Training Maasai Teachers: An “Up and Down” Experience

The Maasai are a pastoralist group of Kenya, well known for their cultural songs and dances – including dancing that incorporates high vertical jumps into the air. Maasai communities tend to be very rural as well, and the educational options for Maasai children are not all very effective. So the Kenyan NGO Women Educational Researchers of Kenya (WERK) and SIL Africa are collaborating on a pilot project to enhance learning in some of these primary schools. Learning to read in Maasai is a central feature of the project.

Because the Maasai language is highly tonal, SIL literacy consultant Leila Schroeder wondered whether using music and dancing in teaching reading might not only make learning to read more fun, but might also cement the difficult skill of tone recognition in the minds of the learners. The concept of tone having relative “height” is an abstract one, challenging for people to grasp at first. So Leila’s idea was to reinforce the recognition of high, falling and low tones with familiar dance movements.

Page from Maasai literacy book

The ultimate goal, of course, is that the primary school children be able to read tone correctly. However, first the teachers themselves have to be taught to recognize and use tone. To make this abstract concept more familiar, teacher training materials picture a bird diving down to pick up a snake. The word for this is dou, a low tone word; so teachers see the bird diving, they say the word, and at the same time they are asked to crouch down to imitate the low sound. To introduce high tone, the training materials picture a spear flying upward toward a climbing antelope; the associated high-tone word is lep. Teachers are asked to jump in the air as they say the high-tone word. Teachers then use these same tone-teaching strategies in their classrooms. Once the children have practiced crouching down for low-tone syllables and jumping for the high ones, they practice recognizing different tone patterns in a variety of familiar words.

A Maasai teacher teaches a new consonantAnother Maasai teacher practices teaching tone recognition: the learners crouch down and jump up for low and high tones.Reading Maasai is like reading music because the letter sounds, or lyrics, are on one line and the tone, or melody, is depicted above the line. In order for reading to become automatic for Maasai speakers, they need to quickly recognize the marks over the vowels, so they get the tonal pattern right. If they don’t get it right, their comprehension of what they read is directly affected. For example, the only difference between “Do not do that” and “You should do that” is the melody in one word.

Shroeder's strategy appears to be working. On a recent visit to a Maasai classroom she watched while 6- and 7-year-olds demonstrated their reading skills, including words with tone marks. Many of the children sang and did a little dance after the teacher commended their reading ability!


Above: A Maasai teacher teaches a new consonant; another Maasai teacher practices teaching tone recognition:
other teachers crouch down and jump up for low and high tones