by Erin Ganju, Co-founder and CEO, Room to Read
We founded Room to Read on the belief that World Changes Starts with Educated Children. That if you can bring a young child a quality education in the community where he or she lives — they can grow up to reach their full potential, successfully contributing to their communities and empowered to help create a better world. It is just incredible knowing that Room to Read has accomplished this for 10 million children.
Go behind those 10 million children and you’ll find 17,500 government schools across Asia and Africa transformed into vibrant, child-friendly, book-rich environments. You’ll meet over 10,000 teachers trained annually on best practices in reading and writing instruction, and library management. And you’ll encounter more than 31,700 girls that have benefited from our Girls’ Education Program.
A few days ago, my co-founder, John Wood, wrote about three of his favorite phrases that represent our core values. Here’s another saying we’re fond of — one that Room to Read’s DNA wouldn’t be complete without:
“What gets measured gets done.”
From the start we’ve invested heavily in quantitative research to measure the effectiveness of our programs and to continuously improve them.
So while we are driven by big goals like reaching 10 million children, we are equally driven by the data supporting those goals to ensure our programs are truly impacting children’s lives — transforming them for the better.
As we looked back over our 15 years of work in literacy and girls’ education, we realized we’ve uncovered some key findings and come to some important conclusions that we believe can help inform the current work as well as new innovations in global education. Let me share our top ten learnings:
1. Children read faster and with greater comprehension when they benefit from systematic reading instruction that focuses on phonics.
Room to Read uses a phonics-based method to teach early grade literacy and we use fluency as a measurement of reading skills — namely, a fluency metric that indicates how quickly and accurately someone reads, which aids in comprehension. From our periodic evaluations of reading skills, for example, we saw that in India pupils in our Literacy Program schools could, on average, read 13 more words per minute than pupils in comparison schools by the end of first grade and 35 more words per minute by the end of second grade.
2. Children are more likely to read when their teachers have been trained in how to conduct reading activities, such as reading aloud and shared reading.
According to our Literacy Program Reading Promotion Study, students who participate in primary reading activities during library periods (including teachers reading aloud, shared reading, paired reading and independent reading) were more motivated to read. In South Africa, students in Room to Read libraries were seen reading independently in over 60% of library periods while over 65% of students reported reading most of the books in their libraries.
3. Children prefer illustrated fiction books, such as folklore and fantasy.
Our Literacy Program Book Checkout Study surveyed what books children checked out in three of our operating countries (Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka) and found that most of the top books were fiction and published by Room to Read. In Sri Lanka, for example, nine of the top-10 titles checked out in Sinhala-language libraries and six of the top-10 titles checked out in Tamil-language libraries were folklore and fantasy. According to focus groups, children prefer fiction books because they tend to tell more interesting stories and have more appealing characters, particularly animals who take on human traits.
4. Libraries are well-run and effective when they are monitored and evaluated consistently.
According to our Literacy Program School Libraries Post Completion Study, of the libraries in Nepal and Cambodia that were established after Room to Read introduced three years of support and training, approximately 30% more libraries were able to maintain quality.
5. Access to libraries makes students want to read more at school and at home.
Our Literacy Program Reading Promotion Study found that 60% of children in three of our countries of operation (Cambodia, Nepal, South Africa) spontaneously mentioned “reading a storybook” when asked what they like to do in their spare time. Additionally, over 90% of students in all three countries said they had read independently at least once in the last week. Our Literacy Program School Libraries Cross National Evaluation Survey further found that in four of our countries of operation (India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka), 44% of students with a Room to Read school library reported reading for enjoyment at school as compared to just 33% of students in comparison schools.
6. Transparency leads to greater community involvement and participation.
In 2012, our Sri Lanka Challenge Grant Study examined our strategy for securing community investment in our school infrastructure projects. It found that publicly displaying a chart that tracks funds raised by the community led to faster achievement of fundraising targets, more widespread community contributions to the project, and greater accountability among those involved in the project.
7. Advocacy and partnerships with local governments are crucial to improving instruction methods and professional development for educators.
After the Cambodian government saw that children in Room to Read’s program were reading on average 15 more words per minute by the end of second grade than children in government control schools, we worked with them to rewrite their first grade textbook so all children in Cambodia could benefit from our best practices on how to teach Khmer literacy. Additionally, in 2014 the Cambodian government doubled the salaries of primary school librarians after we demonstrated that having a school library is an important resource for children and helps create independent readers.
8. Parent and guardian engagement in their daughters’ education is essential.
In 2014, 82% of Girls’ Education Program participants’ parents and guardians attended parents’ meetings. In an analysis of multiple years of project data worldwide, we found that girls whose parents attended meetings were more than 20% less likely to drop out than girls whose parents did not attend. In a separate analysis in Nepal, girls whose parents attended every meeting were more than 90% less likely to drop out.
9. Life skills education is directly associated with lower dropout rates and higher advancement rates among girls.
A recent in-depth analysis of monitoring data for our Girls’ Education Program showed that girls in the program who participated in life skills education had a dropout rate that was 14 percentage points lower and an advancement rate that was 16 percentage points higher than girls in the program who did not participate.
10. Identifying risk factors and implementing early warning systems can prevent girls from dropping out of school and provide them with needed support.
In 2014, our Risk and Response Protocol Pilot in Nepal tracked a set of eight risk factors among 3,015 participants in our Girls’ Education Program. Over the course of the year, girls who exhibited one or more risk factors were more than five times as likely to drop out of school as girls who did not. Identifying girls most at risk to drop out has enabled our social mobilizers (mentors) in Nepal to provide the targeted support they need to stay in school.
What these findings also show is that our program design, incorporating rigorous methods in research, monitoring and evaluation, can have a significant impact on the quality of education students around the world receive — and likely, too, their future successes. As we celebrate our milestone of reaching 10 million children this November, I am particularly proud that our success is backed up by proven fact.
None of us wants to lose another generation in our lifetime to illiteracy. We know how to teach children to read and write; we know how to equalize education for girls, encourage them to stay in school and find greater success. But we need to act now and be more committed than ever to reaching even more children beyond the 10 million we have already reached. Don’t get me wrong — we are celebrating this incredible milestone as an organization. But we are also realistic that this is not the end but just the beginning.
Now it’s time to apply our learnings to the issues of children’s literacy and gender equality to reach the 250 million children who are still in need of a quality education. These children deserve to learn regardless of the circumstances they are born into because they will create the positive world change we all seek.
Find more information on our 10 millionth child milestone and 10 learnings in our press release.
Read more on our research, monitoring and evaluation work and deep dive into more of our findings.
See Room to Read Founder John Wood’s Medium post on the “three-phrase” philosophy behind reaching 10 million children in 15 years.