A couple of years ago Room to Read, a non-profit organization for improving literacy and gender equality in education in the developing world, implored viewers to try to not to read anything at all in a popular ad.
The ad’s point was to show people how difficult it is to get by in modern life without basic literacy. The point was well made. You need to read to communicate, to follow directions, to take proper medication; and to work. Yet, as the ad tells us, one in seven adults across the world cannot read. More than 250 million children of school age cannot read. Almost 57 million children are not enrolled in school.
Literacy allows people to access information, increase their productivity, and achieve their full potential. At the national level, it allows countries to grow. In fact, research has shown that early literacy is a threshold which countries must pass to grow economically.
World Bank Chief Economist Kaushik Basu proposes that the presence in a household of a literate person generates a positive externality – a kind of public good – for illiterate members. Literacy is important for the diffusion of new technology – for farming, which has been shown to generate high economic returns.
How do we get people to read? Literacy campaigns have been tried in the past with mixed success. But we are starting to learn more about how to achieve early reading proficiency. The first step is to measure. Most assessments are paper and pencil tests that assume the student can read and write. Most major assessments (PISA, PIRLS, TIMSS) do not assess before the fourth grade. For students who are poor readers, it is often too late to carry out efficient and effective remedial instruction. Indeed, to be efficient, remedial instruction should be conducted as early as possible.
To complement existing assessments, early tests have been used to assess the main skills that are known to predict reading success within the early grades of primary school (first to third). We are starting to learn more about the levels of reading fluency in many countries.
The Case of Papua New Guinea
In Papua New Guinea (PNG), early reading pilots provide evidence of student reading gains and prove that a better integrated approach to in-service training can work. Under READ PNG , a $19.2 million project, there have been significant improvement in the early grade reading levels of students in primary schools in two provinces.
Initial results indicate that the distribution of reading books and teacher training raised reading and writing fluency. It went up to more than 25 percent, from a low four percent in the Western Highlands in merely eight months. These results mean that more than ¼ of PNG students in the pilot schools are classified as good readers, indicating there has been a clear improvement in the quality of schooling since READ PNG began.
The pilot identified strengths and weaknesses to promote school and system-level practices around early grade reading instruction. The interventions promoted an integrated “package” that brought results.
The pilot is an initial success and we now know what works in PNG. The challenge now is on how to scale up the successful lessons to benefit all primary students. Achieving better skills competencies will help them learn other subjects with their full potential and to be successful learners later in life.
Beyond Early Reading
What about primary school scores and beyond? That would take much longer, using a more difficult and costly intervention, wouldn’t it?
Not necessarily. There is evidence that rapid reading score changes can occur even at higher schooling levels. For grades three to six, rapid improvements in learning were recorded from a simple, low-cost intervention which provided performance information to schools with below average scores in Colima, Mexico. This low-stakes accountability intervention improved test scores by 0.12 standard deviations in a short period of time. When students, teachers and parents know that their school’s scores are low, and this triggers a process of self-evaluation and analysis, the process itself may lead to an improvement in learning outcomes.
In Pakistan, providing report cards with school and child test scores increases test scores by 0.11 standard deviations in one year, effects that were sustained two years after the intervention. Information provision facilitates better comparisons across providers, improves market efficiency, and raises child welfare through higher test scores and enrollment.
Beyond Primary Schooling
But it must even more difficult to initiate changes in reading at higher schooling levels, say at the secondary school level.
Yet, Poland restructured its education system to delay tracking into vocational schools by one year. That year corresponds to the age that is tested with PISA in the years 2000–2006. The reform helps explain Poland’s significant improvement in international achievement tests. Reading scores have steadily improved over time, from 479 to 508.
Using the variation created by the policy change in 1999 to test the impact on test scores over time, we estimatethat the reform improved in likely vocational students’ – the main beneficiaries -- scores by about 100 points, or a whole standard deviation.
Do what’s possible
Improvements in reading are possible, even within a short time period. This can happen at the early grades, and should happen, now that we know how to measure and improve early reading. We also have evidence that rapid change can occur at the primary and lower secondary school level.
We need to go beyond the pilot level and institute whole scale reform at the national level. That will allow countries to go beyond significant improvement at the local level, as in the case of PNG, to system-wide transformational change at the country level, as in the case of Poland.
While the specific intervention will vary by country, the important point to keep in mind is that while change is possible, we need to measure, evaluate and learn.