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Let’s Read: Understanding Kenya’s Success in Improving Foundational Literacy at Scale

Long-Running Collaboration Brings Widespread Improvements in Early Grade Reading


Support Kenya’s Ministry of Education to scale a proven model for improving early reading instruction and outcomes, and strengthen the capacity of local educators and system actors at all levels to adopt and sustain the approach.  


Tusome (“Let’s Read” in Kiswahili) focused on key interventions shown to improve learning outcomes, including: well-designed teaching and learning materials provided to all teachers and students; professional development and coaching for teachers; and ongoing supervision of and support for improved classroom instruction, including regular assessment of student learning levels.  


Tusome showed that national-level learning improvement is possible with strengthened system capacity and alignment. In delivering 26 million teaching and learning materials and providing ongoing coaching and support for nearly 80,000 teachers, Tusome set new expectations for what was possible when working through government systems. Many of the practices developed and trialed with project support have been adopted and scaled by the Ministry. By the end of the eight-year program, Tusome had reached more than 10 million primary grade learners.  

Tusome Statistics

A decade-long collaboration between ​Kenya’s​ Ministry of Education  and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Tusome was implemented by RTI International, leveraging interventions developed and piloted under the Primary Mathematics and Reading (PRIMR) initiative (2012-2014). Tusome aimed to dramatically improve primary literacy outcomes for 5 million Kenyan children in Grades 1–3, a goal it far surpassed.  

Tusome: A Foundation for Strong Education Systems

Evidence of Impact​ on Kenya’s Literacy Rate​

According to a USAID review of Early Grade Reading programming, Tusome has been one of the most impactful large-scale early literacy programs implemented with USAID support, with more than 35 percent of students showing significant gains in reading over the life of the program. External evaluation testing first and second graders in 2015, 2016, and 2019 showed that the share of Grade 2 students reading fluently in English more than doubled (from 12 to 27 percent) between the first and second rounds of data collection, while the share of zero readers (students unable to read a single word of grade-level text) was reduced by more than half (from 53 to 23 percent in Grade 1 and from 38 to 12 percent in Grade 2). Similarly, the share of students reading Kiswahili fluently increased threefold (from 4 to 15 percent in Grade 1 and from 4 to 12 percent in Grade 2), while the share of zero readers was reduced from 70 to 45 percent in Grade 1 and from 43 to 19 percent in Grade 2.  

Following the introduction of a new curriculum, which cut the number of reading lesson hours by 40 percent (from 5 to 3 lessons per week), data collected in 2019 showed that some of the gains in learning outcomes were lost between midline and endline. Drawing on this evidence, the Ministry of Education returned to 5 lessons per week for English and increased to 4 lessons per week for Kiswahili. While unfortunate with regard to learning loss, this pivot marked an achievement in terms of the use of data for education decision-making and evidence-based education programming in Kenya.

RTI’s collaborative, adaptive, and sustainable approach to working with Kenya’s Ministry of Education was key to Tusome’s success. As highlighted in USAID’s retrospective on Early Grade Reading programs, the fact that program activities were built on and integrated with existing government systems was critical to achieving—and sustaining—learning improvement at scale. Over the life of the program, the percentage of zero readers in English decreased by 19 percentage points in Grade 1 and by 24 percentage points in Grade 2. Overall, the percentage of Grade 2 students classified as emergent or fluent in English increased by more than 50 percent (from 34 to 53 percent), a substantial achievement, particularly for a program operating at national scale in nearly 25,000 schools. 

Scaling a Successful Approach to Reach Millions of Children

To achieve this success, Tusome relied on ingredients that have proven effective in improving student learning outcomes at scale, including:  

  • ongoing teacher professional development and coaching visits,
  • textbooks provided to students on a 1:1 student-to-textbook ratio,  
  • structured teachers’ guides including lesson plans aligned to the student textbooks,
  • regular monitoring of student learning by coaches, and
  • system strengthening and alignment toward learning. 

