Newsletter 210 - "Learning to Read and Write for Meaning and Pleasure"

NIC SPAULL - "Learning to Read and Write for Meaning and Pleasure"


  • Learning to read and write for meaning and pleasure are arguably the two most important skills that children learn in primary school.
  • Yet, a consistent body of research points to the fact that the vast majority of children in developing countries do not acquire this fundamental skill (Pritchett, 2013; Muralidharan, 2013; Spaull & Taylor, 2015).
  • While almost all children will naturally acquire oral language (the systematic representation of meaning using speech sounds), fewer than half will learn how to read (the systematic encoding of meaning using print).
  • Around the world reading researchers are increasingly turning their attention to early literacy in developing countries and asking why so many children don’t learn to read despite their having access to formal schooling (World Bank, 2018).
  • The current volume brings together researchers from Latin America (Argentina and Chile), India, Southern Africa (South Africa and Zambia), and West Africa (Burkina Faso, Niger, and Senegal), providing diverse perspectives on early literacy in their respective countries.
  • Drawing together quantitative researchers, linguists, and educationists from four continents, the book shows that irrespective of epistemologies or methodologies, all researchers stress the need for a more nuanced understanding of how early literacy unfolds in developing countries.
  • Importantly, the majority of these researchers lives and works in the countries and regions they are analysing, bringing contextual insights that may be overlooked by researchers living abroad.


  • (The) lack of research and theory is problematic when one considers the current scholarly consensus that children should first learn to read in a language they speak and understand (Snow, 2017; August and Shanahan, 2006).
  • Emerging quantitative research from South Africa and Kenya points to the clear benefits of mother-tongue instruction in the first years of school (Taylor and von Fintel, 2016; Piper et al., 2016; but see also Piper et al., 2018, for a cautionary note).
  • To illustrate the centrality of language in early grade reading – and to provide a helpful heuristic for analysis in this chapter – I have visualized, organized, and adapted2 the ‘5 T’s of early literacy’ proposed by RTI (Bulat et al., 2017, p. 1).
  • This scheme summarizes the many necessary conditions (and ongoing challenges) for early grade reading in developing countries. The adapted 5 T’s are Teaching, Texts, Tests, Training, and Tongue (language) (Figure 1).
  • All of these factors are influenced by the context within which the school operates, particularly the cultural orientations and attitudes towards reading and education, as well as whether the minimum conditions for learning have been met (basic nutrition, non-extreme class sizes, essential learning materials, and so on).
  • Before entering a discussion of these 5 T’s, it is worth emphasizing the primacy of the ‘minimum conditions for learning’ with a short sketch of a typical teacher’s situation. Illustrating the context within which many teachers must work helps to anchor expectations of what is possible given classroom realities in some countries.
  • A 2014 nationally representative survey of 10 Francophone African countries, namely, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Senegal, Chad, and Togo, found that 22% of primary school pupils were in schools that had no toilet facilities whatsoever (CONFEMEN, 2015, p. 104). In Togo, Chad, and Côte d’Ivoire, the figure is 40%. In Niger, the average Grade 2 class had 48 pupils in it, with much higher class sizes in Senegal (52 pupils per class), Benin  (57 pupils per class), and a bewildering 80 Grade 2 pupils per class in Burkina Faso (CONFEMEN, 2015, p. 99). When the average Grade 2 Burkinabe teacher has 80 seven-year-olds in a single class, teaching more than a small minority of them to read is simply not possible. Assuming these elementary conditions are met, what are the factors that contribute to early literacy in developing countries?
  • The first T in Figure 1 is Teaching, and its quality is determined to a large extent by the second T, Training. There is now a large body of consistent research revealing the essential components of teaching reading (Castles et al., 2018), supported by the latest findings in neuroscience (Dehaene, 2009; Seidenberg, 2017).
  • These all foreground another ‘Big Five’ aspects of reading: (1) Phonemic Awareness, the ability to manipulate the smallest units of sounds (phonemes) in words; (2) Phonics, the systematic relationship between letters and sounds; (3) Fluency, the ability      to read quickly and accurately; (4) Vocabulary, one’s breadth and depth of word knowledge; and (5) Comprehension, the ability to understand what is being read (Bulat et al., 2017; National Reading Panel, 2000).
  • Unfortunately, these ‘scientific’ understandings of reading are rarely included in teacher training programs for either in-service or pre-service teachers. Both the length and the quality of initial teacher training will determine to a large extent whether teachers are equipped to teach reading. Turning again to the Francophone African context, two thirds of early primary teachers in Francophone Africa (64%), have received only one year, if that, of teacher training, with 22% having received no professional training whatsoever (CONFEMEN, 2015, p. 121).
  • What further complicates this issue is that the vast majority of reading research has been conducted on English, which is by no means a typical language. This brings us to the third T, Tongue. As a field of researchers, we would do well to heed Pretorius’ admonition in the current volume, repeated in full below:

While Pretorius speaks from the South African context with African languages in mind, Sinha (current volume) shares similar but different concerns in relation to reading in Hindi (India):

