Cross-Age Reading Buddies and Cultural-Sensitive Literature: Student-Centered English Language Instruction in an Ethiopian Budget School

Article excerpt

The Ethiopian government has called for educational improvement, emphasizing the employment of active, student-centered pedagogy. One way of maximizing an interactive learning approach involves blending a cross-age reading buddies program with high-quality, culturally relevant children's literature. Employing descriptive, mixed-method research, this study explored the effectiveness of books and buddies on English language use, motivation, and active learning in an underresourced, "budget" school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The report includes a comparison of traditional workbook exercises to the reading of real books. It gives criteria for choosing literature for children of poverty in a developing country, and it describes a process for preparing older students to share second-language books with younger schoolmates. The results of the study suggest that a limited number of well-chosen books used in the context of cross-age reading buddies can have a positive impact on the frequency of English language usage, as well as on students' motivation to learn English.

Keywords: reading buddies, budget school, English language instruction, quality literature, Ethiopia


Many Ethiopians are deprived of a quality education (Negash, 2006). Negash went so far as to state that the educational system in Ethiopia is so poor it is in danger of collapse. At 43%, Ethiopia's literacy rate is one of the lowest in Africa and in the world (U.S. Department of State, Bureau of African Affairs, 2010). Only 12% of the population pursues education beyond the primary level. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the political, social, economic, and historical factors leading to this state of affairs, two key elements are relevant: the medium of instruction and curricula (Negash, 2006).

Education in Ethiopia requires that the medium of instruction include regional tribal languages, of which there are more than 80 (Alemu & Tekeselassie, 2006), as well as instruction in Amharic and English. These requirements reflect the government's attempt to meet the country's need for equity, unity, and ongoing development. In 1994, the Ethiopian government adopted a new instructional language policy. According to this policy, (1) primary education will be taught in the spoken language of the region, (2) Amharic will be taught as the national language, and (3) English will be the medium for instruction in the later primary grades, which, depending upon the region, might be Grade 5, 7, or 9 (Alemu & Tekleselassie, 2006). In all regions, academic instruction beyond the primary level is delivered in English, making it imperative for those who wish to continue their education to learn English. A distinct advantage of schools in Addis Ababa, the location of this study, is that the regional language is Amharic. As a result, most students pursuing an education in Addis Ababa need to become literate in only two, rather than three, languages.

Ethiopian government schools are poorly resourced and overcrowded; a typical classroom houses 80 or more students (Serbessa, 2006). In response to government schools' inability to meet minimum standards of quality education (Lockheed & Verspoor, 1991), 58% of the primary schools in the capital city of Addis Ababa are privately owned and operated. Many of these schools charge fees low enough to be affordable for parents on the poverty line (Tooley, 2007). The main attraction of these "budget" primary schools is the offering of English language classes, especially important for the educational advantage that comes with English proficiency. Although budget schools offer higher teacher commitment, lower teacher-to-student ratio, and higher educational outcomes, studies show that private "budget" schools follow their government counterparts by providing a low-quality education, based on passive rote learning (Serbessa, 2006). In an attempt to improve low-quality education in government and private schools, the Ethiopian government calls for active, learner-centered education (Serbessa, 2006). …