variation, depending on the language, and the data gleaned will guide this ratio.

What kind of monitoring is there? How would we know that the children are learning to read using ‘Feed the Monster’?

The usage is automatically tracked. This includes how many people download the apps and how much progress is made, in terms of both time and levels completed. Over time, Curious Learning intend to conduct impact evaluations to see the impact of different levels of usage on learning outcomes like letter sound knowledge, sight word and syllable recognition, and decoding, as well as subsequent reading progress. As these studies are completed, we will be able to estimate the learning outcomes resulting from usage.

A brief outline of the ‘curriculum’ or scope of literacy development

‘Feed the Monster’ is designed for native speakers of a language who cannot read or spell in that language. The learner would begin with small clusters of consonants and a single vowel letter. The game teaches the sounds of those letters and then presents the learner with short words or syllables built from that cluster of letters. In English, the game covers the most common consonant sounds and the short vowels. A second version of the game would continue teaching long vowels and other letter patterns. More transparent languages, like isiZulu, would cover all the letter sounds and the most common 40–50 syllables in a single version of the game.

Distribution strategies you can engage as educators

• Digital promotion: Share ‘Feed the Monster’ with your digital followers.

• Rate and review the games to raise their Google profile.

• In-person: Tap into your networks of organisations that interact with parents and children in your school community.

• Media: Once any of these strategies is used, there’s an opportunity to approach journalists to explain the project’s genesis, so many more parents and educators can learn about the ‘Feed the Monster’ and download it.

‘Feed the Monster’ is one of the solutions to our national reading crisis. All 11 languages are available in the Google Play store now. The app is free and not for profit. The innovation brings with it literacy, multilingualism and language preservation, and can assist thousands of vulnerable learners across South Africa. It quite literally will cost you nothing to get behind this initiative. Find out more by visiting


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Category: Spring 2020

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