Published on Let's Talk Development

More and better reading during a pandemic? Lessons from Cambodia

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Students reading outside at the Angthlork Reang Sey School in Cambodia. | © | GPE/Livia Barton Students reading outside at the Angthlork Reang Sey School in Cambodia. | © | GPE/Livia Barton

Improving literacy is crucial for children to succeed academically and enhance their life opportunities. While many countries have made significant progress, considerable challenges remain, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Cambodia is one such country where over 50% of children struggle to read or understand a simple story by the end of primary school. Pandemic-linked school closures worsened students already humble prospects for becoming good readers.

Bringing Reading Materials Home During School Closures

To understand what can be done, we carried out an experimental Home-Based Reading (HBR) intervention in Cambodia, funded through the Results in Education for All Children (REACH) Program. This randomized controlled trial assessed how literacy and reading habits changed when households received high-quality supplementary reading materials and various levels of parental and child involvement or encouragement to develop better reading habits.

The study targeted Grades 1 and 2 students across three districts in Kampong Thom and Battambang provinces. It included 504 households: 378 across three treatment groups and 126 in the control group. Each treatment group received a different intervention. The treatment groups were given “book packages” consisting of grade appropriate, high-quality children’s books in Khmer. The total number of books provided (59) is typical of what a child in a high-income country might have, but virtually unheard of in this part of Cambodia.

Do Books and Encouragement Lead to More and Better Reading?

The first treatment group (T1) received the books but did not get any on-going encouragement to read them. Treatment group 2 (T2) received the same book packages as T1, plus weekly text message reminders for caregivers to encourage reading. Treatment group 3 (T3) received the same book packages and text messages as T2, along with phone calls and home visits from a home reading friend (HRF) who collected data and encouraged reading.

The HRFs made period visits to all homes to administered baseline surveys and assessments and provided one-time instructions for caregivers on encouraging their children to read. At each subsequent visit, HRFs conducted surveys and assessments and reminded caregivers to document their children's reading experiences. The final visit included endline surveys and assessments.

The study revealed that providing high-quality storybooks along with a network of reading supports effectively improved reading outcomes, including proficiency, frequency, and attitudes. Both caregivers and children perceived increased reading confidence , with higher percentages in treatment group 3.

The study also found that children enjoyed reading more after participating in the study, with similar percentages of caregivers and children agreeing in T3. At baseline, most caregivers and children in all groups wanted more reading time, but at endline, some treatment group caregivers and children shifted to desiring the same amount of reading time, likely reflecting satisfaction with the intervention.

The positive effects were more pronounced in treatment group 3, where families received home visits from HRFs who offered support and encouragement. The findings suggest that engaging community members in promoting reading habits and providing additional support can significantly impact reading outcomes .  Figure 1 shows how children in treatment groups 2 and 3 increase performance significantly on the Total Letter Name Assessment – a measure of the number of letters correctly identified in one minute.  Oral Reading Fluency, a critical measure of overall reading ability, likewise grew significantly for these children above the rates of the control and first group (Figure 2).

Overall, the study underscores the effectiveness of supplying high-quality reading materials to children, especially those from low-income households, and promoting reading habits through a network of supportive caregivers and community members . It also demonstrates home-based interventions' potential to supplement formal schooling, especially when schools are closed due to external factors like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lessons Beyond Cambodia

Although the study took place in Cambodia, the findings have implications for improving literacy outcomes in other LMICs. Providing access to high-quality reading materials and promoting reading habits through community engagement can be effective strategies for enhancing reading outcomes among primary school children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Further research is needed to determine the long-term impact of the intervention, but the results suggest that providing access to high-quality reading materials and promoting reading habits can be effective strategies to improve literacy outcomes in low- and middle-income countries.

Figure 1:  Total Letter Naming Assessment (TLNA)

A line chart showing Figure 1:  Total Letter Naming Assessment (TLNA)

Figure 2: Total Oral Reading Fluency (TORF)

A line chart showing Figure 2: Total Oral Reading Fluency (TORF)


Michael Crawford

Lead Education Specialist

David Rutkowski

Professor of Research Methods, Indiana University

Leslie Rutkowski

Professor of Quantitative Research Methodology, Indiana University

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