Literacy Program

Being able to read and write is essential. Written words are gateways to knowledge and opportunity that are only accessible to those with the ability to decipher them. Yet 250 million children, almost 40% of all primary school-age children in the world, are not learning basics like reading and writing.

Our Literacy Program aims to tackle this challenge and help children become independent readers — with not only reading skills but also a habit of reading that will serve them throughout their lives.

Room to Read helps build children’s reading skills by partnering with education ministries to supplement gaps that exist in the standard reading and writing curriculum — providing resources, in-service teacher training and classroom enhancements.

Room to Read supported literacy instruction in 10 languages in 2015. In all these languages, children in program schools showed statistically significant gains in reading fluency when compared with their peers in nearby schools. On average, children in schools supported by Room to Read were reading nearly twice as fast.

The fact that we have so consistently observed these improvements in children’s reading skills is hugely encouraging. Even so, many children continue to struggle. Local challenges can be significant: in many regions, parental illiteracy rates are high, families keep few or no books at home, and the surrounding environment may have few written signs or other text that would give children a chance to practice.

Globally, 40 percent of the children we have assessed in program schools are reaching our target reading fluency of 45 words per minute by the end of second grade. This target is derived from a rule-of-thumb estimation of the minimum reading fluency required for effective comprehension, based on research in high-income countries.1

In 2015, we introduced a new “emerging reader” benchmark of 20 words per minute. Sixty-seven percent of second-graders we assessed were reading at or above this fluency level. Tracking children’s reading skills against these two benchmarks helps us understand our progress. Our goal is to see more and more children establishing the firm foundation of literacy skills they need to thrive.

To reach this goal, we have worked to simplify and standardize our teacher-training curriculum over the past several years, so that teachers can focus on approaches with proven benefits for children’s reading. This includes a focus on five critical components of literacy: phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

One country that has already implemented many elements of the updated program design is Sri Lanka. During our recent assessment in Sinhala-language schools, we saw some of the highest fluency scores we have recorded to date.

Room to Read is a leading nonprofit supporting children's literacy & girls' education. We report our impact annual through our Global Monitoring Report.

Sri Lanka Soars in Words Per Minute

“Who wants to read out loud?” asked Indrani, a second-grade teacher at Kumbukwewa Nimalasiri Primary School in the Anuradhapura district of Sri Lanka.

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> 50

words per minute in India & Sri Lanka.

Room to Read is a leading nonprofit supporting children's literacy & girls' education. We report our impact annual through our Global Monitoring Report.
Room to Read is a leading nonprofit supporting children's literacy & girls' education. We report our impact annual through our Global Monitoring Report.

2x

as fast as their peers in South Africa.

2x

as fast as their peers in South Africa.

3x

as fast as their peers in Nepal.

3x

as fast as their peers in Nepal.

Room to Read is a leading nonprofit supporting children's literacy & girls' education. We report our impact annual through our Global Monitoring Report.

Reading skills are only one side of the equation. Our Literacy Program also aims to help children develop a habit of reading. When children truly love reading, when they take their own initiative to seek out books simply because books are interesting or fun, they open endless new possibilities to learn about the world around them.

Together, reading habits and reading skills can be mutually reinforcing — children who love to read will practice and improve their skills, while children with better reading skills will be able to explore new books with ease, encouraging them to read more and more.

Our 2015 Reading Promotion Study provided evidence for this relationship between skills and habits. We also know from our School Libraries Cross-National Evaluation that children in schools with Room to Read libraries were significantly more likely to report reading for enjoyment at school and at home than their peers in schools without Room to Read libraries.2

Our primary indicator of children’s habit of reading is library book checkout. In 2015 more than 7.8 million books were checked out by students across all Room to Read libraries. This represents an average of 9.5 books for every child enrolled in primary grades in the schools where we work.

Last year’s Global Monitoring Report also presented results from assessments in three countries to determine the percentage of children who checked out at least one book. Statistics like these help us to understand whether the checkout patterns we observe are representative of the experience of most students, or just a small number of high achievers. This year, we are for the first time able to report that globally, most children with access to Room to Read libraries do check out books. This is true even among first-grade students, most of whom are just beginning to understand their languages’ alphabets.

This finding helps to validate our emphasis on providing a range of books tailored to the abilities of children at all reading levels. Challenging or complex texts can intimidate students and discourage their practice. Unfortunately, books for early readers are often limited or nonexistent in the countries where we work.

Room to Read is a leading nonprofit supporting children's literacy & girls' education. We report our impact annual through our Global Monitoring Report.

To remedy this, we create local-language materials that readers at various levels can enjoy. These books cover topics that capture children’s imaginations and make reading fun. Our goal is to inspire children to read, expand their minds and develop a lifelong love for reading and learning. As of 2015, we have published 1,300 original children’s book titles.
In two countries — South Africa and Zambia — it has been difficult to stock libraries with enough high-quality, local-language books to meet the needs of students. These two countries face some significant operational challenges that are less severe in most other countries where Room to Read works, including school overcrowding, extremely high printing costs and a vast diversity of languages. Perhaps as a result, many libraries in these countries have struggled with low checkout rates.

Country teams are currently developing strategies to address these issues through new partnerships and expanded use of high-quality materials from the public domain. In the meantime, the challenges these countries face make it especially important for Room to Read to continue investing in supporting and enhancing the vital role played by well-trained, dedicated teachers and librarians in helping children to develop a love of reading. Our Reading Promotion Study used evidence from three countries, including South Africa, to show that such educators have a demonstrable impact on children’s reading habits.

Growing a Love of Reading in South Africa

When Gosiama was in second grade he didn’t much care for books, or school for that matter. “Recognizing sounds and writing sentences was a serious problem for Gosiama,” said Annah Rakau, his second-grade teacher at Refentse Primary School in the Gauteng province of South Africa.

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70%

increase in books checked out in Cambodia.

Room to Read is a leading nonprofit supporting children's literacy & girls' education. We report our impact annual through our Global Monitoring Report.
Room to Read is a leading nonprofit supporting children's literacy & girls' education. We report our impact annual through our Global Monitoring Report.

15.1

books per child checked out, on average, in Tanzania.

15.1

books per child checked out, on average, in Tanzania.

> 85%

involvement of students in India who checked out at least 1 book.

> 85%

involvement of students in India who checked out at least 1 book.

In 2015, we provided professional development and in-school coaching to 9,232 teachers and librarians.

This includes more than 2,000 first- and second-grade teachers who received high-quality training on how to teach children to read, based on up-to-date research and international best practices. With our support, these teachers then provided literacy instruction to more than 80,000 students.

To ensure that these teachers have all the support they need, in recent years we have made a significant investment in strengthening our professional development processes by hiring additional field staff and improving operational systems in each country. As a result of this investment, 2015 was the first year in which 100 percent of the teachers we trained received two support visits or more every month from our literacy coaches.

We also train educators on how to manage a library and how to conduct activities that encourage students to read independently. To ensure that libraries continue supporting the development of children’s habit of reading, twice a year we assess each library and assign it a rating based on a checklist of indicators of proper library functioning, providing immediate feedback and support on any areas where improvement is needed. This process leads to rapid improvement: from the first assessment in 2015 to the second, the percentage of libraries receiving the top rating of “Highly Functioning” rose from 23 percent to 41 percent.

Room to Read is a leading nonprofit supporting children's literacy & girls' education. We report our impact annual through our Global Monitoring Report.

A Veteran Teacher Perfects Her Style

Khieavanh Khanouthai had been teaching first grade at Nongdern Complete Primary School in Laos for 22 years. Yet students were leaving her class unable to read.

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