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Cracking the reading code with their mother tongue

The ability to read is the cornerstone of a successful education. Without that elementary skill the other subjects – whether mathematics, science or geography – become that much harder to learn. However, many primary school children, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, will start their journey into reading with a major disadvantage, as they are taught in a language that they don't fully understand. This early barrier can sometimes end up limiting their entire path through education.

We are teaching children to “crack the code” of the written word by learning to read in their mother tongue, which helps to accelerate learning and makes it easier for children to later learn Portuguese. The progress is extremely uplifting, especially given the local context and learning environment. But there’s so much that’s still to be achieved here. I hope this is just the start of the journey.

Hayley Niad

Technical director, who was named on the 2019 International Literacy Association’s “30 Under 30” list, which celebrates the rising innovators, disruptors, and visionaries in the literacy field.


In the Maputo province of Mozambique, rural children often encounter Portuguese for the first time on their first day at school. They may be good talkers in their mother tongue, such as the Xichangana and Xirhonga languages. They may be bright enough to learn the building blocks of reading, just like any other child across the world. They may even chant the sounds and letters back to the teacher in class. But so much is missed in building the basics, to the extent that even many second grade students are unable to read any words at all.


Cambridge Education is technical advisor for an initiative that intervenes at this critical moment by co-producing materials and a curriculum in children’s mother tongue. Students can later use these skills to learn to read in Portuguese, which will serve as the language of instruction for the rest of their school years.

This early stage of learning to read is known as decoding. Effectively, students learn the building blocks of words, such as the sounds produced in a language, and the letters and syllables used to represent those sounds.

For example, teachers introduce letters sequentially, starting with the most common ones. If they began with ABC, it might take too long for students to access letters that actually combine to create meaningful words in their language. So, the first letters they teach are N, A, and K. Children gain rudimentary phonemic awareness and phonics abilities, as well as the concepts of print – i.e. that you read from the top of the page, and from left to right.

Our literacy element is part of a wider education programme run by implementing partner ADPP. This local NGO is the implementation lead for the prime contractor Planet Aid, which is operating within the Food for Knowledge Project (FFK). The programme is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program.


So far, nearly 10,000 children have benefited from the development, production, and distribution of these bilingual learning materials. The project has also trained approximately 300 teachers in the use of the bilingual methods and materials. The results are extremely encouraging. From a baseline of zero, most children can now read letters, syllables and small words and phrases.
The project has a strong sustainability core, as the work is carried out by the Mozambican NGO ADPP. Some 27 reading-coaches live and work in the field, providing constant pedagogical support to schools and teachers. Since our program incorporates new literacy approaches, student-centred strategies, and brand new materials, the role coaches plan in the broader process is remarkably important. A few in-service training days alone would never prove effective in bringing this ‘revolution’ in education the way the persistent, school-based coaching does.

By building school gardens to tackle malnutrition, providing school feeding, and improving sanitation and hygiene through small infrastructure projects, FFK brings a cross-sectoral approach to tackling the obstacles faced by primary children at this critical stage.

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