When it comes to primary education, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Enrollment has jumped across the world, and more children are in school than ever before. In the last decade, the number of out-of-school children has fallen by half, from 102 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2011 .
But is showing up to school enough?
According to UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report , almost one quarter of the youth in the developing world cannot read a sentence. In countries with large youth populations, this can leave behind a crippling ‘legacy of illiteracy’. Despite almost universal primary enrollment in India – 97 percent  – half of second grade  students cannot read a full sentence, and almost a quarter cannot even recognize letters.
Reading is a foundational skill. Children who do not learn to read in the primary grades are less likely to benefit from further schooling. Poor readers struggle to develop writing skills and absorb content in other areas. More worryingly, learning gaps hit disadvantaged populations the hardest, limiting their economic opportunities. In Bangladesh, only one in three of the poorest quartile  is literate, compared to almost nine out of ten in the richest.
Good Hardware, but Better Software
While classrooms and books are the physical building blocks in an education system, we need good software along with hardware.
In developing countries, teachers are often not held accountable for learning outcomes. Instead, they are incentivized to rush through a rigid, prescribed curriculum. Reading outcomes improve when reading is taught as a distinct ‘skill’; it is not simply absorbed through content-based learning. Devoting more time outside school hours is one way to nurture reading skills. In Pakistan for instance, children in after-school reading camps  demonstrated greater fluency and reading accuracy – in both Urdu and Pashto – than classmates in the same schools.
However, simply spending more on inputs is not simply the answer. Studies show that more textbooks  or libraries  only tend to help students who are already high achievers. Government curriculums are often designed for the academically strong, leaving the weaker students further behind. Impact evaluations in India  and Kenya  find that reading outcomes improve by targeting the level of instruction to initial abilities. Since no two children develop reading skills the same way, there is a need to “stream” students – grouping them not by age or grade level, but by initial learning level .
In South Asia, where rote learning and memorization is the norm, technology can help children to learn at their own pace. Apps like Tangerine  allow more teachers to assess individual literacy through smartphones and tablets. Interactive platforms can also improve learning: Indian children from low-income families used mobile phone games  to help them learn English, which led to gains in the spelling of common English nouns.
But innovation isn’t always shiny new gadgets. PlanetRead  encourages reading practice through the trusty old television, floating ‘same language subtitles’ on local music videos (Bollywood Karaoke anyone?). As my colleague Michael Trucano  notes, “the best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford. ”
Of course, dropping hardware into classrooms does little to improve learning outcomes on its own. Learning is a complex process based on many inputs. At the end of the day, no computer can completely replace the primary source of instruction – the teacher.
All Roads Lead to Teachers
Despite gains in access and enrollment, when teachers are unmotivated or poorly educated, learning quality will suffer. Policy makers must address the issue of teacher governance head on – from attracting better candidates, ensuring teachers are adequately trained, aligning incentives with student performance, to encouraging parents and communities to monitor schools. Teacher-student interactions are at the heart of improving learning outcomes. Accountable and capable teachers are critical if investments in education are to deliver results.
With the largest youth population  in history, we are at the cusp of a demographic dividend, and the donor community is taking notice. USAID’s recent education strategy  stresses early grade reading as a key focus area, aiming to improve reading skills for 100 million children by 2015. The World Bank supported Secondary Education and Quality and Access Enhancement Project  in Bangladesh not only addresses teacher governance, but fosters a targeted ‘reading habits ’ program, as well as remedial classes for students that need extra attention.
The economic prospects of a country follow the learning curve of its children. The Global Monitoring Report  notes that if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty. Let’s get reading!
Students at Shreeshitalacom Lower Secondary School. Kaski, Nepal. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank