A Culturally Sensitive Approach to Promoting Initial Literacy Development in Africa: Ongoing and Planned Research and Development at the University of Zambia’s Centre for Promotion of Literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa (CAPOLSA)

  • Robert SerpellEmail author
  • Jacqueline Jere-Folotiya
  • Tamara Chansa-Kabali
  • Jonathan Munachaka
  • Mwanza Nakawala Maumbi
  • Christopher Yalukanda
  • Francis Sampa
  • Heikki Lyytinen


A four-year research and development program at CAPOLSA (the Centre for the Promotion of Literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa) was inspired by widespread dissatisfaction with poor literacy outcomes of mass basic schooling in Zambia and sought to test the generalizability of a scientifically grounded, computer-mediated instructional resource developed in Finland, for effective intervention in an African society where different linguistic and educational conditions obtain. Specific challenges and opportunities posed by the local sociocultural context included the prevalence of multilingualism, the relatively transparent orthographies of local languages, and poor infrastructure of the public school system. Software was translated and field-tested under ecologically realistic conditions. Complementary influences on initial literacy learning were systematically explored of children’s home literacy environments, teachers’ attitudes and practices, biological and social constraints on learning among children with special needs, curriculum development, and teacher training. Complementary instructional resource development focused on creation of child-friendly reading materials in seven indigenous languages, translation of stories across those languages, harmonization of their orthographies, and exploring the potential of multiple media for dissemination of literacy materials. Effective application of scientific and technological innovations to educational policy and practice called for systematic coordination of insights from multiple disciplines to situate developmental science within sociocultural context.


Literacy development Centre for the Promotion of Literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa (CAPOLSA) Innovation Educational policy Indigenous language Applied developmental science Zambia Technology development Medium of instruction Orthography Multilingualism GraphoGame Socioeconomic status Schools 


  1. Akkari, A., Serpell, R., Baker, L., & Sonnenschein, S. (1998). An analysis of teacher ethnotheories. The Professional Educator, 21, 45–61.Google Scholar
  2. Alexander, D. (1982). Problems of educational reform in Zambia. Annual SCUTREA Conference Proceedings (pp. 77–103). Retrieved August 2013 from
  3. Aro, M. (2006). Learning to read: The effect of orthography. In R. M. Joshi & P. G. Aaron (Eds.), Handbook of orthography and literacy (pp. 531–550). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  4. Aro, M., & Wimmer, H. (2003). Learning to read: English in comparison to six more regular orthographies. Journal of Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 621–635.Google Scholar
  5. Bailey, B. (2006). Heteroglossia and boundaries. In M. Heller (Ed.), Bilingualism: A social approach (pp. 257–274). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.Google Scholar
  6. Bamgbose, A. (1984). Mother-tongue medium and scholastic attainment in Nigeria. Prospects, 14(1), 87–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Banda, F., Mtenje, A., Miti, L., Chanda, V., Kamwendo, G., Ngunga, A., Liphola, M., Manuel, C., Sitoe, B., Simango, S., & Nkolola, M. W. (2008). A unified standard orthography for Southcentral African languages (Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia). (Second, Revised Edition). Cape Town, South Africa: Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (Monograph Series No. 229).Google Scholar
  8. Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 107, 251–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Berlin, I. (Ed.). (1956). The age of enlightenment: The eighteenth-century philosophers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  10. Beyani, C. (2013). Zambia: Effective delivery of public education services. OSISA Accessed September 2013 from
  11. Bos, C., Mather, N., Dickson, S., Podhajski, B., & Chard, D. (2001). Perceptions and knowledge of pre-service and in-service educators about early reading instruction. Annals of Dyslexia, 51, 97–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Bronfenbrenner, U., & Crouter, A. C. (1983). The evolution of environmental models in developmental research. In P. H. Mussen & W. Kessen (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, History, theory and methods (vol. 1, pp. 357–414). New York, NY: Wiley.Google Scholar
