Reading: a way out of poverty
A three-year project assisted Burkina Faso, Senegal and Niger in developing effective reading instruction by aligning national curricula with teaching materials, training and assessment
March 23, 2017 by Rebecca Irani, International Bureau of Education - UNESCO, and Lidia Kleshchenko
7 minutes read
A student answers the teachers question on his slate. Maka Dieng Primary School in Tivaouane, Senegal. Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
A student answers the teachers question on his slate at Maka Dieng Primary School in Tivaouane, Senegal.

According to the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, if all students in low-income countries left school with elementary reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty. In other words, such basic action as ensuring that those who study reading actually learn it could result in a 12% cut in global poverty.

If children go to school, it is generally expected that they will learn to read. However, the reality is less straightforward.

Global statistics show that an estimated 250 million children who attend primary school in developing countries are struggling to read even basic words, with about 115 million children expected to lack this elementary skill by grade four.

Too many children don’t learn to read

How does that happen even though education has been a priority in national and international development for years?

One reason is that, over the last two decades, both national policies and international aid for education have mainly focused on improving access to primary school and school completion rates – with quite steady progress. It is urgent now to address the challenge of quality. It is time to ensure that a child who goes to school, learns.

“We cannot ignore the fact that a quarter of a billion children who attend primary school are struggling to read,” says Amapola Alama, program specialist at the International Bureau of Education (IBE-UNESCO). “If we want education to play its determining role in contributing to the sustainable development goals, it is crucial that education systems develop relevant curricula that guide and support more effective teaching practices that in turn will lead to improved learning outcomes.”

A 3-year project to improve reading instruction in 3 countries

In 2013, the IBE-UNESCO, sponsored by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), launched a three-year project “Improving learning outcomes in early grade reading: Integration of curriculum, teaching, learning materials and assessment” in three West African countries with comparable educational and social realities: Burkina Faso, Senegal and Niger.

The project’s objective was to assist the three ministries of Education to improve learning outcomes in reading and efficiencies of their basic education systems.

Before the project was implemented, data from 2007-2009 showed that the number of functionally illiterate students after five years in primary school in these countries was high (20% in Niger, 38% in Burkina Faso and Senegal), requiring urgent action.

(DESAS 2007 and PASEC 2009)

The project has drawn attention to the importance of quality education as a crucial condition for children to learn to read well in early years. It has also highlighted the correlation between the relevance and effectiveness of education systems and curriculum alignment with teaching materials, training and assessment.

The crucial link between curriculum and learning to read

In each country, those responsible for larger curriculum reforms (also involved in early reading curriculum reforms) have gained a better understanding of these two key factors for educational success.

By underscoring the need for all units in each ministry of education to work in a coordinated way and ensure that everyone understands what is involved in teaching children to read, the project has laid the grounds for the development of education systems that consistently enable positive learning outcomes for all. 

A key outcome has been IBE-UNESCO’s 2017 report: Teaching to Learn and Read in a Multilingual Context. Ways forward for three sub-Saharan African countries (Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal) (also available in French).

Additional key project milestones include:

·         2013. Three ministry officials from each of the three countries that have comparable educational and social realities were chosen to undertake the IBE-UNESCO diploma in curriculum run by the University of Tanzania.

·         2014. A diagnostic study resulted in a report “Teaching and learning of reading in a multilingual context: analyses, observations and recommendations for three sub-Saharan countries (Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal)”. The report informed policy decisions which were translated into action plans to implement effective reading instruction.

·         2015. As a result, a number of capacity building activities took place in the three countries in order to start the production of several curriculum documents, including a national vision on reading, pedagogical guide, a toolkit, and teacher training modules.

·         2016 to 2017. Capacity development workshops were delivered for curriculum developers, teacher’ trainers, head teachers and teachers on how to improve teaching and learning to read and write, and to use the new curriculum documents produced since 2015. At the final wrap-up session in Burkina Faso in January 2017, IBE-UNESCO and the countries presented project implementation results and reflected on how to guarantee their sustainability beyond the project life.

For more information, contact:

Amapola Alama, Programme Specialist and editor and producer of the report, IBE-UNESCO:

Rebecca Irani, Communications Manager, IBE-UNESCO:

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