How to tackle Learning Poverty? Delivering education’s promise to children across the world

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

A Tale of Two Girls

Two 6-year-old girls are about to start primary school. Maryam, a curious 6-year-old in Sofia (Bulgaria) will be lucky enough to attend a quality school where competent teachers are motivated and adequate learning resources are available. Monde, a girl of the same age who lives with her grandmother in the remotest part of Sikongo district in Zambia will unfortunately not get the chance to go to a school with minimum levels of quality.

Over the course of primary school, Maryam will benefit from effective teaching practices. Her teacher will give examples to illustrate concepts, provide guided practice, and give her friendly and personalized feedback. She will have a wide array of books to choose from, feeding her creative mind and providing contextual knowledge to everything she learns. By the end of second grade, she will be reading full sentences quickly and progressing to longer texts.

In contrast, Monde will struggle to read single words, let alone sentences. Her 1st grade teacher is not fluent in Silozi, which is used as language of instruction, she cannot get extra help because there are more than 60 pupils in her class and there are no story books at school. Further, Monde gets home from school tired because she walks two hours each way and fails to review her book and do her homework properly. She lives with her old grandmother who can’t read and write, and they use a different language (Sikwamashi) at home. Little Monde finds it hard to learn and lessons are sometimes confusing and not making sense. While her teachers will be doing their best to help her, soon enough, Monde will start to lose motivation and dislike going to school. By the end of primary school, Maryam will devour teenage novels while Monde will struggle to read even a simple short story.


Education’s promise

Eliminating learning poverty, defined as the share of children that by age 10 cannot read and understand a simple text, is as critical as eliminating extreme poverty, stunting or hunger. Societies, parents, and students know this, and have extraordinary faith in the power of education to transform lives. However, these benefits depend on the actual skills that students acquire. Families invest in education and send their kids to school, but years spent at school don’t matter if they are not reflected in learning, like happens to Monde.

The analysis of the impact of education in future earnings supports this, showing that quality of education matters more than years of schooling. Adults who finish primary with no learning earn only 6% more than those with no schooling, while those that finish primary and learn to read earn 38% more than those with no schooling (Wodon et al., forthcoming).

Learning poverty is today at 53 percent in low- and middle-income countries. So, for children like Monde, who are not able to read, concerted and dramatic action is needed to help them catch-up. If not, education’s promise will be a mere fantasy to them.

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