  14. Carroll, J. M., Bowyer-Crane, C., Duff, F. J., Hulme, C., & Snowling, M. J. (2011). Developing language and literacy: Effective interventions in the early years. New York, NY: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Chansa-Kabali, T. (2014). The acquisition of early reading skills: The influence of the home environment in Lusaka. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä.Google Scholar
  16. Coombe, T. (1967). Origins of secondary education in Zambia. African Social Research, 3, 173–205.Google Scholar
  17. CSO (Central Statistical Office) (1973). Census of population and housing 1969: Final report Vol. I - Total Zambia. Lusaka, Zambia: Government Printer.Google Scholar
  18. CSO (Central Statistical Office) (2003). Zambia 2000 Census of Population and Housing, Zambia Analytical Report Volume 10. Lusaka, Zambia: Government Printer.Google Scholar
  19. Cummins, J. (2001). Bilingual children’s mother tongue: Why is it important for education? Sprog Forum, 19, 15–20.Google Scholar
  20. Erling, E. J., & Seargeant, P. (Eds.). (2013). English and development policy, pedagogy and globalization. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
  21. Fink, G., Matafwali, B., Moucheraud, C., & Zuilkowski, S. S. (2012). The Zambian Early Childhood Development Project −2010 Assessment Final Report. Retrieved November 2012 from
  22. Gumperz, J. J., & Hymes, D. (1964). The ethnography of communication. American Anthropologist, 66, no.06, part-02.Google Scholar
  23. Heugh, K. (2000). The case against bilingual and multilingual education in South Africa. PRAESA Occasional Paper No. 6. Cape Town, South Africa: PRAESAGoogle Scholar
  24. Holopainen, L., Ahonen, T., & Lyytinen, H. (2001). Predicting delaying in reading achievement in a highly transparent language. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34, 401–413.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Hungi, N., Makuwa, D., Ross, K., Saito, M., Dolata, S., Van Cappelle, F., Paviot, L., & Vellien, J. (2010). Pupil achievement results. Retrieved January 2012 from
  26. Jere-Folotiya, J. (2014). Influence of Grade One teachers and Graphogame on initial literacy acquisition: Lusaka District. PhD, University of Zambia/University of Jyväskylä.Google Scholar
  27. Jere-Folotiya, J., Chansa-Kabali, T., Munachaka, J. C., Sampa, F., Yalukanda, C., Westerholm, J., … Lyytinen, H. (2014). The effect of using a mobile literacy game to improve literacy levels of grade one students in Zambian schools. Educational Technology Research and Development, 62, 417–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kagan, D. M. (1992). Implications of research on teacher beliefs. Educational Psychologist, 27, 65–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kanyika, J. (2004). National assessment: Preliminary results. Paper presented to the National Assessment Steering Committee, February, 2004.Google Scholar
  30. Kanyongo, G. Y., Certo, J., & Launcelot, B. I. (2006). Using regression analysis to establish the relationship between home environment and reading achievement: A case for Zimbabwe. International Education Journal, 7, 632–641.Google Scholar
  31. Kashoki, M. E. (1972). Town Bemba: A sketch of its main characteristics. African Social Research, 13, 161–186.Google Scholar
  32. Kashoki, M. E., & Mann, M. (1978). A general sketch of the Bantu languages of Zambia. In S. I. Ohannessian & M. E. Kashoki (Eds.), Language in Zambia (pp. 47–100). London: International African Institute.Google Scholar
  33. Korten, D. C. (1980). Community organization and rural development: A learning process approach. Public Administration Review, 40, 480–511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kramsch, C. (2012). Authenticity and legitimacy in multilingual SLA. Critical Multilingualism Studies, 1, 107–128.Google Scholar
  35. Kyle, F., Kujala, J. V., Richardson, U., Lyytinen, H., & Goswami, U. (2013). Assessing the effectiveness of two theoretically motivated computer-assisted reading interventions in the United Kingdom: GG rime and GG phoneme. Reading Research Quarterly, 48, 61–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Labov, W. (1969). The logic of non-standard English. In P. P. Giglioli (Ed.), Language and social context (pp. 179–215). Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  37. Legere, K. (Ed). (1996).Cross-border languages: Reports and studies, Regional Workshop on Cross-Border Languages, National Institute for Educational Development (NIED), Okahandja, 23-27 September 1996. Windhoek, Namibia: Gamsberg Macmillan.Google Scholar
