Abracadabra & Camara - making a difference

Abracadabra & Camara – making a difference

Below is the story of Abracadabra, a software package designed to improve early literacy among children in Grade 2 (ie 8 year-olds) in Mombasa, Kenya which was first reported here. Camara played a large part in the success of this initiative, having provided both the equipment and initial training. It is a fantastic example of the results that come when the power of ICT is harnessed at a young age. Abracadabra, along with other projects such as iMlango and The Costa Foundation – with whom Camara has worked in the past – clearly shows that the coming together of like-minded organisations can bring about change far quicker than working alone.


A pilot study was recently conducted at the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa (AKAM) in partnership with the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance (CSLP) at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. The purpose of the study was to explore the feasibility and effectiveness of using the ABRACADABRA early literacy software (ABRA) developed by the CSLP and its related print-based materials with emerging readers in Kenyan schools. The results were very positive, indicating a significant improvement not only in literacy, but also in math, science and social studies. They also indicated an extraordinary level of engagement from participating teachers, students, principals and parents. The project has generated tremendous local enthusiasm for the continued use of ABRA and has yielded important insights for the second phase of the study now underway in Mombasa.

The roots of this remarkable partnership go back to 2010 when the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) Canada held a highly successful three week-long “Bridges that Unite” exhibition at Concordia University, followed by a series of joint workshops involving AKF field workers and Concordia graduate students. These rich interactions led eventually to meetings between the CSLP team and staff from the Aga Khan Academies Unit in France, during which the Mombasa pilot project was proposed. In January 2012, the CSLP team conducted a reconnaissance visit to Mombasa to learn about the Kenyan context, establish partnerships with local schools, universities and teachers’ colleges and pave the way for the project to begin.

The 13-week study was conducted with 12 English teachers and their 354 grade 2 students from six primary schools in the Mombasa area. These were randomly divided in half with six teachers using ABRA as part of their English Language instruction and six teachers continuing to teach their classes without the use of ABRA (they were subsequently given the opportunity to use it in phase 2). A three-day initial training workshop was held for the ABRA teachers on how to use the software, with an emphasis on how best to integrate use of the software into classroom teaching. Teachers were provided with teaching materials including an ABRA curriculum developed by the CSLP team to align with the Kenyan English Language requirements for standard two students. The GRADE (Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation) test, a standardized measure designed to assess reading skills and monitor reading progress, served to provide needed baseline data on the students’ existing skill levels and was administered as a pretest to both groups of students in May 2012.

Each ABRA group was then bussed to the Aga Khan Academy one morning each week for a 90-minute long session in the Junior School computer lab, which houses 24 computers each with full access to the software. These sessions were then supplemented with classroom extension activities delivered in their regular classrooms. Post-test data were then collected, again using the GRADE test, at the end of November.

Not surprisingly, due to an emphasis in the Kenyan curriculum on teaching vocabulary and word recognition, both groups gained substantially in that regard. However, on comprehension-related scores, students in the ABRA classes improved significantly more than the students who did not use the software. Specifically, they improved more on passage comprehension and listening comprehension assignments.

Perhaps most interesting was the fact that, as a result of their improved literacy, students in the ABRA group also showed greater improvement in other subjects (particularly in math and science) on their end of year exams.

A desire to engage with ABRA and a thirst for learning with technology were clearly evident throughout the study. All the teachers gave powerful testimonials about how successful the use of ABRA had been and how positively it had impacted on their students. They spoke of how their teaching had changed and how they had come to realize that with the right tools every child is reachable. When asked to return their iBooks, teachers appealed to keep the machines longer in order to continue to use the software, indicating that their students were asking why they couldn’t use ABRA anymore.

During a formal reception held at the end of the study, teachers, principals and students all spoke movingly about their experiences using ABRA and their deep appreciation of the positive impact of the software. One principal pleaded to make ABRA available to every student in Kenya. She spoke at length about the effect it had on the students in her school, commenting on the excitement of the bus rolling up each week, the improved overall marks in class 2 and the requests from other teachers in her school to use the software. The teachers spoke passionately about how they had become better literacy teachers, how much more motivated their students were and how much better they were doing academically. One parent spoke of how demotivated, sad and illiterate her son had become after his father died. He then began to learn to read with ABRA and had already begun to correct her English.

Jointly supported by AKAM and CSLP, Phase 2 of this project is already underway with data being collected from the non ABRA classes who are now using ABRA in the AKAM lab. This second phase is incorporating lessons learned from the pilot project especially with regard to how best to train teachers in the effective integration of the software into literacy instruction. In January, 2014, Phase 3 of the project will unfold with expansion to Nairobi made possible through funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada under its Partnership Development program.

Aligning well with the Kenyan Government’s Vision 2030 and the Ministry of Education’s expressed interests and directives in both improving literacy and in increasing technology use in schools, the Mombasa study was particularly timely. The team is now also exploring funding opportunities for a larger-scale, multi-year research and development project focused on combining the use of technology and well-focused teacher professional development to improve early literacy in a variety of other national contexts.

  • A copy of the full report is available here

Financial and in-kind support for the project was provided by the CSLP, the Aga Khan Academies Unit and the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa

The project team: From Left to Right: Enos Kiforo (Facilitator), Rosemary Waga (Aga Khan Primary School), Mary Nyale (Ganjoni Primary School),Grace Akinyi (Shanzu Teacher’s Training College), Elizabeth Mupe Kirumbi (Makande Primary School), Esther Charo (Tom Mboya Primary School), Rose Nyale (Star of the Sea Primary School), Hope Lumbukeni (Facilitator, Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa), Phil Abrami (CSLP), Joyce Kiioh (Central Girls Primary School), and Anthony Gioko (Project Coordinator)
Missing: Jonathon Marsh (Aga Khan Academies Unit), Larysa Lysenko (CSLP) and Anne Wade (CSLP)

See also the news release on the Aga Khan Academy’s website – ABRACADABRA – Learning Toolkit (LTK)

ABRACADABRA, Changing How We Learn a 7-minute TV segment that aired on Kenya’s Tazama newsmagazine show on Sept. 15, 2014 – Abracadabra, changing how we learn