Search form

Back to Blog

The Global Search for Education: Teaching Literacy – What Students Might Learn from Play

“We use play because play is learning.” – Catalina Gonzalez

Catalina González, founder and director of Literacy4all, begins her story in Colombia. A young school teacher, Javier González-Quintero, was asked to send report cards for his students to their parents. Javier decided this would not work since very few of the children’s parents were able to read and write. So, he decided instead to meet with the parents in person. He invited the fathers to play dominoes. Many of the dads (who couldn’t read or write) proceeded to beat Javier at dominoes and he wondered: what if these men could learn to read and write the same way they learned to win at dominoes — through play?

abcdespañol board game was born, and for 30 years has been successfully implemented as a learning tool in more than ten countries reaching over a million children, youth and adults. Today, LEMA – Literacy Education and Math Lab – works to support early literacy development in children from 1st to 4th grade that are not reading at grade level.

The Global Search for Education is pleased to welcome Javier’s daughter, Catalina González, to tell us how students are improving their literacy skill levels through play.

Catalina, how would you describe your challenges and your progress with your model to date?

There are more children in classrooms today than there were 15 years ago. However, children are not learning how to read, write or use basic math. Children who don’t learn how to read by the end of third grade are likely to remain poor readers for the rest of their lives, and are likely to fall behind in other academic areas. Without these foundational skills, there is no lifelong learning.

Another challenge is how and what children are learning aligns poorly with how they learn best and with what they need to learn. LEMA´s solution is based in play-based group work. We use play because play is learning. Group play encourages relationship building and helps to promote the development of social and communication skills. It also allows and encourages peer-to-peer learning, changing the power dynamics of the traditional classroom. Through play, we are able to remove one of the biggest barriers to learning – fear. Learners are encouraged to explore, discover, develop and test hypotheses, making learning relevant.

Lastly, the key to the LEMA model is its flexibility with regards to who, where and when learning takes place, and who supports students on their learning journey. In some contexts, the process is guided by teachers during the school time. In others, the process is guided by learning coaches, who can be retired teachers, grandparents, parents, youth, older siblings, or volunteers. By bringing other social actors to support children´s literacy, we build communities able to support schools and their children, unburden teachers, and ensure that children acquire the skills they need when they need them. This form of learning can happen in and outside of the school time.

To date, LEMA has been implemented in 4 countries, reaching over 8,000 children, and has trained over 500 teachers and learning coaches. The programs are set to become autonomous, allowing for programs and schools to incorporate LEMA in the way that works best for their community.

What makes the Literacy4All learning tools and games unique compared to other models?

We are changing where, what and how children learn. Our approach to literacy goes beyond memorizing rules or repeating sounds. We approach language (including the language of mathematics) as systems, with rules to be discovered and applied; studying and understanding exceptions as proof of these rules. Play groups allow children to develop social skills, communication, collaboration, problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. It also promotes emotional intelligence and confidence, while supporting children’s creativity. In many parts of the world, the digital divide continues to be a challenge. Our model can reach populations were technology and connectivity remains a luxury few can achieve.

How would you describe the biggest challenges you’ve faced in engaging your end users? How have you addressed these challenges?

Despite increased access, many children today are not able to attend school; and those that attend school are not mastering the foundational skills they need for future learning, work and life. Children from all socioeconomic backgrounds are affected, but the poorest children carry the heaviest burden. We work with the community to develop the capacity they need to support their children, using a play based model that is an accessible instructional tool.

If someone asked you to share 1 or 2 great examples of how your model has had an impact on learners, which stories would you show/tell us?

Teachers in India reported doubting the approach at first, but when they saw their children learning, it changed their confidence on the approach and their level of confidence in their children. In Panama, 1000 children with learning disabilities improved their skills using our games.

In El Salado, a population of Colombia devastated by violence, school teachers are afraid, often get sick or are unable to reach the school due to poor road conditions. By training community leaders, we made sure children continued to learn despite the adversity of the conditions.

Where do you see your model in 5 or 10 years from now?

We see our model expanding, reaching more children and adapting the games to many more languages, so children can learn in their first language. We also see ourselves partnering with organizations developing learning apps, to reach many more communities. We hope to work more intentionally in reaching children with learning disabilities. We also hope to work with parents of children 0 to 5 so that they can become more effective advocates and supporters of their children’s learning process.

C M Rubin and Catalina Gonzalez

Thank you to our 800 plus global contributors, teachers, entrepreneurs, researchers, business leaders, students and thought leaders from every domain for sharing your perspectives on the future of learning with The Global Search for Education each month.

C. M. Rubin (Cathy) is the Founder of CMRubinWorld, an online publishing company focused on the future of global learning and the co-founder of Planet Classroom. She is the author of three best-selling books and two widely read online series.  Rubin received 3 Upton Sinclair Awards for “The Global Search for Education”. The series which advocates for all learners was launched in 2010 and brings together distinguished thought leaders from around the world to explore the key education issues faced by nations.

Follow C. M. Rubin on Twitter:

The Global Search for Education Community Page