  38. Leseman, P. M., & de Jong, P. (1998). Home literacy: Opportunity, instruction, cooperation and social emotional quality predicting early reading achievement. Reading Research Quarterly, 33, 294–318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Linehan, S. (2004). Language of instruction and the quality of basic education in Zambia. Background paper prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2005. The Quality Imperative. Paris, France: UNESCO (2005/ED/EFA/MRT/PI/29). Retrieved April 2013 from
  40. Lyytinen, P., Eklund, K., & Lyytinen, H. (2005). Language development and literacy skills in late-talking toddlers with and without familial risk for dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 55, 166–192.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Lyytinen, H., Erskine, J., Kujala, J., Ojanen, E., & Richardson, U. (2009). In search of a science-based application: A learning tool for reading acquisition. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 50(6), 668–675.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Lyytinen, H., Ronimus, M., Alanko, A., Poikkeus, A., & Taanila, M. (2007). Early identification of dyslexia and the use of computer game-based practice to support reading acquisition. Nordic Psychology, 59, 109–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. McAdam, B. H. G. (1978). The new Zambia primary course. In S. I. Ohannessian & M. E. Kashoki (Eds.), Language in Zambia (pp. 329–354). London: International African Institute.Google Scholar
  44. McGuire, W. J. (1973). The Yin and Yang of progress in social psychology: Seven koan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 446–456.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Meeuwis, M., & Blommaert, J. (1998). A monolectal view of code-switching: Layered code-switching among Zairians in Belgium. In P. Auer (Ed.), Code-switching in conversation: Language, interaction and identity (pp. 76–98). London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  46. MoE (Ministry of Education). (1976). Education for development. Lusaka: Government Printer.Google Scholar
  47. MoE (Ministry of Education, Republic of Zambia). (1977). Zambian languages: Orthography approved by the Ministry of Education. Lusaka: NECZAM.Google Scholar
  48. MoE (Ministry of Education). (1992). Zambia basic education course. In Grade 1 teacher’s guide part A: The resource book. Lusaka: Zambia Educational Publishing House.Google Scholar
  49. MoE (Ministry of Education). (1996). Educating our future. Lusaka: Government Printer.Google Scholar
  50. MoE (Ministry of Education). (1998). Zambia teachers education course. Literacy and languages tutor’s guide. Lusaka: Government Printer.Google Scholar
  51. MoE (Ministry of Education). (2001). New breakthrough to literacy. Teacher’s guide. Lusaka: Longman.Google Scholar
  52. MoE (Ministry of Education). (2008). Zambia teacher education syllabi. Lusaka: CDC.Google Scholar
  53. MoE (Ministry of Education). (2012). Learning achievement at the middle basic level: Zambia's national assessment report for 2010 survey. Lusaka: Examination Council of Zambia.Google Scholar
  54. MoE (Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education). (2013). National literacy framework. Lusaka: Zambia Education Publishing House.Google Scholar
  55. Moody, J. A. (1997). Zambians talking: Twenty-five English conversations. Zambian Papers, 20. Lusaka: University of Zambia Press.Google Scholar
  56. Mtenje, A. (2009). Conceptions and challenges in multilingual education paradigms for African language. In K. K. Prah & B. Brock-Utne (Eds.), Multilingualism. An African advantage. A paradigm shift in African languages of instruction policies, CASAS Book Series No. 67 (pp. 62–78). Cape Town: SED Printing Solutions.Google Scholar
  57. Nespor, J. (1987). The role of beliefs in the practice of teaching. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 19, 317–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Ngorosho, D. (2009). Key indicators of home environment for educational research in rural communities in Tanzania. New York, NY: Springer.Google Scholar
  59. Ojanen, E. (2007). Sewero La-ma-u – A phonetic approach to literacy teaching in Zambia. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Department of Psychology, University of Jyväskylä.Google Scholar
  60. Ojanen, E., Kachenga, G. M., Kaoma, S. K., Chilufya, J., Kalindi, S., Mando, R., & Matafwali, B. (2008). Summary of the Zambian literate game pilot. Finland: University of Jyväskylä.Google Scholar