This vast body of research, as well as the building of theory, took place outside India in developed countries whose languages have alphabetic scripts. But Indian script, such as that of Hindi, is alphasyllabic. This raises questions. How can theories developed with a different type of script apply to Indian languages? (Padakannaya and Mohanty, 2004). (Sinha, current volume)

In a similar vein, Menon and her co-authors (current volume) document in some detail the practical difficulties of teaching reading using Indian scripts, and specifically the question of how to sequence the acquisition of aksharas (letters    of the Indian script) when teaching children to read. This issue speaks to the Text component of the 5 T’s – which texts, and what types of texts, should be used when teaching children to read? What their research shows is that the easiest words to write in Kannada (one of the Indian languages) are also words that are unfamiliar to children, while everyday words are often more difficult to write, since they include modifications to the aksharas in the form of maatras (secondary vowel diacritics). Thus, there is a trade-off between postponing word formation until children know how to use aksharas and maatras to form words they know orally, or quickly starting the forming of words whose meaning they do not know. Menon and her co-authors’ discussion is especially revealing:

In contemporary Indian curricula, the emphasis is on forming meaningful words from the beginning. Hence, the order of introducing the base aksharas has been reorganized to permit the formation of words. However, curriculum designers hesitate to introduce symbols for maatras or conjunct consonant sounds too early – perhaps acknowledging the difficulties that young learners may have in simultaneously mastering so many different symbols of the script. Therefore, in order to make meaningful words, they need to find words that use only the inherent vocalic sounds in the base aksharas. Such words can, indeed, be made – but they tend to be words that are not commonly used by young children in their oral language, and are often words derived from the classical Sanskrit language – one of the languages of erudition and scholarship in earlier times. Therefore, the first words learned by a child in school tend to be those that are not in the spoken oral vocabulary of young children, and that represent objects and emotions that the child may have no organic relationship with. For example, the word ‘salaga’ (Sanskrit word meaning ‘tusker’) is easier to form from the aksharas introduced, than the word ‘aane’ (Kannada word meaning ‘elephant’ – which has a maatra). Likewise, the word ‘dhana’ (Sanskrit word for ‘wealth’) is easier to form than the word ‘rokka’ (dialectic word for ‘money’ in certain parts of Karnataka – which has a conjunct consonant symbol and a maatra in it). In our work, we observed a large number of specialized words being introduced to young children engaged in the task of akshara-mastery in their classrooms … While the surface features of the curricula have shifted – ostensibly towards meaning-making … the deep structures of teaching and learning literacy remain largely divorced from meaning-making. Thus, children aspiring to be first-generation literates in their families spend the better part of two years seeing pictures and copying down words representing tuskers and kings, chainsaws and inlaid necklaces – which have little or nothing to do with what they might actually want to learn or talk about. We asked a first grader why the words he used at home for different objects were different from the words he learned at school. He looked incredulously at us and responded: ‘At home, we speak in Kannada. At school, I am learning English!’ This first grader had not realized that the language he was learning at school was not, in fact, English, but school-based Kannada. (Menon et al., current volume)

Issues raised by these and other authors in the current volume point to fundamental questions about the way literacy is conceptualised and taught in developing countries. Furthermore, these examples point only to the technical elements children battle as they try to become code-breakers, not to mention the challenges they face when becoming meaning-makers or text-critics (Luke and Freebody, 1999). Again, Menon and her co-authors show how cultural understandings of literacy can be especially difficult to overcome. They show that in India, where texts are used in religious contexts for ritual purposes, meaning is ‘assumed to reside in the text and not in  the minds of the readers. Individual meaning-making and interpretation were not significant to the functions or practices of this form of literacy.’ As a result, teachers tend to ‘favour shared interpretations of text over individual interpretations’. As  the authors conclude, ‘When we speak of designing powerful reforms to literacy instruction, we’re seeking to accomplish nothing short of cultural change.’ It is these types of insights – and there are many in the current volume – that make clear the need for more research on early reading and writing in the languages children speak and the contexts within which they live in developing countries. Throughout the volume, the reader will see that authors engage with different components of the 5 T’s  model. In the first chapter, McLachlan provides a helpful overview of  the dominant ideas in early reading and concludes that “any literacy policy needs  to be based on two things: on relevant language and literacy practices in African countries and on the evidence generated by research regarding the knowledge and skills that children need for literacy acquisition”. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with Tests and measurement from both a theoretical perspective (Afflerbach) and an applied perspective focussing on Burkina Faso and Senegal (Spaull and Lilenstein). Savage and Côté (in Chapter 5) look at Tongue and ask if there are relevant lessons to be learnt from the Canadian model of language immersion. The authors in Chapters 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 discuss in some depth the Training element of early literacy, reflecting on experiences in India, Zambia, Chile and Argentina. The pioneering work of Pretorius and of Menon and her colleagues extend our understanding of how Tongue and Teaching work together to help or hinder early literacy. Finally, the authors of chapters 12 through 16 reflect on a multiyear intervention in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Senegal, foregrounding the importance of alignment across the 5 T’s. Given how little scholarly attention has been paid to this area of the world, these five chapters offer valuable insights into the practical challenges and opportunities of educational reform in developing countries.

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