Solid Foundations, Mother-Tongue Literacy, and the Transition to Adolescence

Lead Research Organisation: Uni of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
Department Name: Economics


A large amount of money goes into funding education, especially literacy, with the belief that there will be long-term, positive effects. However, literacy rates - especially in Sub-Saharan Africa - remain incredibly low. Very few of the hundreds of rigorously evaluated interventions show more than moderate gains in student learning; almost none provide longitudinal evidence on longer-term outcomes. In short, there is little evidence from longitudinal studies in Africa about the effects of early learning on later school or life outcomes, and whether a strong early foundation better supports transitions, paving the way for continuing education, life-long learning and post-primary success. In response to this gap, our project will provide some of the first rigorous evidence regarding how investments in the early years of schooling from a highly successful literacy program can translate into long-term academic success and life outcomes.
The project builds upon a randomized evaluation of an early grade literacy program in Northern Uganda. The evaluation involved 128 schools and studied a teacher training and support program for mother-tongue literacy in grades one through three. After four years of the program, we found massive effects of the program: Grade 4 pupils tested in 2017 after being exposed to the program in grades 1-3 scored 0.92 standard deviations higher in mother tongue reading - equivalent to 6.3 grade levels - more than the control students. The effects on English oral reading fluency were almost just as large. While it was impressive that such large gains were possible, in a post-conflict low-resource setting, a new set of open questions emerged. Specifically, at the end of 2017, only 52% of our study respondents were found during school visits. Importantly, we found no differential attrition across study arms - in other words, despite the unprecedented learning gains from the program, there was no positive impact on keeping children in school suggesting that outside factors - such as barriers and marginalization - rather than learning, play an important role in education transitions.
This study addresses the following new questions:
1. How do children and parents/guardians plan for, and navigate challenges to, successful school and life transitions and how does early grade literacy help this navigation and transitions?
2. What are the causal effects of solid foundations in early grade literacy on learning, life skills, and school and life transitions?
3. What are the factors that, in a resource-poor environment, affect children's ability to harness the potential returns of early literacy skills?

This proposed study will extend the NULP longitudinal data by interviewing a sub-sample of children and their parents/caregivers as they transition into adolescence. We will collect three rounds of data from children, and one round of data from parents/caregivers, over two years to measure learning life skills, school and life transitions. The study will conduct innovative qualitative child journey mapping and quantitative experimental analyses to provide some of the first evidence on how investments in the early years from a highly successful literacy program can improve learning, school and life transitions.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?
The research will benefit schools, teachers, head teachers, parents, children, local language communities, government institutions, local education officials, primary teachers' colleges, education civil society organizations, vulnerable communities, academics and education policymakers and practitioners. The research is beneficial for stakeholders in the region where the program is implemented, the country of Uganda, East Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, developing countries, non-native speakers and educators in developed countries, NGOs, donors and multi-laterals.
How will they benefit from this research?
Achieving the aims and objectives of the study will deliver a series of practical benefits to stakeholders:
- Improved policymaking: Policymakers will be provided with clear evidence of impact of early grade reading investments, enabling them to make informed decisions about policies. They will have a better understanding of what factors are most important for leveraging early grade literacy and what factors and timing in a child's life may compromise these benefits.
- Improved understanding about intervention delivery and scale: The RCT that tests a full-cost model with a more scalable model will inform policymakers about the returns to program types. This will inform governments and donors on scalable strategies for education program design.
- Knowledge of long-term impacts of interventions in a randomized trial context: There are a limited number of studies following respondents beyond 1-2 years. This study will inform researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders on the effects of an intervention a decade after exposure. The research will increase awareness on the importance of mother-tongue foundations, spillovers to English and (potentially) other subjects. This will generate buy-in to mother tongue literacy, while the pressure for children to excel in English grows.
- Improved knowledge base: The evidence produced in this study will broaden our understanding of children's experience in the education system and their education decisions in the context of family and life transitions and contexts. It will inform other researchers of new methods, data collection techniques, analysis approaches, and findings about youth transition.

What will be done to ensure that they have the opportunity to benefit from this activity?
The research study has a reputation and proven record for communicating to stakeholders and providing important and policy-relevant results. The technical abilities of our team in early grade reading, literacy assessment, teacher training and support supervision have been flagged by government, donors and other education sector actors as relevant and important to addressing key education issues. We will leverage this position and expand our work in this phase. Results will further dialogue by improving understandings of the relationship between socio-emotional skills, school and life transitions, and learning. Engagement with parents will improve our understanding of how parents and children differ in their perspectives about life decisions/transitions, how this affects our understanding of these events, and data collection methodologies. The RCT's approach to testing modes of delivery between an NGO and the government has identified that we can generate large learning gains among teachers and pupils within government systems - and at a greatly reduced cost (even where other programs have failed). The government is extremely interested in this outcome and frequently requests Mango Tree/Ichuli to formally present results and cost effectiveness analysis to its technical teams and working groups.


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