Reading, Writing & Reasoning

Reading, Writing & Reasoning

September 2017

September 2017

Reading, Writing & Reasoning is a program developed by Applied Cognitive Science. It enables youth in developing countries and disadvantaged communities to effectively level up their English proficiency. With increased proficiency, they can better advance their education, access more opportunities and get a better shot at meaningful global participation.

Initially developed with English learners in Laos, KK Ong and I extended and adapted the program for schools in Zambia. I conducted outreach, research and engineering of learning experiences for this project.


  • Liberate students from English as a rote memorization subject.
  • Enable biggest increase in English proficiency in a given time.
  • Increase ability to report own experiences, and to form and express own point of view.
  • Increase ability to generate and engage with questions and answers.
  • Increase ability to understand and express complex ideas in real-world applications.


In Zambia, the national language is English. Almost everyone speaks it to some degree, though it’s subordinate to local dialects (primarily Nyanja, Bemba and Tonga). English is used in schools as the learning language from Grade 4 onwards. Many people, particularly from lower income groups, have a tenuous grasp of English. Speech is indistinct. Writing is sprinkled with spelling errors. Approximations of meaning and pronunciation abound.

Poor English literacy is a huge blocker for students wishing to get out of the compounds and into better jobs or higher education. Sadly, given the drill-and-test mode of instruction, rote memorisation, and the cumulative effects of copying errors — from handbook to blackboard to exercise books — students fail to appreciate the gaps they need to close and the standards they need to attain.

With these observations, we adapted our Reading, Writing & Reasoning program and prototyped a version suitable for students in the slum compound of Ng’ombe.

Module components


Initial Diagnostic Exercises

Initial diagnostic exercises are conducted to get a baseline measurement of students’ writing and planning abilities:

  • Write a story from your childhood.
  • Draw and explain a plan for you to make money in the future.

These outcomes are documented for comparison against outcomes from the Final Diagnostic Exercises, to quantify the change in students’ abilities.


Deconstructing Prepositions, Conjunctions and Connective Words

We present students with sentences featuring prepositions, conjunctions and connective words such as if, because, before, while, despite, and so on. Students are required to explain each sentence diagrammatically, to demonstrate their understanding of its logical structure. Students are then asked to make as many sentences with each new preposition, conjunction or connective word.


 Verbalising Explanations

We invite students to choose a diagram and explain what the sentence means verbally, with gestures and pointing actions. This is to reinforce their grasp of the sentence’s logical structure, break the habit of indistinct speech, and increase confidence in articulation and presentation.


Iterative Writing Practice

We ask students to jot down three topics they would like to write about, from which they pick one. We encourage them to write about things that happened in their lives, things that they care about, and things they want to say. Upon completion of each segment, we pose questions about what they wrote. In the next segment, they write to address these questions. This increases their awareness of the need to write so as to be understood, and their ability to engage with questions and answers. With tight feedback loops, they learn to increase the accuracy of their writing.



Students pick a book from graded readers — currently, we use Oxford Bookworm books — each grade presenting a particular level of difficulty. Students write down words that are new to them in a Reading Diary. If they wish, they may find the meaning of the word from a dictionary. Students who do not know how to use a dictionary are shown how, and given a few words to check if they successfully learnt it. Students absorb grammar rules and vocabulary from exposure to correct English sentences. 


Verbalising Reading Progression

Students are asked to provide an update on what they have read, share what they like or dislike about the book, or any learning. This seeks to break the habit of indistinct speech, and increase confidence in articulation and presentation.


Final Diagnostic Exercises

Final diagnostic exercises are conducted to measure the change in students’ abilities:

  • Write a story from your childhood.
  • Draw and explain a plan for you to make money in the future.

These final outcomes are compared against outcomes from the Initial Diagnostic Exercises, to quantify the change in students’ abilities.


The program runs over ten days, for 2 to 2.5 hours per day. The first and tenth days are for Initial and Final Diagnostic Exercises, respectively. From the second to eighth days, each session features a mix of reading, writing and reasoning about prepositions, conjunctions and connective words. This program may be adjusted in duration and structure, to suit the needs of different student demographics.


All students who attended regularly showed an improvement in writing coherence and complexity. All could express their ideas more clearly, and told more engaging stories with a stronger narrative thread.

Memory (before) · 04 Sep 2017

Good morning, my name is memory. The happiest moment that I will never forget in my life is that I wanted to go to boarding school but mum continued saying you can't go cause at that time we were staying in the village so our village had no boarding schools and they did not allow any girl child to travell to the city for boarding. 
My only dream was to go to a boarding school at the age of twelve I reach my grade seven and I passed I came top in the whole village so the government decided to sponser me for my grade eight and they said you are going to a boarding school and I was very happy because that was my dream of my child hood going to a boarding school. 
Yours faithfully


Memory (after) · 15 Sep 2017


    Crying is for everyone as long as we are on this earth because they are two types of crying. These are crying of joy and of saddness. So my crying was of saddness in my childhood because I wanted whatever I asked for must be given to me without realising that I was being spoiled. What I mean by being spoiled is because I wanted large amount of money and expensive toys. I cried when it was not given to me. 
    So mum could not afford these staffs I requested for, as a result she raised her voice inform of shouting me. Whenever mum shouted I would cry.
    From there mum took me to school for one reason so that I should stop crying for things mum does not have. So she took me so that whenever I want to cry my friends could laugh at me. But still I could not stop because I really believed in crying. 
    Also at school I was crying for my friends pencils, food and some lunch boxes. 
    As a result I was beaten by the teacher and I cried. Especially when it was learning time I would always cry wanting to go home because I was afraid of the teacher questions and write.
    Therefore mum could always walk me up for school in the morning but still I could cry. This happened when I was about (7) seven years and mum made me start school.

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© Sam Stephenson 2017