U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa: “We didn’t change the Afaan Oromo alphabet “
(OPride) — On June 3, Ethiopia’s state-run TV Oromiyaa (” target=”_blank”>TVO) reported on a USAID-funded primary school curriculum overhaul. The report indicated that, under the new curriculum, the order in which the Afaan Oromo alphabet or Qubee is taught to first graders has been changed. Two weeks in, the debate around this purported change to Afaan Oromo alphabetand a possible malintent behind it remains highly contentious.
This week, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, was thrown into the spotlight after attempting to clarify the scope of USAID’s involvement in the new mother tongue curriculum. The embassy insists that no change has been made to Afaan Oromo alphabet or the alphabet’s structure. And that the curriculum is meant only to teach reading—not the alphabet. Their plea for understanding has thus far failed to placate social media activists, who are campaigning under #ABCDeebisa or #BringBackABCD. They warn that the opposition now gathering online will soon spill into street protests in Ethiopia.
In an effort to understand the USAID’s position, OPride editor Mohammed Ademo talked exclusively and at length with Nicholas Barnett, the spokesperson for the embassy. He spoke to us by phone from his office in Addis Ababa. Here is Part I of that exchange, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Mohammed Ademo: Thank you very much for making the time, Nick! I really appreciate it. Like I said in my note to you, I truly appreciate that the embassy is doing this because the news of the primary school curriculum redesign has created so much confusion and frustration for people, who obviously value your work and what the USAID is trying to do, but there is a lot of miscommunication and lack of clarity around this. I hope we can clear up all that.
Nicholas Barnett: I agree, and I appreciate that you reached out to us for clarification. I have a colleague of mine here from USAID who’s going to make sure that I’m providing accurate information but I’ll be the one on the record for this.
I understand how important this issue is to people—the relationship of language with culture and heritage and history can’t be overstated. We would never do anything that undermines that relationship. So I’m more than happy to help clarify what the USAID program actually did, which had nothing to do with the Afaan Oromo alphabet.
MA: Great, I guess we can start by maybe describing briefly the extent of USAID or the embassy’s involvement in the new curriculum design. Or if you can recap sort of how we got to where we are now.
NB: Sure, the program is very narrow in scope. It is only focused on reading curriculum. So it doesn’t touch any other aspect of education. The program was designed to address historically low literacy in Ethiopia, particularly in students native languages. It started about four years ago and the assessments were conducted for seven languages in total including Afaan Oromo as well as Tigrinya, Amharic and a few others which we’ve shared publicly. The program was designed based on an internationally accepted process which is the alphabetic principle and this is again only for reading.
The principle behind this is that students learn to read more quickly when they learn the sounds that letters make and how they work together for the most high-profile letter sounds. This is getting a little bit into the weeds but there’s a difference between the letter itself and the letter-sounds. So students do need to learn their alphabet first and that’s still being taught in school. That comes before these textbooks are introduced but the textbooks are designed to take that knowledge of the alphabet and translate it into the ability to interpret the sounds that a word makes. So that’s how these books are designed and it’s the same process in the United States. My own son just finished kindergarten so I’ve observed this. He learned the alphabet first and then we saw that his reading capacity was built by learning specific sounds that occur more frequently—not necessarily the most frequently—but more frequently so that he could very quickly identify a larger number of words.
The ability to identify a larger number of words quickly is imperative for the ability to read because it means he has access to more words, more quickly. So he can practice more since he has access to more books. Now, once the assessment was complete and the programs were designed and this was done in conjunction with RTI, which has a long history of expertise in reading education. A training was then provided to 160,000 teachers across the country—again this is representing seven different languages and so they were taught how to use this [the new curriculum]. I’ve been doing some talking to my colleagues to better understand given the questions that are raised. Even in those trainings, the teachers talked about the need to first teach the alphabet so even though this book doesn’t include the [Afaan Oromo] alphabet, the alphabet is still being taught but that wasn’t within the scope of USAID project.
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