Un blog sur l'éducation dans les pays du Sud – A blog on education in the developing countries

15 octobre 2018

Learning Letter by Letter in Mahbubnagar District, India

Filed under: Uncategorized — Étiquettes : , , , , — education_south @ 18 h 33 min

Learning Letter by Letter in Mahbubnagar District, India

 “Human beings are born survivors, but not born readers” writes Radhika Iyengar, Director of Education at the Center for Sustainable Development, The Earth Institute, Columbia University. In this Blog post, she explores the patterns and strategies children adopt to learn to read in a rural district in Telangana State in India.

There are many opinions on how children learn to read. Many of them are based in experiences of teaching kids from typical middle-income families in the west. I started reading stories aloud to my girls when they were about 4 months old. I live in the United States and the school that my child goes to has a fully stocked library which she has been exposed to since she was three years old.  Our kids are exposed to books early on. By the time our middle-class kids are about 6 months old they already know which side of the book opens and pretend to read, using their little fingers to trace the action of the story. Soon they even start copying the sound (of reading), repeating the sentences on the pages that they’ve heard so many times.

However, these experiences of my kids and others from similar middle income families do not speak to the reality that millions of children from low-income backgrounds are faced with. The chart below, representing several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, shows that at the end of 4thgrade, fewer than 30 percent of the children can read a paragraph (except Tanzanian children in Kiswahili). This implies that these children have been in school for 3 years or more and can’t read simple sentences in their local languages.


Source: World Bank (2018). Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa. Regional Study on the Quality of Basic Education,. Tokyo, 3rdSeptember 2018.  Accessed http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/832221535674096676/090318-TICAD-seminar-14-Sajitha-Bashir.pdf

Grade 4 curricula in the countries listed in this table aren’t so different from the curricula used in our high-income country classrooms – children are expected to be analyzing texts, doing comprehension exercises, and writing short essays. Therefore, the benchmark for this chart should be that 100% of children are able to read paragraphs since in Grade 4, like our middle income children. Yet as we see here, this is far from the case.

Among many things, we blame the non-availability of textbooks, lack of motivated and properly trained teachers, poor school attendance among students, and the list is endless. Everyone is busy conjecturing here.

Maybe it’s time to return to what science tells us about how children learn. Human beings are born survivors, but not born readers.  Our brains need to be taught how to read. Unfortunately learning is a painful exercise.


Source: Abadzi (2014). Reasoning with Cognitive Neuroscience for Better Learning Outcomes (part I): Learning Basics. Comparative International Education Conference. Pre-conference Workshop, Toronto, Canada.  

Also discussed inAbadzi (2016). Training 21st– century workers: Facts, fiction, and memory illusions. International Review of Education. Volume 62. Number 3.

Cognitive neuroscience tells us that each skill has a hierarchical process of learning.  These processes are sequenced based on the complexity level. The learning curves was first discussed by Speelman & Kirsner (2005, p. 122-123). This was further elaborated in the context of early readers by Abadzi (2016). The circles in the diagram above represent groups of processes involved in performing particular tasks. The S shape represents realities of preparing for a new task.

As the graph suggests, one learns speech comprehension first which could be followed by learning letters. Therefore children need to be taught one letter at a time. Letters then can be blended together to form words followed by connected texts or sentences. These letters need to be taught consistently and slowly since our working memory is limited and can hold only limited number of items at one time. Of course practice is key here. The more we practice, the less time we take to perform each reading task. The less time we take to perform each task, the easier it becomes to decipher meaning from text and develop reading comprehension skills.

What are the common opinions that we hear around us- that children need to understand the context, that some children are visual learners, that we need to start with sight words. But these opinions don’t fully account for the reality that many children in grade 1 are asked to learn an official language – often French or English – which they may have never heard before, accustomed to speaking in their mother tongue at home. Previous research shows that learning in local languages first help to acquire literacy skills faster that can be transferred to pick up other languages down the road. Fortunately, cognitive neurosciencetells us that there is only one way that our brain perceives information and processes it. Thanks to scientists we know which parts of the brain get activated first by the reading process, and where that visual information travels to connect with parts of the brain that process language. Therefore all we need to do is teach in a way that lets the brain do its job and avoids these conjectures.

We need to feed the brain little chunks of information and provide enough practice so that build to a point where we remember it instantaneously.  With corrective feedback and lots of practice we can train our brains to recognize and read text. We need to ensure that recognizing print gets embedded in our long-term memory and never gets lost. The earlier the better! With age our ability to grasp new languages reduced drastically. The brain of a 6 year old is more adept at learning languages than a 14 year old.


Source: Abadzi (2014). Reasoning with Cognitive Neuroscience for Better Learning Outcomes (part I): Learning Basics. Comparative International Education Conference. Pre-conference Workshop, Toronto, Canada.

