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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 57 back to contents
Jolly Phonics in the Gambia - part twoMarj Hitching


Wellingara Community Nursery School is a 360-place school for 3-7-year-olds in a semi-urban village of 17,000 inhabitants in The Gambia, West Africa. In the first article, in RRF Newsletter 55, Summer 2005, I described how the ‘alphabet letters’ were taught in rote fashion from the blackboard, and how I came to introduce Jolly Phonics to the school, starting with a weekend workshop in May 2005.


I left a training schedule for the staff – learning the stories, actions, letter formation and songs, and familiarising themselves with The Phonics Handbook. I returned in September 2005 for the start of term. Again, the staff willingly spent most of their weekend revising, questioning, looking at resources (some kindly donated by Chris Jolly and some I had made at home) and singing. What some of the staff lack in basic teaching skills is made up for by their enthusiasm and willingness to learn. The more recently appointed staff are better trained, but for all, taking on Jolly Phonics has been a huge learning curve and I have been full of admiration for the way in which they have dedicated themselves to understanding synthetic phonics. Teaching in Wellingara is not easy in the heat – some days there is no electricity so the ceiling fans don’t work and as the water supply is very erratic there is often no drinking water available (and the toilets don’t flush!).

The atmosphere in Gambia is so hot and dusty that paper or card very quickly falls off the walls, so in anticipation of Jolly Phonics displays, large boards were fitted in two class­rooms. In order to accommodate the daily JP lesson, the timetable was altered, which produced a better balance of lessons and breaks than had previously been the case.

Two university graduates – one an NQT (newly qualified teacher) – had arrived from the UK in September to work as volunteers in the school until Christmas. One had some JP experience during her teaching practice. These two young women had looked at the JP website before going to Gambia and then attended my ‘revision workshop’ before school reopened.

Getting started

The school is divided into eight classes – one Toddlers’ class of 3-4-year-olds and seven Nursery classes for 5-7-year-olds. The Toddlers’ class started JP in the third week with just the letter sounds, and actions together with the appropriate songs, often accompanied by drumming and dancing. (The culture of dance is so strong that any form of music makes the children get up and dance.)

The Nursery classes started JP on the second day of term. The children love it and have taken to it with great enthusiasm. There are lots of displays on the boards and the songs are performed with great gusto! However, the Gambian English accent is so pronounced that unless one knows the words it’s quite difficult to understand what they are singing.

Difficulties and successes

Of course there have been difficulties in the first term. The two volunteers wrote a report highlighting these.* Staff needed to be reminded to work through the five sections for each letter sound. The pace was generally slower than is preferred for UK, but I think this will increase as the teachers become more confident and experienced – it will settle into ‘Fast for Gambia’.

All the children speak their own tribal language and possibly one other, as well as English. All teaching is in English, but some children are finding it hard to blend words they don’t know the meaning of. The pronunciation of /l/ and /r/ is proving difficult, Gambians say /d/ for /th/, and /c/ often sounds like /t/.

Quite a number of children are reversing letter formation or even whole words. Although they have also to cope with Arabic lessons where writing is from right to left, I am assured by staff that this is not the reason some children are writing English in this direction. I will be investigating this during my January/February visit. All children seemed to be holding their pencils correctly.

The volunteers pointed out that although staff can identify the fast and slow learners, the middle group seems ‘a grey area’, and staff do not differentiate the work. Of course, it is difficult for the staff, who have never taught in this way before, to know how to accommodate differing ability levels, and high class numbers, with no support assis­tants, make it almost impossible. Some literate parents (women) have been attend­ing JP training classes for adults, and I hope that in future they might assist in the classroom. However, these classes were poorly attended, possibly because of the heavy burden of the many domestic duties which women in this culture have to under­take.

The week before the volunteers left Wellingara they arranged an inter-class JP competition outside, with games utilising the letter sounds, huge flashcards and the letter actions. This was a great success, and the prizes were storybooks and an English dictionary for the teacher with the best classroom display.

But what of the future?

Against all the successes so far, a serious problem is on the horizon. My concern at the outset of this project was for the continuity when the children start their formal, state education at the age of seven. At the start of term parents were asking staff, ‘Why isn’t the ABC being taught any more?’ The response was ‘Yes, it is, but in a different order’. As the term progressed, parents have seen what the children are achieving, and they are worried about what will happen when they start state education where often, phonics is not taught.

Our school is in ‘uncharted waters’, in that we don’t know what stage the ‘leavers’ will have reached by next July – they could be streets ahead of those just starting their education at 7 years. About 80% of our children will go to the Lower Basic Primary School nearby, where the head teacher is very supportive of JP and has promised that the children will be kept together in two classes. The staff there attended my last workshop and will continue JP. However, the parents of the 20% of children who will transfer to other schools (because of where they live) are very concerned. I am currently in discussion with Chris Jolly about this, and we may attempt to get the Department of State for Education (DOSE) to change their policy and introduce synthetic phonics into all the Lower Basic Primary schools. DOSE considers nursery education to be private (and does not pay the teachers – our teachers are funded via our charity’s children’s sponsorship scheme). The reason our school has such high numbers is that it has an excellent reputation, and children come from other areas but will have to return to their own catchment area at the start of formal education.

My hope is that DOSE will be so impressed with the results of JP at our school that they will rethink their policy for the 7+ children. An ambitious target, but better than learning letter names by rote from the board.

In the meantime, I am returning to the school for three weeks at the end of January, when I will be monitoring the teaching and learning of JP and addressing some of the difficulties highlighted by the volunteers. I would like to thank Chris Jolly and Sue Lloyd for their sound advice. The bigger question of continuity as they children move into state education will be high on the agenda.

*Young, Victoria & Wills, Nicky, December 2005. Report on the first term of teaching Jolly Phonics at Wellingara Nursery School, The Gambia, West Africa.

Marj Hitching is a Trustee and Secretary of ‘1 to 3’ Reg. Charity 1082151 which supports education and welfare in Wellingara and works in partnership with Wellingara Community Initiative Support. Further information can be had by e-mailing




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