Remarks for Mission Director Joakim Parker at the National Reading Symposium

Speeches Shim

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Good morning!

I am delighted to be with you at this National Reading Symposium dedicated to exploring strategies to enhance the early acquisition of strong literacy skills in Uganda.

As educators, you all know how critical reading skills are to establishing the foundations for successful learning and supporting development. Those skills enable the wonder and joy that can come through education, and they are best acquired at an early age. Albert Einstein made the point in a beautiful expression as follows: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”  As teachers, educators, administrators and policy makers, we owe it to our young learners to help them acquire the spark that unleashes their creative spirits and talents.

Unleashed in this way, your children are better able to contribute to more resilient societies with improved health outcomes, inclusive economic growth, stronger democratic institutions and more empowered women and youth.  These happen to be core USAID goals in Uganda.

Too many children in the world, unfortunately, are failing to acquire basic literacy skills. It is estimated that 387 million primary school children worldwide, representing 56 percent of the total primary school population, are not reaching the minimum proficiency level for reading and math. Learning assessments by Uwezo, an East African education research initiative, indicate that in Uganda, 74 percent of pupils in Primary 7 have grade 2 English literacy levels. Too many Ugandan children leave primary school, and low levels of reading achievement contribute to the high drop-out rate here.  The inability of learners at lower primary levels to make progress in reading affects their motivation and likelihood of staying in school. Seventy percent of pupils who enter Primary one in Uganda fail to complete the seven-year primary school cycle.

The U.S. government attaches great importance to literacy because of the relationship between an educated citizenry and peace and prosperity, both within Uganda and across borders.  Since 2012, USAID has invested over $100 million in improving lower grade reading and comprehension in Uganda.

Working closely with the Ministry of Education and Sports, through the School Health and Reading Program and Literacy Achievement and Retention Activity, we have provided improved learning and instructional materials in 12 local languages and English to over 50 percent of districts in Uganda. These materials are supported by teacher training, coaching and supervision in over 6,000 schools. These investments and efforts have been complemented under the Ministry’s Global Partnership for Education Program in an additional 27 districts. This means that learners in 92 districts in the country have the opportunity for better reading results.

While the results of these investments are encouraging, I dare say they are modest. In Ateso local language for example, data shows that three out of 10 primary 4 learners in program schools could read 20 words per minute compared to only one out of 10 learners in non-program schools. Similarly, in Luganda local language, five out of 10 learners in program schools could read 20 words per minute compared to three out 10 in non-program schools.

Overall, program school learners were significantly more likely to read 40 or more words per minute than control learners. This, however, when compared to the international benchmark of 60 words per minute for fluent readers, makes it evident that most learners are failing to reach the thresholds required for successful learning at the higher levels of the education system.

The need to improve is urgent, which is why I am pleased that this symposium is being organized along the lines of the Learning Laboratory concept.  It offers a platform for an active and data-driven engagement of key stakeholders to develop strategies to address education challenges in Uganda.

I hope that this engagement will produce the relevant data and budget commitments from the Government of Uganda that will place lower primary school literacy at the heart of the education sector quality improvement efforts. I joined a group during the Education Stakeholders Workshop a few weeks ago, and was so impressed with the energy and interest in sharing best practices among districts. They represented many roles, including CAO, DEO, District Inspector, Teaching College Principal and Secretary for Education – and experiences flew fast. Thank you for inspiring us!

I wish to end with a local proverb that says, “A tree is straightened while it is still young.” This traditional saying can be said to make the point that children WHO lose the opportunity to acquire basic literacy skills and foundational learning tools may never catch up. The education system would have failed them, and their country. Through this symposium and future actions, you have the opportunity to get it right by the future generations of Uganda.

I commend our partners, the Ministry of Education and Sports and Research Triangle Institute and affiliated institutions for their efforts toward this critical goal. I look forward to building on the outcomes of this symposium to provide young Ugandans with the educational opportunities they deserve. 

Thank you! 

Protea Hotel, Kampala
Issuing Country