Three steps to get every child reading

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A Primary school in Uganda. Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank A Primary school in Uganda. Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank

Too many children can’t read by the age of ten.  That was already a disaster in 2019.  Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we faced a global learning crisis with 53% of children in low- and low-middle income countries in Learning Poverty - unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. Now, Learning Poverty is higher, and the differences in learning experiences across and within countries even larger.  We have set the ambitious target to halve Learning Poverty by 2030 and must act urgently to help more children become fluent readers.  Literacy is a foundational skill which is critical for all children to acquire; it’s the doorway to other skills and subjects.   

Returning to school, even partially, is a critical step to accelerate learning.  It’s a complex process from a sanitary, educational, and management perspective and the policy actions countries need to implement are challenging.  But one lesson from this pandemic is that countries need to re-build resilient education systems; systems that recognize that the learning process is a continuum from the school to the community and home.  Even if we still face huge challenges to ensure all schools have the right learning environments, we must ensure children also enjoy the right conditions at home.  The stark differences in conditions at home are at the heart of the unequal impact of the pandemic within most countries.  What can be done? 

1.    Support the home learning environment as part of public policy

Children who grow up in homes where they have access to books and plenty of opportunities to read are at a significant advantage compared to those who don’t.  Having at least one book at home has been found to almost double the likelihood of being on track for literacy and numeracy.  But many families in low- and lower-middle income countries lack access to suitable books with engaging content in languages children know.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, just 3% of families have access to more than one book at home. 

At a time when COVID-19 has disrupted students’ learning or stopped it altogether, having books and learning materials in homes has never been more important, especially for the most marginalized communities, where barriers like a lack of electricity or internet connectivity mean remote learning simply isn’t an option.  It’s clear we need to think beyond what happens at school and ensure parents and communities can be involved in children’s learning.   Empowering learning in homes is a way to increase the resilience of education systems by promoting continuity of learning between home and school and helping children arrive at school (or come back to school) ready to learn. Supporting the home environment must be an integral part of education public policy moving forward.

The World Bank’s Read@Home initiative is supporting governments around the world to act on this urgent issue now.  It gets quality books into the hands of children, their parents and caregivers and wider communities, targeting hard-to-reach families with children below the age of 12.  So far, it is working in 14 countries to develop and procure suitable titles in languages children understand, support caregivers on practical ways to promote reading and learning activities at home, and improve the quality and efficiency of the book supply chain across countries to lower the unit costs of books. In North Macedonia, strategic partnerships helped Read@Home to move quickly and reach 40,000 children aged 3-12 in the country’s most vulnerable households with packages of storybooks, games, and ideas for caregivers to support activities and learning at home.  In Senegal, work is underway to reach families of children under the age of 6 in 7 out of 14 regions through utilizing preschools, community ECD centers and nutrition platforms. 

2.    Books need to be in languages that children understand

Teaching children in a language they can understand sound like an obvious statement.  Who wouldn’t do that? Well, while teaching in the home language is vital, 37 percent of students in low-and middle-income countries are not being taught in a language they speak and understand.  To master reading, children need practice and lots of different books to read.  A major issue is that there are simply not enough books available in many languages – one survey found 40 African languages had just one title available.  Unless we address this, we are stacking the odds against children and setting them up to fail.  Open access websites like the Global Digital Library, Storyweaver, Bloom Library and African Storybook offer immediate access to thousands of open-source books in hundreds of languages.  Models like Book Dash are fast, low-cost approaches for creating new books from scratch when there are just no books available in the languages families use at home.  Teaching in the right language is a challenging change to implement.  It requires books, but they are only one part of the equation.  The right curriculum and teacher training and support are also needed. It is a complex endeavor but is also a precondition for meaningful learning.

3.    Improve the book supply chain 

Of course, it doesn’t matter how good a book is if it ends up being locked in a warehouse and never sees daylight.  Supply chains might not sound like an obvious barrier when it comes to building children’s literacy skills, but issues like limited budgets, complex procurement systems, and problems with distribution can make it hard for governments to buy enough of the right books and affect how fast books arrive at their intended destination (if they even get there at all).  To give children access to age-appropriate high-quality books, we need to make sure they’re affordable and get where they’re supposed to be on time. 

Deploying technology strategically can help. Online repositories of freely-available books don’t just help with finding suitable titles – they can help make books cheaper to print in the first place. Systems like the track-and-trace platform can help track books while they’re being printed and distributed. One pilot in Cambodia across 10 school districts found track-and-trace helped speed up the time it took to order books and gave school districts information on when books would arrive to facilitate better planning for classroom use.

We know that isolated solutions aren’t enough and coordinated action is needed to address the magnitude of the challenge. Creating the conditions to ensure children have the right reading material, on time, and at home, is critical.  These actions must be part of wider literacy policy packages that combine political and technical commitment to literacy, make quality books and texts available, support and coach teachers, and engage communities, which are essential to ensure more children are literate and develop a love of reading. 


Jaime Saavedra

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

Jennie Albone

Consultant, World Bank Education Global Practice

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