Côte d’Ivoire: the promise of early grade reading programs and how to adjust during COVID-19

GPE is supporting an early grade reading intervention in around 150 schools in the most challenged regions in Côte d’Ivoire. View which measures are being taken to ensure learning continues amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

April 28, 2020 by Aglaia Zafeirakou, The World Bank
5 minutes read
A young student gets help from his teacher to read in his textbook
A young student gets help from his teacher to read in his textbook - Côte d'Ivoire
Credit: World Bank / Aglaia Zafeirakou

In February, during a visit to Korhogo, the main city in the north of Côte d'Ivoire, I was able to observe firsthand how the early reading program is progressing. In grade 1 and 10 classrooms in small communities outside Korhogo, teachers were teaching according to scripted lessons with effortlessness and ownership.

The young learners were extremely attentive; they opened their textbooks with the big scripted letters and started to spell syllables, words, and even short, decodable sentences.

While reading aloud, students could hear their own voice, a great source of pride and satisfaction! This was only after 4 to 5 weeks of systematic phonics instruction.

These observations confirm the hypothesis that the single most important factor for helping children learn to read, by beginning to decode letters, is through practice with their own decodable textbook.

A few of the "decodable" textbooks used as part of the early reading program in Côte d'Ivoire
A few of the "decodable" textbooks used as part of the early reading program in Côte d'Ivoire
Banque mondiale/Aglaia Zafeirakou

Drawing from cognitive science’s latest findings to produce the right curriculum

The ongoing early grade reading intervention in around 150 schools in the most challenged regions in Côte d’Ivoire is part of the program “Mon enfant apprend mieux à l’école” (my child learns better in school) led by the Ministry of Education, funded by the Global Partnership for Education with the World Bank overseeing the grant.

The program draws from the latest findings of cognitive science on how the brain learns to read and how to successfully establish reading competencies in young children: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and on how perceptual learning works (National Reading Panel Reports 2000; National Early Literacy Panel 2008; S. Dehaene 2009).

The program includes a curricula package for a systematic introduction of phonics: teaching letter-sounds and blending letters to form syllables, words and short sentences to increase automaticity, fluency, and comprehension.

The expected learning outcomes are well defined so that they are well understood by teachers. Student textbooks are printed with big, scripted letters, focusing on letters rather than images, with a clear structure guiding students to the new knowledge.

Teachers are trained through demonstration, modeling, and simulation steps. Reading instruction is well integrated into the weekly schedule, allowing enough time for individual read-aloud practice every day.

The reading technical team shows the reading materials from the program
The reading technical team shows the reading materials they used for the early reading program
Banque mondiale/Aglaia Zafeirakou
Children reading in class with their textbook
Children reading in class with their textbook
Banque mondiale/Aglaia Zafeirakou

Teachers are supported through coaching, which is fully integrated into the system. Additional supplementary instructional materials are available in the classroom (small library, posters). Finally, tools for student formative evaluation and assessment are provided to teachers.

The most valuable element of the early grade reading is what we call a “ decodable” textbook, meaning a textbook that is perceptually enhanced, explicit and well-structured, introducing progressively new knowledge and providing content practice reading aloud for fluency and comprehension every day, at school, as well as at home. Each student receives such a textbook that they can take home. An impact evaluation of the program is planned for the end of the 2020 school year.

Communities are embracing early grade reading

Anecdotal evidence so far indicates that communities and parents embraced with unforeseen enthusiasm the program and the decodable textbook that students brought home daily. Non participating teachers are requesting the textbooks to use in their own classrooms. We hear that often older children use the textbooks from their younger siblings to practice reading, multiplying the impact of the textbook and the program beyond the selected classes.

In a small village, we heard from the local school principal about a “drama” in a family with twins. One was enrolled in the early grade reading program with the new ‘decodable’ textbooks, while the other twin continued with existing curriculum resources. The non-participating sibling was upset, begging to be enrolled in the same class to learn how to read with the decodable.

There is clearly a pressure to expand, even before the impact evaluation, while the huge demand for quality education services is also confirmed.

Continuing early grade reading at home despite school closures

This promising program had to stop on March 17, 2020 as the government closed schools to enforce social distancing measures and fight the coronavirus pandemic.

By now, millions of children are staying at home. The most vulnerable are students from poor families, with no internet connection or options to keep in touch with teachers or instruction. The big danger is that the learning gap will further widen.

Abandoning millions of students to the darkness of illiteracy will jeopardize their country’s human capital, the very basic idea of social cohesion and the chance at a peaceful and more equal life and work for all.

Countries in West Africa and elsewhere are moving quickly to mitigate the negative effects on students with psychosocial and learning programs. It is important not only to experiment with, but also to scale up, the best distance learning practices, in order to reach children and youth who are most at risk.

Swift response in Côte d’Ivoire

By March 30, 2020, the Ministry of National Education had informed parents about “the organization of courses [distance learning] for the benefit of students from Tuesday, March 31, 2020 to ensure the continuity of education for all students. They cover first of all the pupils in the examination classes".

These courses are accessible free of charges online, by SMS, on television, on national radio and on the site www.ecole-ci.online.

In places like Korhogo, where the early grade reading program is under implementation, children left for home as schools were closing carrying in their bags their decodable textbook. This is an invaluable source of learning, often the only one in households without any other books available. Children can continue practice reading.

There are two practical and easy to implement options to support the access of all students to early grade reading, especially in difficult to reach areas through internet communities.

  1. Support students through radio programs to reach households in the most remote areas, with attention to using the decodable book as a main source of learning. Technical teams in the countries could easily adapt the existing scripted lessons to radio broadcast. Health protection messages could also be integrated into the lessons.
  2. Support teachers and members of the education community through available mobile communication. Reinforce the communities of practices through various channels like WhatsApp. It is important that key education and regional officers and school directors have access to Internet at home and be connected to phone platforms to communicate with communities, schools and teachers, and to prepare and deliver learning programs through available flexible platforms.


While the early grade reading program started to show promising results, the sudden school closure shouldn’t shut down learning opportunities, especially for the most vulnerable children.

An auto-didactic program like the one in Côte d’Ivoire, with quality textbooks in the hands of students and instruction from various communication networks could ensure that even students in vulnerable and isolated communities will continue learning. 

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It was a pleasure to see engagement at all levels to commit to provide the children access to quality decodable books together with teachers' guidance and many opportunities practice. All these pieces need to be together and in the COVID crisis the children's decodable books became an invaluable tool for them and their families to continue the learning process. Congratulations!

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