The hard and essential work of literacy

With the inauguration of the new Global Goals this is an important time for the international community to renew its commitment to promoting reading and numeracy in developing countries

September 07, 2015 by Alice Albright, GPE Secretariat
9 minutes read
Reading Lights the Way - A boy reading in India Credit: Ganesh Kunder

Several years ago, the Gambian government recognized it needed a new approach to teaching children to read. In 2009, more than half of second graders could not read, putting them at risk for lifelong illiteracy.

Taking a closer look, it became clear why: first grade reading instruction in The Gambia, took place entirely in English. In a country with five national languages, this meant the non-English speaking students were at a great disadvantage. In addition, the pedagogical method used to teach reading typically focused on recognizing entire words. It excluded phonics components that connected sounds with letters, a feature of most successful reading programs.

All that changed in 2011 when the Gambian government, with support from the Global Partnership for Education, launched a national pilot program called “Early Learning in National Languages.” Children in the pilot could learn to read in their own language, and were taught sound-letter correspondences so they could effectively blend letters into words.

New program shows rapid results for better reading

Children reading in the Gambia (c) GPE

The result: first graders who took part in the program performed ten times better than other children when it came to recognizing letter sounds and reading simple words. Also, many children in the program were later able to transfer their new skills to reading English words.

As a result, the Gambian Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education decided to expand the pilot to reach more schools and more students: it is about to launch a unified approach to teaching reading from preschool to grade 3 across the country. The country is also sharing its experience with other countries in Africa that struggle with early reading performance.

The Gambia’s example is useful to keep in mind as we take a moment to observe the annual International Literacy Day. It tells us that illiteracy is not inevitable, that the world can drive down the unacceptable level of illiteracy worldwide, estimated by UNESCO at 757 million adults and 115 million youths.

But, more importantly, the Gambia’s story tells us that ensuring a high level of literacy is hard work, requiring sufficient resources and a tangible, thoughtful and long-term commitment to understand and eliminate the roots of illiteracy.

Boosting literacy in Rwanda

Students sharing a textbook in Rwanda (c) GPE

That formula has made all the difference in Rwanda, which has shown impressive progress through a program called Literacy Boost.

Supported in part by the Global Partnership and implemented by Save the Children, Literacy Boost attacks illiteracy from several directions at once.

It starts by supporting family learning for parents and children under age 3 and from age 4 to 6, when most are just beginning to learn the basics of reading. The program also provides teachers training in effective reading instruction, works to develop a popular culture of reading and learning in which communities understand the value of literacy and creates a rich literate environment that guarantees children access to high quality, local language reading materials.

In tandem with the Rwandan Education Ministry’s own Rwanda Reads initiative, Literacy Boost (which Save the Children implements in a number of countries around the world) is already showing early signs of enabling more early readers and creating a resilient culture that encourages reading.

Supporting teachers in Papua New Guinea

A student reads aloud to his class in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (c) GPE/Jeff Ramin

In Papua New Guinea, literacy rates among primary and secondary students were below 20% in 2011. With support from a GPE grant, the country’s Department of Education and the World Bank launched an innovative program that promotes better teaching and learning of reading in primary schools.

The program is helping the country move toward a culture of reading and teachers work towards instilling in children a passion for books. Learning kits and materials for elementary grades have been provided, as well as reading assessment tools to help teachers measure student progress. The program also helped in establishing classroom libraries in public schools. Since the program started, reading scores for boys and girls have improved in Madang province.

In the capital, Port Moresby, teacher training to promote reading has been effective: teachers are planning reading sessions in their classroom schedules. Tried-and-true techniques -- such as pairing stronger readers with less-proficient readers – are also beginning to show promising results.

Mother tongue reading in Haiti

A teacher using Map li nèt ale textbooks to teach her students to read. Haiti (c) GPE/Chantal Rigaud

In Haiti, Map li nèt ale (which means “I’m reading all the way”) is a new USAID and World Bank-designed and funded approach to teaching reading to children in their native language, creole.

Typically, most schools in Haiti teach children in French, the second official language. But, as the example from the Gambia and research show, teaching in a child’s first language is optimal for literacy and learning throughout primary school.

The Map li reading program provides a full course of reading instruction for the first year of school, coupled with a companion textbook. In class, the teacher receives support from a trained aide to ensure that children follow the steps closely and don’t fall behind. The program has been rolled out in close to 300 schools, benefiting 9,500 children.

What it will take to achieve literacy for all

With the inauguration of the new Sustainable Development Goals – and, among them, the important fourth goal on education – this is an important time for the international community to renew its commitment to promoting reading and numeracy in developing countries.

As we recently pointed out in this blog, education is essential to the success of every one of the 17 sustainable development goals, and literacy and numeracy are the basic building blocks of a good education. The world cannot afford not to make literacy a priority for the next decade and a half.

To succeed, the international community – donors, NGOs, multilateral organizations, the private sector and developing countries themselves – must ensure that there are sufficient resources available to support a range of actions, including more and better reading programs.

UNESCO estimates that giving every child in the world a quality education through secondary school by 2030 will require annual financing of US$39 billion above and beyond current financing from donor countries and other entities.

That’s a tall order, to be sure. But if it means conquering worldwide illiteracy and thus triggering progress in other development sectors, it will be more than worth the extra effort.

The Gambia, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda

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