Our brains are made to forget things. The more time elapses, the more we forget. What can save us from forgetting how to read is getting enough practice very early on so that reading comes automatically to us at an early age. The skill of reading then becomes like one of tying our shoelaces or riding a bike – very hard to forget even if we haven’t done it in a while. We do not have to make a conscious effort. Abadzi (2014) translates the cognitive psychological literature like the “forgetting curve” in the context of early readers. She elaborates that due to the limited working memory much information will get lost and if so, discusses how can brains be trained to retain information in this case becoming literate. In summary, by providing enough practice, children do not forget and they become automatic readers.

These principles are being used in a rural district in Telangana State in India. This academic year more than 2,000 children are reading one letter a day, and getting enough practice with ongoing corrective feedback from their teachers. The environment is the same, very challenging as always. The teachers do not have to invest time to create Teaching Learning Materials. The workbook created through multiple stakeholder meetings (including linguists, literacy experts, monitoring staff, teachers, textbook writers and others) makes things easier for teachers who face anywhere between 40-90 plus students in their classes.  The teachers follow 3 simple steps “I do”, “We do” and “You do” to make the children progress in their reading. Below given is a page of the book that everyone uses to practice reading. It’s a plain black and white book. We do not have big distracting color pictures in the book that cover most of the page in the pretext of making reading interesting for the children. The children are excited enough to come to school and practice to read in the limited time that they have. We do not ask children to write, since writing without understanding what the letters mean renders the exercise little more than an art activity. Children are better served learning to write once they know what it is they are writing. Here is a page from the Telugu book in which the letters are of different font sizes, generously spaced and helps to provide enough practice to children to read.


Source: A page from the Telugu Literacy Workbook.

Early results show that there has been improvement in the key indicators such as the correct letter sounds which shows major improvements in the schools that this reading program was implemented in. The graphs below show the differences in the treatment group versus control group per grade.



There is one Champion in this entire process and without mentioning him this write-up will not be complete – The District Collector, Mr. Ronald Rose.  He decided that since children are not learning “adequately”, they should be given a simple textbook which helps them to get “concepts” easily. The workbook serves this purpose. Yes context matters and so the focus is first learning the local language – Telugu – and not English. Once children have mastered the concept of connecting letters to sounds, learning in additional languages becomes much easier.


Social Media:

Radhika Iyengar, Director of Education at the Center for Sustainable Development, The Earth Institute, Columbia University in which she explores the patterns and strategies children adopt to learn to read in a rural district in Telangana State in India. Read more here:

@earthinstitute’s @radhika_iyengar on the patterns and strategies children adopt to learn to read in a rural district in Telangana State #India










13 août 2018

Promoting change in Arab education: What determined foundations can achieve

Filed under: Uncategorized — Étiquettes : , , , , , — education_south @ 13 h 25 min

Helen Abadzi[1]

August 12, 2018

In June 2018, the United Arab Emirates Ministry (UAE) of Education announced that classes in public primary schools will gradually become coeducational starting in the fall of 2018.[2]  Private schools are often co-ed, but the Arab Gulf countries separate boys and girls in schools from preschool onwards. UAE is the first country in the Gulf to make this policy decision.

Many factors enter into important policy decisions, but it is hard to overlook in this case a study about gender segregation effects on boys in the Gulf.  It was published by the Al Qasimi foundation of the Ras al Khaimah emirate of UAE.  The book documented the effects of foreign male Arab teachers in comparison to highly educated local female teachers for girls.[3]  It pointed to the worrisome learning outcomes vis-à-vis the complex decisions that Gulf countries expect from men.

The policy implications were highly relevant. It is widely known that students in the Arab countries score lower than those of other countries taking international tests.  Much has been written, but in some respects public institutions have limits on what they can explore.  Policy analysis may be more efficiently carried out by privately funded think tanks.  But what model can integrate science with culture and tradition effectively so as to have a broad effect? One example is below, narrated from a personal perspective.


Senior foundation staff, including the executive director Natasha Ridge (2nd left).

I am a World Bank retiree and a cognitive psychologist focused on efficient learning for the poor. Governments and donors aim to promote school attendance and joyful school experiences, but they lack expertise on how to bring this about. Early-grade skills must be automatized to enable complex thinking, but this prerequisite tends to be overlooked.  Which institutions might look below the surface?

An internet search of foundations revealed a possible match in a small town in UAE.  I sent a message asking if they were open to unusual solutions from cognitive science.

The Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research was founded in 2009 by the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, a small Emirate situated at the northern tip of the country.   [www.alqasimifoundation.com] Its research, policy, and practice aim to contribute to the Ras Al Khaimah community, particularly with respect to education. It is rather small; it distributes about US$1.5 million of grant funding annually and has about 28 staff members, Emiratis as well as expatriates.  Initiatives start from the ground-up and range from English-language training in jails to an annual arts festival. Its research department produces credible studies, such as the effects of fatherhood on Arab cultures, health in Ras al Khaimah, and gender-segregated education.

The foundation is very savvy on dissemination.  It uses social media as well as a rigorous plan for transmitting its findings to various government sectors.  And it has broad links to the international and the Gulf educational community.  It acts as the secretariat of the Gulf Comparative Education Society, and its staff active participate in international educational research conferences.  Thus it is acquiring a reputation, and its conferences attract academics and policymakers across the globe.  This international expertise is brought to consider the various life issues of the Ras al Khaimah residents.

