Government Funded Research into Fantastic Phonics
Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) Plus
Dates of Operation: October 2008 – October 2010
Prime Implementing Partner: Research Triangle Institute (RTI)
Other Implementing Partner: Liberian Educational Trust – Monrovia (LET)
Counties of Operation: Nimba, Bong, Lofa, Margibi, Montserrado, Bomi, Gbarpolu
In 2008, USAID began a research trial in Liberia, to improve literacy outcomes in Liberian schools. The exploration tool was the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) Plus, which applies a standardised measurement method to benchmark children in grades 2 and 3.
180 schools were randomly selected, and divided into three different groups; no treatment, light treatment, and full EGRA treatment, using a reading program (Fantastic Phonics) of 60 graded stories, with teacher guides.
The children were benchmarked before commencement, and tested on several literacy criteria. It was found that students in Grade 2 (on average) read close to 18 correct words per minute. In comparison, the United States benchmark for “severe risk” is less than 70 correct words per minute.
After 18 months, the children in the full treatment group showed a 250% improvement, compared to their nil- and light-treatment peers.
In 2011, the program was expanded to nearly 700 schools, with 75,000 children receiving standardised, durable and low cost instructional aids.
The Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) Plus: Liberia Program (2008–2010) was an experimental intervention, part of a joint collaboration among the Liberian Ministry of Education, World Bank Liberia, and USAID/Liberia. Baseline, midterm, and final assessments were conducted and the results were judged against agreed-upon targets for improved student performance.
The baseline assessment was conducted in November 2008, the midterm assessment was conducted in June 2009, and the final assessment took place in June 2010.
Children were tested on phonemic awareness; familiar word reading; unfamiliar word fluency; oral reading fluency; reading comprehension; and listening comprehension.
The EGRA Plus: Liberia Program used empirical data from reading assessments in grades 2 and 3 to track progress toward quality improvements in early grade reading instruction. The research and intervention design allowed for the comparison of three different groups.
- The first was a control group that received no program interventions, but whose performance was measured (without alerting them to the fact there would be repeated measurement).
- The second group, the “light” intervention, was a set of schools where parents and community members were provided student achievement data in the area of literacy; they were made aware that there would be testing again. In addition, light intervention teachers were trained in the development of a student reading report card, which they issued four times a year.
- The final group, the “full” intervention, provided an intensive teacher-training program targeting reading instructional strategies, in addition to the same type of information on student achievement that was provided to parents and communities in light treatment schools. Note that the assignment of schools into treatment groups was random, accounting for geographic clustering.
The core of the program was the phonics system, “Fantastic Phonics”, a program of 60 graded phonics stories which were downloaded and printed. The stories were bound into two A4 books of 30 stories (one book for each semester) each which were durable and low cost, and ensured that the reading material was consistent in style and grading difficulty.
The program also contained teaching instructions for each story – these were also bound into two books and distributed to teachers.
The data was analysed to determine the learning rates by year. The analysis showed that, over the trial period:
- children in control and light treatment schools increased their comprehension scores by 0.7% and 0.75% per month, respectively
- children in full treatment schools increased by 2.9% per month. Children in full treatment schools were learning at a rate of four times more per month than their counterparts in control schools.
Expressed differently, the trial showed that the children who received the full program performed nearly two and a half times better (250%) compared to their peers who did not. Further, when the Program impacts are measured in expressed in terms of "grade effects" (jumps in ability) the Program generated the equivalent of …
- 1.9 school years jump in phonemic awareness,
- 1.8 school years jump in familiar word reading,
- 8.0 years jump in unfamiliar word fluency,
- 1.9 years jump in oral reading fluency,
- 2.0 years jump in reading comprehension, and
- 1.8 years jump in listening comprehension.
Impacts outside reading
The EGRA trial showed that full treatment schools dramatically accelerated children’s rates of learning. Regression estimates show that full treatment children increased their word naming fluency by 2.1 words per minute per month, while the associated rate for control schools was an increase of 0.8 words per minute per month.
