‘Aay, Bee, Cee, Dee’, chanted 56 five-year-old Gambian children from the blackboard, but if the letters were pointed to randomly, they could not correctly say their ‘alphabet letters’. This had been the way for several years but this May, two days after some teacher training, I heard ‘ssssssssss’ and ‘aaaaaaaaaa’ and ‘tttttttttt’ coming from a classroom and saw the appropriate actions. Jolly Phonics had arrived at Wellingara Community Nursery School, in The Gambia!
It had been a long process to introduce phonics (synthetic or otherwise) at this school for 435 three- to seven-year-olds. I first went there in February 2001 when I was still working as an Adult Literacy tutor. A friend had set up a registered charity to support the then small, cramped but growing school. I went to see for myself and came home eager to get involved. I became one of the Trustees of ‘1 to 3 – supporting education and welfare in the village of Wellingara’ (pop. 17,000)
I was nursery trained, had worked in special education for over 20 years and taught adult literacy. As a widow with grown-up children, my life turned yet again and I am now totally involved with this wonderful school.
When I first saw the rote teaching I wondered what to do – one cannot just go in and say that their teaching methods are ineffective, but during one of my now twice-yearly visits with the founder-chairman, I talked to staff about introducing phonics. At first I came up against ‘But dis is d’ way we do it in d’ Gambia’ (big trouble with /th/), but by taking things slowly I won the staff round and I found one or two other schools ‘doing’ phonics (mostly analytic I think).
Before my next visit the deputy had been impressed by a demonstration of phonics teaching during a course and this turned out to be Jolly Phonics (in a small, privately- funded school). I then heard of another school teaching Jolly Phonics from the Handbook only. I arranged to visit there during our April/May visit and was impressed with the resourcefulness of the head teacher, Abdul Newlands. This greatly encouraged me, as I had serious concerns about how to fund the project, but I had useful advice from Chris Jolly and Sue Lloyd and already had the Presentation Pack and Starter Kit, most of which I took to Gambia, hoping not to be charged for excess baggage!
The teachers, classroom assistants, bursar, children’s sponsorship scheme social worker and community co-ordinator all took part in two days’ training, and to my great relief, but not surprise, were very enthusiastic. We laughed a lot, especially when I explained about cuckoo clocks and when the staff acted out ‘ee – or’.
A special feature was that the electricity was on all day – very unusual! It may have had something to do with the letter taken by a child’s grandfather who worked for the company, saying please could we have the power on from 9 till 4 on Saturday and Sunday – it worked!
The staff will be visiting the school run by Mr Newlands, and I’ve left instructions on how to continue the training themselves. I plan to go out again before the start of next term and be there when Jolly Phonics officially starts. But, they couldn’t wait – hence the sounds of /a/ instead of ‘aay’, /ssssss/ instead of ‘es’ and /tttt/ instead of ‘tee’, coming from the classroom!
Marj Hitching is Trustee/Secretary of 1 to 3 Registered Charity 1082151. Part Two of the story will follow, we hope, after her next visit to The Gambia.