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Learning Letter by Letter in Mahbubnagar District, India

Photo: UNESCO Bangkok

There are many opinions on how children learn to read. Many of them are based in experiences of teaching kids from typical middle-income families in the west. I started reading stories aloud to my girls when they were about 4 months old. Our kids are exposed to books early on. By the time our middle-class kids are about 6 months old they already know which side of the book opens and pretend to read, using their little fingers to trace the action of the story. Soon they even start copying the sound (of reading), repeating the sentences on the pages that they’ve heard so many times.

However, these experiences of my kids and others from similar middle income families do not speak to the reality that millions of children from low-income backgrounds are faced with. The chart below, representing several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, shows that at the end of 4thgrade, fewer than 30 percent of the children can read a paragraph (except Tanzanian children in Kiswahili). This implies that these children have been in school for 3 years or more and can’t read simple sentences in their local languages.

Source: World Bank (2018). Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa.  Regional Study on the Quality of Basic Education,. Tokyo, 3rdSeptember 2018.  Accessed

Grade 4 curricula in the countries listed in this table aren’t so different…


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