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Literacy, foundation learning and assessment in developing countries

What do we want to know?

What is the evidence pertaining to foundation learning and literacy in developing countries with linguistically and culturally diverse populations? Which interventions and pedagogic practices are optimal for fostering positive educational outcomes in these education systems? The main aims were: to consider the impact of children’s cognitive and linguistic skills as well as classroom and home literacy practices on attainments; to identify ‘what works’ in terms of literacy and numeracy interventions; to highlight the ‘enabling conditions’ needed for interventions to be implemented effectively.

Who wants to know and why?

This review, commissioned by the Department for International Development (DfID), UK, focused on foundation learning and literacy in developing countries. It aimed to:

  1. review existing evidence regarding variations in children’s literacy learning from preschool to Grade 8, and mathematical reasoning and numeracy learning up to Grade 2
  2. to assess the quality of evidence on effective assessment and intervention strategies, and
  3. to identify critical evidence gaps to guide the development of research on raising educational standards.

What did we find?

In the multilingual contexts of developing countries, children with low proficiency in the school language are disadvantaged particularly because strong foundations in oral language are essential to enable fluent reading with understanding. Literacy-related assessment in the early grades has focused on symbol knowledge, and to a lesser extent phonological awareness, but not on the critical skills of vocabulary and grammar; likewise the assessment of numeracy focuses on arithmetic operations and seldom includes mathematical reasoning. Interventions targeting language skills are beneficial for literacy development and, if delivered early, can provide a scaffold for learning across the curriculum. Children’s performance in numeracy improves when teachers support their reading (and comprehension) of problems and they are permitted to give the solution in the home language.

The overall strength of the body of evidence is moderate, with a combination of high- and moderate-quality randomized and quasi-experimental studies evaluating interventions.  Studies were not directly comparable, having different aims and research methods and a variety of outcome indicators. 

What are the conclusions?

The evidence base is vast but even among studies of moderate to high quality, the ecological validity of studies was variable, and many of the excluded studies documented ‘good practice’. With this proviso, the evidence is that good oral language skills are the key to learning and associated with positive child outcomes.  Much classroom instruction and intervention is top-down rather than child-centred and there is little targeting of fundamentally important skills known to underpin reading, writing and numeracy. In this light, key targets for intervention are the establishment of oral language skills, most notably, phonological awareness, comprehension of spoken language and vocabulary, inferencing skills necessary for reading comprehension and mathematical reasoning.

How did we get these results?

Seventeen electronic databases and the websites of key governmental and non-governmental organisations were searched; and citations referenced in identified papers were followed up for literature published from 1990 to 2013. Included in the review are (a) reports of primary data arising from experimental methods or from observational studies using statistical, ethnographic or other qualitative-descriptive methods of analysis and (b) intervention studies employing randomised controlled trials (RCTs) or quasi-experimental designs (QEDs) with a sample size of above 32. We excluded policy documents, opinion pieces, and reviews.

Following pre-screening of 11,424 papers against broad inclusion criteria, stage two considered potentially eligible papers using narrow criteria and stage 3, screening within 5 themes: literacy learning, language learning, mathematical reasoning and numeracy, interventions for children, and contextual factors. Thus 262 eligible papers that met the inclusion criteria of relevance and methodological quality were selected for the in-depth review consisting of both a narrative and a systematic review.

The EPPI-Centre reference number for this report is 2201.

Nag S, Chiat S, Torgerson C, Snowling MJ (2014) Literacy, foundation learning and assessment in developing countries. Education Rigorous Literature Review. London: Department for International Development.

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