A tale of two early-grade reading programs

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Elementary school boy reading a book in class Effective teacher policies consider what barriers teachers could face in adopting the changes targeted by the policy. Copyright: Shutterstock

Two similar programs in Kenya and Malawi—based on the best evidence on what works to help students learn to read—adopted similar interventions but had vastly different outcomes.

Kenya’s Tusome program and Malawi’s Early Grade Reading Activity (EGRA) program implemented structured lesson plans for teachers, student books, ongoing training and support for teachers, and the use of student assessments to track learning. This approach, commonly referred to as structured pedagogy, is regarded as one of the most cost-effective interventions to improve student learning. Both were expected to yield changes in teacher practices, as well as improvements in student learning outcomes, but only one did.

Why did similar programs have different outcomes?

Halfway through the Tusome program, the percentage of learners who read fluently in English more than doubled from 12% to 27%. And by the end of the program, students in grades 1 and 2 improved their reading in Kiswahili by the equivalent of roughly three to five years of schooling.

Despite similar goals and interventions, the Malawi EGRA program yielded no significant impact. Why? While the two programs adopted a similar package of interventions, the programs differed greatly in how they enabled teachers to adopt and sustain improved teaching practices.

User-friendly lesson plans

Evaluations of the Tusome program reveal that teachers adhered closely to the teacher’s guides to deliver high-quality lessons. On the other hand, the evaluation of the Malawi program notes that not all teachers used the lesson plans, and the teachers who used them often made significant modifications that decreased the quality of the lessons.

A closer look at the guides reveals potential reasons for this difference. A grade 1 lesson plan in Chichewa for the Malawi program averaged 16 activities per class, compared to seven activities per class in Tusome. In the Tusome teacher’s guides, each lesson plan was one page, except for the first week, when teachers were provided an additional page of instruction per lesson. Lesson plans in the Malawi EGRA program were usually three to four pages in length, occasionally even reaching five or six pages per lesson.

For simplicity, the Tusome teacher’s guide included a picture of the relevant page in the student book within each lesson plan that teachers could reference, while teachers in the Malawi program had to go back and forth between the student book and the teacher’s guide during the lesson. The Tusome program included explicit training on the use of the guides and included continuous classroom support focused on the daily implementation of the lesson plans.

Example of a lesson plan page from the Tusome program in Kenya

Example of a lesson plan page from the Tusome program in Kenya
Source: Making Teacher Policy Work, World Bank

Lesson sequencing matters

The impact evaluation of the Malawi program suggests that more meaningful practice could have resulted in higher uptake of the teacher’s guides. A final difference relates to how teachers were motivated to use the guides. The Tusome program’s design enabled teachers to quickly see the progress in their students’ learning by sequencing content in a way that helped students learn words they could use right away. Teachers also received regular updates on learning data through an instructional coach, which helped motivate the continued use of the guides.

These differences—even just the ones centered around the lesson guides for teachers—demonstrate how the two seemingly similar programs actually differed greatly in how they enabled teachers to adopt new teaching practices. The examples underscore that the success of teacher policy relies on the extent to which the policy enables, supports, and empowers teachers to adopt changes that lead to improved teaching and learning.  

Financial and political considerations

Effective teacher policies need to be implemented at scale and sustained over time. For policies to work at scale and over time, policymakers and politicians must consider whether a given policy is operationally feasible at scale in terms of financial and material resources. They also need to consider whether management capacity needed to implement them in the short and long term is available, as well as whether the policy has a high-level of political commitment and buy-in across broad coalitions. At the same time, they should also inquire whether they have the right data and data systems available to help diagnose, monitor, prioritize, adapt, and improve the policy.

For any teacher policy to succeed, it is essential to consider how teachers will experience it and what barriers they could face in adopting the specific changes targeted by the policy. Further, it is not enough to consider barriers at the individual level, but also at the system level, as the policies will need to be implemented at scale and sustained over time. Looking at teacher policies through this lens helps us understand why some programs enable change to take root, successfully improving the teaching and learning experience in the classroom, and why others do not. Ultimately, teacher policy design and implementation must be grounded in a deep understanding of how teachers experience these policies, and what is required for systems to effectively scale and sustain these policies.

These are the key themes explored in our report, Making Teacher Policy Work, which will be launched on November 13, 2023, at 9:30 am EST. A two-page summary of the report is available in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Portuguese

Register here if you want to learn more about the report and obtain new perspectives on questions such as: Why do pay for performance programs often fail to improve student learning? How can policymakers address global teacher shortages? How can teacher professional development most effectively support teachers to adopt new practices, including the use of technology, to improve their lessons? If you’re not based in Washington, D.C., the event will be live-streamed here.


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Adelle Pushparatnam

Senior Education Specialist

Elaine Ding

Analyst, Education Global Practice

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