Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
Learning outcomes in many low- and middle-income countries are very low, even among children who spend many years in school. Across the seven countries that participated in the PISA-D assessment, an internationally comparable assessment adapted to developing countries, on average only 12 percent of 15-year-olds who were enrolled in Grade 7 or above reached the Sustainable Development Goals target for minimum proficiency in mathematics.1 Learning profiles from more than 50 countries with Demographic and Health Surveys data show that, among young women who have completed primary school but no higher, on average only half can read a simple sentence without help (Pritchett and Sandefur, 2020). These are just two data points from a large body of accumulated evidence which shows that, in many countries, even several years of schooling result in only limited learning (ASER Centre, 2018; Kaffenberger and Pritchett, 2020; PAL Network, 2020; Patel and Sandefur, 2020; Uwezo, 2019).
Low learning results partly from curricula and instruction that are poorly aligned with children’s learning levels and needs. In many countries, curricula and classroom instruction are overambitious relative to the actual quality of instruction, moving too fast for children to keep up, and causing many children to fall behind and stop learning even if they stay in school (Pritchett and Beatty, 2012; Kaffenberger and Pritchett, 2020). A study in India using computer-based testing, for example, found that many children in Grades 7 and 8 were at only a Grade 2 curricular level (Muralidharan and Singh, forthcoming). The official curriculum was five to six years ahead of these children’s mastery levels.
If children do not master foundational skills like literacy and numeracy early on, but the curriculum continues progressing, then they will not be able to engage in more advanced topics in later grades (Belafi et al., 2020; Gordon et al., 2019), and they will stop learning or drop out. In Indonesia, a study found that the proportion of children who could correctly complete a set of foundational mathematics questions increased each year through Grade 6, after which it flattened—children who had not gained these skills by Grade 6 did not gain them in later grades (Beatty et al., 2018). The study further found that additional years of schooling beyond Grade 6 were associated with only very small learning gains, perhaps because of these foundational gaps.
Furthermore, when average learning levels are low, there is often wide variation in learning levels among children in the same grade level. The study in India cited above found that the learning levels of children in Grade 8 varied from a Grade 2 learning level to a Grade 8 learning level (Muralidharan and Singh, forthcoming). Similarly, the 2018 Uwezo survey in Uganda found that while 39 percent of children in Grade 5 could read and comprehend a story in English, 16 percent were either non-readers or could read only letters (and not words), representing a wide spread in learning levels (Uwezo, 2019). In such situations, classroom instruction that follows the official curriculum may be aligned only with the learning levels of the most advantaged children who are on par with grade-level expectations, thus widening pre-existing inequities.
In recent years, advancements have been made on approaches that improve foundational learning outcomes by better aligning instruction with children’s current learning levels. Ensuring that instruction does not outpace what students can do makes them more likely to master foundational skills and continue learning for longer. In this way, better aligned instruction can also help to achieve equity goals by ensuring that no child is left behind (Rodriguez-Segura et al., 2020).
In this Insight Note, we present a set of principles shared by varied approaches that have all succeeded in improving foundational learning in developing countries. These approaches were not explicitly designed with this list of principles in mind; rather, the principles emerged through analysis and synthesis of successful approaches. We call such efforts ALIGNS approaches, which stands for Aligning Levels of Instruction with Goals and the Needs of Students. ALIGNS approaches take many forms, ranging from large-scale policy and curricular reforms to in-school or after-school remedial programmes.
In this note, we describe the principles that ALIGNS approaches have in common (Section I); review interdisciplinary evidence on why aligning instruction with children’s learning levels improves learning (Section II); present three cases from across the spectrum of approaches and illustrate how each embodies the ALIGNS principles (Section III); and provide a longer (though not exhaustive) table of programmes that illustrates the range of possible approaches to implementing ALIGNS principles and describes the design features across which they vary (Table 1).
While the approaches we group together as ALIGNS approaches take different forms, they exemplify a set of core principles. We describe these principles here, and illustrate them in the descriptions of three cases that follow in Section III. ALIGNS approaches endeavour to:
Most policies and programmes we identify as ALIGNS approaches involve clearly articulated learning goals in line with children’s current learning levels.2 Where foundational literacy and numeracy have not yet been achieved by all children, goals typically prioritise these foundational skills to enable further learning.3 Given the low observed learning levels in many developing countries, most ALIGNS approaches we identify have found weak initial mastery of foundational literacy and/or numeracy skills in their respective education systems, and, accordingly, have set clear goals for achieving universal mastery of these foundations.
Setting appropriate goals for learning progress requires an accurate understanding of current learning levels. New assessment data on learning levels, which provides new information on learning in an education system, has itself spurred this kind of goal-setting and commitment to change for many ALIGNS approaches.4 Citizen-led assessments such as the ASER and Uwezo surveys, and others associated with the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network, have provided valuable information on mastery of foundational skills by children across the primary grades in many countries (for more details on citizen-led assessments, see Box 2 in Section III.) Where national or sub-national assessments are conducted in the early primary years, these have been used to gain an understanding of current learning levels among primary school students.5 In Sobral, Brazil, poor results on literacy assessments led to clear, specific goals for all children to achieve foundational literacy by Grade 2 (Crouch, 2020). In other contexts, programmes have conducted diagnostic assessments among a cohort or representative sample of children at the start of a programme, and set learning goals accordingly.
