Newsletter 211 - "Learning to Read and Write for Meaning and Pleasure"

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




Any discussion of early literacy in developing countries would be incomplete without a short overview of the nationally representative learning outcomes in these countries. Over the last 20 years, there has been a proliferation of cross-national assessments of reading outcomes (Gustafsson, 2018), allowing for international and inter-temporal comparisons of achievement.

Figure 2 below shows the percentage of Grade 2 students who could not read a single word from a short text in the language in which they were being taught. In this selection of countries from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, it is clear that at least a third of children, and in some countries (Malawi, India, and Ghana) as many as 80% of children are completely reading illiterate after two years of formal full-time schooling.

  • Given this book’s special emphasis on Burkina Faso, Niger, and Senegal
  • This study revealed that at the end of Grade  2, half (52%) of all the children assessed could not read 10 letters of the alphabet correctly in one minute.
  • Only 25% could read more than 20 letters correctly in one minute (CONFEMEN, 2015, p. 38). In Benin, Chad, and Niger, more than two thirds of Grade 2 pupils do not know all of the letters of the alphabet (Figure 3).
  • Looking again to the chapters in the current volume, Spaull and Lilenstein use household survey data together with results from literacy assessments to analyse    a nationally representative cohort of Burkinabe and Senegalese children aged 11   to 15 years old.
  • They find that only 23–34% of each cohort had both completed Grade 2 and acquired basic literacy (23% in Burkina Faso, and 34% in Senegal). For the poorest 40% of children the rates are 11–21%. Many of these results may be difficult to interpret for those in the West unfamiliar with the types of tests conducted in developing countries in Africa and Asia (such as the EGRA, ASER or UWEZO tests). In the few instances when developing countries do participate in the same international assessments with wealthier countries, the magnitude of the differences becomes truly apparent. In the 2016 round of the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS), 78% of Grade 4 pupils in South Africa could not read for meaning in any language (the PIRLS Low International Benchmark), compared to 69% in Egypt and 64% in Morocco (Mullis et al., 2017, p. 55). The international median across all 50 participating countries was 4%, with figures of 5% in Germany, 4% in the United States, and 3% in England. Given the hierarchical nature of reading and the fact that reading for meaning is a prerequisite for further engagement with the curriculum, it is to be expected that these stark differences at the Grade 4 level are even larger in higher grades.
  • In 2015, a selection of developing countries participated in the well-known Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses 15-year-olds who are still enrolled in school.
  • Fewer than 10% of 15-year- olds in school in Cambodia, Senegal, or Zambia were functionally literate (PISA Level 2), compared to the OECD average of 80% in 50 wealthy countries (OECD, 2018, p. 7).
  • This is all the more concerning when one considers that in 2015 only   a third of Cambodian, Senegalese, and Zambian 15-year-olds were actually still in school (OECD, 2018, p. 7).


  • The education challenge facing the global  community  is  immense.
  • In  addition to addressing the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals (equitable access and universal primary school completion), there are now the  extra challenges of ensuring all children acquire ‘effective and relevant learning outcomes’, interpreted here as reading and writing for meaning and pleasure.
  • The research findings documented in this volume help move the early literacy discussion forward in important ways by suggesting a number of new avenues for linguistic and pedagogical research.
  • This includes the call for linguistically informed approaches to early literacy instruction; the alignment of training, materials, and assessment; and the need for the development of lexicons and grammars for under-studied languages.
  • While this volume has contributed to our understanding of early literacy in these developing countries, it has also left us with more questions than answers.
  • The only way to meet the education challenge posed by Sustainable Development Goal 4 will be to facilitate a shift in research priorities and funding towards developing countries: their languages, their contexts, and their policy challenges.
  • There is good reason   to do so. Ensuring that all children can read and write for meaning and pleasure will bear countless dividends for humanity as a whole. The benefits to education   in general, and literacy specifically, are manifold and include lower fertility (Basu, 2002), improved child health (Currie, 2009), reduced societal violence and improved human rights (Salmi, 2000), increased economic growth (Hanushek and Woessman, 2008), promotion of a national – as opposed to a regional or ethnic – identity (Glewwe, 2002), and increased social cohesion (Heyneman, 2003).
  • Over and above these singular benefits, learning to read for meaning and pleasure is arguably the best way to expand children’s capabilities and freedoms, enabling them to pursue the sorts of lives they have reason to value (Sen, 1999).