  61. Ojanen, E., Kujala, J., Richardson, U., & Lyytinen, H. (2013). Technology-enhanced literacy learning in Zambia: Observations from a multilingual literacy environment. Insights on Learning Disabilities: From Prevailing Theories to Validated Practices, 10, 103–127.Google Scholar
  62. Pajares, F. (1992). Teachers’ beliefs and educational research: Cleaning up a messy construct. Review of Educational Research, 62, 307–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. RAND (2012). Teachers matter: Understanding teachers’ impact on student achievement. Retrieved August 2013 from
  64. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  65. Sameroff, A. J. (1983). Developmental systems: Contexts and evolution. In P. H. Mussen & W. Kessen (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, History, theory, and methods (vol. 1, pp. 237–294). New York, NY: Wiley.Google Scholar
  66. Sampa, F. K. (2005). Zambia’s Primary Reading Program (PRP): Improving access and quality education in basic schools. ADEA: African Experiences – Country Case Studies, No. 4 (ISBN No. 92-9178-055-3). Paris France: Association for Development of Education in Africa (ADEA). Retrieved August 2012 from
  67. Saine, N. L., Lerkkanen, M. K., Ahonen, T., Tolvanen, A., & Lyytinen, H. (2011). Computer-assisted remedial reading intervention for school beginners at risk for reading disability. Child Development, 82(3), 1013–1028.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Schweisfurth, M. (2011). Learner-centred education in developing country contexts: From solution to problem? International Journal of Educational Development, 31, 425–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Sénéchal, M., & Le Fevre, J. (2002). Parental involvement in the development of children’s reading skill: A five-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 73, 445–460.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  70. Serpell, R. (1978). Some developments in Zambia since 1971. In S. I. Ohannessian & M. E. Kashoki (Eds.), Language in Zambia (pp. 424–447). London: International African Institute.Google Scholar
  71. Serpell, R. (1980). Linguistic flexibility in urban Zambian schoolchildren. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 345(1), 97–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Serpell, R. (1993). The significance of schooling: Life-journeys in an African society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  73. Serpell, R. (1999). Theoretical conceptions of human development. In L. Eldering & P. Leseman (Eds.), Effective early intervention: Cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 41–66). New York, NY: Falmer.Google Scholar
  74. Serpell, R. (2000). Culture and intelligence. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.), The encyclopedia of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  75. Serpell, R. (2014a). Growth of communicative competence in a dynamic African context: Challenges for developmental assessment. In M. Prinsloo & C. Stroud (Eds.), Educating for language and literacy diversity (pp. 73–96). London: Palgrave, Macmillan.Google Scholar
  76. Serpell, R. (2014b). Promotion of literacy in sub-Saharan Africa: Goals and prospects of CAPOLSA at the University of Zambia. Human Technology, 10, 23–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Serpell, R., & Akkari, A. (2001). Qualitative approaches to cultural psychology: A point of entry for egalitarian cross-cultural communication among researchers. In M. Lahlou & G. Vinsonneau (Eds.), La psychologie au regard des contacts de cultures (pp. 65–85). Limonest: l’Interdisciplinaire.Google Scholar
  78. Serpell, R., Baker, L., & Sonnenschein, S. (2005). Becoming literate in the city: The Baltimore early childhood project. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  79. Serpell, R., & Hatano, G. (1997). Education, literacy and schooling. In J. W. Berry, P. R. Dasen, & T. M. Saraswathi (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (vol. 2, 2nd ed.pp. 345–382). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  80. Serpell, R., Sonnenschein, S., Baker, L., & Ganapathy, H. (2002). Intimate culture of families in the early socialization of literacy. Journal of Family Psychology, 16, 391–405.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  81. Share, D. L. (2008). On the Anglocentricities of current reading research and practice: The perils of overreliance on an outlier orthographies. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 584–615.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  82. Silvia, M. S., Verhoeven, L., & van Leeuwe, J. (2008). Sociocultural predictors of reading literacy. Amsterdam: John Benjamin Publishing House.Google Scholar