Through varied means, ALIGNS approaches all endeavour to better align instruction to be coherent both with children’s current learning levels and with the progress needed to achieve learning goals. There are multiple ways in which programmes have improved alignment between instruction, current learning levels, and targeted learning progress; these are discussed in detail in subsequent sections. Instructional components that have been targeted and brought into alignment include formal curriculum standards; content taught in the classroom; pedagogical approaches used to deliver this content; assessments used to evaluate students’ progress; and instructional materials provided to teachers and students. Many successful ALIGNS approaches change multiple instructional components simultaneously—bringing the components into alignment with each other as well as with children’s learning progress—rather than simply changing one component at a time.
In some contexts, ALIGNS approaches have involved reorienting curriculum standards for an entire system to better meet the learning needs of the average child. For example, our first case in Section III centres on streamlining previously overburdened curriculum standards so that there are fewer topics to cover, enabling teachers to dedicate more time to ensuring that children master foundational skills. In other contexts, alignment has been focused on dedicated instructional periods that covered foundational skills and used appropriate assessments, instructional materials, and pedagogical approaches to improve learning, as in our other two cases in Section III. While the multiple approaches that we group together under ALIGNS may appear quite different, they follow the same underlying principle around adapting instruction but act on different instructional components according to a particular context and opportunity to improve learning.
Adapting instruction to children’s learning levels is a nontrivial undertaking and requires high-quality support for teachers or for the instructors in programmes that occur outside of the classroom. This is particularly true since ALIGNS approaches typically represent a marked departure from the business-as-usual curricula and instructional components that are ingrained into the everyday practices of teachers and instructors.
Consequently, many successful ALIGNS approaches do not confine their investments in training to the beginning of the programme. Instead, they provide ongoing coaching so that teachers receive continuous feedback for incremental improvement. Feedback is often tightly focused on reinforcing the key changes to instructional components being undertaken by the programme or reform, such as ways of employing new pedagogy, materials, and lesson plans. Coaching has also served as an effective, low-stakes accountability mechanism to ensure that teachers and instructors are implementing the ALIGNS approach appropriately and with fidelity. Additionally, coaches sometimes provide feedback to programme managers to inform ongoing training sessions or programme design tweaks. This emphasis on classroom-specific feedback and coaching coheres with research on effective teacher training and coaching more generally (e.g., Popova et al., 2016).
The ALIGNS core principles are compatible with a wide variety of programme variants. Each approach adapts important elements of design and implementation to the needs and possibilities of its context. For example, different ALIGNS approaches target students very differently: some align instruction to all children in a grade; others group children together within a grade who have not mastered a specific skill; and others differentiate instruction for individual children. There is no single best model for implementing the ALIGNS principles in an education system. A feature that enables a programme to work in one context may actually hinder it somewhere else, and successful programmes make a range of choices to traverse the multi-dimensional “design space” in their particular context (Pritchett, 2017). In short, the best approach relies on adaptation to the context.
We illustrate this in the examples in Section III, and explore it further in Table 1 at the end of the Note, where we summarise 12 ALIGNS approaches that have delivered learning gains in a wide range of low- and middle-income countries. For each approach, the table documents choices in programme implementation for design elements including content, targeting of students, scheduling, use of technology, and type of instructors and coaches. This list of programmes and their design features provides an illustrative – not exhaustive – sample of the diversity of programmes that embody the ALIGNS core principles.
Taken together, these four principles underly many successful programmes and efforts aiming to align levels of instruction to both desired learning goals and actual learning levels.
A range of findings from cognitive science (focused on the individual learner), educational research (focused on the classroom), and evaluations of ALIGNS approaches (focused on programmes and reforms) show that aligning levels of instruction to the learning levels of students can be a powerful enabler of learning. The evidence presented below casts a spotlight on the instructional processes at the heart of ALIGNS.
Cultivating children’s learning requires instruction to be aligned with both their current learning levels and goals for their subsequent learning progress. At the level of the individual learner, this is supported by research in cognitive psychology on the architecture of the human brain and how the brain incorporates new knowledge. There are two fundamental points to note.
Firstly, instruction must be aligned with children’s current learning levels because human learning is cumulative. The cumulative nature of learning is a result of how our working memory and long-term memory interact. Working memory has a very limited capacity for actively processing new knowledge, but this capacity expands greatly when building on knowledge that has previously been incorporated into long-term memory (Abadzi, 2020; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018). A foundation of prior knowledge in long-term memory enables children to use their working memory to build new knowledge on top of this foundation. However, if a teacher asks a student to complete a learning task for which they lack sufficient prior knowledge, then either:
This implies that the content of instructional tasks must be suitably challenging relative to students’ prior knowledge—or, in other words, relative to their current learning levels.
