Worldwide, are children learning to read at a younger, or older, age than in the past?

by Sasha Alyson

Our most recent Twitter poll gave me a surprise.

In around 2014, I wanted to know if the quality of schooling in developing regions was getting worse. I did some research – and found very little. There was no broad, comprehensive data. The United Nations, having set a goal of getting all children into school, was paying no attention to wheher they learned anything.

Most aid organizations, governments, and school systems were following their lead. They knew how many children were enrolled, how many reached grade 5, and how many teachers had how many certificates. They didn’t know if children could read their own name. For the most part, they still don’t.

I did find individual reports about school quality from some countries and regions. Virtually without exception, they painted a depressing picture. I’ve described the evidence, and my conclusions, in Schools in the Global South are Getting Worse.

Then we did a Twitter poll.(1) Here are the results:

The Global South

We polled 8 countries in developing regions: Argentina, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, Zimbabwe. (Click arrows on left and right, or dots below, to see other countries.)

The Global North

We polled 6 countries: Australia, Austria, France, Iceland, Netherlands, United Kingdom.

Whenever we publish results from a Twitter poll, I explain that this is not a random sampling nor a scientific study. Nonetheless, I was surprised. Reader opinions were quite different from what my research had suggested.

And it’s difficult to believe. If reading ages were dropping so clearly, all around the world, we’d be hearing about it. Governments would be bragging. Educators too – and with good reason.

What’s the explanation? I can think of 4 possibilities.

1. Perhaps it’s hard to believe… but true anyway. In this case, however, the evidence is awfully strong, from varied sources, that reading skills are generally getting worse. Here’s a World Bank reading specialist: “The Education for All initiative greatly increased enrolments but gave rise in some countries to a generation of schooled illiterates.”

In the few cases where there’s actual data, it contradicts the picture shown in the poll. For example, the three developing countries which gave the most optimistic answers on the poll were Thailand, India, and Zimbabwe. Thailand (where 60.2% said children learn to read at a younger age, 15.5% said older) does standardized testing at the lower-secondary level. In 2000, 63% of students had reached “Minimum Proficiency Levels” (MPLs) for reading. By 2018, that had dropped to 40%. As for India, the Pratham foundation, well known for its education work, reported that in rural India about 60% of fifth graders could read at second-grade level in 2005, but nine years later, that had dropped below 50%. I can find nothing at all for Zimbabwe.(2)

2. Perhaps education quality is generally down, but reading is an exception, and children are learning at an earlier age, possibly from electronic devices. There are many who wish this to be true, and UNESCO, in a report funded by Nokia, has claimed that cellphones promote literacy, but their data did not support that conclusion and I haven’t seen genuine evidence. Teachers and parents find that children glued to a cellphone are not reading, they’re watching movies or playing video games. Logically, if cellphones truly promoted literacy, Nokia would fund an objective study, rather than paying UNESCO to play the tune that Nokia wants the world to hear.(2)

3. Perhaps Twitter voters aren’t representative. That’s true; they certainly are not typical of the population. But are they really this atypical? It’s hard to say, but now we at least have a plausible explanation for the difference between this poll, and other reports. People who use Twitter, which is heavily text-based, are probably more inclined to value reading, to encourage their children to read, to have books at home, and so on. They may notice that children in their lives are reading earlier, and compare that with what they recall when they were a child, in a wider school setting.

4. Perhaps “question substitution” is at work. The Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has identified thinking shortcuts that often lead to incorrect conclusions. “Question substitution” is a common one. If we can’t answer a question, we often substitute what seems like a similar question, and answer that instead. Most of us don’t actually know the age at which children in public schools learned to read a generation ago, nor when they learn today. (Many even said as much when responding to the poll.) In most of the global South, school enrollments are up. Children are more likely to be promoted to the next grade even if they haven’t learned anything; otherwise they might drop out and hurt the enrollment numbers, which have become the primary goal. Also, pre-school is becoming more common. It would be natural that someone might substitute a question about one of these more visible factors, as a way of guessing whether reading levels had changed.

My guess is that explanations 3 and 4 best explain why this poll differs from other data and reports; and that #4 is strongest in developing regions. But the real question here is, why should we have to be guessing? Enormous amounts are spent on public schooling. The governments involved, and the aid agencies which greatly influence school policies in much of the world, have a moral obligation to know whether they’re making things better or worse.

And if they were doing a good job, wouldn’t they would be eager to prove it? But they’re not trying to find out. The key question here us: Are schools getting better or worse? The people who could collect data to answer that question, aren’t collecting it. I consider it the most revealing insight of all.

NOTES AND SOURCES

  1. When we tweet a poll, it goes to all of our followers, of whom a very high majority live in developing regions. (Twitter offers lots of data, but not a breakdown of user locations.) I assume votes represent a similar mix, but there’s no way to be sure. For this poll, we also ran a “promotion,” which allowed us to choose where went. We prepared 14 tweets that were identical except for the country name, and sent them to these 14 countries.
  2. Thailand, from ISCED assessments, reported on data.uis.unesco.org. (Primary school scores would be better, but none are available. It’s hard to conceive, however, that 8-year-olds would be reading at an ever-younger age, even as their older siblings were falling so far behind.) India, from _

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