How to improve the quality of education in Latin America

˙ PREAL Blog

This post is also available in: Spanish

The most important question education practitioners in Latin America need to answer today is how countries can improve the quality of their education. Latin American students are spending more time in school than ever before, but they are not acquiring the skills needed for success in the labor market.

However one measures skills (via international or national tests) our students are not learning much. The percent of students who can’t read by the end of basic education is, for example, alarming. The continent has made progress in achieving quantitative but not qualitative education goals.

Why? The literature provides plenty of explanations, ranging from student’s socioeconomic conditions to inefficiencies in the use of the available resources in the classroom, as well as weaknesses of the education systems. Today I want to propose one factor that has been highlighted by some lately: that many teachers do not know how to teach reading effectively, leading to an inability to read at level early on in the education cycle. The argument is simple. Many students do not know how to read even a single word by third grade and this affects their achievement throughout their education cycle. Early-grade reading strongly affects the efficiency of an education system. Much grade repetition and dropout could be avoided if students were able to read at the required speed early on. Early grade reading skills also increase the probability that students will stay in the system and learn. Over the longer term, it has implications for individual productivity in the labor market. This is an issue that affects most students but particularly those from lower-middle and low-income families.

Some say that improving the quality of education systems requires a systemic approach rather than relying on any single education reform, but if I were in charge of an education system and seeking to improve quality, my top priority would be improving the way students are taught to read. How to do it? I would propose what is being developed and tested in some countries worldwide by some donors, governments, and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). Basically, the idea is to improve comprehension by:

  1. Improving teaching effectiveness with scripted lessons, direct instruction, and supervision;
  2. Guaranteeing instructional time use (claiming specific reading time during the week in and outside of the classroom, including home);
  3. Providing relevant reading materials (with proper visuals like large letters, spacing, few and small pictures, but mostly textbooks with sufficient practice material);
  4. Changing pedagogical practice (teaching letters one by one, develop automaticity, increasing phonological awareness);
  5. Developing a simple standard that all stakeholders can understand and measuring it to monitor progress, including providing feedback to all students (i.e., number of words read per minute, or fluency, because there is a strong correlation between speed and comprehension based on neuroscience); and
  6. Getting parents involved.

An EGRA (Early Grade Reading Assessment) instrument has been developed to implement this approach. It includes activities to develop literacy skills (emergent literacy, decoding, and confirmation and fluency), and tasks covering phonemic awareness, phoneme segmentation, oral vocabulary, listening comprehension, letter identification (names and sounds), syllable naming, non-word reading, familiar word reading, and oral reading fluency with comprehension.

One positive aspect is that the approach is already supported by preliminary solid evidence about its benefits. For example, in a couple of countries in Africa illiterate students were cut in half over the course of just a couple of years! In a sample of schools in a Latin American country findings were of a similar nature.

Those interested in more detailed information can see the following two publications by Abadzi, and by Gove and Wetterberg.

The author is an Independent Consultant with 35 years of international experience in the education sector.

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