Secondly, instruction must also be aligned with children’s subsequent learning progress. Humans learn—that is, we incorporate new factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge into our long-term memory—by actively focusing our working memory on the new knowledge. This implies that the design of instructional tasks should orient students’ working memory toward the desired new knowledge (Willingham, 2003). To give a negative example: if the main task in a lesson that is supposed to be about reading involves listening to the teacher read a text aloud and repeating each sentence after the teacher in chorus, then students are more likely to acquire new knowledge about pronunciation rather than reading.
The interplay between alignment with current learning levels and orientation toward subsequent learning progress is illustrated in Figure 1. If a child can read simple words but lacks fluency in reading sentences and paragraphs, then asking them to read a complicated text aloud by repeating after the teacher (Cell A) would be both misaligned with their current learning level by presenting a text that is too difficult, and misaligned with learning progress by allowing the child to simply repeat what the teacher says rather than trying to decode the text. Thus, this instructional task would be coherent with neither current learning levels nor subsequent learning progress. Such misaligned content and poorly designed tasks are common in many classrooms within low-performing education systems (for a concrete example, see Burdett, 2017, Appendix A). A second scenario, asking the child to read a series of letters of the alphabet (Cell B), would be coherent with the child’s current learning level, but incoherent for cultivating subsequent learning progress because the child has already mastered the skill of decoding individual letters.
While orientation toward subsequent learning progress is necessary, it is not sufficient for effective instruction. The third scenario in Figure 1, asking the child to read a novel independently (Cell C), clearly involves new conceptual and procedural knowledge of reading (i.e., it is oriented toward learning progress)—but it would also be unrealistically challenging given the child’s current learning levels. Rather than helping the child to develop greater reading fluency, it could instead result in the child losing interest and motivation to practice reading. Alternatively, asking the child to read a few simple sentences, with teacher feedback when they falter (Cell D), would be both appropriately challenging given their current learning level and appropriately oriented toward the desired goal of building fluency in reading. Successfully completing the task would require the child to focus their working memory on the process of decoding and understanding the sentences, which would help consolidate their long-term procedural knowledge of reading.
Hence the importance of aligning levels of instruction with goals (i.e., targeted learning progress) and the needs of students (i.e., current learning levels). Both the content and design of instructional tasks, lessons, or modules must work together to facilitate students’ learning progress. This is not simply a matter of whether a task is “easy” or “hard”, because the appropriate level of difficulty depends on the learners in question. Moreover, as shown in Figure 1, a task can be inappropriately difficult in two different ways, whether because it requires prior knowledge in long-term memory that the child has not yet attained, (e.g., Cell C)—or because it demands too much working memory (e.g., Cell B). Rather than thinking in terms of ease or difficulty generically, it is more important to consider whether an instructional task meets the needs of the learners in question by being coherent with both their current levels and their subsequent learning progress.
Pedagogical research has long emphasised practices related to ALIGNS. For example, matching classroom teaching to students’ varied learning levels is a central component of differentiation, which itself is an oft-cited concept in pedagogy (e.g., Tomlinson et al., 2003).
Another related concept is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978; see Chaiklin, 2003, for an overview). Vygotsky, an early 20th-century developmental psychologist, posited that there are three types of instructional tasks:
The implication is that learning and instruction should be concentrated in the ZPD, because guided practice on tasks in the ZPD will eventually enable the child to perform these tasks independently. A similar concept that emerged later is scaffolding. In a scaffolded task, the teacher helps a child to complete a challenging task by providing guidance that simplifies the task and orients the child’s attention toward the goal (Wood et al., 1976)—or, in other words, to channel their working memory away from extraneous elements and toward the salient new knowledge. For an example of how these theories may translate to practice, see Box 1.
The NGO Young 1ove, in Botswana, offers one example of what the ZPD and alignment with children’s learning levels and learning progress can look like in practice. Young 1ove facilitators deliver the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) programme for foundational mathematics in the form of after-school sessions for children in the middle primary grades who have fallen behind the national maths curriculum.
Prior to the start of a TaRL programme in a given school, children in the targeted grades take a short diagnostic assessment to identify those who have not mastered basic numeracy skills that were taught in earlier grades. These children are then grouped according to their current learning levels: e.g., a group that has yet to master addition, a group that has mastered addition and subtraction but has yet to master multiplication, and so on.
At the end of each after-school session, every child independently answers a checkpoint maths question to test their mastery of the day’s content. If approximately 70 percent of children in the group answered the question correctly, the next day’s lesson will move on to the next topic. If fewer than 70 percent are correct, the topic is re-taught the next day. If all children answer the checkpoint correctly, this may indicate that the day’s material was too easy, and facilitators will adjust the rate of progress accordingly. Also, if a particular child is progressing more rapidly than the others in the group, then they will be moved up to a more advanced group (if such a group is present in their school’s TaRL programme), in line with the overall goal of helping children to catch up with their age-appropriate curriculum as quickly as possible. Additional attention is given to the children who have not yet mastered the topic so they quickly catch up to their peers in their group.
This is one manifestation of a teaching principle in the Young 1ove TaRL facilitator field guide: “Keep children on the cusp of learning.” (Or, put differently, “Align levels of instruction with goals and the needs of students.”) For more details on TaRL approaches in different countries, see Section III.
