Focusing on Helping Children Catch Up on Foundational Skills (in the First Hundred Days) Helps Children Come Back Stronger Than They Were Before the COVID-19 Crisis


Image of Joseph Bullough

Joseph Bullough

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

School closures due to COVID-19 have had a massive effect on learning and life for children in South Asia. In India, as in many other countries, these school closures are also coming on top of a pre-existing learning crisis, which threatens to leave even more children behind and widen learning gaps even further.

Despite ongoing efforts to help children learn at home in India, the latest evidence suggests that distance learning initiatives have not even come close to being comparable to learning in school. The newly released Annual Status of Education (ASER) 2020 Wave One Report highlights wide divides in accessibility and limited evidence on the extent to which instructional content is progressing children’s learning. Namely, the report suggests a deepened learning crisis and critical challenges to help ‘even the playing field’ when children return.

With the stakes arguably never higher for India’s children as individual states reopen schools, we review key takeaways from the new ASER 2020 Wave One Report, JPAL South Asia’s COVIDialogues webinar on ‘Helping Children Catch Up After Schools Reopen’, and work by Rukmini Banerji, which underlines how prioritising foundational skills (in the first hundred days) not only helps children come back stronger in the short-term, but also supports longer-term improvements to education systems as well.

Although this reflects just one country’s experience, India—populated by more than a billion people—does offer critical lessons for other low- and middle-income countries.

1. What we do when schools reopen matters

ASER 2020’s Wave 1 report establishes that while great efforts have been made to keep learning alive in India, distance learning approaches offer at best an imperfect solution to keeping kids on track. Only about 35 percent of children received any learning materials or activities on the week of the ASER 2020 survey, and the report underscores limited evidence on the extent to which content is helping children progress, let alone offering a comparable experience to instruction in school.

The findings resonate with comments shared in September during JPAL South Asia’s COVIDialogues webinar, where Yamini Aiyar said that ‘despite all the efforts of distance learning, students aren’t in school and so our ability to support their learning is going to result in losses’. Dr Aiyar cited a study by the RISE Pakistan Team on closures after the 2005 earthquake, suggesting that closures in India would translate to much larger cumulative learning losses over time. Counter-intuitively, the study in Pakistan also finds that the largest losses took place not during the closures, but after children returned to school. Taken together with recent RISE simulations, these findings suggests that the way schools are reopened will matter for children’s learning trajectories1 . The new ASER 2020 data reinforce this conclusion, suggesting that children will be returning far behind curriculum and with wide variations in learning levels.

During the webinar, Dr Banerji emphasised that these times have been greatly challenging for children, their parents and communities. The return to school heralds a return to normalcy in a way that perhaps no other event can, and it could also be a boon if we do the right things for children when they return, by prioritising foundational skills and teaching them at the level they are when they return.

2. We need to prioritise catch-up and ensure that children master foundational skills when schools reopen

Once schools have reopened safely and attendance has stabilised, Dr Banerji shared in JPAL South Asia’s webinar that primary schools must take on ‘a focused 100-day programme’, where we put aside grade-wise curriculum and concentrate entirely on re-building foundational skills. Educators should use low-stakes assessments to identify gaps, ensuring that all children from Grade 3 can read fluently and do basic arithmetic. Dr Banerji emphasised that we need to leverage the opportunity of having kids back into schools to celebrate reopening, assess and meet kids where they are, and move with them at their level to progress their mastery of foundational skills.

Dr Aiyar also reminded us that even before the pandemic, attaining foundational skills remained a difficult challenge in India. Data from the 2019 Annual Status of Education (ASER) Report showed that less than half of Grade 5 students had mastered Grade 2 literacy. It’s a challenge that the government has recently taken up, underlining ‘foundational literacy and numeracy’ as an ‘urgent and necessary prerequisite to learning’ in its new National Education Policy 2020 roadmap. In light of COVID-19 school closures, ensuring universal, early, conceptual and procedural mastery of foundational skills for all children is all the more relevant.

During the webinar, Dr Banerji shared five key steps for children returning to school successfully, touching on a recent RISE blog:

  • First, celebrate. This is going to be ‘the most anticipated school opening of all time’.
  • Second, connect. Meet children at the level they are when they return to school. This means undertaking a simple one-to-one oral assessment to understand where the child is. Tools like ICAN offer an example of simple, fast, inexpensive ways to assess children’s levels once they are back in the classroom.
  • Third and fourth, put curriculum to the side and help children catch up. Instead of returning to textbooks, help children get from where they are to where they need to be, aligning instruction to their learning levels and focusing on foundational skills.
  • Fifth, community and continuum. We must recognise the incredible role that parents have played during the pandemic and continue to play in children’s lives, harnessing this involvement. Children’s progress with foundational skills gives teachers and parents the confidence to take next steps and unifies them in their resolve to drive further improvements. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing a child make progress.

3. Focused progress on foundational skills is critical for building back better.

As Dr Banerji pointed out, focusing on building solid foundations for learning on children’s return to school not only empowers children to rebuild that which was lost, but also promises wider-ranging impacts on education systems and communities as well.

Progressing children from where they are to where they need to be can ‘[unleash] positive energy within the system’, which is itself a catalyst for further change. ‘Learning to read is visible’, Dr Banerji writes in a recent blog. By turning our attention to ‘a catch-up campaign’ that supports children to make progress early when they return, we give teachers and parents the confidence to take the next steps together. This revitalises relationships and drives purpose. If done well, the process of school reopening tied with children’s progress on visible key skills brings the community closer together—and additional local support can go a long way, potentially even bringing in new resources and investment.

As Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee emphasised during the webinar, in the context of India, time out of school is not uncommon. Wide variance in learning levels was common before the pandemic, and perhaps the greatest challenge of our time is to consider how we systematically approach these variances to ensure all children can master foundational skills and progress as they move through school. Fundamentally, this raises the question of how we orient and approach instruction across varying levels of ability. Lessons learned in the process of returning are crucially important. After all, coherence between instruction and children’s levels is not just a goal for children’s return to school, but a principal goal for all education systems in the long-term as well.


  • 1Recent RISE simulations highlight the importance of schools being reopened in ways which move to remediate and reorientate instruction with children’s levels when they return (where no action results in even more substantial learning losses).

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