Fiction Teaches Children The Language of Education

‘One out of four students in Standard 7 do not have Standard 2 level literacy skills’


Too many children attend school but do not learn. Unable to master the language of instruction well enough to use it to learn subject content, they fail. Children must master English to learn, at a deeper level, all the subjects taught in school, bar one – Kiswahili. In the new curriculum, language mastery becomes even more important as children are now expected not just to memorise but to understand.  This is not happening.

It is old news that Kenya is facing a literacy crises. Year after year, Uwezo research reports rolls out dire statistics. The domino effect caused by poor literacy skills shames our whole society. Recent KCSE results, in which over 70% of the students attained a D grade or lower is a manifestation of the problem. In a country facing high unemployment, many job seekers are hampered by poor writing skills, their application letters barely legible. Many taking loans from government enterprise funds do not understand the written terms, thus default rates are high. Youth encouraged to become entrepreneurs have difficulty articulating their plans on paper. Many mothers cannot read medical diagnoses or prescriptions required by their children.

The irony is that the solution to acquiring language skills is straightforward, storybooks! Few in Kenya speak or practise English outside the classroom so storybooks are the exposure they need to pick up vocabulary, sentence structure and nuance. A plethora of research proves that children who read regularly succeed.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) studies show: ‘ Reading for pleasure is even more important than social class in determining children’s academic success. Parents who discussed books, articles and current affairs with their children also helped boost their literacy skills.’

Studies by educational researchers, Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich, show:  ‘Most children’s vocabulary growth occurs indirectly through language exposure rather than direct instruction. The amount of print children are exposed to has profound cognitive consequences, and that the act of reading itself serves to increase the achievement differences among children.  Reading a lot is effective regardless of the level of a child’s cognitive and reading ability. Even the student with limited reading and comprehension skills will build vocabulary and thinking skills through reading.  And arly success at reading unlocks a lifetime of reading habits.’

According to the US Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress research: ‘Parents who talk and read with their children can greatly enhance their vocabularies. Preschoolers with large vocabularies tend to become proficient readers. Students with higher reading scores were more likely to report four types of reading material in their homes—encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, and at least 25 books. And if kids see grown-ups reading, they will cherish reading and books.’

Ensuring that children gain language skills is critical to their future success Parents should ensure their children read 50 – 100 books a year, and treat the purchase of story books as an investment in their child’s future productivity. If children read at home, they will shine in school and succeed in life.

Since less than 5% of primary schools have libraries, organisations and individuals should donate books to schools.  Active libraries in schools change learning outcomes. North Highridge Primary School is located in the Deep-Sea Slums, near Nairobi Parkland area and has 250 students.  The school received 1,000 storybooks in 2013 from the Storymoja Start a Library initiative. Aga Khan Secondary School also donated reading tables for the library. After the donation, the teachers received training on how to manage the newly established library and on how to spearhead the reading culture among the pupils. Two years after the donation, the Start a Library team paid a visit to the school.

The books we received from Start a Library have made a big impact on the mean score of our school.” Mrs Muchiri, the school Deputy Head said. “Students have also improved in their language skills, speaking, reading and vocabulary. Imagination in students has also increased because they are now able to think creatively since they read many storybooks.

Attending school is not enough!  Children need to read 50 storybooks a year to master the language of instruction – English. And since they perform just as poorly in Kiswahili, they need to read another 50 books to master our national language. Let our children read storybooks regularly and widely and build their academic and creative muscles so they become productive citizens.

By Muthoni Garland

Head over to the Storymoja E-store to discover a variety of creative stories for you & your child!

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