Transforming Lives One Flashcard at a Time.
When Jody first visited an internally displaced people (IDP) camp in Northern Uganda, her initial reaction was one of disarray —
“There was considerable poverty and no farms for work; life was a struggle, both emotionally and physically, and access to education was nonexistent. I remember watching with a sense of awe and inspiration as some of the more educated adults attempted to teach something, anything to the children underneath the mango trees.”
In 1997, amidst a period of political unrest, the Ugandan government enacted a national policy to give all children free access to education. A dream for many poverty-stricken families, this declaration also saw a massive influx in enrolments that soon outweighed the number of teachers and available resources. As a result, dropout rates in Uganda have skyrocketed as schools struggle to retain students due to large class sizes, inadequate resources, and limited teacher training.
Jody Unterrheiner, Australian journalist turned primary school teacher, has spent the past three years developing a phonics reading program to address some of these issues.
Meet the ‘Fun of Phonics’
In 2006, Jody travelled to Northern Uganda with her husband, Daniel, who was working with a small charity in the area. Within a few short weeks, both Jody and Dan felt an undeniable affinity to the country as well as an eagerness to use their skills to help the local people. Jody soon retrained as a primary school teacher and, several years later, returned to Gulu, Uganda, as a volunteer in a local government primary school.
She remembers facing many challenges in her first year of teaching; in a nation where children (aged 0–14) comprise almost half of the population, it is not uncommon to find over 50 and 100 children in one classroom. Teaching also tends to be primarily teacher-led with minimal group discussion or group work, and the numerous dialects spoken by students at home have made it difficult for them to learn English.
Jody recalled the effectiveness of phonics flashcards with her Year 2 students in the United Kingdom and decided to begin a remedial phonics program for pupils in Year 6 who were struggling to read. Within months of enacting the program, she noticed a dramatic shift in students’ learning.
“Children were learning faster than before and it was really encouraging to witness. I soon discovered that I needed to adapt some of these flashcards for the local children; the smiley white-faced children on the flashcards didn’t really match the 100 Ugandan faces in the classroom. I asked my mother if she could draw some pictures for me to make some new flashcards, so she did.”
Inspired by the success of the remedial class, Jody spent the next year and a half advocating the introduction of a phonics program into the primary school curriculum.
“I would often encourage the kindergarten children to borrow books from the school library. When I heard that the librarian wouldn’t allow the children to borrow books, we had a disagreement about whether they could read or not — he didn’t believe that they could and thought it was pointless for them to be loaned any books.
So I selected a student, chose an appropriate book for her, and told her to go up to the librarian and read to him. I watched from a distance but could tell by the librarian’s reaction that she had read beautifully. He then approached every teacher in sight declaring ‘did you know that they can read? These children in kindergarten can read!’ ”
In June 2014, Jody’s efforts were realised when she was invited by the Municipal Education Office to train over 300 primary school teachers in local schools.
Although her time as a volunteer teacher was coming to an end, Jody knew she had no choice but to return to Uganda after receiving such support from the community. She also recognised the need to create culturally appropriate phonics flashcards and — through a connection with a local charity — worked alongside Ugandan artist Olara Patrick to turn her mother’s sketches into relatable images.
“Change happens slowly here. Possibly the best thing I did was tell the school where I was volunteering that I was leaving. Their response was something along the lines of, ‘Really? But we need to learn from you. You need to teach us phonics before you leave and other schools need to learn this as well.’ ”
Jody taught for one semester in Australia before returning to Gulu in early 2015. She now spends her days providing Fun of Phonics workshops and training to primary schools within the region. To enhance this training, she has developed a new teaching manual that features teaching ideas and resources suitable for the large classroom sizes.
Jody has also recruited a local teacher, Akello Catherine, to help deliver the Fun of Phonics program to the community. Catherine is a Kindergarten teacher and accompanies Jody to workshops and training in the afternoons.
“It is really encouraging to see the difference that working with a local teacher makes — many other teachers admire Catherine and want to be like her.”
Jody hopes that the Fun of Phonics program will reduce the high student dropout rate in the Ugandan education system. By creating an environment that is conducive to learning, children are more likely to stay motivated and remain in school.
The Fun of Phonics program hasn’t just taught students to read, it has touched the lives of teachers and created an inspirational and collaborative learning community.
“After teaching a three-day workshop at one local school, the head teacher sat down with me and said, ‘You know, I thought reading came down from heaven, I thought it was something that children just got one day. I didn’t realise we could teach children how to read.’ ”
The World Literacy Foundation is helping Jody raise $4,000 so that she can provide the Fun of Phonics program to 60 primary schools in Northern Uganda.
Money raised will be used to subsidise the cost of the phonics flashcards and teaching manuals. Schools will also be charged a small fee to encourage a sense of ownership and commitment to the program.
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