Evaluations of a range of instructional approaches that apply ALIGNS principles have found positive effects on student learning. For example, mastery learning is a long-established approach in which instruction only progresses to new content once students have demonstrated mastery of the initial content, with appropriate feedback and support to help them achieve this mastery (Bloom, 1984; Kulik et al., 1990). A summary of meta-analyses of dozens of mastery learning evaluations, conducted mainly in the United States, concluded that mastery learning can be challenging to implement, but can lead to an added five months’ worth of learning progress over the course of the intervention (Education Endowment Foundation, 2018; see also Jerrim and Vignoles, 2016).
Similarly, ALIGNS approaches have demonstrated student learning gains in a range of developing countries, as discussed below in Sections III and IV.
This section describes three cases of the ALIGNS core principles in practice, each of which has produced large gains in student learning outcomes at scale in developing countries. These are far from the only successful ALIGNS approaches. These cases were selected to illustrate the varied ways in which the ALIGNS principles have been fulfilled across very different contexts. By presenting the cases side-by-side and mapping them to the four ALIGNS principles, we illustrate the shared underlying logic of these seemingly disparate approaches.
In 2013, Tanzania implemented “Big Results Now!” (BRN), a national effort initially focused on reforming six key sectors. Education was one of these priority sectors in part because recent assessments of systemwide learning had revealed plummeting pass rates on national exams and low overall learning levels. Pass rates on the government’s Primary School Leaving Examination more than halved from 70 percent in 2006 to 31 percent in 2012. Furthermore, Uwezo, an annual citizen-led assessment that began in Tanzania in 2011, consistently found low mastery of foundational skills. This combination of disappointing assessment results led to the perception of a national educational crisis, and placed substantial political attention on education reform (Todd and Attfield, 2017).
Accordingly, two out of the ten key performance indicators (KPIs) for the BRN education goals were centred on the “3Rs”—reading, writing, and arithmetic—in the early grades. This reflects ALIGNS Principle 1, setting clear learning goals in line with current learning levels, especially for foundational skills. One KPI set a target of conducting 3Rs teacher training for over 12,000 Grade 1 and 2 teachers. The second KPI focused on introducing an annual Grade 2 assessment to measure and transparently report on foundational skills (Government of Tanzania, 2015). In 2013–14, the government undertook the first of these assessments using a version of the Early Grade Reading and Math Assessments (EGRA/EGMA).
Disappointing results on the EGRA/EGMA assessments inspired a further effort to align instruction to improve foundational skills, a reflection of Principle 2. In 2015 the government decided to reorient the national curriculum standards for Grades 1 and 2 toward the 3Rs. In the words of the policy document on the reform, “the Curriculum for Standard I and II was overloaded with subjects, causing teachers to overemphasise the teaching of subject content and placing less emphasis on the development of the basic skills and competences in reading, writing and arithmetic that are necessary in order for learners to effectively learn content” (Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, 2016). Unlike the previous curriculum, which had eight different subjects including “Vocational Skills” and “Information and Communications Technology” for Grade 1 and 2 students, the new reform dedicated 80 percent of instructional time to Kiswahili and mathematics. This increased the amount of time students spent on these two subjects by around 2.4 hours per week, out of 15 total weekly instructional hours for all subjects, by eliminating or integrating other subjects (Mbiti and Rodriguez-Segura, forthcoming). An external evaluation of the reform estimates that it resulted in large, positive, and significant increases in children’s learning for both subjects (Mbiti and Rodriguez-Segura, forthcoming).
A further way the reform adapted instruction was through a dedicated focus on the 3Rs in a single language, which meant one of the subjects eliminated from the Grade 1 and 2 curriculum was English. Delaying the study of English as a subject and focusing solely on Kiswahili, the national language, during these foundational years was a major departure from the previous curriculum standards, but one that allowed more focus on ensuring literacy in Kiswahili. Mbiti and Rodriguez-Segura’s evaluation finds that while the reform may have had some negative side effects on English skills, these were not large enough to counterbalance the learning gains in mathematics and Kiswahili. In fact there may have even been some positive spillovers for basic English subskills.6
Alongside the new 3Rs curriculum, contemporaneous reforms under BRN also likely contributed to the realignment of other components of instruction to children’s learning levels and progress.7 The new, annual Grade 2 assessment shone a national spotlight on foundational skills and likely helped raise their importance in the eyes of teachers, head teachers, and other stakeholders. The curricular reform was also accompanied by the creation and distribution of instructional materials, like textbooks, that aligned with the new curriculum, although the evaluation by Mbiti and Rodriguez-Segura (forthcoming) suggests only 40 percent of teachers had received these materials during the initial years of the reform.
The curriculum reform also succeeded in changing instruction through the support given to teachers, a reflection of ALIGNS Principle 3. Training in the new curriculum was strongly correlated with the reform’s success in raising student learning. In schools where at least one teacher received preparatory training in the new curriculum before the 3Rs reform was formally implemented, student test score gains were nearly twice as large as for the full sample of schools (Mbiti and Rodriguez-Segura, forthcoming).8 Eventually, most teachers received training from the government in the 3Rs curriculum. Concurrent donor-led teacher training efforts with a focus on early-grade pedagogy for literacy may have also helped support teachers (Todd and Attfield, 2017).
