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
    Effective Teacher Training in Low-Income Countries: The Power of Observational Learning Research
    (World Bank, Washington, DC, 2012-11-01) Abadzi, Helen
    The Education for All (EFA) initiative depends on students being taught by suitably and sufficiently trained teachers. But time-on-task studies conducted in low-income countries show that relatively little time is being spent on instruction, including the critical teaching of reading. Teachers may be absent often and may avoid teaching when in school (Abadzi 2007). They may engage with the few students who can do the work, neglecting the rest (Llambiri 2006, Abadzi and Llambiri 2011). They may fail to use textbooks even when they exist and spend class time copying on the blackboard. The same issues affect supervisors and principals (Abadzi 2006). As a result, students may graduate or drop out illiterate. The investments in teacher training are potentially valuable, but need to be linked to results. Thus far evidence is limited. Preservice training often lasts 6-9 months compared to 3-4 years in higher-income countries and may be insufficient to remedy students' academic deficits or teach them how to teach. The poor results have disappointed governments and donors. The persistent teacher training problems worldwide make it imperative to seek new means for changing behaviors, particularly for poorly paid teachers with limited education. This must be done relatively quickly and efficiently so that teachers can impart basic skills to their students. Since feasible educational methods seem to have been exhausted, it is useful to look for solutions in the field that studies behavior. Even for better educated teachers in lower-income countries, the capacity for formulating and solving complex problems such as those presented in teaching real classrooms may be limited compared to some 'ideal' model (Feldon 2007).
  • 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.