Economic crises are usually accompanied by conservative political efforts to cut government budgets. In education, these conservative forces often push a back-to-basics movement, and today we are seeing that in a global focus on reading. I recognize the great importance of learning to read for children and adults. I also recognize that children in developing countries, even with access to primary school, often do not learn to read beyond rudimentary levels. This has been true for decades, but in the last few years, tied to the economic crisis, the problem has gotten to a prominent place on the radar of international agencies. The result has been reading mania, an intensive and extensive effort to try to fix the problem.
While well-intentioned, reading mania has been extreme in a number of ways. It has come to dominate the international agenda, almost to the exclusion of all other educational problems. It is the focus of a narrow view of learning that now dominates the post-2015 discussions. It has become the focus of aid to education, especially by the U.S. USAID has reorganized its aid to education so it focuses almost solely on reading. Again, while there is no doubt that reading is an important foundational skill, there are many other educational considerations and problems that have to be taken into account. For the reasons below, reading mania represents an unbalanced approach to education and distorts education policy.
1. One reading test has been developed and applied globally.
EGRA, the Early Grade Reading Assessment, was developed by one company, RTI, and now has been applied around the world with USAID and World Bank funding. It is problematic to use one global test without exploring alternative approaches to measuring reading competencies that might be more appropriate in particular contexts. In the U.S. alone, there are at least a dozen different tests that are applied to reading assessment.
2. EGRA has problems.
EGRA is a 15-minute test designed to be administered by an outside specialist. This is expensive and, to the contrary, for reading improvement, assessment instruments should be designed to be under the direction of the classroom teacher. While EGRA measures various dimensions of reading, use has focused on reading fluency (words per minute correct in a one-minute test). This neglects the other dimensions of reading, especially comprehension. There are also questions about whether this 15-minute test does a good job of measuring fluency or comprehension.
3. Reading as science.
As part of the international push towards reading, reading assessment and intervention has been portrayed as scientific, most particularly, with a base in neuroscience. To the contrary, what is most important in assessment (e.g., fluency vs. comprehension) or in intervention (e.g., phonics vs. whole language) is not at all settled by neuroscience, where experts conclude "that expectations for neuroscience-based, easy-to-follow recipes for classroom practice are unrealistic...." Thus, there is no global recipe, different approaches to assessment and intervention need to be tried, and local practices can and should differ.
4. Reading interventions are often too narrow.
Reading interventions do vary more than reading assessments, but it is common to direct them towards a narrow range of educational interventions. Common approaches include increasing time devoted to reading, the availability of learning materials, teacher training, and sometimes community participation. More fundamental educational changes are rarely undertaken, such as major changes in class size, which can go as high as 80 to 100 in early grades. While teacher training is badly needed, educational policy has promoted contract teachers or para-professional teachers with little education or training. To compensate for these teachers, too often reading interventions rely primarily on detailed scripts for teachers to follow. To improve reading and other educational problems, high quality, well-paid teachers are needed, and they have to be treated as respected professionals.
5. Reading is not at all solely an educational problem.
Reading is treated as a school problem when it is most fundamentally a problem of socioeconomic disadvantage and inequality, tied to social, cultural, economic, and political problems. Nor is this only a problem of developing countries. Wealthy countries like the United States have significant rates of illiteracy, and substantial numbers of disadvantaged high school dropouts, and even graduates, have very limited reading abilities. In low-income countries, poverty and inequality is much worse and can affect children in many ways. Malnutrition, for example, affects 1 in 2 children under 5 in Eastern and Southern Africa, and impairs cognitive development and motivation. The need for children to work yields attendance and dropout problems. Access to reading materials is minimal in many regions of the world. Without attention to non-educational factors, the success of reading interventions will be limited. For example, to what extent do reading interventions include deworming and free meals, as well as broader attention to adult illiteracy, unemployment, and poverty?
6. Reading is only one piece of a primary school curriculum.
Narrow approaches to testing and learning generally neglect the many dimensions of schooling. Other school subjects are de-emphasized, or sometimes eliminated, such as history, social studies, geography, health, art, music, recreation, or even math and science. We also need schools to foster many things: critical and higher order thinking, problem-solving, creativity, curiosity, civic-mindedness, solidarity, self-discipline, self-efficacy, compassion, empathy, courage, conscientization, resilience, leadership, humility, peace, and more. Selecting one outcome, like reading, to emphasize and measure distorts education processes.
As I said above, reading mania is well-intentioned. And there is nothing wrong with making an effort to improve reading. It is needed. But it needs to be done in context, with more humility and more care. Multiple approaches to reading assessment and improvement are necessary. Local context is key. Pretensions of science and global recipes should be abandoned. Teacher quality and control, tied to classroom assessment and intervention, must be emphasized. Key educational and socioeconomic factors must be taken into account. And reading interventions must be designed in the context of what the full primary school curriculum is trying to accomplish. Only then will reading mania support education instead of distort it.