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Text Message Support for Teachers in Kenya

Just re-discovered this great article by Mathew Jukes who has given his permission to post it here. I have done a very small experiment in Mozambique re: text messaging to support teachers who were implementing our Nutrition Education Programme. They loved it but there was not the funding to expand the approach. Here is a link to the work of Matthew Jukes.

The Health and Literacy Intervention (HALI) project replaced expensive in-person coaching with text messages and found that they effectively supported teachers in improving their pedagogy, helped children learn to read, and reduced dropout by 50 percent (full study summary here, paper here).

For some, text messages are merely a tool for undermining children’s ability to spell. But could they also help children to read in parts of the world where this help is needed most? And in doing so, could text messages address one of the toughest challenges in education worldwide.

If you’d have asked me ten years ago what is required to improve global literacy, I would have focused at the level of the classroom. We were starting to discover from the gradual spread of Early Grade Reading Assessments (EGRA) that many children – probably most children – in poor countries were attending school for years and still not learning to read. We knew classrooms were over-crowded and poorly resourced and children had little experience of literature at home. So the challenge was: how can we give teachers the skills to surmount the odds and teach their class to read?

Ten years on and this problem is far from solved, but a recent systematic review finds that teacher training combined with a structured curriculum is one of only two types of education intervention that ‘works in most contexts’.

So now I would say that giving a teacher the skills they require to teach reading is no longer the biggest challenge. It’s how to give all teachers these skills. Everywhere. All the time. The focus has shifted from classroom to system.

One of the challenges of scale-up is that teachers – in common with all other kinds of human being – need a lot of support to change their behaviour. Typically in-person coaching is needed for teachers to learn new skills and apply them consistently, day after day for the months and years required for a child to learn to read. It can be a challenge for an education ministry to set up and maintain such an extensive system of quality support.

In the HALI project we wondered if a literacy improvement effort could succeed without expensive, intensive in-person coaches. Our project involved the elements of many others – teacher training workshops and scripted lesson plans – but we replaced coach visits to classrooms with a weekly text message. The text messages involved two-way communication: they aimed to prompt teachers to conduct key activities with the children, but also to find out how they were doing. As a result we were able to create a virtual community of practice, where questions, challenges and successes of one teacher could be shared with the others. Phones were used to send teachers a small amount of money ($0.50 a week or 1% of a beginner teacher salary) to help fund the communication. Although teachers received the money regardless of whether they responded, the response rate was high: 87% of messages received responses. Interestingly teachers were much more likely to respond when we asked them a question than when we simply sent them information. The two-way communication was critical in creating the virtual community. Teachers felt their opinions were valued and felt that the messages they received were tailored to their needs rather than indiscriminate spam.

The messages were successful. Teachers told us they felt more supported. There were also large changes in behaviour. Teachers were much more likely to do the things we know are critical for effective early literacy instruction – focusing on letters and sounds rather than on words and sentences, and helping children engage directly with text rather than just copying from the board. More important yet, the program also helped children to learn to read. By the end of two years children improved in reading letters, words and stories in comparison with a control group. They were also less likely to drop out of school. This study provides the first rigorous evidence that improved instruction can encourage children to stay in school. Our qualitative research tells us that children often make the decision to drop out of school themselves and the quality of the instruction they receive is a crucial factor.