How to tackle Learning Poverty? Delivering education’s promise to children across the world

Eliminating learning poverty, defined as the share of children that by age 10 cannot read and understand a simple text, is as critical as eliminating extreme poverty, stunting or hunger. Eliminating learning poverty, defined as the share of children that by age 10 cannot read and understand a simple text, is as critical as eliminating extreme poverty, stunting or hunger.

A Tale of Two Girls

Two 6-year-old girls are about to start primary school. Maryam, a curious 6-year-old in Sofia (Bulgaria) will be lucky enough to attend a quality school where competent teachers are motivated and adequate learning resources are available. Monde, a girl of the same age who lives with her grandmother in the remotest part of Sikongo district in Zambia will unfortunately not get the chance to go to a school with minimum levels of quality.

Over the course of primary school, Maryam will benefit from effective teaching practices. Her teacher will give examples to illustrate concepts, provide guided practice, and give her friendly and personalized feedback. She will have a wide array of books to choose from, feeding her creative mind and providing contextual knowledge to everything she learns. By the end of second grade, she will be reading full sentences quickly and progressing to longer texts.

In contrast, Monde will struggle to read single words, let alone sentences. Her 1st grade teacher is not fluent in Silozi, which is used as language of instruction, she cannot get extra help because there are more than 60 pupils in her class and there are no story books at school. Further, Monde gets home from school tired because she walks two hours each way and fails to review her book and do her homework properly. She lives with her old grandmother who can’t read and write, and they use a different language (Sikwamashi) at home. Little Monde finds it hard to learn and lessons are sometimes confusing and not making sense. While her teachers will be doing their best to help her, soon enough, Monde will start to lose motivation and dislike going to school. By the end of primary school, Maryam will devour teenage novels while Monde will struggle to read even a simple short story.

Education’s promise

Eliminating learning poverty, defined as the share of children that by age 10 cannot read and understand a simple text, is as critical as eliminating extreme poverty, stunting or hunger. Societies, parents, and students know this, and have extraordinary faith in the power of education to transform lives. However, these benefits depend on the actual skills that students acquire. Families invest in education and send their kids to school, but years spent at school don’t matter if they are not reflected in learning, like happens to Monde.  

The analysis of the impact of education in future earnings supports this, showing that quality of education matters more than years of schooling. Adults who finish primary with no learning earn only 6% more than those with no schooling, while those that finish primary and learn to read earn 38% more than those with no schooling (Wodon et al., forthcoming).

Learning poverty is today at 53 percent in low- and middle-income countries. So, for children like Monde, who are not able to read, concerted and dramatic action is needed to help them catch-up. If not, education’s promise will be a mere fantasy to them.

How can governments deliver literacy to all children?

In October, the World Bank launched a new Learning Target: to reduce the global Learning Poverty rate to at least half by 2030. A critical step is to shift the education system so that it focuses on learning. Every decision taken by parents, teachers, principals, district and municipal officials, and even the Minister, must answer the question: how does this contribute to student learning? Personal interests, rents, politics cannot trump this objective. We must ensure all our energy and capacity is devoted to help children learn, not only being in school. In many cases this requires several systemic reforms and policies. World Bank’s renewed approach to working with countries in education calls for reforms to strengthen education systems so that: 1) children are prepared and motivated to learn; 2) teachers at all levels are effective and valued; 3) classrooms are equipped for learning, with smart use of technology; 4) schools are safe and inclusive spaces; and 5) education systems and schools are well managed.

These reforms to strengthen education systems are essential to ensure broad and sustained improvements in education quality. In many systems a needed reform requires ensuring that teachers’ career paths include a meritocratic selection and promotion and a strong professional development opportunity that begins with their preparation before they enter the teaching service and continues throughout their tenure as teachers.  But it could take a few years before the impacts of reforms like these change children’s’ experience in the classroom.  There are actions that have to be taken today to transform a child’s experience in the classroom today. Millions of children are or should be in school today and they cannot wait. Our latest report details a “Literacy Policy Package” with interventions that have shown to accelerate progress towards reading and raise overall education quality in relatively short periods of time. It has four components:

  1. Ensure political and technical commitment to clear goals, means and measures for literacy, grounded in adequately funded plans: Systems that perform well define national goals, relate interventions to those goals, and measure student learning and system progress on an ongoing basis. This requires a real national, financial, political and institutional commitment to learning.
  2. Ensure effective teaching for literacy: Teachers need to be provided with the support and tools to help them improve their interaction with students. Training needs to be specific and practical. It should focus not only on what to teach, but also on how to teach it. And it should be pitched at the – often very different – achievement levels of the children. Teaching guides with detailed lesson plans (which might be used on a voluntary basis by teachers who find them beneficial) and coaching that provides individualized feedback to teachers have shown to have positive impacts in increasing learning. Technology could be a critical ally to provide this support to teachers at scale. Providing detailed lesson plans, and the training to use them, across 13 low- and middle-income countries led to significant gains in learning outcomes, comparable to receiving an additional half year of instruction. Examples of regular coaching improving teachers’ practices and raising students’ scores are found in countries as diverse as South Africa, Liberia, and the United States.
  3. Ensure timely access to more and better age and skill appropriate texts: To achieve fluency, students must be exposed to age- and content-appropriate texts. Interventions need to focus on getting at least one high-quality text into the hands of every student and ideally provide children with choices on what to read at many different ability levels. Books are especially effective if they are in a language that the child speaks at home. In addition, children also need to have designated class time to practice reading.  
  4. First teach children in the language they speak and understand: Students taught to read in a language they do not speak at home have greater difficulty learning. Interventions here focus on devising solid language policies that for example, start in the language that children best understand, and adequately transition to instruction in a single national language. Among others, this was done in the Gambia Read Project; children were taught first in their mother tongue, and this provided them with a foundation to then learn English better. They progressed to read with a higher fluency in English compared to the children who received instruction only in English. Additionally, a UNESCO study in 22 developing countries and 160 language groups shows that children who receive instruction in their mother tongue were more likely to be enrolled in school. Conversely, not being taught in your home language is a significant reason for dropping out of school.

These components will vary depending on country conditions such as institutional capacity, the level of language complexity, and text and book availability. For example, in fragile, conflict and violence affected settings, the use of technology through virtual classrooms and mobile apps can help deliver literacy programs even when there are teacher shortages. In countries where learning poverty is very high, more instruction time focused on reading must be put in place. As students master basic reading skills, instruction time will gradually include other more complex subjects.

These policies must be accompanied by broader reforms so that countries can build on and maintain their improvements in reading and other areas, as well as and higher levels of education.

Ending learning poverty is not an easy task. But governments and the international community owe it to Monde and to millions of children around the world. Their dreams of a better future depend on it.


Jaime Saavedra

Human Development Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank

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