  83. Snelson, P. D. (1974). Educational development in northern Rhodesia, 1883–1945. Lusaka: NEDCOZ.Google Scholar
  84. Spiro, M. E. (1990). On the strange and the familiar in recent anthropological thought. In J. W. Stigler, R. A. Shweder, & G. Herdt (Eds.), Cultural psychology (pp. 47–61). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Spitulnik, D. (1998). The language of the city: Town Bemba as urban hybridity. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 8, 30–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Stemler, S., Chamvu, F., Chart, H., Jarvin, L., Jere, J., Hart, L., … Grigorenko, E. L. (2009). Assessing competencies in reading and mathematics in Zambian children. In E. L. Grigorenko (Ed.), Multicultural psychoeducational assessment (pp. 157–186). New York, NY: Springer.Google Scholar
  87. Storch, S. A., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2001). The role of family and home in the literacy development of children from low-income backgrounds. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 92, 53–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Tambulukani, G., Sampa, F., Musuku, R., & Linehan, S. (2001). Reading in Zambia—A quiet revolution through the primary reading program. In S. Manaka (Ed.), Proceedings of the 1st pan-African conference on reading for all (pp. 70–88). Newark, NJ: International Reading Association.Google Scholar
  89. Thomas, W. P., & Collier, V. P. (2002). A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students’ long-term academic achievement. Retrieved 20 July 2017 from
  90. Thoonen, E. E. J., Oort, F. J., Peetsma, T. T. D., Geijsel, F. P., & Sleegers, P. J. C. (2011). How to improve teaching practices: The role of teacher motivation, organizational factors, and leadership practices. Educational Administration Quarterly, 47, 496–536.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Underwood, C., Serlemitsos, E. T., & Macwang’i, M. (2007). Health communication in multilingual contexts: A study of reading preferences, practices and proficiencies among literate adults in Zambia. Journal of Health Communication, 12, 317–337.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  92. UNESCO (2000). The Dakar Framework for Action. Retrieved August 2013 from
  93. Van den Berg, R. (2002). Teachers’ meanings regarding educational practice. Review of Educational Research, 72, 577–625.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Van Steensel, R. (2006). Relations between socio-cultural factors, the home literacy environment and children’s literacy development in the first years of primary education. Journal of Research in Reading, 29, 367–382.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Walubita, G., Nieminen, L., Serpell, R., Ojanen, E., Lyytinen, H., Choopa, M., Katongo, M., Jere-Folotiya, J., Yalukanda, C., Nakawala-Maumbi, M. (2015) Ensuring sufficient literacy practice with tablet technology in Zambian schools. Conference paper. IST-Africa Malawi 7th May 2015. Accessible from
  96. Wigfield, A., & Asher, S. R. (1984). Social and motivational influences on reading. In P. D. Pearson (Ed.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 423–452). New York, NY: Longman.Google Scholar
  97. Willenberg, A. I. (2004). Emergent literacy skills and family literacy environments of kindergarteners in South Africa. Harvard Graduate School of Education.Google Scholar
  98. World Bank. (2007). Implementation completion and results report on a loan/credit in the amount of US$ million 35.59 (sdr 25.86 million credit) to Zambia for basic education sub-sector investment program. Accessed 21 June 2011 from
  99. Yoshikawa, H., Weisner, T. S., Kalil, A., & Way, N. (2008). Mixing qualitative and quantitative research in developmental science: Uses and methodological choices. Developmental Psychology, 44, 344–354.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Serpell
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jacqueline Jere-Folotiya
    • 1
  • Tamara Chansa-Kabali
    • 1
  • Jonathan Munachaka
    • 2
  • Mwanza Nakawala Maumbi
    • 3
  • Christopher Yalukanda
    • 4
  • Francis Sampa
    • 5
  • Heikki Lyytinen
    • 6
  1. 1.Psychology DepartmentUniversity of ZambiaLusakaZambia
  2. 2.Department of Educational Psychology Sociology and Special EducationUniversity of ZambiaLusakaZambia
  3. 3.Center for the Promotion of Literacy in Sub-Saharan AfricaUniversity of ZambiaLusakaZambia
  4. 4.Zambia National Union of TeachersLusakaZambia
  5. 5.USAID/Zambia Read To Succeed ProjectLusakaZambia
  6. 6.Department of PsychologyUniversity of JyväskyläJyväskylän yliopistoFinland

Personalised recommendations