Some of the lessons learned for implementation success include: ​​

  1. Test and pilot interventions to demonstrate (and share evidence of) effectiveness. Working closely with the Ministry, Tusome designed and trialed multiple approaches to implementation of nearly every aspect of the program, from determining the optimal level of scripting of teacher lesson plans to deciding on the number of schools each coach would visit.  
  2. Create well-designed, easy-to-use teachers’ guides that are aligned to student textbooks. Tusome developed and improved teachers’ guides through multiple rounds of testing and design in collaboration with the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Design (KICD). Revisions were based on teacher feedback collected during regular training and coaching sessions.
  3. Make coaching, not supervision, central to teacher support.  Early on, the project team worked with the Ministry to renegotiate the title and job responsibilities of Kenya’s Teachers Service Commission tutors, charged with visiting schools and performing administrative tasks. The re-named Curriculum Support Officers (CSOs) were assigned to between 10 and 15 schools and provided tablets, performance-based transportation stipends, and training to ensure a successful shift from supervision to instructional support.
  4. Ensure every child has a high-quality textbook. In partnership with KICD, Tusome invested in a textbook development process to create a single set of books for Grades 1 through 3, aligned with national standards and curriculum objectives for both reading and mathematics. The books were piloted and revised, and eventually adopted as the sole textbook for Grades​     ​ 1 through 3 for all Kenyan public schools. The centralized printing and distribution process helped to cut unit costs by 75 percent, ensuring for the first time that every child in every public school in Kenya had their own math and reading textbook.  
  5. Provide materials, training, and support for special needs education.  Tusome worked closely with the MOE and KICD to adapt the English and Kiswahili textbooks and teachers’ guides for students and teachers with vision and hearing disabilities. These adaptations include braille versions of all books for blind students as well as big book versions of the texts to make it easier for students and teachers to see and interact with the texts. Special needs education teachers and CSOs have also been trained on how to use the books as well as on instructional approaches in classrooms.  
  6. Collect and use data for system alignment and monitoring of implementation quality. Tusome’s commitment to rigorous monitoring, evaluation, and learning fueled constant, iterative improvement across project activities. The tablets provided to the CSOs were used to collect student assessment and classroom observation data, which fed into a system-level dashboard that Ministry decisionmakers used to strengthen data-based decision making, monitor school performance, and inform implementation approaches on teacher training, staffing, and other areas of system management. At the end of Tusome, the tablets, open-source data collection tools, and dashboard were formally handed over to the Ministry. 

Improving Education for Deaf Students in Kenya

Mitigating Effects of Learning Loss Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Tusome conducted a study of learner outcomes in 2021 following the nine-month closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results revealed significant learning losses and the profound impact of school closures, particularly on younger children and those with the least amount of education.  

To mitigate these effects, the project worked with the Ministry to support multiple remedial and recovery interventions. Tusome supported teachers and KICD to generate lesson scripts to be recorded for television and radio; these multimedia assets are now available to all via KICD’s Kenya Education Cloud. The project also developed a set of read-aloud programs to engage learners in literacy activities and distributed activities via text messaging for parents to work with their children at home. In its final year Tusome also developed 60 English Grade 3 lesson videos and a set of teacher training videos covering the main components of reading as well as the Tusome instructional approach.  

In 2022, Tusome and the Ministry jointly developed and piloted a remedial reading program focusing on English letter sounds and simple word reading for Grade 3 learners who were most behind. Working in 97 schools across 12 counties, this pilot program was successful at improving foundational literacy skills, moving approximately 70 percent of learners from letter sound level to proficient with word reading level in just 6 weeks of instruction.  

Collaboration Leads to Sustainability ​for Improving Education

Through systematic collaboration with Kenyan institutions responsible for policy and management, curriculum, teacher support, special needs, and assessment, Tusome helped strengthen institutional capacity while focusing on improving learning. From devising new approaches for design and distribution of student books and teachers’ guides to improving the effectiveness of classroom-based coaching and professional development for teachers, Tusome staff and Kenyan government officials collaborated to institutionalize evidence-based approaches that have led to improvement for millions of learners and helped Kenya to advance on its Vision 2030 goals.  

Validation of these approaches from the highest levels of government, including a highly visible public launch by Kenya’s President at the start of Tusome, demonstrated leadership support and ownership at all levels of government. The seeds for sustained learning improvement were carefully cultivated, have taken root, and can now bear fruit for many years to come.