This major reform of the national curriculum reflects the political opportunity Tanzania had to reimagine early grade learning goals and instructional practices. Taking advantage of this political opportunity to realign curriculum and prioritise foundational skills reflects ALIGNS Principle 4, of tailoring an approach to the opportunities (and constraints) of a given context.
Between 2009 and 2012, systemwide assessments of student learning in Kenya, including Uwezo’s citizen-led assessments and EGRA/EGMA, provided a “wake-up call” around a lack of foundational literacy and numeracy (Crouch, 2020). For example, EGRA results showed that 40 percent of students could not read with comprehension by the end of Grade 2 (Piper et al., 2018). Following these disappointing outcomes, Kenya invested in a national literacy programme called Tusome with a specific focus on reading pedagogy in Grades 1–3. It was implemented in all 23,000 public primary schools and 1,500 low-cost private schools in the country between 2014–2019. At the heart of Tusome was a set of clear goals for student learning centred on foundational literacy (Principle 1) that specified numerical benchmarks for reading fluency in Kiswahili and English in Grades 1, 2, and 3. Tusome pursued these goals and realigned instruction (Principle 2) through a comprehensive series of changes to core instructional components: the content taught in classrooms, instructional materials, classroom pedagogy, and formative assessments. In contrast to the Tanzania case, Tusome did not change the top-level curriculum standards, or the amount of time dedicated to foundational skills. Instead, Tusome took the allotted 30-minute classes in English and Kiswahili and transformed what happened during them.
In practice, this meant creating a “clear, specific, year-long scope and sequence of curriculum-based content” that was packaged, via a teachers’ guide, into structured lessons (Crouch, 2020). New student books, in turn, were aligned with the new teachers’ guides. Most of the major decisions that mediate the interpretation of curriculum standards into what actually occurs in the classroom—such as pacing, level, and activities—were structured in the teachers’ guides and student books (Crouch, 2020). This helped to achieve tight internal coherence between instructional components. An equal achievement was that these materials actually reached the classroom: an external evaluation found that 99 percent of classrooms had a 1:1 student-to-book ratio for both English and Kiswahili; 97 percent of classrooms had the teachers’ guides; and 95 percent of teachers were using the guides (Freudenberger and Davis, 2017).
To continuously monitor students’ progress against its core goals, Tusome also introduced regular assessments. This assessment was performed by existing government workers, Curriculum Support Officers (CSOs), who were already the key bridge between the education bureaucracy and schools with responsibility for visiting classrooms and providing supervision and support to teachers in an average of 20 schools each. As part of Tusome, the CSOs began to randomly select three students during their visits to take on-the-spot assessments of oral reading fluency based on that particular term’s material. These results were then recorded on a tablet and aggregated on a national dashboard that displayed average reading fluency (in words per minute) and the percentage of students meeting established benchmarks.9
One of the defining features of Tusome was the degree to which it supported teachers (Principle 3) in changing their instructional practice. While this was partly achieved through six days of teacher training at the outset, Tusome channelled most of its support efforts into ongoing classroom observations and coaching by CSOs. The coaching had three main features: high frequency; a laser focus on the newly prescribed classroom content and pedagogy; and effective feedback. First, Tusome greatly increased the number of classroom visits by CSOs. In 2016, while Tusome was in full swing, each CSO performed an average of 90 visits, amounting to 113,604 unique classroom observations, and 80 percent of Grade 1 and 2 teachers received at least 1 observation per term (Piper et al., 2018). Second, the coaching reinforced Tusome’s intended changes to lesson content and pedagogy. CSOs were expected to monitor the adoption of the new curricular scope and new books, down to the level of whether each part of the daily lesson was delivered, and whether the teacher was employing elements of the prescribed Tusome pedagogy. To deliver this support to teachers, the CSOs themselves received support in the form of thrice-yearly training and tablets equipped with classroom observation tools (Piper et al., 2018). Finally, each CSO provided immediate feedback to teachers after each lesson. The feedback was formative, rather than high-stakes, and drew on the rigorous evidence base underlying Tusome’s intended changes to instructional practice. The quality of the feedback fostered trust and professional accountability between coaches and teachers, and an attendant shift in school culture around the importance of good pedagogy (Crouch, 2020; Piper et al., 2018).
Another dimension of Tusome’s success was its extensive use of pilots to adapt implementation decisions to the Kenyan system and context (Principle 4). Beginning in 2012, the Kenyan Ministry of Education and its development partners ran a multi-year, multi-pronged pilot called the Primary Math and Reading (PRIMR) initiative. PRIMR refined the approach that became Tusome by studying, for example, the capacity of existing government systems and personnel to deliver coaching, and by determining that the additional literacy gains from including teachers’ guides and student books in the reform far outweighed their cost (Piper et al., 2018). PRIMR also iterated certain details of implementation, such as soliciting teacher feedback on the lesson guides to make them more relevant and user-friendly (Crouch, 2020).
Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) was pioneered by Pratham, a leading Indian NGO, in the early 2000s.10 The approach is centred around setting clear learning goals for foundational reading and math skills that are directly tied to children’s current learning levels (Principle 1). This goal grew out of a series of government and independent assessments of student learning in India that highlighted the severity and ubiquity of the learning crisis across the country (Banerji and Chavan, 2016).11 Pratham itself facilitated one of the best known of these assessments—the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), which published its first nationally representative report in 2005—which found that nearly two-thirds of students in government schools in Grades 2–5 could not read a simple Grade-2-level story (Pratham Resource Center, 2005).
The TaRL approach has had multiple programmatic incarnations over time. Today, Pratham and its partners advocate two delivery models for TaRL that have had positive impacts in multiple contexts. The first model revolves around learning camps that offer a concentrated series of remedial classes outside of school hours and are usually led by a civil society organisation with volunteer teachers. The second model integrates the approach into government systems, and uses dedicated time during the regular school day for TaRL-style remediation led by regular teachers (Banerjee et al., 2016).
Both models are currently being implemented at various scales through programmes run by Pratham in India. These models have also been adopted by multiple partners, and variations of them are running in 10 countries across sub-Saharan Africa under the umbrella of TaRL Africa. In total, TaRL approaches have reached over 50 million students (J-PAL, 2019).
Across delivery models and implementation contexts, the TaRL approach uses a consistent methodology for aligning instruction with students’ learning levels and learning progress (Principle 2). This methodology touches on a number of instructional components at once: an initial diagnostic assessment of children’s learning levels; engaging pedagogical practices; level-appropriate instructional materials; and regular use of formative assessments. (For an example of this approach applied to a particular context, see Box 1 on how TaRL is implemented in Botswana.)
To model and reinforce its particular approach to instruction, TaRL stresses the importance of providing support to instructors (Principle 3) through mentors. Mentoring reinforces and supplements the initial induction training for TaRL instructors, which typically only lasts around 5 days. As in Tusome, the emphasis of mentoring is on in-person visits, classroom observation, and feedback from mentors. Also like Tusome, the mentoring is tightly focused on reinforcing the intended approach, which in the case of TaRL includes administering student assessments, grouping by level, doing level-wise activities, and using participatory pedagogies (see: TaRL Mentors, n.d.). So that mentors gain the practical insight to provide good feedback, Pratham recommends that they implement TaRL themselves for a minimum of 15 days (Banerji and Chavan, 2016). Sometimes mentors also collect monitoring information during their visits. Some TaRL programmes aggregate and analyse this information to target further support or make programme course corrections for the instructors, schools, or administrative units that most need it (see: TaRL Webinar Series Session 3: Monitoring and Mentoring, 2017).
TaRL has been successfully adapted to very different contexts in part because of a willingness to experiment with different modes of implementation (Principle 4). Developing both a civil society-led delivery model and a government-led model has allowed TaRL to scale opportunistically, first through grassroots efforts by Pratham, later through state-level partnerships in India, and now through a variety of government and non-government partners in Africa (World Bank 2018). Each TaRL model has itself been evolved to meet the variations of context. This has been enabled in part through a longstanding research partnership between Pratham and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which has helped evaluate different programme variants. For example, in studies of the government-led model, multiple findings pointed to the special measures needed to prevent civil service teachers from defaulting away from TaRL methods and back to their usual curriculum and habitual classroom practices (Banerjee et al., 2016; Banerjee et al., 2017). These studies highlighted the importance of a dedicated instructional period for TaRL during school hours, along with robust top-down mentoring, both of which are now emphasised in the government-led model (Banerjee et al., 2016; Banerjee et al., 2017).
In each of these three cases, the ALIGNS principles are applied through a coherent strategy, rather than in a piecemeal fashion. In Tanzania, the teacher training (Principle 3) was coherent with the reform’s goals around concentrating on the 3Rs (Principle 1), leading to larger learning gains. In Kenya, Tusome’s architects employed “conscious bureaucratic and technical coordination to ensure a fit between all the components” (Crouch, 2020, p. 31). Pedagogy, materials, and the sequenced lesson plans were tightly synced with each other (internal coherence in aligning instructional components for learning progress under Principle 2), and these were further aligned with frequent coaching on how to employ the new pedagogy, materials, and lesson plans (Principle 3). Similarly, TaRL’s research with JPAL emphasises that the approach is “holistic”: any single component— assessments, level-appropriate instructional materials, or training and coaching—on its own has little or no impact (Banerji and Chavan, 2016). The most effective programmes both embody the individual ALIGNS principles and align them to reinforce each other.
In any context with low learning levels, assessments of foundational skills are integral tools for motivating and implementing ALIGNS approaches. As reflected in the cases above, they can be used for either diagnostic or formative purposes.
