An organization called One Laptop Per Child has given children in Wenchi, Ethi­o­pia, tablet computers, which they are using to read and write in English. (Jason Straziuso/Associated Press)

The kids in a village in the East African country of Ethiopa wear dirty, ragged clothes. They sleep beside cows and sheep in huts made of sticks and mud. They have no school. Yet they all know the English alphabet, and some can make words.

The key to their success: 20 tablet computers dropped off in their village last February by a U.S. group called One Laptop Per Child.

The goal is to find out whether kids using new technology can teach themselves to read in places where no schools or teachers exist. The answer, say Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, is amazing.

“What I think has already happened is that the kids have already learned more than they would have in one year of kindergarten,” said Matt Keller, who runs One Laptop Per Child’s Ethiopia program.

The fastest learner — and the first to turn on one of the Motorola Xoom tablets when they arrived — is 8-year-old Kelbesa Negusse. The device’s camera was disabled to save memory, yet within weeks Kelbesa had figured out its workings and made the camera work.

Apps on the tablet computers congratulate the children when they come up with a correct answer. “Awesome,” one said. (Jason Straziuso/Associated Press)

He proclaimed himself a lion, a sign of strength in Ethiopia.

The power of apps

The village of Wenchi sits on the rim of an extinct volcano. The night air is chilly, and some of the youngsters gathered in a hut with a hay floor on a recent morning were coughing and wiping runny noses. But they all eagerly tapped and swiped away on their tablets.

The apps encouraged them to click on colors — green, red, yellow. “Awesome,” one app said aloud. Kelbesa rearranged the letters HSROE into one of the many English animal names he knows. Then he spelled words on his own, tracing the English letters into his tablet in a thick red line.

“He just spelled the word ‘bird’!” Keller exclaimed. “Seven months ago he didn’t know any English. That’s unbelievable.

“If we prove that kids can teach themselves how to read, and then read to learn, then the world is going to look at technology as a way to change the world’s poorest and most remote kids,” he said.

Changing children’s lives

Wenchi’s 60 families grow potatoes and produce honey. None of the adults can read. They support the laptop project and express amazement that their children were lucky enough to be chosen.

“I think if you gave them food and water, they would never leave the computer room,” said Teka Kumula, who charges the tablets on a solar station built by One Laptop. “They would spend day and night here.”

Kelbesa, the self-declared child lion, said: “I learn things with the computer.”

Asked what English words he knows, he rattled off a barnyard: “Dog, donkey, horse, sheep, cow, pig, cat.”

The goal of the project is to get kids to a stage called “deep reading,” where they can read to learn. It won’t be in Amharic, Ethiopia’s first language, but in English, which is widely seen as the key to getting higher-paying jobs.

The researchers are only beginning to understand the significance of how fast the Ethio­pian kids have learned the English ABCs. The experiment will be duplicated in other villages in other countries, using even more targeted apps.

— Associated Press