Global Partnership for Education WP Series on Learning

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  • Publication
    Literacy for All in 100 Days? A Research-based Strategy for Fast Progress in Low-income Countries
    (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2013-05-30) Abadzi, Helen
    In low-income countries many students are marginalized very early and remain illiterate. In grades 1-3 they attend rarely, though they may officially drop out in grade 4. Many others graduate from primary school without having learned letter values. The worrisome outcomes, despite much donor investment in low-income countries, have prompted scrutiny of the methods, and textbooks used to make students literate. This document offers insights from cognitive neuroscience and evidence suggesting that students can be taught basic literacy within the first semester of grade 1, if taught in consistently spelled languages. Teaching students at risk of dropout to read as early as possible enhances equity. However, the reading methods used in many countries are complex and hard for teachers to execute. They pertain to high-income countries and to certain western European languages. English but also French, Portuguese, and Dutch have complex spelling systems. English in particular requires three years of learning time. (French requires about two). Reading instruction for English is expensive and complex. Lists of whole words must be learned, vocabulary and early training in predictions are needed in order to make sense of words that cannot be sounded out. Learning must be started at kindergarten, parents must help at home, and many weaker students require remedial instruction. Since English is an official language in many countries, the travails of learning to read in this language have been considered the normal fate of reading. Overall, reading methods must be resilient to the vicissitudes of implementation. Many activities work well in higher-income countries or small pilots, but at scale-up they sink. Governments and donors should train up to existing capacity, rather than try to raise capacity to the requirements of complex methods.
  • Publication
    Raising Literacy from 20 Percent to 80 Percent? A Science-Based Strategy for GPE Partner Countries
    (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2013-05-30) Abadzi, Helen
    Governments and donors have been working hard to develop efficient learning programs and resolve the learning crisis. Scientific lessons have already been implemented in a few countries. Global Partnership for Education (GPE) gave technical advice to Cambodia and the Gambia on reading (also on math); the reading pilots resulted in very satisfactory outcomes and expressions of appreciation by governments. Not surprisingly, other GPE partner countries have directly requested technical advice. With sharp messages and close coordination, the current mountain of problems can be reduced to a molehill in five years. Basic reading can be taught efficiently and quickly, by the middle of grade one. If such an outcome seems unbelievable, it is only because reading is taught through models tailor-made for certain western European languages. Students are to learn basic reading in local languages within the first 100 days of grade one. At the same time, they will learn the official language orally. In grade two they will receive a bridging course to transition eventually to the formal language. The many older illiterate students are to be remediated through the same 100-day program ('literate school in 100 days') and similarly receive a bridging course to the official language. One issue that is often voiced by government officials is that language of instruction for early grade reading is desirable, but students should exit early and not spend years studying in a local language. Given the need for basic literacy, it is certainly possible to follow the policy option that government's desire. In higher-income countries, students get exposed to print before school, so they progress fast in automaticity and text interpretation. Commensurately, the poor are expected to progress quickly into meaning and content. The early learning failure in low income countries is due to missing 'low level' building-block skills.
  • Publication
    How to Speed up Arabic Literacy for Lower-Income Students?: Some Insights from Cognitive Neuroscience
    (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2012-11-20) Abadzi, Helen
    Students in low-income countries often have trouble learning to read; 80-90 percent of second and third graders in some countries cannot even read a single word and may know few if any letters (RTI 2009, 2010, 2011a, 2011b). The reasons are linked to limited instructional time, textbooks or parental help, potentially poor nutrition, or complex teaching methods that originated in high-income countries. Despite relative affluence, the academic performance in the Arab world has been a problem, with countries scoring on international tests much lower than expected based on per capita income level. Similarly Early Grade Reading Assessments (EGRA) in various countries has shown lower reading speeds than one would expect. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, which use the Arabic script, the issues are similar. The interaction of the perceptual and linguistic complexities turns Arabic reading into a complex multistage exercise. A reader of the Arabic script must: (a) decipher the text, (b) predict the vowels and keep multiple alternative words in working memory to test and decide on meaning, and (c) make linguistic sense in the case of Arabic. This process means that readers need to identify words faster than in other scripts in order to make sense of the text, but in fact they identify them more slowly. Not surprisingly, some studies suggest that the Arabic script may be read more slowly than visually simpler scripts or linear scripts. Education for All implies that nearly all students must somehow learn fluent reading very quickly when they start school in order to then progress to higher level topics. This must be achievable in all the languages and scripts used in low-income countries. By focusing on these lower-level variables this is doable.
  • Publication
    Developing Cross-Language Metrics for Reading Fluency Measurement: Some Issues and Options
    (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2012-07-10) Abadzi, Helen
    Since 2005, over 70 oral reading fluency tests have been given in many languages and scripts, either as part of the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) or as individual one-minute tests. Particularly in multilingual countries, reading speed and comprehension measures have been taken in multiple languages and also in multiple scripts. The development of language has a significant genetic component, which tends to create common grammatical structures. Then languages must conform to information processing limitations, notably to working memory capacity. On the basis of such features, it may be possible to develop common standards for performance improvement compare findings cross linguistically. Languages are most comparable when large chunks are used rather than single words. To arrive at some comparisons, several methods may be tried. These include: a) counting actual words in connected texts or in lists, using some conventions if needed; b) using computational solutions to arrive at coefficients of certain languages vis a vis others, such as 1 Swahili word being equivalent roughly to 1.3 English words; c) using in multiple languages lists of words of a defined length, e.g. 4 letters; d) measuring phonemes or syllables per minute, possibly dividing by average word length; and e) rapid serial visual presentation, potentially also measuring perception at the letter feature level. Overall, reading rate as words per minute seems to be a valid and reliable indicator of achievement, with 45-60 words being a range that is usable as a benchmark.
  • Publication
    Learning Essentials for International Education: A Compendium of Summaries
    (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2010-03-23) Abadzi, Helen
    The sound of children's voices reciting in unison could be heard from afar, as our mission approached a school in rural Cambodia. Inside a second-grade classroom, students took turns at the blackboard. One pointed with a stick at a list of words written by the teacher, while the rest recited. A colleague approached, wrote on the blackboard the same words in a different order, and asked the children to read. Suddenly, there was silence. Most kids had merely memorized the sequence of the words and could not even identify single letters. This scene is frequent. In the poorer schools of low-income countries, many students remain illiterate for years, until they finally drop out. With some care, the process is observable. Typically the teacher writes on the board some letters or words and asks students to repeat them. The letters may be scribbled, the children often sit at a distance, textbooks may be insufficient, and children may not have anyone at home to help them read. But they do repeat the words in unison, getting cues from a few knowledgeable classmates. The teachers stand by the blackboard, address students at large, and call on the few who perform well. How come this issue has not attracted attention? One reason is that in the middle-class schools of capitals students perform much better. Soon after our rural observations, we observed second graders in a middleclass school of Pnom Penh fluently handling the extremely complex Khmer script. However, the schools of the poor have less time for their students. There is teacher absenteeism, a lack of textbooks to take home, parental inability to make up for school weaknesses, no specific curricular time for reading. The result has been chronic illiteracy, high dropout and high repetition rates. To reduce repetition and maximize enrollments, some donors advise governments to promote students automatically.