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It’s rare to read an education report these days that doesn’t mention the learning crisis. That’s not surprising. Literacy and numeracy skills among children are dismally low: less than half of all children in low- and middle-income countries can read by the time they are 10 years old. As these data have emerged in recent years, the global education community has swung its focus sharply toward learning.

Of course, helping every child learn to read and to count are worthy goals in and of themselves. But in a world where both the budgets of low- and middle-income countries and of donors are and always will be constrained, focusing more on one thing almost inevitably means focusing less on something else. (That something else may be outside of education, but there is less of something else!) Donors who spend more on early grade reading programs may spend less on school feeding interventions, or secondary school scholarships, or early childhood development, or training programs for engineers, teachers, and health workers.

Of course, governments invest some in each of these areas. But at the margin, how focused should additional investments be on foundational literacy and numeracy versus other aspects of education?

A quick note on what we mean by foundational numeracy and literacy

Different people mean different things when they refer to foundational literacy and numeracy. We’re talking about the literacy and numeracy skills that should be acquired during the early years of primary school. As we know though, they often aren’t: in some cases, children acquire these skills later in their schooling—for example, through remedial education—or even during adulthood.

There is a LOT of mostly weak evidence linking foundational literacy and numeracy and later life outcomes

There are at least five reasons that for potentially prioritizing foundational literacy and numeracy investments (see the figure and add your own in the comments!):

  1. These skills are the building blocks to other skills. They give children the foundations (hence the term “foundational literacy and numeracy”) to access higher-order skills and other parts of the curriculum.

  2. They put children on a steeper learning trajectory. So not only do they unlock higher order skills, but they allow kids who master them early to get more out of each year of school.

  3. Having these skills means children can keep up in class, which helps them stay in school for longer (which, in turn, is associated with a whole host of benefits like reduced fertility and child mortality).

  4. Literacy and numeracy may have direct impacts on later life outcomes (beyond keeping kids in school): they are associated with life outcomes like adult earnings, agricultural productivity, and better health outcomes for the next generation.

  5. Since almost every child attends early primary school, investments at that stage are among the most progressive; they benefit the poor, on average, more than investments in secondary or tertiary. (That said, we guess you could argue that adult literacy and numeracy classes are even more progressive, since they almost exclusively target lower-income individuals, albeit with fewer subsequent life years to reap the benefits.)

Figure. Potential pathways from foundational literacy and numeracy to life outcomes

Figure. Potential pathways from foundational literacy and numeracy to life outcomes

Source: Evans and Hares 2021.

In our new paper—“Should Governments and Donors Prioritize Investments in Foundational Literacy and Numeracy?”—we review all the evidence we could find related to each of these statements. Several are supported by strong associations (note that carefully chosen word) while others are hypothesized. There is evidence from natural experiments that clearly links more years of education with a number of positive outcomes, but education serves many functions, so separating the impacts of literacy, numeracy, and years of education is tricky. Lots of studies find associations between literacy and other things, but (surprise!) people who are literate are often different in lots of other ways from people who are not literate. We even find lots of evidence that kids who do worse in early years of school do worse in later years: this could be because of lower learning trajectories for those who don’t master foundational skills (#2 above) but it could also be because other factors (like poverty!) compound over time. Ultimately, we did not find convincing causal evidence on the impact of foundational literacy and numeracy skills on later life outcomes. That’s not to say that literacy and numeracy don’t matter, but as to how much they matter, the research base is not sufficiently rigorous to disentangle other factors that might drive better life outcomes from the foundational literacy and numeracy skills themselves.

Donors interested in foundational literacy and numeracy should strive to fill the research gaps

It should be possible to fill this research gap. Several large-scale initiatives in recent years have improved foundational literacy or numeracy, including the Tusome project in Kenya. By identifying the projects with best opportunities for longer term identification of impacts and following-up with the children who did and did not receive the treatment, we’d be able to start to isolate the impact of those early literacy skills on later life outcomes. Investing in research projects like this should be a priority for education donors.

In the meantime, it makes sense to keep investing in foundational literacy and numeracy, but not at the expense of everything else

Investments in foundational literacy and numeracy seem comparably cost-effective to other education interventions and so there is no argument to stop investing in early literacy and numeracy.

But literacy and numeracy are not the only things that matter for children’s short-term and long-term wellbeing. Children need to be safe in school. School feeding programs meet both health and educational needs. Policy makers want children to be equipped for the workplace and need secondary and tertiary schools to generate professionals who generate jobs.

These are all important considerations, and policymakers will need to decide which investments and tradeoffs are right in each context. Having more causal evidence on the long-term impacts of foundational learning and numeracy will help them do this.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.