Literacy in the 2020s — declining or thriving?

“Literacy can be the first step to being independent and having more control over your lives.”

We spoke with literacy researcher Pulkit Aggrawal about the importance of literacy in remote and refugee contexts, the effects COVID-19 has on literacy progression, and how global literacy can be improved to make it a reality.

Pulkit studies International Economics in the University of British Columbia, and a Literacy researcher in Simbi Foundation’s Think Tank.

Hi Pulkit! How are you doing?

I am doing great, thanks!

Happy to hear. So to kick things off, could you tell us why literacy is so important? Why does it matter?

Literacy is crucial because it allows individuals to access information without external help. This means you can read a book or access the internet to learn something new, but it also means that you can read what the doctor’s prescription says, or read a newspaper to understand how a new policy affects you. Literacy can be the first step to being independent and having more control over your life. I think it is very easy for many of us to take our ability to read for granted, but we wouldn’t know how to navigate even the most mundane aspects of life without knowing basic language and math skills.

Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee (who won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics for their work on poverty alleviation) put it really well in their book, Poor Economics: “[not being able to read] means making decisions about things that come with a lot of small print when you cannot even properly read the large print. What does someone who cannot read make of a health insurance product that doesn’t cover a lot of unpronounceable diseases?”

Can you explain a little more about the intersection between literacy and the poverty cycle?

Literacy (or the lack thereof) plays both important direct and indirect roles in the persistence of poverty. A direct impact of being literate, for example, would be being able to work in a slightly higher paying job that requires you to read which then might allow you to buy more meals a day for your family. Indirectly, literacy can mean, for example, being healthier because you understand what the prescription from your visit to the local health clinic says. More importantly, literacy may help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty by allowing the children of illiterate parents to learn to read and aim higher in life. In this sense, it becomes crucial to ensure that children are truly learning in school. This is where Simbi Foundation’s work comes in.

Why is it important that remote and refugee communities have equal access to literacy resources?

In addition to the intrinsic value of literacy in allowing someone to live a more independent and dignified life, literacy is also instrumental in ensuring the long-term economic growth of communities. Poverty alleviation can only be sustainable if it is community-led.

Literacy is important so that these communities have a path to a better life. However, in most developing countries with refugee populations, it can be challenging for governments to allocate enough resources to remote and refugee communities because these communities may not be their priority. Equal access to literacy, however, is an important aspect of improving the lives of the people who have already suffered through displacement from their homes.

What effects, both short-term and long-term, do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on literacy progression?

In the short-run, the impacts of school closures will be through a break in literacy improvement. For a lot of students in the low-resource contexts, schools are the only place they can practice reading. Even when schools reopen, it would take a tremendous amount of resources and effort to get the primary school students back to their pre-covid levels of literacy. Some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly those that were affected by the Ebola outbreak, were able to set up radio lessons when schools shut down, but these are not necessarily good substitutes for in-person lessons.

In the long-term, COVID-19 will only exacerbate the socio-economic inequalities that already exist. Some studies show that even the summer breaks during normal times affect students from lower socioeconomic status more in terms of learning loss. We should expect larger differential impacts of COVID-19 with its longer and irregular breaks in classes. Similarly in the low-resource context, children whose parents cannot afford the technology required for remote learning will lose out more. This will in turn reinforce the poverty trap.

What’s being done right in the humanitarian sector as it relates to literacy? And what’s being done wrong? What needs to be re-imagined or improved to make global literacy a reality?

I think the humanitarian sector, and the development sector in general, has done a good job of moving towards a more evidence-based approach to its interventions. Until about a decade ago, the work of NGOs and aid organizations was based more on ideology and sort of guess-work about what intervention might work rather than on what actually does work. The important shift has been in emphasizing evaluation of the programs that are implemented and then designing new ones from the learnings of those evaluations, and in involving the local community at every step. Going forward, I think the need to be guided by evidence is only going to get more pronounced as countries turn inward away from globalization. Budgets for the US aid agency, USAID, have been cut recently. UK’s DfID was also recently merged into the foreign ministry to “maximize value for the [UK] taxpayers.” It will only become more important for the work of the humanitarian sector to be grounded in evidence.

How can literacy programs better support local languages?

Organizations working in low-resource contexts, especially with vulnerable populations, have a responsibility to ensure that their programs do not have neocolonialist tendencies. In the field of literacy, one aspect of ensuring this is to incorporate options for local language modules.

In Simbi Foundation’s work, this takes the form of audiobooks of locally-relevant storybooks that are narrated in locally-relevant accents. While improving literacy in English is crucial because of the pervasiveness of the language, knowledge acquisition in one’s local language and local accent is arguably more effective. In the spirit of evidence-based interventions, one of our ongoing projects aims to rigorously test this in our partner schools.

Can you tell us a little bit about your research with Simbi Foundation’s Think Tank, “reading-while-listening”, and any results that you’ve seen so far?

My work at the Simbi Foundation is focused on the evaluation of our literacy-related projects. One central motivating idea of our literacy interventions is the idea that “reading-while-listening” to an audio-visual book is more effective, relative to simply reading a physical book, for learners’ (i) fluency, (ii) comprehension levels, and (iii) motivation for reading.

So far, short-term experimental studies conducted with primary school students in our partner schools in Uganda has shown the potential of this approach in the form of significant fluency gains. However, there are a few limitations of this study — such as a relatively small sample size and a short period of exposure to the Simbi reading app. Our current projects aim to build on this pilot study with larger sample sizes in different contexts.

What is it about “reading-while-listening” that makes it so effective?

There are two related advantages of reading-while-listening over traditional reading.

First, the literacy process from the point of view of a new learner can be understood as a two-step process. Step 1 is fluency, or decoding the text and words. Step 2 is comprehension, or understanding the meaning of the text. Lack of fluency can limit comprehension. Reading-while-listening assists with decoding of the text through the “production effect” — the fact that “producing” the words by reading them aloud helps us with remembering the words. This, in turn, aids comprehension by making step 1 easier.

Second, the audio introduces the learner to the pronunciation of words, which provides the confidence to communicate. Even experienced readers sometimes benefit from hearing the pronunciation of words to remember their meaning. This effect can be amplified for new learners.

What’s next for the research project?

A very important and exciting study we have been working on aims to test the impact of reading-while-listening in locally-relevant accents over foreign accents.

As such, this study builds on our previous study in 2 important ways: First, we are working with a much bigger and heterogeneous sample in terms of student ability, measured by their grade standing and pre-intervention literacy levels. Second, this study evaluates the effect of learning/reading in a locally-relevant accent relative to learning/reading in an accent that students are not familiar with. In the context of the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, the locally-relevant accent translates to a Ugandan or South Sudanese accent while the foreign accent would be a Canadian/North American accent.

This study had to be halted due to the pandemic, but preliminary data has been promising and suggests comprehension gains of up to 86% from reading-while-listening to audiobooks. We are hoping to continue the study as soon as schools open in our partner communities and it is safe to conduct the study. In the meantime, we are also exploring the possibility of conducting this study with ESL learners in North America who are more familiar with non-Canadian accents than Canadian accents.

Thank you, Pulkit!

Interested in learning more about Simbi Foundation’s Think Tank, click here to learn more!

Education means a brighter future. simbifoundation.org.