Failing to Read: Why global disparities in reading skills matter and what we can do about it
© Thomas Cristofoletti / UNICEF
Nha Nha helps her sister Sopheap with her homework using a live streaming lesson on a smartphone in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Digital learning solutions only reach a global minority of children – some students have not had any contact with the remote learning programmes implemented by education systems since they require internet access, which is still a luxury in many homes around the world.
As we walked through classrooms in Bangladesh, we were struck by the hope and aspirations of the children. Already, children in grades three or four, said they wanted to be teachers, scientists, and prime ministers. They knew they must get an education in order achieve these dreams, but like so many children around the world, without evidence-informed interventions to close the gaps in literacy, their potential will remain unfulfilled. More and more, children around the world are failing to read – and it is expected to get worse due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The inability of 4 out of 10 children to master reading, one of the core foundational skills, is alarming, since it predicts their ability to gain other foundational, transferable, digital and job-specific skills later on in life.
In fact, these numbers might be even more alarming, since this data excludes the 59 million primary-aged children who are out of school. UNICEF-supported household-level assessments from 26 countries suggest that those children are 50 per cent less likely to acquire foundational reading skills compared to their peers in school.
The biggest impact on reading skills? Wealth. Globally, the poorest students are 40 per cent less likely to acquire foundational reading skills than the richest.
While foundational reading skills are almost universal among children in high-income countries, only one in nine students achieve minimum reading proficiency in low-income countries. The poorest children in wealthy countries read at higher levels than the wealthiest children in poor countries.
And the inequality continues even within countries – in lower-income countries, family income has a stronger effect on reading proficiency than it has in wealthy countries. In fact, in low income countries, the richest are four times more likely to be able to read than the poorest, while the difference in high income countries this difference is only around 13 per cent.
The evidence also shows another trend: the impact of gender on reading skills. According to the data, boys are 10 per cent less likely to acquire foundational reading skills by the end of primary education than girls. Interestingly, these findings vary significantly between countries: In Cambodia, Kuwait, Laos and Saudi Arabia boys are 30 per cent less likely to acquire foundational reading skills, while in Burundi, Chad and the Demographic Republic of Congo boys are 10 per cent more likely to have these skills at the end of primary.
"The solution? Coordinated global action to transform foundation learning and optimize human capital development in all countries. Support is needed for countries to ensure that children return to school as soon as possible and can access digital learning options with affordable devices, connectivity and electricity."
Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the limits of education systems worldwide and deprived children from acquiring important foundational skills. Evidence shows that even short interruptions in children’s schooling can have dire effects on their acquisition of those skills. And digital learning solutions only reach a global minority of children – some students have not had any contact with the remote learning programmes implemented by education systems. Many digital solutions require internet access, which is still a luxury in many homes around the world. In fact, only six percent of school-aged children in low-income countries have internet access at home compared to 86 per cent in high-income countries. Devices need electricity, yet still just under half (47 per cent) of households in sub-Saharan Africa have electricity. Great disparities exist within countries around wealth, in seven countries less than 10 per cent of the poorest households have access to electricity.
As this crisis deepens, a global learning catastrophe is unfolding, especially for poor children. Low levels of foundational skills and poor education put progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals at risk.
The solution? Coordinated global action to transform foundation learning and optimize human capital development in all countries. Support is needed for countries to ensure that children return to school as soon as possible and can access digital learning options with affordable devices, connectivity and electricity.
Pre-primary education needs to be prioritized to ensure that children are ready to transition to learning in the primary years. Urgent investment is needed for formative assessments to support learning and to ensure health, protection, and wellbeing needs of children are met.
As schools reopen, they must open doors wider in order to provide tailored support to bring in and support students most in need. We must support accelerated education initiatives that address disparities in foundational skills like these programmes for out-of-school children in Bangladesh, so that children who dream to be teachers and doctors achieve their full potential.
- Robert Jenkins, Global Director of Education for UNICEF, joined the organization in 1995. He brings over 20 years of experience in international development and humanitarian programming in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Follow Rob @RobertG_Jenkins on Twitter.
- Haogen Yao is an education specialist at UNICEF New York Headquarters, where he focuses on economic analysis of education and monitoring of education in emergency. Follow Haogen (Haogen Yao) on Linkedin.
- Kenneth Russell is an education specialist at UNICEF New York Headquarters, where he leads the organisation’s work on Primary Education including foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) including learning assessment, curriculum, and teacher training. Follow Kenneth (Kenneth A. Russell) on Linkedin.