What works in early grade literacy instruction

By Jennae Bulat, Margaret Dubeck, Paula Green, Karon Kathleen Harden, Catherine Elizabeth Henny, Monika Lauren Mattos, Alison Ann Pflepsen, Ana Robledo, Yasmin Sitabkhan

Over the past decade, RTI International has pursued the goal of quality, inclusive, differentiated early grade literacy instruction in nearly 30 early grade reading or early grade literacy programs in low- and middle-income (LMI) countries. Across our diverse portfolio, we have supported Ministries of Education (Ministries) in diverse contexts in their development and implementation of research-based early grade literacy programs and have learned important lessons based on our experience working with Ministries to design, develop, and implement early grade literacy programs. This paper describes the core elements that we have found to improve early grade literacy instruction and learner outcomes: the approach to teaching (Teach), the availability of quality, relevant learner materials (Text), the effective use of instructional time (Time), the use of formative assessment to guide instruction (Test), and provision of instruction in the most effective language (Tongue). This paper focuses on the acquisition of literacy in alphabetic and alphasyllabic languages in the early primary years (most typically, academic levels 1 through 3) and the kinds of exposures, instruction, and support learners need to become fully literate. These are the elements of a literacy program that can be taught, that should be present in teaching and learning materials and in teacher trainings, and that relate specifically to what happens in a classroom.

Many more factors contribute to literacy acquisition. However, we focus on the core elements in this paper to delve deeper and facilitate a richer discussion about these components. No one-size-fits-all approach to the development and implementation of literacy programs exists; the local context and constraints of any implementation can require adaptation and adjustments. In many cases, the fully diversified approach to early grade literacy instruction described in the classroom scenario has not yet been achieved. However, we hope that this compilation of lessons learned and best practices achieved through our experiences will help to further the efforts of all to provide high-quality, effective literacy instruction to all learners, particularly those in LMI countries.


Bulat, J., Dubeck, M., Green, P., Harden, K. K., Henny, C. E., Mattos, M. L., ... Sitabkhan, Y. (2017). What works in early grade literacy instruction. (RTI Press Publication No. OP-0039-1702), (Knowledge and Practice in International Development No. 1). Research Triangle Park, NC: RTI Press. https://doi.org/10.3768/rtipress.2017.op.0039.1702

© 2019 RTI International. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Jennae BulatJennae Bulat, PhD, directs the Teaching and Learning team in the International Development Group at RTI International.

Margaret Dubeck Margaret Dubeck, PhD, EdM, is a senior literacy researcher at RTI International on the International Education team.

Paula Green Paula Green, PhD, is a literacy specialist with particular interest in mother-tongue-based multilingual education in Southern Africa.

Karon Kathleen HardenKaron Harden, MA, is a research education analyst for the International Development Group at RTI International.

Catherine Elizabeth HennyCatherine Henny, MA, is a research education analyst in RTI’s Early Childhood Development Team.

Monika Lauren MattosMónika Mattos, PhD, EdM, is a research education analyst within RTI International’s International Education Division.

Alison Ann PflepsenAlison Pflepsen, MS, works for University Research Co., LLC (URC), where she supports the Reading Within Reach (REACH) initiative and the Global Reading Network. Prior to joining URC, she worked at RTI International.

Ana RobledoAna Robledo, EdM, is a research education analyst for the International Education (IE) Division of the International Development Group (IDG) at RTI International.

Yasmin SitabkhanYasmin Sitabkhan, PhD, is a senior research education analyst in RTI’s Teaching and Learning group in the International Education Division.

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