Getting millions to learn: How Room to Read takes a local approach to teaching and learning literacy skills

Editor’s Note: This blog series discusses select case studies, and what makes them interesting, that have been chosen for preliminary research by the Millions Learning project at the Brookings Center for Universal Education.

We were excited to learn of First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program in Siem Reap, Cambodia last week while traveling to promote the Let Girls Learn initiative. We too have been spending some time with Room to Read recently in order to better understand their impressive efforts at ensuring more children around the world are reading.

What is Room to Read?

Room to Read is an education-focused NGO that improves learning for children in 10 countries across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. They do this by focusing on systemic changes within schools in low-income countries during two time periods that are particularly critical in a child’s schooling: early primary school for literacy acquisition, and secondary school for girls’ education. Room to Read’s literacy program develops children’s skills and habits of reading throughout primary school so they become lifelong, independent readers. Room to Read’s girls’ education program concentrates efforts during a girl’s transition into secondary school, when she is at the highest risk of dropping out of school. Through these approaches, Room to Read has reached more than 9.7 million children in 10 countries over the last 15 years.

How did Room to Read start?

From their earliest days of providing books and building libraries in Nepal, Room to Read has continued to expand their activities based on the needs of local communities. Through their library program and early cross-national evaluation, they identified that children were not in the habit of reading for pleasure and were not able to read at grade level. Therefore, in 2008, they piloted their reading and writing instruction program activities in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. This led to pilots in other countries and eventually a much larger-scale intervention that was incorporated across Room to Read programs. After noticing that girls were dropping out before transitioning to secondary school, Room to Read established its girls’ education program to help girls receive individual material and academic support; increase family, community, and school support for girls to stay in school; and help girls develop key life skills and negotiate important life decisions.

Why does Room to Read stand out for Millions Learning?

For Millions Learning, we are interested in Room to Read’s efforts to improve reading and writing skills among more than 87,000 children in 1,187 schools in 10 countries. Room to Read strengthens the teaching and learning of literacy skills in early primary grades through placing literacy coaches in the classrooms alongside teachers as well as implementing an approach to teaching children how to read, write, and develop the habit of reading rooted in scientifically based instructional methods. Instructional support and related library activities are informed by ongoing student assessments and continuously refined. There are a number of interesting aspects of Room to Read’s impact and expansion that we’re exploring, including:

  1. Continuous refining of approach as projects progress. Room to Read uses early grade reading assessments and other internal metrics to measure the impact of their support for reading instruction. Compared to an evaluation of 70 educational interventions in low to upper-middle income countries (of which Room to Read was not a part), Room to Read’s effect size is nearly 10 times greater than the average impact of the 70 other interventions evaluated. They argue that the success of Room to Read comes from the five components of their reading instruction—phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension—coupled with frequent and timely school-based support to teachers from literacy coaches, as well as access to extensive reading content in school libraries. But Room to Read also uses this data to determine where programs need improvement, and continuously and honestly reevaluates how best to strengthen them. For example, Room to Read closed the instructional component of its Literacy Program in Vietnam based on findings that many children in Vietnam were already achieving foundational reading skills through the national reading approach, determining that Room to Read’s scarce financial and staff resources could be better targeted to other program activities.
  2. Investing in a country for the long-term. Before starting operations in a new country, Room to Read must first raise a minimum of funding for 3 years of operations. The philosophy is that an effective program requires building networks and establishing roots without fear of discontinuing the program mid-stride. Room to Read’s flexible fundraising model supports this type of approach—approximately 60-70 percent of their budget comes from individuals who are committed to and passionate about Room to Read’s mission. They not only have leveraged individual donor support but also brought together a chapter network of over 15,000 volunteers around the world that host events and fundraise for the organization. Additionally, Room to Read recruits local country directors to lead local program staff, including an in-country research, monitoring, and evaluation team. Room to Read’s investment within the countries they work has led to stronger and more honest partnerships and more opportunity to understand how to continue to improve their activities.
  3. Pursuing a decentralized approach while maintaining program quality. Room to Read recognized early on that local adaptation and ownership was critical to the success of the programs, and it has built flexibility into its projects accordingly. It builds strong relationships with local partners and works within already existing community networks to identify the context-specific issues that their program must address to improve learning. However, when it comes to scaling, there can be a real trade-off between allowing for local ownership and adaptation while maintaining fidelity to the program model. As local engagement increases, additional components are often added to the programs, not eliminated, and this can create more complicated and complex programs to scale. Room to Read is therefore going through a reflection and revision process to identify core components to simplify and standardize to ensure that their work is as impactful and cost-effective as possible as they continue to expand.

As we continue to explore these and other cases, we will share more emerging lessons and challenges of improving learning outcomes at large-scale. We hope that you to continue to join us and share any thoughts in the comments section below.