The improvement rate, in full treatment schools, was 2.6 times as fast. For unfamiliar word fluency, the increase in fluency scores was 12.4 times faster in full treatment schools than in control schools, which suggests that a primary entry point for improving reading outcomes for students was through improved decoding skills. The relationship between full treatment and control schools for oral reading fluency of connected text was 4.1 times faster, and 4.0 times faster for reading comprehension. The report concludes’
“This shows that the EGRA Plus program did not simply increase the learning outcomes for children; it dramatically accelerated children’s learning to an extent seldom found in educational or social science research.” (page 14)
Based on the results of the trials, the program was expanded to nearly 700 Liberian schools, and 75,000 copies of the “Fantastic Phonics” were printed.
Given the success of the EGRA Plus program, the following recommendations were made:
Scale up the EGRA Plus program. Given the remarkable success of EGRA Plus, there appears to be an opportunity for the Liberian Ministry of Education to scale up and expand the intervention (this was done in 2011).
Move past focus on letters and words and focus on reading comprehension. It appears that improving the oral reading fluency and decoding skills of children is quite possible, and this is highly correlated with reading comprehension, as the program results show.
Develop benchmarks for reading. The wealth of data obtained in the three waves of assessment from EGRA Plus provide enough evidence for the Liberian Ministry of Education to determine what rates of fluency, comprehension, and word skills are necessary at each level. Such a benchmark development process will help to target resources and efforts, to invigorate the efforts to improve educational outcomes.
Target reading techniques using professional development. Liberian teachers have been proven to be receptive to new pedagogical techniques and strategies. With targeted efforts, teachers can improve how well children read, quite quickly. We recommend that the evidence from this program be included in pre-service and in-service teacher professional development programs of the Liberian Ministry of Education.
Improve girls’ reading achievement. The findings here showed that while boys outperformed girls at the baseline, with instruction and investment, girls could narrow and even close the sex gap. Therefore, education officials can and should demand high achievement for girls in the classrooms under their jurisdiction, and efforts should be made to encourage teachers to have high expectations for girls.
Decoding skills must be emphasised. The largest impacts of EGRA Plus were found in the tasks that measured children’s ability to decode and to use the alphabetic principle. These skills were mostly lacking in non-project schools, and it seems that these skills were crucial gateways to the rapid acceleration of learning outcomes that EGRA Plus caused.
Use reading improvements to increase learning in other subjects. The findings showed that reading improvements have the potential for carryover effects in other subjects, in this case mathematics. This suggests that reading is a ripe 8 Early Grade Reading A subject for interventions, since other subjects might be improved by the simple method of increasing reading outcomes.
Expand the use of scripted programs for lesson delivery. The experience of EGRA Plus makes clear that scripted lesson plans can be a part of an effective program for reading improvement. The increased rates of learning between the midterm and final assessment show that while there was some initial resistance to such methods, the creation of and support for lesson plans for teachers has a high likelihood of continuing to be effective in Liberia.
Plan for unmet demand for high-quality education. The qualitative follow-up report revealed that EGRA Plus not only increased student achievement, but also increased school enrolments. This suggests that there is unmet demand for high quality education, and that improving reading outcomes will encourage student retention. Enrolment increases in full treatment schools were more than 30%, which has implications for teacher deployment and planning projections throughout the school system.
The research is presented in the document http://www.rti.org/pubs/egrafinalassessmentreportliberia18nov2010.pdf
About Fantastic Phonics
The program consists of 60 gently graded stories which can be downloaded and printed into various compilation formats. The stories adhere to the phonics teaching process and are characterised by:
- rhyming, fun stories which have accompanying black/white illustrations on each page
- planned, consistent introduction of key phonics “building blocks” which provide children with an easily understood, repetitive format
- teaching guides for each story which specify the key “building blocks” and how they are best presented
Free download for charities working in developing communities, widely used in schools in Australia and the USA