Diagnostic assessments are used to understand students’ current learning levels, and can be particularly useful at the beginning of a programme. Sometimes a diagnostic assessment jumpstarts an ALIGNS approach, as in the Tanzania 3Rs case in Section III. In this context, assessment results yielded a systemwide snapshot of low learning levels and served as a catalyst for setting learning goals and other systemic reforms. Diagnostic assessments are also used to align instruction to children’s learning at a more fine-grained level. The TaRL approaches described in Section III use a diagnostic assessment at the beginning of each programme to group children according to their prior mastery of foundational skills.
Formative assessments of foundational skills are a powerful tool for aligning instruction with children’s learning levels on an ongoing basis: they provide feedback on children’s learning gains and enable continuous recalibration of instruction to children’s current learning levels. For example, in the TaRL approaches described in Section III, formative assessments are used to continually assess children’s learning progress and to determine when to move on to new skills. Additionally, formative assessment can provide an effective form of retrieval practice for students (i.e., actively recalling previously learned knowledge)13 which can improve the retention and flexibility of prior knowledge (Dunlosky et al., 2013). That said, while formative assessments are desirable, they do not appear in all ALIGNS approaches. Conducting accurate and efficient formative assessments can be a technically demanding task, and equipping teachers at scale to conduct such assessments can be resource-intensive, meaning such assessments may not be feasible or appropriate in all contexts.
We discuss three illustrative examples of assessments of foundational skills below. These examples are meant to showcase the variety of existing assessments; they are by no means exhaustive. At least two other international assessments of foundational skills exist—EGMA and UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS)—and national and subnational assessments have been developed by particular countries or programmes, such as the Comprehensive Reading and Mathematics Assessment Tool (CERMAT) in Indonesia (Rarasati et al., 2020).
EGRA, developed in 2006 by RTI, USAID, and the World Bank, assesses a number of foundational language and literacy skills. It is purposefully designed as a framework that can be tailored to context (Gove and Wetterberg, 2011). Depending on the number of subtasks tested, it can take between 10–20 minutes per child. It has been adapted in 65 countries and 100 languages. EGRA has predominantly been used as a diagnostic tool to measure the progress of an entire education system or programme (Dubeck and Gove, 2015). Both Tanzania and Kenya used EGRA to diagnose a systemic underdevelopment of foundational skills, contributing to the impetus for the 3Rs and Tusome reforms, respectively (as discussed in Section III). However, EGRA has also been modified for formative use in the classroom. The EGRA Plus project in Liberia trained teachers and coaches to regularly administer different versions of EGRA in 180 project schools. The results were used for multiple purposes, such as undertaking frequent checks on individual student progress that informed daily reading instruction, creating report cards for parents, and identifying teachers’ professional development needs (Davidson et al., 2011).
These assessments, beginning with ASER in 2005, are often associated with the TaRL approach. Like TaRL, they have a single-minded focus on foundational reading and math skills. They are conducted in households in order to reach out-of-school children, and are administered orally to one child at a time to ensure that children who cannot yet read are nonetheless assessed accurately and represented proportionately in these surveys. CLAs have spread to 14 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America under the aegis of the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network, and different member organisations have employed the results to pursue different educational reform goals (Alcott et al., 2020).14 In many countries, CLAs have been conducted at scale using nationally representative samples to diagnose the learning crisis and advocate for systemic change. In other contexts, the simplicity and speed of CLAs has allowed them to act as templates for the formative assessments used in many TaRL classrooms around the world.
In 2020, the CLA movement and the PAL Network released their first internationally comparable assessment, the International Common Assessment of Numeracy (ICAN). ICAN seeks to provide a common metric to measure cross-country progress against SDG 4.1.1, which calls for monitoring the percentage of Grade 2 and 3 students who have acquired foundational skills in reading and math. Thus far, ICAN has been piloted in 13 low- and middle-income countries to test its comparability across systems. Furthermore, as the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) recognised in her foreword to ICAN’s launch report, there is the potential to adapt ICAN in the future for formative assessment and to create continuous feedback loops within classrooms, schools, and districts (PAL Network, 2020).
Funda Wande is a South African nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that all students in the country can “read for meaning” and “calculate with confidence” by Grade 3, in the words of the organisation’s vision. It does this by developing open-source teacher training and instructional materials—in both video and print—to support teachers in the early grades of primary school. Assessing foundational skills is an essential element of Funda Wande’s training, but the emphasis is on informal, formative assessment that is tightly integrated into lessons. For example, the training book and videos on guided reading groups offer a number of model questions to intersperse into the read-aloud that check the depth of students’ understanding. These questions are then organised into a rubric that helps teachers to record post-lesson observations about each student, to look for patterns in individual student progress, and to tailor instruction accordingly. The training explicitly acknowledges the informality of the assessment, and clarifies that the goal is not to probe every student on every skill during every lesson, but rather to build-up a source of formative feedback over time (Funda Wande, 2020).
In the education systems of many developing countries, there is a wide gap between what students know and can do, and what they are taught in school. This inhibits learning and widens learning inequities. Multiple policies and programmes have recognised this problem and pioneered approaches that have successfully improved learning at scale. However, the common patterns that underly these varied approaches, and characterise their success, is rarely made explicit. The intended contribution of this Insight Note is to identify four common principles that emerge from the different successful approaches.
