Ensuring the full course of primary schooling for every child is one of the UN Millenium Development Goals. In Zambia, the performance today is among the lowest in Africa. All developing countries have educational challenges relating to poverty and other cultural factors, but one major under-estimated factor concerns lack of adequate knowledge to support learning opportunities. As a result, dramatic numbers of children fail to acquire the basic academic skills.

Reading support for Zambian children


01/201012/2012. Project ended.


Academy of Finland


  • Professor Robert Serpell, Ph.D.,University of Zambia, Lusaka, Zambia
  • Ph.D. students in Zambia: Tamara Chansa-Kabali, Jacqueline Jere-Folotiya,  Jonathan Munachaka, Francis Sampa, Christopher Yalukanda

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In Zambia, the greatest challenge is to educate the children, both in their native language and in English. English and the native Zambian languages are orthographically different which requires different approaches to literacy teaching. This is where the research results from Finland are fundamental. The Finnish written language is similar (highly consistent connections between letters and sounds) to that of Zambian languages motivating application of the Finnish teaching methods of literacy skills in the Zambian languages.

Decoding the letters corresponding to the spoken sounds is the foundational basis of reading skill. After mastering the letter-sound connections, reading in regular orthographies is acquired quickly by most children as the connections are unambiguous. The present interest focuses on Zambian languages, most specifically on Cinyanja, a writing system highly comparable to that of read in Finland whereby 1/3 of children learn to read before any formal instruction has begun. This means that, with appropriate teaching methods Zambian children should learn to read as easily as children in Finland.

The current curriculum of primary schools in Zambia demands instructing writing in one of the six most common local languages during the 1.grade before transferring to English in 2.grade. The Zambian education system fails to achieve this target for large numbers of children. In our pilot study (2005), the use of Finnish teaching methods was assessed in Zambia with encouraging results. This method - Literate computer game applies synthetic phonics methods successfully for supporting Finnish children who have reading difficulties. It proved to be an efficient improver in Zambia also in instructing reading English.

We now wish to continue this research using the game implemented also in cheap mobile phones to focus on 3 practical goals:

  1. developing the Zambian Literate game in Cinyanja and English with the aim of identifying the most effective ways of helping children with reading difficulties,
  2. examine the possibilities to successfully implement Literate for general teaching purposes via mobile phones,
  3. create training materials for teachers to improve classroom teaching methodology.

We examine also two theoretically important questions:

  1. the effects of the match between spoken and to-be-learned written language and
  2. the identification of the optimal characteristics of practice, first of all the degree of the distribution of practice leading to best learning results.
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