Literacy Improvements in Africa: Learnings from India

When tackling Africa’s learning crisis, challenging the current school curriculum and methodology with proven models can yield positive results. Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) is a cost-effective and simple program aimed at boosting children’s literacy and numeracy skills.

While access to primary education has increased considerably in the last ten years at a global level and particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, the basic reading, writing and math skills of most children have not kept pace with this promising development. 88% of children of primary and lower secondary school age in Sub-Saharan Africa do not reach minimum proficiency levels (MPLs) in reading. This has led major global education and development institutions to refocus their attention from access to quality of education.

TaRL class going on in Kalundu, Zambia.

As a Program Manager of International Programs for the Jacobs Foundation, I recently attended an inspiring learning exchange on “Teaching at the Right Level” (TaRL), a program that aims to address this pressing global challenge. TaRL’s objective is to improve basic skills such as reading, writing and calculating by ensuring that each child learns at its own pace and at its own level.

15 years of experience 

TaRL has been recurrently tested and evaluated over the last fifteen years in India by a community-based organization called Pratham, who has continuously been refining and improving the model’s impact, cost-efficiency and ability to scale. In comparison to other programs that aim to improve learning outcomes in poor settings, various impact evaluations conducted by global research institution J-Pal have shown that TaRL is one of the most cost-effective methods that we know of.

The methodology can be implemented in a variety of ways, such as through teachers in formal schools or volunteers teaching reading camps. Children are regularly assessed in their reading and math levels, then regrouped according to their level and engaged in different group-specific activities that are highly learner-centred and interactive. This allows for students to learn at their respective level instead of adhering strictly to a given curriculum regardless of whether they have acquired the basics or not, as is very often the case in African education systems. Lastly, another key component is the regular mentoring of the teachers to ensure that they are not left alone with this new methodology.

Adapting to context and challenging existing education practices

The TaRL methodology provides education practitioners with a practical teaching tool that is highly motivating both for students and the teachers themselves. The different experiences shared from the Sub-Saharan context and India show nevertheless that TaRL is no pre-fabricated silver bullet to address the learning crisis in Africa. Context-specific adaptations are necessary and the program should be adjusted to guarantee a cultural fit but also to ensure that it fulfils Government needs and priorities.

There is however a common challenge that was identified throughout African countries were TaRL was implemented. While successful scale of the model might be attained by integrating it into the national curriculum, it is essential that education systems change long-established classroom practices in order to achieve the desired outcomes. This, together with other open questions such as potential spill-over effects for neighbouring schools and long-term learning gains will hopefully be assessed and answered by the evaluations of the different TaRL experiences in the upcoming years.

Replicating the model in Ivory Coast

Through its TRECC program, the Jacobs Foundation is supporting the implementation of a TaRL pilot in Ivory Coast. With guidance from J-Pal and Pratham, Ministry of Education inspectors, teachers and principals have been trained to apply the model in schools located in cocoa-growing communities in South-West Ivory Coast. The project is also supported by chocolate companies Cémoi and Tony’s Chocolonely as part of their sustainability strategies. Children will start participating in October 2018, with a special 1.5 hour class every day in 50 schools.

Previous field visits by Ministry of Education delegations both in India and Zambia, where TaRL is currently used, have raised high expectations by those decision-makers to bringing this impactful and hands-on approach to national scale in the upcoming years. Thereby, I hope to see Ivory Coast becoming a literacy and numeracy skills pioneer for all of French-speaking West Africa!