Early-grade learning assessments spur Sierra Leone to strengthen foundational literacy and numeracy skills

student writing on chalk board

Children who learn to read, write, and gain strong basic literacy and numeracy skills in the early grade years are more likely to be successful throughout their academic lives. Literacy levels are also correlated with economic, civic, health, and other quality of life measures for individuals and whole nations.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a global consensus that education systems were not delivering the quality education needed to ensure that children acquire the necessary basic skills. An Education Commission report (2020) estimated that 90 percent of children in low-income countries, 50 percent of children in middle-income countries, and 30 percent of children in high-income countries failed to master the basic secondary-level skills needed to thrive. Additionally, an estimated 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read proficiently by age 10. Unfortunately, Sierra Leone falls into this category.

But Sierra Leone has a renewed vision to improve literacy and numeracy in the early grades. The Education Sector Plan 2022-2026 is closely aligned with the goals of Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education. The country is nurturing a holistic early childhood development (ECD) program focused on increasing access to preschool education by adding a minimum of one year of preprimary education to the formal school system by constructing more ECD classrooms, training teachers in play-based methodology, and distributing over 20,000 ECD picture books with accompanying training on how to use them. Complementary to this is the use of radio-based teaching programs to support learning and teaching training.

The country also has set clear goals for its national foundational literacy program to get students to read more often, reduce the number of nonreaders, and grow the proportion of capable readers who can comprehend written texts. At the same time, the country is geared toward teaching a mastery of foundational concepts in mathematics.

To help strengthen the nation’s foundational learning strategy, in 2021 the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education in Sierra Leone, with support from the Global Partnership for Education and the United Nations Children’s Fund, conducted national early-grade reading and math assessments to evaluate students’ baseline competencies in literacy and numeracy.

The assessment was conducted in 260 schools across all 16 districts of the country with the view of gathering findings to address systemic issues at the school, district, and national levels that affect children’s learning. Information collected from 476 teachers, 244 head teachers, and 4,729 pupils (50 percent girls) in primary grades two and four has revealed some of the systemic drivers that underpin children’s ability to learn numeracy and literacy.

What does the assessment reveal?

The data from the early-grade reading assessment application across Africa compared to findings from the 2021 study in Sierra Leone shows that Sierra Leone falls in the upper half of countries, demonstrating fewer zero scores than other countries, especially those administering English language assessments (Figure 1). (A zero score means a student fails to provide any response to a question.) The data also show progress over the period from 2014 to 2021 (Figure 2), depicting a significant reduction in zero-score performance and the percentage of nonreaders to almost half in an oral fluency test.

Figure 1. Percentage children with “zero” scores in reading

In literacy, the oral reading fluency results indicate that students are progressing as readers from primary 2 (P2) to primary 4 (P4). However, although students can increasingly identify words and read text fluently, their understanding of those words and content remains limited, as is their conceptual ability to apply skills they have learned to other tasks.

Figure 2. Proportion of learners scoring zero on early grade reading assessments, 2014 and 2021

With respect to numeracy, students demonstrated notably higher skills in basic, procedural math tasks, versus significantly lower skills in conceptual ones (see Figure 3). Their experience of math instruction is often more about memorization of facts and rules than development of strategies to find answers to problems.

Figure 3. Proportion of learners scoring zero on early grade math assessments, 2014 and 2021

How are the baseline findings driving Sierra Leone’s agenda to build children’s foundational skills?  

Sierra Leone’s assessment examined the factors that influenced student learning, such as teacher qualification, training, and preparedness in foundational learning. The assessment showed that teachers with a certificate qualification demonstrated more positive actions when teaching literacy than those without (though there was no similar impact in numeracy instruction). This finding has informed the country’s teacher workforce management strategy, indicating the criticality of training and certification of in-service teachers to ensure a consistent supply of skilled teachers for the foundational literacy agenda.

The national assessment also showed that learners’ experience with literacy and mathematics instruction is more about memorization of facts and rules than development of strategies to find answers to problems. This has led to other important recommendations on instructional and pedagogical interventions that are helping teachers raise literacy and numeracy outcomes for developing learners in line with grade-level expectations in the country. Sierra Lone is using the data in its teacher training agenda to help teachers develop a better understanding of how children acquire literacy and numeracy and how to enable students to acquire foundational skills, align teaching instruction to the learners’ level, and monitor performance and offer remedial action for improvement.

Importantly, the study also concluded that students without a preschool education struggled to gain foundational skills in the early years of primary school, leading to poorer performance and slower overall growth. As a result, Sierra Leone has made one year of preprimary compulsory as part of its National Integrated Policy on Early Childhood Development 2021.

With this focus on evidence-driven education policy action, Sierra Leone is moving in the right direction with respect to its national foundational literacy and numeracy programming. A large-scale, follow-up national assessment is planned in 2023 to understand the gains made over this period of time. Key considerations to sustain the national assessment and increase its frequency are to advocate for government to allocate dedicated resources in the annual budget for learning assessments and to adopt/adapt existing real-time monitoring methodologies that can accompany teaching and learning.