Lessons Learned from a Decade of Early Grade Reading Programs
The Ten Years of Early Grade Reading Programming: A Retrospective report provides an unique opportunity to reflect on the progress made and the challenges that remain in USAID’s efforts to contribute to the goal that ALL children can read.
In its 2011 Strategy, USAID set ambitious goals for improving literacy education and reading outcomes for millions of students. The strategy was based on evidence demonstrating that even as the majority of children had access to school, many of them were spending years in the classroom without gaining basic literacy skills. Since the release of its 2011 Strategy, USAID has reached over 246 million students in 53 countries and this report reviews evidence of effectiveness from 45 USAID EGRA funded programs.
From the outset, USAID made a commitment to supporting literacy instruction in languages that children use and understand, developing materials in those languages, and training teachers in effective instructional practices. A decade on, USAID’s literacy programs continue to include these essential components but have also integrated lessons learned over the course of developing and implementing the initial set of reading activities.
As highlighted in the report, second generation reading programs (those in procurement after the release of the 2013 implementation guidance) benefitted from the experience and evidence generated under first generation programs (those is procurement pre-2013). Second generation programs used the data and evidence and lessons learned from first generation programs to design more effective interventions and, as a result, reached more children, were more cost effective, and showed greater increases in improved learning outcomes.
Nevertheless, while second-generation programs were able to improve reading outcomes for a significantly higher proportion of students than first-generation programs they were not universally effective and, particularly in contexts of crisis and conflict, did not always show statistically significant improvements in learning outcomes. As USAID continues to work more closely with our local partners to ensure all children acquire foundational literacy skills, there are important lessons learned from this report that must be considered in future work. A few the insights that emerge across programs are:
1. Context matters: Because each context is unique, program planners need to understand the specific opportunities and challenges inherent in the local system and design a program that aligns with that reality. Doing this requires being committed to consistent adaptation and modification during implementation. Examples of this might include piloting materials with teachers and students and then revising them based on feedback.
2. Change takes time: While the expectation is often that dramatic results are achievable in a space of a few years, practice shows that significant improvements take time and continuous efforts to build teacher capacity, developing high-quality materials and strengthening the education system. Multigenerational programs were more effective when they built strong relationships with the government and local stakeholders, used evidence-based practices in reading which were adapted to reflect the realities of the local context, provided continuous teacher professional development and used data to monitor and adapt over multiple years of implementation.
3. Prioritize Equity: Special attention must be paid to the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable learners be it due to disability, refugee status, gender or identity. Greater inclusion of UDL principles in programming can increase learning for all but more research and work is needed to understand how programming can truly target and meet the needs of marginalized populations. Additionally, consideration must be given to the role of social and emotional learning in order to create and contribute to a safe enabling environment.
4. Build for Resilience: Unexpected crisis and conflict are certain to continue to disrupt education systems and it’s critical that flexible and adaptable methods for delivering learning, such as digital education, be expanded and strengthened. If resilience is not prioritized, gaps in equity are likely to continue to grow as the most marginalized populations and those in vulnerable situations have reduced access to education.
In considering the future of reading programs, it must be acknowledged that the foremost challenge in education globally is the learning loss associated with COVID-19 school closure. The pandemic’s impact has resulted in much of the progress made over the past decade being erased. USAID has joined other international donors in signing on to the Commitment to Action to foster a renewed sense of urgency around foundational skills programming and reducing learning poverty across contexts. It remains more important than ever for all children to learn to read so they can read to learn.