In recent years, most of the world experienced learning loss, due to COVID-19’s school closures and other disruptions. But when Rwanda’s schools reopened and regained normal operations, we found that there had actually been learning gains in Kinyarwanda literacy.
These learning gains build on a longer trend of improvement that USAID/Rwanda has documented since the start of USAID-sponsored early grade reading programming in Rwanda in 2011, recently featured in our webinar Progress & Possibilities.
USAID/Rwanda’s data, shown below and available in this new report, shows that Rwanda now has fewer non-readers than ever before. Rwanda also has more strong readers, and higher rates of reading comprehension. The greatest improvements happened between 2018 and 2022.
These gains represent a paradox, especially in light of the larger global learning challenges over the same time period. Research by the Brookings Institution showed a significant drop in reading test scores in the United States from 2019 to 2021. World Bank data similarly shows global learning loss and increased inequities as a result of COVID-19 related disruptions.
In Rwanda, school closures occurred repeatedly, particularly in 2020 (spanning the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years). The Rwanda Basic Education Board worked with development partners to quickly develop and broadcast radio-based learning programs, as well as television and YouTube programming. In addition, schools were authorized to send books home with students to help learning continue.
But the story of how Rwanda has improved its reading outcomes also goes beyond these short-term efforts. In Rwanda, USAID has invested in a series of seven early grade reading programs since 2011, addressing teacher skills, instructional and learning materials, the education management system, and community support. USAID’s national-scale efforts to improve Kinyarwanda literacy have been in coordination with the Government of Rwanda and other development partners–including the UK, the World Bank, UNICEF, and Save the Children. They also gave birth to the national platform Soma Rwanda, coordinating the efforts of a wide variety of stakeholders to promote a culture of reading in Rwanda.
Dieudonné Bugingo Kamana, Director of Monitoring and Evaluation and Learning for the current USAID Tunoze Gusoma Activity with experience on several previous projects, highlighted the importance of attitude changes in supporting the noticeable improvement in Rwanda’s early literacy rates: “It is now obvious that people in different categories in the education system believe that children can read at the expected levels in the early grades, and those stakeholders strive to achieve this goal. This was not the case before 2011. At that time, it was very common to hear education officials, teachers, school leaders, and parents confirming that a child would be only able to correctly read and comprehend after completing grade 4. Reports available also indicate that the quality of teaching and learning were below expectations of evidence-based instructional practices. The mindset change, improvements in quality of teaching, and accountability around early literacy observed these days are results of huge investments in teacher training and continuing professional development, the supply of teaching and learning materials, as well as investments in education system strengthening.’’
Protogene Ndahayo, Deputy Chief of Party for USAID Tunoze Gusoma, and another long-time staff member in the prior series of USAID activities, explained that the availability of data about children’s reading levels is also crucial. “The most important improvement in early literacy promotion in Rwanda since 2011,” he remarked, “is the introduction of the Local Early Grade Reading Assessment (LEGRA), an assessment that gives every early grade teacher a chance to assess their children one-on-one, like an EGRA assessment. This has improved early literacy assessment by providing the teachers with opportunities to assess all relevant skills which was not the case before.”
Ndahayo also drew on his background as a former teacher to explain the importance of improved teacher training. “I think the explanation [for the significant improvement in literacy rates from 2018 to 2022] is the resources invested in evidence-based reading instruction by USAID Soma Umenye. Soma Umenye started when the literacy instruction foundation was set; and this foundation was set by the USAID Literacy, Language, and Learning (L3) Activity. L3 succeeded in embedding literacy in the Kinyarwanda competence-based curriculum in 2015. When Soma Umenye started in 2016, they built on the L3 foundations and distributed textbooks on a 1 to 1 ratio, provided intensive face to face training on the use of developed materials for all Kinyarwanda teachers, trained all school leaders (Head Teachers, SEOs, DEOs, and Inspectors) on school leadership support to evidence-based reading and writing instruction, and put a classroom library in every classroom.”
“To me,” Ndahayo continued, “the improvement wasn’t a surprise given the investment made and I would say if it wasn’t for COVID, the performance would have improved much more.”
Another very important area of improvement is home and community support for learning. In 2014, the L3 activity found that fewer than 50% of caregivers read to their children at home. In 2016, Mureke Dusome recorded 59% of caregivers engaging in at least one reading activity in the past week. In each case, these rates rose during the project’s own lifetime. And the current USAID Uburezi Iwacu activity found that this improvement has been largely sustained, with 72% of caregivers now reporting at least weekly support for reading.
Despite this notable progress, challenges remain.
Both Ndahayo and Kamana agreed that limited availability of teaching and learning materials is the biggest obstacle currently facing the education system.
“The most significant obstacles in the way to achieving further progress in reading scores,” Kamana explained, “is limited funding for a sustainable supply of teaching and learning materials. This will hinder attaining the target of a one-to-one textbook to pupil ratio, negatively affecting the quality of teaching and learning. The limited funding will also negatively affect the quality of training and continuous professional development of teachers, especially the newly-recruited ones.”
“The only strategy to overcome this,” Ndahayo continued, “is to advocate for more resources for schools to have enough materials for early literacy instruction.”
USAID’s new activity, Ibitabo Kuri Twese, aims to address this exact issue by strengthening the market system for teaching and learning materials–both the government’s textbook supply chain, and the private sector’s ability to bolster and meet consumer demand for books.
What is clear is that Rwandan children are reading better than ever, and USAID looks forward to continuing to work with our partners to achieve the goal of all children reading.
For more information, please contact Catherine A. Honeyman at firstname.lastname@example.org.