Highlights of this year’s First National Children’s Reading Summit in Ethiopia - by Jane Kurtz
In early March, the Ethiopian staff of Ethiopia Reads organized the First National Children’s Reading Summit in Ethiopia, with 140 attendees including representatives from the Federal Ministry of Education, regional education bureaus, the National Archive and Library, Addis Ababa University, other nonprofits and multilateral and government agencies active in children’s literacy, teachers, librarians , schools directors, children’s publishers, writers and illustrators. Since I was in Addis Ababa at the time for an Open Hearts Big Dreams (OHBD) trip, they asked me to do a presentation about the importance of reading to children and how my years of volunteering for Ethiopia Reads led to my determination to develop models of bilingual easy-to-read books—in hopes of helping more Ethiopians to become confident, enthusiastic book lovers.
Ethiopia has gone from having one of the world’s lowest school enrollment rates to having one of the highest enrollment rates in Africa. As one article on schools in Ethiopia notes, “The number of primary schools almost tripled from 1996 to 2015, while student enrollment grew from less than 3 million to over 18 million within the same period.” Many schools, though, are struggling to help students learn. For example, we were told during our OHBD UNICEF meeting that one in five first graders will drop out of school. In addition, a 2016 early grade reading assessment, showed that 34 percent of second grade students were unable to read a single word of a grade-level story, while 48 percent could not answer one comprehension question.
During the reading summit, the Ethiopia Reads staff presented information on decades of hard work planting libraries in government schools and training librarians with new skills for connecting young readers with books. Ethiopian authors talked about their struggles to get their stories read in a world that basically has no publishing infrastructure and where writers have to pay for illustration and printing—and then also handle distribution. All of this means that even where children are in school and maybe have access to libraries, there is a huge shortage of colorful, engaging, culturally appropriate books.
The reading summit was a great chance for a varied audience—almost all Ethiopians—to wrestle with hard realities facing the country. It’s little wonder that everywhere we traveled during March and early April, parents, children, and educators expressed enthusiasm for the Ready Set Go books created and published by OHBD and what they contribute to creating a love of reading in Ethiopia.