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Reading and Access Research Activity (RARA)

Strengthening education in Nigeria by generating evidence and improving testing methods

Despite significant gains in the number of children participating in formal schooling in Nigeria, education quality is low and an estimated 8.7 million children remain out of school. In Northern Nigeria, only about half of children currently attend formal school. Recent RTI-supported early grade reading assessments conducted in the two Northern Nigerian states of Bauchi and Sokoto revealed that the majority of pupils in Primary 2 could not read a single word of a short story in Hausa, the area’s dominant language.

Collecting, Interpreting, and Acting on Evidence

To better understand the problems facing early grade education in Nigeria and consider potential solutions, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded a multi-faceted program known as the Reading and Access Research Activity (RARA), which took place from February 2014 through November 2015.

As the implementer of RARA, we led efforts to identify the root causes of, and test solutions to, Nigeria’s education crises of poor reading outcomes and inadequate education access.  

Our work built on previous initiatives in Nigeria assisted by our experts, including the Nigeria Education Data Survey and the Northern Education Initiative.

Evaluating Improvements to Teaching and Learning of Hausa Reading

To support efforts to improve education quality—and specifically to improve reading outcomes—we conducted a randomized control trial to evaluate the effectiveness of an approach to improving the teaching and learning of Hausa reading in the early primary grades. As part of this research, we worked closely with partners to

  • Develop reading materials for teachers and students
  • Provide professional development to teachers, school heads and school supervisors
  • Engage parents and communities in supporting children’s reading development.

Sixty schools—known as treatment, or intervention schools—received the RARA-developed materials and their Hausa teachers participated in training, while a similar set of 60 control, or comparison, schools did not. We measured teacher instructional practices and student reading outcomes at the beginning and end of the school year—before and after the materials and training were provided—to measure change over time. We then compared results to identify changes attributable to the RARA approach—with the ultimate goals of identifying promising strategies to scale up and sustain in Bauchi and Sokoto.

Studying Barriers to Enrollment and Attendance

RARA’s access-related research focused on identifying and understanding barriers to school enrollment and attendance. Activities included

  • Household surveys aimed at identifying factors that influence parental decisions to send children to school
  • A study of the effectiveness of past and current education access interventions
  • A survey of non-formal, itinerant Qur’anic learning centers and their students
  • Development of a framework to monitor the impact of interventions designed to support vulnerable populations.

An important aspect of both approaches was close collaboration with state education agencies, colleges of education and religious organizations. These groups provided guidance and directly participated in all activities, building local capacity to conduct research and facilitating understanding and ultimately application of the research findings.

Forging a Path to Improved Reading Outcomes

The RARA research provided evidence and insights that set the stage for continued improvements in reading outcomes and education access.

In the case of the reading research, significant improvements were seen in both teacher instruction and student reading outcomes.  Hausa teachers who received professional development in reading instruction and whose classrooms received the RARA-developed materials devoted more time to teaching literacy, and also used more effective instructional practices. By the end of the year, teachers using the RARA approach spent approximately 30 minutes of class time teaching reading, on average, compared to 12 minutes for teachers in the control schools.

Perhaps more importantly, the quality of their teaching also improved: Treatment teachers were observed using 10.5 out of 12 effective reading practices measured, up from only four at baseline, while teachers in control schools actually demonstrated a decline in the quality of their instruction. For instance, the percentage of teachers who taught letter sounds rose from 30 percent to 100 percent in treatment schools, and fell from 32 percent to 17 percent in control schools.

Overall, RARA had a statistically significant impact of decreasing zero scores by 33 percent for letter sounds, 20 percent for oral reading fluency, and 19 percent in letter dictation.

As a result of improved instruction and materials, students’ reading skills improved. In treatment schools, the overall distribution of scores improved, with more students being able to correctly identify letter sounds or read words. For example, prior to the RARA intervention, more than 90 percent of the Primary 2 learners could not identify even one letter sound correctly. After the intervention, approximately one-third students in the treatment group could identify at least some letters, while there was no improvement in the distribution of scores for students in the control group. 

High Teacher Satisfaction and Administrator Confidence

The majority of teachers involved in the research reported that they found the materials and teacher training very helpful. Safiya Bala, a primary school teacher in Bauchi who served as a master trainer, credited the RARA approach with making her a better teacher.

“The RARA program has tremendously increased my knowledge of teaching reading skills—especially in the Hausa language—which has greatly impacted on my profession and self-esteem,” Ms. Bala said.

While reading outcomes overall remained low, emphasizing the need for continued intervention and improvement, the progress of teachers and students in the treatment schools gained the attention of education authorities and donors.

“We are using the findings to help us in our plans, even in our budgets,” said Mohammad Attahiru Ahmad, Director of Planning, Research and Statistics with the Sokoto Ministry of Education.

Parents, too, took note of improvements in their children’s reading ability. Hassan Nasiru, head teacher of Helele Model Primary School, said that parents have increasingly approached him about enrolling their children in his school’s Primary 2 class, which is taught by a RARA-trained teacher. He said that parents could see the children starting to learn how to read and write.

“That’s what made [the parents] want to bring their pupils to this school,” he explained.

For local education administrators like Aliyu Yelwa, who has served as a school support officer for 20 years in Bauchi state, the early returns portend a dramatic impact on future student reading outcomes in northern Nigeria.

“We believe, in five years, if this program continues, our children will be able to read and write,” Mr. Yelwa stated.

The RARA-tested approach is currently being expanded in both Bauchi and Sokoto states through two USAID-supported projects known as the Northern Nigeria Education Initiative (NEI) Plus and the Education Crisis Response (ECR). The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and UNICEF are also adapting RARA-developed materials for use in their Reading and Numeracy Activity (RANA) program.

Clarifying Needs for Improving Education Access

Our research on education access focused on identifying and quantifying populations currently out of school or under-served by the formal education system.

For example, we surveyed non-formal, itinerant Qur’anic learning centers (QLCs) and their students in Bauchi and Sokoto states. This survey provided data necessary to better target programs to this vulnerable group, which includes thousands of children who travel from home to board at these centers. To gather information on this highly mobile group, our research team started with an initial list of centers provided by state agencies, and then asked the centers’ teachers to refer others—a method known as snowball sampling. Using this approach, we identified and collected information on approximately 1,700 itinerant QLCs and 350,000 learners, which can be used to inform efforts to improve education access to these students.

We also designed and implemented a study on the integration of secular curricular subjects into select centers. The study was designed to capture existing operational practices around the curriculum integration process, including selection of learning centers and teachers, orientation of school directors, and availability of teaching and learning materials. As part of this study, we also monitored learner participation in integrated lessons, including new enrollment, attendance, and drop-out.

Findings from these studies and other access-related research conducted under RARA, delivered insights to guide interventions and policies to increase school access and better meet the needs of students in both formal and non-formal schools. For example, as a result of the findings from the QLC studies, Bauchi and Sokoto state governments committed to better monitoring and support of QLCs.

Taken together, research conducted under the RARA project is helping stakeholders, such as Junaido Umar Jabo, Director of Social Mobilization for the Sokoto State Universal Basic Education Board, develop plans to provide better educational opportunities to children. 

“What we want is to have the number of out-of-school children identified, drawn back to school,” he explained.

Ultimately, his hope is for the government to be able to help children receive a basic education and play a more integral role “in their community, state, and Nigeria at large,” he explained.