This blog is the third of a series targeted toward exploring the impact of COVID-19 on education. It focuses on the learning environment at home, the potential parental role for continued learning and their association with reading skills.
53 per cent of children in low- and middle- income countries cannot read and understand a simple text by the end of primary school-age. In low-income countries, the learning crisis is even more acute, with the learning poverty rate reaching 90 per cent (World Bank). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 191 countries have implemented country-wide school closures, affecting 1.6 billion learners worldwide (UNESCO). With children currently not able to study in classrooms, the importance of learning at home is amplified and the task of supporting children’s learning has fallen on parents at a much larger rate, a significant burden particularly for those balancing teleworking and those with limited schooling themselves.
This blog shows the disparities across and within countries in children’s reading skills and looks at the associations between parental engagement and learning, using the data from the MICS 6 new modules on foundational learning skills (used for monitoring the SDG 4.1.1 indicator, at grades 2-3 level, see here for more details on foundational skills measurement) and on parental engagement.
Foundational reading skills and disparities
Many countries lag behind achieving minimum proficiency in reading. For children aged 7-14, the acquisition of minimum reading skills varies both across and within countries (see Figure 1). And even in middle-income countries like Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia or Tunisia, only around 60 per cent of children acquire foundational reading skills. Among the ten countries with MICS 6 data analyzed, Sierra Leone and Madagascar are the two countries with the lowest achievements. All countries, except Mongolia, show large disparities against the poorest. In Sierra Leone only 2 per cent of children from the poorest quintile reach the foundational reading skills.
Even if more limited, gender differences also exist, to the detriment of boys, with the exception of Sierra Leone where the trend is reversed (15 per cent of girls achieve foundational reading skills, compared to 17 per cent for boys). The gender gap is the largest in Lesotho where 53 per cent of girls achieve the foundational reading skills, compared to only 34 per cent of boys.
Home Learning Environment and Parental Engagement and association with reading skills
Child-oriented Books availability
A previous UNICEF blog showed disparities in the child-oriented books availability and use across countries and within countries, at the detriment of children from the poorest families. During school closures, those children are at very high risk of not getting a chance to learn at home if there are no books for them. In all countries, the share of children acquiring reading skills is higher in households where there is at least one book (see Figure 2). In Bangladesh, for instance, 70 per cent of children in households with at least one child-oriented book are able to read while it is the case for only 48 per cent of those living in a household without any child-oriented book.
Parental engagement for reading books to children and for supporting schoolwork
Together with learning materials at home, reading to children and supporting them for schoolwork are a potential way to improve child reading skills. Having someone reading books is particularly important for children in households from the poorest quintile. For example, Figure 3 shows the differences in reading skills between children with reading support and those without in Pakistan (Punjab). Such differences are greater for children living in poorest households. Among families in the poorest quintile, 29 per cent of children with someone reading books to them achieve foundational reading skills, compared to only 15 per cent of children to whom nobody books. For children in wealthier families, differences are less marked.
On a related note, the lack of education of mothers/caregivers also impedes the support they are able to provide to their children’s learning, with the risk to perpetuate an inter-generational learning poverty cycle. In all countries with data, less-educated caregivers/mothers are less likely to help children with their schoolwork at home. Consistently, the share of children acquiring foundational skills (both in reading and numeracy) is much larger in households where the mother/caregiver has at least completed primary education than in households with a mother/caregiver who has not gone to school or dropped-out before the end of primary education (see Figure 4).
In addition to the health and economic impacts, COVID-19 is depriving many children from learning opportunities at school. Availability of child-oriented books at home and engagement of parents can play an important role for continued learning at home, especially where there is no access to technology. And all policy decisions and implementation should also be cognizant of the need to ensure parents’ capability to help their child learn to prevent exacerbating further global learning inequities to the detriment of the most vulnerable.
Akito Kamei is an education research consultant at UNICEF Innocenti, Matt Brossard is Chief of education research at UNICEF Innocenti; Manuel Cardoso is an education specialist with UNICEF’s programme division; Sakshi Mishra is a consultant with UNICEF ‘s Data and Analytics team; and Suguru Mizunoya is Senior Advisor in statistics and monitoring with UNICEF’s Data and Analytics team and Nicolas Reuge is Senior Education Advisor in UNICEF’s programme division.