How to help teachers teach reading and math in the early grades

A new research report “Toward the design and implementation of comprehensive primary grade literacy and numeracy programs” provides recommendations on how best to design programs to teach literacy and numeracy skills to young learners.

May 29, 2019 by Deepa Srikantaiah, World Learning
3 minutes read
Mariam is a 5th grade student at the Akoitchaou primary school, located near Kandi in the north of Benin. The school has about 51 students from kindergarten to 5th grade. Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Mariam is a 5th grade student at the Akoitchaou primary school, located near Kandi in the north of Benin. The school has about 51 students from kindergarten to 5th grade.
GPE/Chantal Rigaud

Norma Evans of Evans and Associates, Mary Sugrue of EDC and Yasmin Sitabkhan of RTI are co-authors of the new report and contributed to this blog.

Over the last decade, the international community has funded over 43 programs around the world to improve learning outcomes. The bulk of those programs have focused on early grade reading.  Only a fraction has included an emphasis on early grade mathematics.

As the global community begins to broaden its support to focus on improving learning outcomes in both reading and mathematics, program developers are questioning how to best distribute available funding across these two important subject areas to optimize learning results.

Although there are important differences in effective mathematics and reading instruction, to be successful readers and mathematicians children need to develop a common set of higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills.

This blog shares insights from a paper recently produced for USAID - Towards the Design and Implementation of Comprehensive Primary Grade Literacy and Numeracy Programs.  The paper describes the foundational skills young children need to develop in each subject area to be successful at higher grades – those that are subject-specific as well as those common to both subject areas.

Helping teachers understand both the specificities of effective mathematics and reading teaching, as well as the commonalities of effective instruction in both subject areas, is an important aspect of comprehensive reading and mathematics programs, particularly if the same teachers are responsible for teaching both subjects.

Some of the recommendations with respect to the design and delivery of programs that have a dual focus on mathematics and reading, extrapolated from the lessons learned from a decade of research into effective early grade reading interventions in low and middle-income countries, include the following:

  • Train teachers on both effective mathematics and reading instruction in the early grades, as well as the connections between the two. Interventions should be explicit about the ways the two content areas are the same and different, and efforts should be made to connect the two areas.
  • Provide teachers with a scope and sequence for each subject that acknowledges and respects the progression in developmental learning. This means identifying the key skills children need to develop at each grade level and sequencing them appropriately.
  • Provide teachers with instructional materials aligned with the scope and sequence, and that model the specificities and commonalities of effective instruction in the two disciplines.
  • Allocate sufficient time for instruction in each subject area.  Reading and mathematics should not be taught in the same time block. Rather, there should be a dedicated time of the day for reading instruction, and a separate time of the day for mathematics instruction. The amount of time allocated to each subject area should be sufficient to ensure improved learning outcomes, provided that effective instructional practices and materials are used.

An example from Kenya: “Extending conversations”

The Tayari Program used an integrated approach to improve instructional practices of teachers responsible for teaching both mathematics and reading. This involved focusing on a core set of instructional strategies that apply equally to both subjects.

One such example was “Extending conversations”.  Teachers were trained to extend conversations in reading and mathematics by asking simple follow-up questions designed to promote higher-level thinking in each subject area (e.g for mathematics: “How did you get that answer?”).

Focusing on effective instructional strategies common to both subjects helped teachers understand the similarities between effective teaching in both subjects, while at the same time honoring the instructional specificities of each subject.

Need for more research   

Although there is a considerable evidence-base for effective early grade reading programs in low and middle-income countries, the same evidence-based does not exist for mathematics, or for joint reading and mathematics-focused programs.

The paper Towards the Design and Implementation of Comprehensive Primary Grade Literacy and Numeracy Programs includes an initial research agenda to inform the way forward.

Until a solid evidence-base exists, programs focused on mathematics or that have a joint mathematics/reading should pilot interventions before moving to scale. 


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Sub-Saharan Africa: Kenya

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A very thoughtful approach to literacy instruction .

One thing that it'd be good to know from the authors is this: My guess is that skills in math contribute to skills in reading, and that skills in reading contribute to skills in math. I'd be curious to know from the authors whether that informed guess is true. And, if so, why? Because both involve systems of symbol manipulation? If so, then it makes sense that they both contribute to each other, and also help lay the groundwork for other subjects that involve the manipulation of symbols, such as science (though science using symbol manipulation is usually taught only much later). In that sense, these subjects do not take away from each other, but add to each other. Time spent on both is time well spent, I'd guess. I also find it interesting that the authors do not seem to advocate an integrated approach but separate time for each. Given that there is symbolic manipulation in both, but that they are different symbols, and different symbol systems, that makes sense to me.

In reply to by Luis Crouch

Thanks, Luis, for your question! The relationship between mathematics and reading is an intriguing one!
Most of the research shows us that early numeracy skills are a strong predictor of children’s reading skills, however there is limited research showing the opposite relationship. Exposure to mathematical experiences most likely strengthen executive functions (attentiveness, reasoning, logic, etc.), which in turn result in stronger mathematics and reading skills. More research is being conducted on the 2-way relationship between reading and mathematics and hopefully we’ll have more definitive answers in the coming years. In Purpua and colleagues’ (2011) investigation, the authors found that early print knowledge and vocabulary scores uniquely predicted later math scores. When accounting for the other skills, phonological awareness did not uniquely predict later math scores. The authors discuss that print knowledge and vocabulary skills may be more important to early mathematical development than previously thought, both to understand the language around mathematics as well in developing an understanding numerical symbols.
In regards to our proposal of keeping the teaching of reading and mathematics separate, while teachers should seek out opportunities to leverage the natural connections between the two subjects having separate reading and mathematics programs can ensure that students develop the discipline-specific skills required to be successful learners.

Teachers themselves needs to understand the concept first. Secondly the mode of presentation plays a very important role in making students understand the concept, this is more key.

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