Two hundred and fifty million children in the world cannot read according to the recently released Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All; 130 million of them are in primary school. That’s equal to more than a third of the population of the United States. If these children do not learn to read they will have fewer opportunities and struggle with learning for the rest of their lives. Learning to read in the early grades is critical and hard work. It is not a skill that can be “picked up.” With the help of teachers trained specifically to teach reading, children learn to read over time by practicing and honing their skills. Strong readers perform better in all subjects, so children who learn to read in the early grades have a better chance of graduating from high school and getting a job or pursuing a college education.
At the State of the Union the other night, I was sitting in the gallery listening to President Obama say, “One of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is a world class education.” I was on my feet applauding. His words ring true here at home and in developing countries around the world.
I’m visiting Zambia and Malawi over the next two weeks where USAID is working hard with our partners to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies by investing in new, results-based reading programs that start with building capacity in the existing teacher corps and in training new teachers in the best practices of teaching reading.
In Malawi, USAID partners developed a phonics-based reading program in the Chichewa language, and provided Chichewa readers to students and accompanying scripted lesson plans to their teachers. Teachers received training on the use of the materials and extensive on-site coaching to help them use them every day in their classrooms. In 2012, after two years of the implementation of this program, the proportion of 2nd graders who could read at least one word in Chichewa had risen from 5.3 to 16.8 percent. The program is now in the process of being scaled up to all districts in the nation of Malawi.
Malawi and Zambia aren’t the only countries where we’re making an impact. In Kenya, USAID is sponsoring an initiative to improve reading outcomes in Kiswahili and English in 500 primary schools. The program has introduced innovative teaching methods, new, phonics-based reading materials for mother tongue instruction, and professional development to build the skills of educators and improve student literacy outcomes. In a recent study we found that children enrolled in schools using the USAID-funded program were up to 27 times more likely to read than students in schools outside the program. This program, too, is in the process of being scaled up to reach more schools in the future so that more children in Kenya will have access to a high quality education.
In the Philippines, USAID is supporting a program known as the Improved Collection and Use of Student Reading Performance Data. Each time a teacher participating in the program conducts a reading test (in either Tagalog or English), he/she submits the test results via SMS to a Department-of-Education administered database. Teacher supervisors from the department then use this information to provide timely feedback to the teachers on their reading instruction, based on the student results. This USAID program is heightening transparency about student outcomes and tightening the feedback between teachers and their coaches, leading to an increased likelihood that teachers will identify and assist children who are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading.
Through these programs children are learning to read and will have better lives thanks to the support of the American people, and USAID will continue to do more to get all children reading and access to quality education.
About the Author: Christie Vilsack serves as Senior Advisor for International Education at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared on the USAID Impact Blog.