Lao PDR: Helping the youngest children to read and continue learning

A first-grade student points to letters at the board as he sounds them out. When he gets stuck, he looks to the teacher for help. Somsanouk Primary School, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
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Story highlights

  • Low levels of early grade reading are affecting children throughout Lao PDR.
  • With GPE support, the government of Lao PDR is helping its youngest and most vulnerable students to improve their reading skills.
  • Through a reading readiness program and school block grants, more children are now adequately prepared for grade 1.
Map Lao PDR

This story was written in collaboration with the World Bank.

Poor learning outcomes, stemming from low levels of basic literacy, affect children throughout Lao PDR. Children with access to early education enter primary school ready to learn. Early learning not only has tangible benefits in the short term, but also boosts learning outcomes over a student’s entire schooling.

Unfortunately, the benefits of early education are not enjoyed by all children in Lao PDR. Somchanh Hatsady, principal of Somsanouk Kindergarten in the Pak Ou District, notes that children who don’t attend early education are missing out on crucial developmental opportunities: to build social and emotional skills, the foundation for reading and writing, and fine motor skills.

This is even more challenging for children who do not speak Lao-Tai, the primary Lao language and the language of instruction throughout the country.

A recent study found that non-Lao-Tai students were significantly more likely to lack basic literacy and numeracy skills than those whose mother tongue is Lao-Tai; these difficulties further compound learning in other subjects.

Somchanh Hatsady, directrice de l'école maternelle de Somsanouk. Crédit : Kelley Lynch
“Parents from ethnic minorities do not seem to enroll their kindergarten-age children in school as much. They usually keep their kids at home and then at the age of six enroll them into primary school.”
Somchanh Hatsady
Principal, Somsanouk Kindergarten

Improving reading readiness

While mother-tongue instruction may be appropriate in certain contexts, the existence of 47 ethnicities in Lao PDR, branching into 160 ethnic groups that speak 82 distinct living languages without written forms (except for the Hmong ethnic group), makes it a difficult policy to implement nationally.

In 2015, the government of Lao PDR received a US$16.8 million GPE grant to improve the quality of education by supporting school-based management and the introduction of a new pedagogical approach to teaching early reading in the national language.

The program, with the World Bank as the grant agent, builds on the experiences of the previous program – supported by a $28.2 million GPE grant – and was designed to ensure complementarity with activities supported by other development partners.

The reading readiness program was developed to build children’s competency in early literacy - a key foundational skill that allows children to be adequately prepared for grade 1. The program was developed in the official Lao-Tai language with the objective to improve Lao-Tai reading readiness for all children.

Efforts lead to better learning outcomes

To date, 142 classrooms have received specialized kits of instructional materials to implement the reading readiness program and 183 teachers have been trained by coaches and master coaches on applying the reading readiness approach.

Results surpassed expectations: 90% of teachers trained in the reading readiness program now implement the approach with high fidelity.

The learning environment in the GPE-supported schools now promotes a culture of reading: 83.7% of schools provide grade-appropriate story books compared to only 51.9% in 2017, and 76.9% provide a comfortable place to sit and read compared to 41.4% over the same period.

All of these efforts have led to better learning outcomes: between 2018 and 2021 the percentage of children in target classrooms with awareness of print increased from 35% to 55% and the percentage of schools that meet at least the minimum quality service delivery standard increased from 71% to 80%.

  • Students take turns reading aloud in teacher Khammanh Ladavone's grade 5 classroom. Somsanouk Primary School, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR.
    Credit: GPE
  • Fifth grade student Dham Mixay Phon (10) solves a math problem at the board while Principal Norkeo Keovisith looks on. Khokkham Primary School, Khokkham Village, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR.
    Credit: GPE
  • A grade five student reads in front of the class, Phonsivilay Primary School, Meun District, Lao PDR.
    Credit: GPE

Between 2017 and 2021, the grade repetition from grade 1 decreased from 12.5% to 6.3% in GPE-supported schools and early grade primary student progress improved from 90.7% to 94.4%. This progress may have had an impact on the national primary dropout rate, which declined from 5.2% in 2014-15 to 4.1% in 2020-21.

Results in Lao PDR

School block grants provide easier access to cash

To complement the reading readiness program, and in an effort to strengthen school-based management, the GPE grant supported the provision of three rounds of school block grants to over 8,500 primary schools and nearly 3,000 kindergartens.

The school grants are complementary to the grants provided by the government, increasing the spend from 70,000 kip ($7) to 100,000 kip ($10) per student. School stakeholders can use the grants to address the most pressing needs of their school such as building repairs and procuring teaching materials.

School principals and district education and sports bureau officials, along with members of village education development committees (VEDCs), were trained on how to use and report on school grants as well as conduct school self-assessments and school development planning.

Special attention was given to disadvantaged districts and schools, which received additional support and capacity building.

Bouathong Tansensy, Deputy Director, Provincial Education and Sports Department, Luang Prabang, Pak Ou District. Credit: Kelley Lynch
“After the school-based management training, I feel the school principals have an understanding of how they can work together with the VEDCs to develop a school plan that reflects the priorities of the school and is based on the resources they have, so they can use the money wisely.”
Bouathong Tansensy
Deputy Director, Provincial Education and Sports Department, Luang Prabang, Pak Ou District
  • The national flag is raised at the start and lowered at the end of the school day. The teachers and VEDC identified a new flagpole as a priority in the school plan. Khokkham Primary School, Khokkham Village, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR.
    Credit: GPE

  • (Left to right) The kindergarten teacher, first/second grade teacher, Principal Norkeo Keovisith, Village Chief (and VEDC member) Haimphong Lakphasouk and VEDC Chairman Xiengtui Thidsida meet to discuss school finances and priorities. Khokkham Primary School, Khokkham Village, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR.
    Credit: GPE
  • During break, teachers and students as well as the Village Chief (far left) play pétanque, a favorite pastime in Lao PDR. The opportunity to learn through sport and to participate in inter-school competitions spurred the VEDC and teachers to identify this newly constructed court as a priority in their school plan. Khokkham Primary School, Khokkham Village, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR.
    Credit: GPE

One of the major accomplishments of the school grants strategy is that every school in Lao PDR today has a bank account, compared to only around 500 schools in 2016.

This gives schools immediate access to money needed to make any necessary adjustments, including emergency response, in a more efficient and streamlined way.

Orkeo Chittavongs, Pedagogical Advisor, Somsanouk Primary School. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
“The school grants are solving a problem: before, the schools had to mobilize money from parents to support the running of the school. Now, with the grants, they don't have to ask for as much, and parents have some budget remaining to send their children to school and provide them with stationery and a uniform. This doesn’t mean that the school block grant is enough for running the school, though. The community still has to contribute, but not as much as before.”
Orkeo Chittavongs
Pedagogical Advisor, Somsanouk Primary School

The school grants have also been essential in the recovery process in the aftermath of COVID-19. As schools began to re-open in June 2020, the grants provided immediate financial support for purchasing hygiene and sanitation materials and continued to support the reading readiness program.

With schools scheduled to reopen after a second lockdown, the last tranche of school grants - disbursed to schools in November 2021 –is expected to play a key role in keeping schools safe.

As a result of the GPE-supported initiatives, more children in Lao PDR are learning to read in the early grades, giving them the foundation they need to develop advanced skills and become productive members of society.

February 2022