Action to ensure every last child can read

Fifty years ago today UNESCO proclaimed September 8, International Literacy Day.

International Literacy Day 2016 celebrates the past five decades of national and international efforts made to increase literacy rates around the world. But it’s also a critical moment for addressing the remaining and new challenges in order to further boost the number of readers around the world.

One of those new challenges is the number of children who can’t read or write, including millions who have access to education.

In school but not learning

The expansion in primary education that was spurred by the adoption in 2000 of the Millennium Development Goal on universal primary education has seen the number of out-of-school children decline, which is very good news.

However, we now know that access to school doesn’t necessarily guarantee learning.

In fact, around the world there are 130 million children, who despite attending school for four years cannot read. A further 61 million children have had access to school but have dropped out and there are still 59 million children who’ve never had the chance to go to school. That’s 250 million children who can’t read or write.

Reversing the global crisis in literacy

In response, Save the Children made an ambitious commitment to do everything possible to reverse the global crisis in early grade reading.

We chose reading because it’s a critical skill that provides the foundation for further learning.

Literacy is also essential to tackling a broad range of critical development issues. It’s been estimated that if all children in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, equivalent to a 12% reduction in poverty worldwide

So between 2012 and 2015 we tracked 35 of our literacy programmes in 22 countries in order to identify what works and what doesn’t. All with a view to making a contribution to the growing international effort of donors, developing countries and other organisations to address what has come to be described as ‘the learning crisis’.

During this four-year period our own internal focus on literacy programing enabled Save the Children to:

  • make progress in literacy outcomes by developing impactful and cost-effective programme and delivery models
  • successfully develop Literacy Boost as a simple, and replicable model that can be used to improve the teaching of reading
  • develop effective approaches to pre-school literacy, which can be delivered affordably by parents and communities as well as through early childhood development centres
  • test more sustainable approaches to increasing book supply, working with publishers and other book industry stakeholders
  • adapt programmes for multiple languages, assessing the linguistic nuances of each new context and adjusting our approach accordingly
  • develop effective approaches to reading assessment that can be implemented by teachers and governments
  • work closely with governments from local to national levels to look at how best practices could be scaled up.

Our experience also allowed us to identify that, across multiple countries and contexts, a range of critical factors emerged time and again as critical for ensuring that children learn to read.

8 principles to ensure every last child can read

We cross referenced our experience with the available evidence and established 8 principles that we believe provide the foundation for effective literacy action. In summary, they are:

  1. Start early: Invest in the scale-up of cost-effective and good-quality models for improving children’s emergent literacy skills in the early years.
  2. More & better books: Address the scarcity of good-quality, age- and language-appropriate children’s books.
  3. Engaging parents & communities: Implement effective community and parent-based literacy activities.
  4. Ensure teachers can teach reading: Teacher training should include instruction on the five core reading skills (letter knowledge, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) to improve teachers’ teaching of reading.
  5. Language matters: Additional support and resources are needed by children who are learning in a language that is not the language they speak at home.
  6. Practice, practice, practice: Remove barriers to reading practice; ensure that time is scheduled in the school day and support reading outside of school.
  7. Assess & track: Invest in improved assessment to inform teaching practice and national policy.
  8. Policy: Ensure literacy is prioritized for government investment and that policies underpin action on each of the principles.

Our report Lessons in Literacy: 8 principles to ensure every last child can read details how our programming and the available evidence influenced the identification of the principles. It also sets out what each principle looks like in practice, often in different contexts and in response to different challenges.

National Literacy Action Plans

The 8 principles can be used as a framework to help countries design national action plans to improve children’s literacy – something we’re urging them to do.

Without a dedicated focus on improving children’s reading, the evidence supports our view that education systems aren’t able to secure the learning gains required to turn around the literacy crisis.

National Literacy Action Plans are the vehicle for developing and delivering that focus. They should be supported by dedicated, equitable and fair financing and include targeted policies to remove any discrimination toward excluded groups.

Plans should include pre-primary and early grade reading and learning targets to ensure that all children learn to read with comprehension by the time they leave primary school. And plans should set out how the children furthest behind will make progress to meet the targets in order to reduce equity gaps.

Developing country governments shouldbe supported in adopting this focus by international organisations, donors and NGOs who should all ensure that they assess their own interventions and support for its impact on literacy acquisition at the same time as committing to supporting National Literacy Action Plans.

The time to invest in literacy is now. The education related Sustainable Development Goals provide us with an unprecedented mandate to increase quality and prioritize the needs of the most disadvantaged children. On International Literacy Day the world must re-affirm its commitment to ensure every last child can read.