Because of its community orientation, this foundation supports practical field research. In April 2016, while at a conference in Kuwait, I met some foundation staff. I was soon invited to give a presentation on the neurocognitive issues and solutions about Arabic reading in greater detail to a larger audience in Ras al Khaimah in May 2016.

The discussions in the meeting quickly focused on local performance.  Did the public school students in Ras Al Khaimah have the same reading issues as other Arab countries? Let’s find out right away!  We downloaded a one-minute reading test in Arabic and within a day, two public schools had agreed to receive us. The foundation staff administered the reading tests to 12 average-performing students of various grades to measure their reading rates. Although the data were limited, they told a story. These students could read, but they read too slowly to make sense of the complex text. Moreover,  the gap between this sample and the oft-used US norm increased by grade. It was a good justification for action.

 “Come over here and pilot your ideas”, said Natasha Ridge, the Executive Director.  I received a small fellowship to cover research expenses, working space in the foundation’s building, and an apartment used by scholars.  A staff member was assigned to implement the project with my help.  She was Sahar ElAsad, an inventive and action-oriented Sudanese.

Theorizing about cognitive psychology is the easy part; producing viable classroom lessons is a completely different challenge.  Starting in January of 2017, I travelled frequently to Ras al Khaimah from Greece. In the mornings, we tried various activities at the Kharan Boys’ Public School.  In the afternoons, we drafted a textbook based on perceptual learning principles. We made videos, observed the students, and revised until we had a reasonable draft of a reading book. We also experimented with oral instruction of standard Arabic grammar. The school staff were rather intrigued by a foreigner teaching Arabic conjugations..

An opportunity arose in the school to conduct an experiment with a control group. For two periods per week, two first-grade sections did social studies, while two other sections practiced our reading book for about 4.5 months.  The reading group had lower pre-test scores than the social studies group – only reading 11 letters and 4 words per minute. Discipline issues also limited instructional time to only about 15 minutes per period. But by the end of the year, students in the reading group read 29 correct letters and 14 words per minute.  They had showed twice the progress rate of the control group and even surpassed them. The most significant finding was that the lowest performers gained the most from the pilot. The videotaped process and the results suggest that perceptual learning indeed lies at the foundation of reading. The findings were consistent with three other pilots in other languages and scripts.[4]  If students develop automaticity in reading, they will learn language in a much easier way and be set to overcome other complexities of Arabic.

Thus, the foundation did not just finance the project, it also enabled its execution at the local level. It scrutinized the ideas of an international scholar and then brought the person to work on the ground, making a connection with local beneficiaries that would have been otherwise impossible.  Based on this pilot program,  the foundation also published a policy paper as well as  two reports on its outcomes.  The staff made sustained efforts to bring the results to the attention of the UAE Ministry of Education and various NGOs to explore opportunities for scaling up the pilot. The experiment was only the first step in making Arabic instruction more efficient, but this step could not have been taken without this integrated strategy.

Watching the team up close, its effectiveness for the Arab culture became obvious. It is a think tank as well as a field organization. Private philanthropy sometimes tries to impose idiosyncratic changes on public education, as was the case of Gates Foundation in the USA. Instead the Al Qasimi Foundation uses international research. Winds blow the desert sand outside the RAK Gas building –  where the Foundation office is located – almost as easily as the staff move from details to well-reasoned policy suggestions.

So, how does the Al Qasimi Foundation fit in the greater Arab context? In  some respects the foundation is optimized for the UAE environment. The UAE government wants its residents to be happy and engaged in education and culture, and the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah promotes the same values.  Also this desert think tank has greatly benefited from Natasha Ridge, its Australian charismatic and humorous executive director. It recruits enthusiastic and hard-working people, who may thus find new ways to fulfil the foundation goals.  This is in contrast with international hiring practices of nonprofits, where the focus is on compliance and ideological alignment of staff.

Clearly, the Al Qasimi Foundation operates in a particular context. The UAE government wants its residents to be happy and engaged in education and culture.  The country has more such broad-perspective foundations, notably Dubai Cares.  The Emirate of Ras al Khaimah promotes the same values.  Also this desert think tank has greatly benefited from the leadership of of its executive director, Natasha Ridge, who recruited enthusiastic and hard-working people.  The research and applications of the institution show that it is possible to improve education while respecting the Arabic cultural values.  The Arab world needs many more local evidence-minded foundations.

[1] Helen Abadzi is a Greek cognitive psychologist and polyglot.  She teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington, USA.

[2] https://www.thenational.ae/uae/boys-and-girls-to-be-educated-together-in-major-shift-for-uae-s-public-schools-1.745934

[3] Ridge, N. (2014).  Education and the Reverse Gender Divide in the Gulf States: Embracing the Global, Ignoring the Local.  New York: Teachers College Press.

[4]  Iyengar, Radhika (2017). « Using Cognitive Neuroscience Principles to Design Efficient Reading Programs: Case Studies from India and Malawi. Submitted for publication.

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