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Developing Quality Storybooks for Preprimary Students in Tanzania: An Expert Interview with Magdalena Massawe

Magdalena Massawe
Magdalena Massawe
A teacher in Tanzania reads from an extra-large storybook designed for the whole class to see.

Governments in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have begun to address increasing demands for high-quality pre-primary education by revising their pre-primary curricula and by adjusting their instructional spaces. The Tanzania Institute of Education (TIE) recently trained preprimary teachers using a newly designed competency-based curriculum. However, when teachers returned to their preprimary classrooms to implement the new curriculum, they found themselves without any relevant materials or learning aids.

The Tusome Pamoja program, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by RTI, already had a goal of improving learning outcomes for 1.4 million children in early primary in Tanzania. Through a pilot program extending this goal to preprimary, advisor Magdalena Massawe worked closely with TIE to develop, test, review and train teachers in using big and small books linked to Tanzania’s preprimary curriculum. Magdalena, who holds a master’s degree in social work with a specialization in family and children services, and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, was herself a preprimary teacher for eight years. She sat down to talk with us about the thinking behind big books, and how they have been received by children, teachers and the government of Tanzania.

What challenge is Tusome Pamoja trying to address by developing big books?

We had a national preprimary curriculum that had no supporting materials to help translate the proposed competencies into a teaching and learning setting. Our goal with big books was to give teachers materials for curriculum delivery.

Tell us about big books. What are they, what informed their development, and how do they fit into the bigger picture of improving early learning outcomes?

Big books are large, brightly colored versions of smaller storybooks, designed for teachers to use as they lead whole-classroom instruction. Big books ensure interaction with the reading materials for all learners, even in large classes. For example, they incorporate a lot of pictures. We want learners to be able to explore the story, make predictions, and answer questions based on the pictures they can easily see. If there are several items in a picture, we want all learners to be able to count them.

The big book idea has been in Tanzania for some time, used under both TZ21 and the Education Quality Improvement Program (EQUIP), which had developed some big books. At the start of the Tusome Pamoja preprimary pilot, Catherine Henny of RTI became involved in developing the big books. We worked with the Tanzania Institute of Education to create content that relates to the preprimary curriculum, including basic math concepts and health. After a series of reviews, TIE approved 24 big book titles.

Each big book comes with five smaller copies. You can ask yourself: Why have small copies if the teacher is using big books? The child-sized copies are given to small groups of learners so that they can explore pictures and practice handling books, supported by volunteer teachers, while the teacher leads the class by reading from the big book. This approach is especially useful in large classes.

What were the main results from your pilot of developing and using big books in two districts? Was this what you expected?

My experience conducting classroom observations in preprimary classrooms in Tandahimba and Mtwara [pilot districts] was that the big books we had produced were being used by teachers and that the learners were engaged. To determine engagement, I asked: “If the teacher is reading, are all learners following the pictures with their eyes? Are they answering questions about the story asked by the teachers to check understanding?” Within the books themselves, we’ve designed 5–6 questions at the end for teachers to ask learners.

During training, teachers also learned how to make their own big books using locally sourced materials, such as cardboard boxes. Teachers often keep these big books in a learning area set aside in one corner of the classroom, so children can take the opportunity to explore the big books independently.

The stories in these books are short, so we find teachers will sometimes read through the whole story quickly in one sitting, rather than moving slowly, stopping on each page to discuss and ask questions. Teachers are trained to use each page to support content instruction, and not simply read with the goal of finishing the book. In a single book, the teacher can handle roughly four competencies. If the teacher flies through a book, learners may not be able to follow along and can get confused. We want teachers to slow down and really take time to teach each competency covered. To achieve this, we’ve trained teachers in strategies for teaching the books in pieces.

We don’t have coaches who visit preprimary teachers, but we have trained the head teachers, ward education officers, and the school-quality assurer to follow up with preprimary teachers and to monitor and support teachers to use the books correctly.

When teachers are not using the big books, it is often because they have a traditional attitude that books are not needed for teaching competencies. They may believe that using storybooks takes a long time, as the teacher must allow learners to explore the pictures, predict what will happen, and follow along. In some cases, teachers we observed were new or recently transferred and hadn’t received the training. We have encouraged new teachers to meet with veteran teachers in nearby schools to share their experiences and to learn approaches with big books through communities of learning.

What are the implications of your findings from the big books pilot for the problems you’re trying to address?

Teachers in other districts began demanding the big books, and as a result, TIE adopted 12 of the 24 big book titles in 2018. In January 2019, TIE finalized big book distribution to all government preprimary schools in Tanzania. The government was eager to take up big books because they knew that they had changed the curriculum from subject-based to competency-based and invested in training teachers, but still lacked materials.

What are the next steps for improving the development and use of big books, and what additional research, funding and programming are needed?

We want to conduct more hands-on research to develop better big books. For example, it would be useful to know whether the sentences are too long, too short or just right. How engaging do users find the pictures in the books? Are there competencies in the curriculum that are not yet covered in the materials?

What are some of the risks and challenges you uncovered in the big books pilot, and how do you think these can be mitigated?

In terms of challenges, after we developed the materials, we realized that many preprimary schools did not have a safe space to store the books given their size. Tusome Pamoja provided storage boxes to these schools.

Sometimes preprimary teachers also teach in Standard One (grade 1) and Standard Two (grade 2), as preprimary schools are connected to primary schools. We train both preprimary teachers and teacher volunteers so that when preprimary teachers are temporarily pulled into Standard One or Two classrooms, the volunteer teachers are still able to use the big books to teach the preprimary learners.

Another challenge was that teacher volunteers were really struggling to use big books. Just like we did with the full-time classroom teachers, we encouraged them to tap into communities of learning with neighboring schools to support one another and practice using the big books.

Do you think big books like the ones developed through Tusome Pamoja could be used in other regions of Tanzania, and in other countries?

I think this approach can be adopted in other countries because teaching by using storybooks is a universal practice. In East Africa, this technique could be used in Uganda, in Malawi—as long as they capture children’s interest and support the curriculum in that country, the books are a useful tool for instruction.