Officially proclaimed 50 years ago by UNESCO to promote literacy as an instrument of empowerment, today is International Literacy Day. It is also the first year of implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development Goal 4 aims to ensure that by 2030 everyone at the very least achieves literacy.

Indeed, literacy is key to building the human capital of the poor which will allow them to escape poverty and promote economic growth. Education holds great promise. The returns to schooling are high.  Globally, another year of schooling raises returns by 10 percent a year.  Education boasts a number of other high return social benefits.

But to be truly productive, education must lead to learning, and the basis of learning is early reading.

Families recognize this. There has been a tremendous increase in schooling attainment in recent decades.  In 2010, the world population aged 15 and above is estimated to have an average of 8 years of schooling.  This is almost double the level of average schooling three decades earlier.

Yet, there are estimated to be more than 124 million children out of primary and lower secondary school.

Even more importantly, it is estimated that 250 million cannot read or write although many have been to school.  Schools in many developing countries are failing to teach the basic skills.  The basic skill that is missing is reading. Early grade reading tests reveal that only low proportions of students can read a simple sentence with ease and comprehension.

Proportion of Students with Zero Scores on Oral Reading Fluency


Source: World Bank 2015


To improve education system performance successful countries begin by investing early, and in relevant skills. The most relevant early skill is reading.

The irony is that we know how to reading. It is a low cost investment. It is cost-effective. Moreover, the reading gains accrue very quickly.  A few examples:

  • Brazil’s Literacy Program at the Right Age (Pacto pela Alfabetização na Idade Certa, PAIC) had a positive effect on student achievement, raising reading scores in Portuguese by 0.07-0.10 standard deviations
  •  The Reading to Learn program in Kenya and Uganda produced significant results: Ugandan literacy increased by 0.2 standard deviations
  •  The Reader Booster Program in Papua New Guinea produced results in just 8 months, raising reading and writing fluency by 25 percent (from a low of 4 percent), or 0.51 standard deviations; a remarkable benefit given that the cost of the program is only $60 per student
  •  EGRA in Liberia led to an increased reading score by an unheard of 0.79 standard deviations, or the equivalent of 1.2 times the effect of being in school for one year

Early reading success is a good predictor of later success. It is a good predictor of better reading later in life and a good predictor of educational success.  It is also a good predictor of labor market success.  In fact, a one standard deviation increase in reading scores at age 10 is associated with earning 15 percent more per week at age 30 in Britain.

We know how to teach reading. We just need to do it.


Follow Harry Patrinos on Twitter at @hpatrinos.