Learning to teach to read

However, data shows increasing literacy rates in all of the regions being monitored against the Education for All goals. This reported progress, unfortunately, is based on census data collection practices with acknowledged flaws, including self-declaration of reading and writing skills by survey respondents for themselves and members of their household, and the dichotomous nature of the statistic—literate or illiterate.

It is has been recognized in recent years by entities measuring these statistics that literacy is a continuum and measuring against one indicator limits our capacity to identify the existence of  a functionally literate society, in which everyone can live up to their full potential and become meaningful contributors. As we strive to refine our research, monitoring and evaluation processes, it is pertinent that we simultaneously improve our efforts in strengthening the foundation of a truly literate society—sound methods to ensure reading and writing proficiency or language literacy in early grades is taught by skilled educators with support from local governments.

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Language literacy is a necessary framework for a higher order of thinking, learning and action. If children around the world are not learning to read and write in the primary years of their schooling, then they will not be equipped to benefit in a tangible way from the educational experience. With the asset of language literacy taught by trained teachers, the next generation of leaders will achieve their goals and potential and be successful in their local communities.

This aspiration, albeit, has intrinsic challenges. In order to reach the Education for All goals we must acknowledge the complexity of learning to read. An acquired skill—unlike learning to speak which is hardwired in all of us—learning to read demands a practical and scalable solution if illiteracy is to be eradicated effectively. Initially, we can identify areas where the current early grade literacy curriculum and teacher training fall short, and then work with education experts to develop a program that addresses those issues.

Furthermore, reading and writing instruction requires specified teacher training and appropriate teaching materials such as decodable readers—books that enable students to read and spell by teaching sounds and their corresponding symbols— in order to impact communities. In my own work as chief program officer of the global literacy and girls’ education organization Room to Read, I have seen the positive outcomes of implementing and scaling these measures across districts, provinces and communities in remote and impoverished regions, where illiteracy is an epidemic. By testing the reading fluency skills of students in our partner schools against those of control schools with similar enrollment and demographics, we can assess our impact based on students’ learning outcomes, and make any necessary adjustments in our approach.

Recent evaluations of Room to Literacy program indicate a positive impact on the development of students’ literacy skills including higher rates of reading fluency—the ability to read more words per minute and answer additional comprehension questions correctly after reading a passage.

Modifications to teacher education, creating environments where reading is valued and encouraged, identifying sympathetic partners and ministries of education, and establishing feedback and monitoring systems—both through teacher assessment of students and more rigorous, quantitative assessments— all help us focus on and value the process of learning to read.

By simply referencing current data, we can assume global literacy is on the rise. If the methods by which we are judging this benchmark are fickle at best, is the data really doing justice to the complex problems the world faces? With statistics that do not paint the full picture, it is important that together— particularly as we celebrate International Literacy Day and back to school season here at home— we seek out and champion measures, such as enhanced instruction for educators teaching reading skills, to fill the gaps build a true legacy of literacy together.

Heyman is the chief program officer of Room to Read, a global organization seeking to transform the lives of millions of children across Asia and Africa through literacy and gender equality in education.