Tens of millions of children across Latin America and the Caribbean will be returning to school in 2021 and 2022, handicapped by learning losses from COVID-19 shutdowns that have lasted longer than in any other region of the world. Very young children, those from vulnerable and rural households, and those with learning difficulties, will face particularly daunting challenges: challenges, which might hamper their future academic trajectories, limit their potential lifelong income, and diminish their country’s long-term productivity.
Amid difficult circumstances, helping those who have fallen behind is a moral and an economic imperative. It is crucial for the poor who may have had less access to parental support and remote learning tools during lockdowns. It is essential for those who already lacked some of the building blocks of learning, like the ability to read fluently.
A Literacy Experiment in Colombia
The IDB, which has been working on remedial education for a long time, has found through a recent experiment in Colombia that small, cost-effective tutorial sessions can make an immense difference. They can help kids struggling with reading catch up with more advanced peers and reduce developmental handicaps that are virtually inevitable when kids fail to master basic literacy skills, a critical building block for all other learning. They also have spill over effects in areas like mathematics and contain methodologies applicable to other areas of educational pursuit.
About 20% of the global adult population is illiterate. Prior, to the pandemic, more than half of 10-year-old children in Latin America and the Caribbean were suffering from handicaps in learning, being unable to read and comprehend a small written paragraph. These limitations were of such concern to the Secretary of Education of Manizales, a medium-sized Colombian city seated high in the central mountain chain of the Andes, and Fundación Luker, that through a partnership with the IDB, they endeavoured to create and evaluate a remedial literacy program for third graders struggling to read at the appropriate age-level.
The sequence of experiments, which began in 2015 and finished in 2017, involved 2,000 mostly poor children at 90 different schools in Manizales. Selection was based on performance of a simple fluency test: Children who read less than 60 words per minute by the middle of third grade. Given logistical and budgetary limitations, schools were randomly assigned to either the treatment or the control groups. The treatment group received 40-minutes sessions from a tutor three times a week during the school day for up to 16 weeks. The control group continued with their normal educational activities.
The logistics of the intervention were critical. Tutors, often in the early years of a teaching training program, were given eight-hours of initial training as well as follow-up coaching. They were charged with providing highly structured remedial sessions involving no more than six students at a time. During these sessions, the tutors explained what they were going to do at the beginning of every session, modelled the target activity for students, got students to practice on their own, and provided feedback. Instruction was based on a structured phonics approach, which involves developing phonemic awareness skills and explicitly teaching students sound-letter correspondence (decoding). The program also included reading fluency exercises, reading comprehension strategies, and vocabulary.
Refining the Approach to Literacy Training
Evidence suggests that the tutoring sessions, while initially less effective, improved considerably over time with refinement and increased compliance. By the end of the first 12-week sessions, the literacy skills of children exposed to the tutorials increased by 35 percent, compared to the average student. Subsequent improvements to the intervention produced even better results. As the sessions were increased to 16 weeks for two subsequent cohorts and materials were fine-tuned, students began to increasingly master the ability to sound out letters and read more fluidly. Literacy gains rose by 55 percent for the second group. By the third round, gains were three times larger than the ones observed during the first one. This represented significant progress compared to other popular interventions for literacy enhancement, like introducing computers and decreasing class size. Furthermore, the gains persisted over time: students in the treatment group continued to outperform those in the control group by the end of fourth grade, a year later.
Interestingly, the targeted, structured sessions also had positive spill over effects on math skills, ranging from about a quarter to a third of the effect on literacy gains. Students were probably better able to follow instructional materials and gained self-confidence, allowing them to perform better in mathematics. And at a cost of 89 dollars per student, the experience is eminently scalable. It could even result in reduced costs in larger school districts where tutors could teach more groups daily and maximize their efforts. Other strategies could include using volunteer and retired teachers.
The Urgency of the Educational Crisis
Learning in Latin America and the Caribbean, already hampered by results in reading, mathematics and science that are considerably behind those of OECD countries, has taken a huge hit with school closures. These effects will be particularly severe for poorer children who have had less access to computers, the internet and parental support. There are few things as important to the future of a country as effectively investing in its children’s education. There is no time to lose for implementing cost-effective literacy remediation programs and preventing potentially insurmountable challenges for the COVID generation.