A female teacher works with a classroom of primary-school students in Liberia.

Since the inception of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), much of the emphasis in teaching and learning in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) has focused on literacy and numeracy in the early grades. Due to this emphasis, there is a plethora of research on the successes, challenges, and failures of educational interventions in early primary, particularly in early grade reading, but relatively little is known about the effectiveness of instructional practices once children reach the upper primary grades (grades four through eight). Reports from the SDG (2017) and the World Bank highlight a learning crisis in global education. Although much progress has been made to improve early grade education, with more children now attending school, many children in LMIC fail to achieve minimum proficiency levels in numeracy and literacy at the end of primary school. International education stakeholders therefore should not overlook the importance of sustaining gains made in early primary grades in the upper primary grades. Learning can be sustained in these grades through the investment of more resources, time and energy.

Why Should We Care About Upper Primary?

As children in LMIC reach the upper primary grades, many struggle to keep up academically and begin to drop out of school because of a complex range of interrelated social, economic and political factors such as poverty, gender, age, and poor academic achievement. Additionally, results from large-scale international assessments like the Progress in Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) indicate many of the students who stay in school remain challenged by literacy and numeracy tasks. For example, in “six of 15 Latin American countries with data, fewer than half of the students who completed upper primary had achieved minimal proficiency levels in mathematics.” Similarly, fewer than half of students in six out of 24 sub-Saharan African countries "attained minimum proficiency levels in reading at the end of primary.”  

So what accounts for these struggles and low test scores? The language of teaching and learning (LoTL) may come into play in multilingual countries. In sub-Saharan Africa for example, many countries require children to completely transition from learning in mother tongue (MT) languages to international and/or official languages such as English and Portuguese as their LoTL in grades three or four. This transition happens when students most likely have not mastered literacy in their mother tongues. Furthermore, this can be an abrupt transition, since in grade one through three students may experience about 30 minutes a day of instruction in the new LoTL. Once they reach grade four, students are expected to use the LoTL to learn content area subjects such as mathematics, science, and social studies. This can be challenging for students, many of whom have low levels of proficiency in the LoTL due to lack of exposure. Proficiency in the LoTL in upper primary is essential for students to continue to succeed in secondary and tertiary education.

Upper primary is also an important time for students to build on the foundational skills they attained in the early grades. The little research available on teaching and learning in upper primary indicates that many children entering grades three and four in LMIC have difficulties in foundational language, literacy, and numeracy skills in MT with even more difficulties in the LoTL. This lack of a strong foundation in these skills results in students needing to play catch-up in upper primary, impacting their performance in a number of different subject areas. Reading and mathematics proficiency develops over a lifetime; to become skilled readers, writers, and problem-solvers later in life, students must continue to hone these important foundational and conceptual skills through upper primary and beyond.

What Can We Do to Support Students in Upper Primary?

The research literature in both LMIC and high-income countries indicate there are numerous strategies which can support students as they transition into upper primary grades.These studies recommend the following:  

  • Using additive models of bilingual education. Rather than abruptly ceasing to teach MT languages, as is the case in many LMIC, education policy makers might consider using additive models of bilingual education. In this approach, students continue to learn MT or local languages when they switch to using international and/or official languages, thereby targeting high levels of proficiency in both the LoTL and MT and/or local language.
  • Using flexible bilingual or multilingual teaching strategies. These approaches can be as simple as code-switching, in which teachers alternate between two or more languages in speech, or more complex, as in the use of translanguaging. “Translanguaging leverages the fluid languaging of students in ways that deepen their engagement and comprehension of complex content and texts” in more than one language. It facilitates student  use of all their linguistic resources in the language domains of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. One example of a translanguaging strategy is reading a text in one language and responding to the text in another.
  • Providing teachers with more opportunities to learn. Teacher professional development and preservice teacher preparation should provide teachers with strategies for scaffolding students’ transition to learning in the LoTL. These strategies should also incorporate tangible methods for supporting students’ continued literacy and language learning in content areas such as mathematics, science, and social studies.
  • Infusing classrooms with multilingual resources. Language-rich classroom environments, where upper primary students are exposed to texts and resources in both MT and the LoTL are essential for improving literacy and language learning in these grades. Furthermore, these resources, particularly textbooks written in the LoTL, should be designed to be language supportive; that is, developed at accessible levels of complexity for language learners, and focused on teaching all four language domains.
  • Increasing opportunities to read and write. To support academic literacy, students should have varied and frequent opportunities to read and write in different genres and using different text structures to prepare for reading and writing increasingly complex texts in school and the workplace.
  • Implementing explicit literacy and numeracy instruction. According to research from both high and low income contexts, explicit instruction in literacy and language learning as well as closely linking reading and writing can lead to improved skills. Furthermore, targeted and intensive small-group interventions can be effective for students, including those who may be struggling to read, write, and learn academic content. Using explicit instruction in small groups, teachers can strengthen more specific literacy skills such as phonics, vocabulary learning, grammar, oral language, reading comprehension strategies, and numeracy skills.
  • Using a holistic approach.  Education stakeholders and policy makers must be mindful of the developmental stage of students when creating policies and designing programs. In upper primary, students begin to undergo enormous physical, social, and intellectual changes which signal their transition to adulthood. Their brains begin to change, improving their abstract reasoning skills, ability to self-regulate, and ability to think logically about their experiences. Upper primary teachers must therefore consider these factors and work to create nurturing, safe classroom and school environments.

A solid foundation in language, literacy, and numeracy in the early grades is vital to improving learning outcomes in LMIC; however, it is just as important to ensure effective teaching and learning throughout the upper primary grades. Focusing on holistic development of children’s social and emotional skills, using flexible multilingual approaches and resources, and employing small-group interventions are some promising approaches teachers can use to effectively teach children in upper primary. Furthermore, additional resources, time, and energy need to be invested in these grades to ensure sustained learning gains. Finally, international education practitioners, implementers, and policymakers can benefit from further research on practices for teaching and learning in the upper primary grades to ensure that schools in LMIC have the tools they need to prepare students for lifelong learning.


To continue this conversation, join RTI International on Tuesday, April 2 for “Beyond Early Grade Reading: Sustaining Learning Gains in Upper Primary,” an event featuring diverse perspectives from international education researchers on effective teaching and learning practices in upper primary. Experts from RTI, USAID, World Vision, Texas State University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of British Columbia will share teaching and learning practices in literacy, biliteracy, and math and science, with a discussion to follow. Learn more and register here.

Dr. Patience Sowa is a Senior Research Education Specialist in RTI’s International Education Division. Patience has many years of experience as a teacher and teacher educator, and has worked in a range of multicultural and multilingual contexts in Africa, the Middle East, and North America. Her research interests include preservice teacher preparation, teacher professional development, second language, bi/multilingual teaching strategies, and content area literacy. 

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Patience Sowa to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.