Policies and programmes that we group together as “ALIGNS approaches” set clear learning goals based on children’s current learning levels; realign the components of instruction to be coherent with students’ learning levels and the learning progress they are meant to achieve; provide regular support to teachers to reinforce the targeted changes to instruction; and are implemented in a way that addresses the opportunities and constraints of the context. This broad set of principles does not point to a single model programme or set of best practices. Rather, the principles are compatible with a range of programme variants, some of which are articulated in Table 1.
The success of these programmes suggests that applying these principles as part of a coherent strategy can be a key component to improving children’s learning achievement. Some of these approaches have achieved big learning gains even in short spans of time. Pratham’s short burst “learning camps,” which provide about 50 days of TaRL instruction, have had large effects on children’s literacy. Large gains are possible, and low learning levels are not inevitable. Cultivating children’s foundational literacy and numeracy skills by the middle primary grades is an immeasurably valuable goal—and, as these ALIGNS approaches show, an achievable one.
|Asistencia, Permanencia, Aprendizaje (Attendance, Completion, and Learning) Model||Puebla, Mexico (a state with 14,000 schools)||Foundational literacy (in Spanish) and numeracy by Grade 2. In the higher grades, the program targeted the lowest level of proficiency on national standardised tests at the end of primary, lower secondary, and upper secondary.||600 lowest performing schools (based on learning, not poverty). All grade levels, including preschool, were targeted.||During normal lessons (according to the amount of time needed to finish prescribed workbooks) and additional remedial summer course for those who could not read||Low tech||Government teachers||No formal coaching, but efforts to recruit high quality training facilitators and conduct small face-to-face trainings with no more than 25 teachers|
|Complementary basic education||Ghana (Note: Similar accelerated learning programmes for out-of-school children are also conducted elsewhere.)||Foundational literacy and numeracy in mother-tongue languages||Small classes of out-of-school-children ages 8–14||Flexible hours (to avoid conflict with other responsibilities) over 9 months||Low tech||Community volunteers, coordinated through local nonprofits||Unknown|
|Escuela Nueva||Originally in Colombia; subsequently adapted in Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Dominican Republic, East Timor, India, Vietnam.||Basic skills in literacy, math, science and social studies (following the national curriculum)||Groups by level, mostly in rural multigrade primary schools||During normal lessons||Low tech||Mostly government teachers||Peer mentoring through local teacher networks called microcenters|
|Funda Wande||South Africa||Foundational literacy (in isiXhosa and Sepedi) and numeracy||Grades 1–3 in participating schools, with some flexible groupings within classrooms||During normal lessons||Hybrid. Low tech instructional materials, and digital training materials for teachers (accessed online or through a preloaded flash drive)||Government teachers||Government officials and Funda Wande support staff|
|Mindspark computer-adaptive software||India||Math, Hindi, English||Individual students (or pairs of students sharing a device) in Grades 6–9||Used in a variety of ways and settings, e.g., during designated timetable periods in government schools, in private after-school learning centres, and individual households.||High tech. The software has a bank of 45,000 practice questions; differentiates instruction and assessments to the level of the individual student user; and includes games, videos, and activities.||Software. (When used in learning centres, there is a combination of individual time with the software and instructor-led small group work.)||None.|
|PEARL Early Grade Reading Programs||Tonga, Kiribati Tuvalu||Foundational literacy||Grades 1–2||During normal lessons||Low tech||Government teachers||Ministry and District-level officials (with 7 teachers per coach in Tonga)|
|Room to Read Literacy Program||Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa, Jordan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia||Foundational literacy (in the official medium of instruction)||Grades 1–2||Mostly during normal lessons||Low tech||Mostly government teachers||Room to Read literacy facilitators|
|TaRL government partnerships (led by government teachers)||Haryana, India. Similar partnerships have been formed in Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Zambia.||Foundational literacy (in Hindi)||Groups by level for Grades 3–5||1 dedicated hour per day during the school day||Low tech||Government teachers||Government officials responsible for 12–15 schools|
|TaRL learning camps (led by volunteers)||Uttar Pradesh, India. Similar learning camps have occurred in other Indian states (Pratham), in Botswana (Young 1ove), Kenya (G-United and ziziAfrique), Mozambique (Wichutha Nithuelaca), and Nigeria (TEP Centre).||Foundational literacy (in Hindi) and numeracy||Groups by level for Grades 3–5||50 days total instruction, split into ‘bursts’ of 10 consecutive days with 2–3 hours of instruction per day. 4 bursts took place in school during the school day, with an additional burst over the summer break.||Low tech||Local volunteers||Pratham staff|
|Tusome||Kenya||Foundational literacy (in Kiswahili and English)||Grades 1–3||During normal 30-minute Kiswahili and English lessons||Hybrid. Inexpensive instructional materials for teachers and students, but tablets for coaches which fed into a county and national level dashboard.||Government teachers||Government officials responsible for around 20 schools|
Source: Authors' synthesis.
For those interested in a deeper dive into a particular programme and the reasons we have classified it within the family of ALIGNS approaches, we have compiled a shortlist of references for each.
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