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Teaching at the right level to improve learning

Reorienting classroom instruction has improved learning opportunities for 47.7 million students in India.

Classroom, India ( | Vikram Raghuvanshi)

Teaching at the right level (TaRL) is a pedagogical approach that involves evaluating children using a simple assessment tool and then grouping them according to learning level rather than age or grade. Each group is taught starting from its current competency level, and level-appropriate learning activities and materials are used. Throughout the entire process, teachers assess their pupils’ progress through ongoing, simple measurement of their ability to read, write, and comprehend and do basic arithmetic. Research by J-PAL affiliates over the past 15 years has shown that this method of reorienting teaching to the level of the student, rather than the rigid expectations of a curriculum, consistently improves learning outcomes. A recent paper summarizes the iterative approach of design, rigorous evaluation, and redesign that developed the TaRL models now being scaled in developing country government schools.  

The Scale-Up: Pratham, the largest education-focused NGO in India, has consistently partnered with J-PAL affiliates to evaluate and refine the TaRL approach, which reaches millions of children across India.

At its peak in the summer of 2008 Pratham’s flagship Read India campaign, which aims to improve basic literacy and numeracy for children in rural India, covered over half of the 600 districts in the country and mobilized 450,000 volunteers to reach nearly 34 million children across 19 states. Pratham has since consolidated its programming to work with students more intensively over the course of the school year. Since 2010, 13.8 million students have participated in programs based on TaRL implemented directly by Pratham or in partnership with state governments in India.

The Problem: Despite record high enrollment rates, an estimated 250 million primary school age children lack basic reading, writing, and numeracy skills.

Over the past decade many developing countries have expanded access to primary school, but improvements in school access and enrollment have not translated into actual improvements in learning outcomes for all students. This is especially true in India, where 96 percent of children ages 6-14 are enrolled in school, but 53 percent of children in grade five cannot read a grade two level text and over 70 percent cannot do basic arithmetic.

There are many reasons for the backlog in learning: Government efforts are still focused on showing increases in enrollment rather than improvements in learning; teachers are often absent from school, and when they attend, they may be inadequately prepared to address the needs of children who are lagging behind. Compounding these issues is the fact that many newly enrolled students are first-generation learners who differ vastly in age, school preparedness, and support at home. As a result, classrooms are persistently large and filled with a heterogeneous student body.

The typical age-grade organization of schools, combined with unrealistically fast paced and broad curriculum standards, seem to be major constraints in helping children learn effectively. Teachers may not have the pedagogical tools to identify learning levels and then calibrate their teaching accordingly, and students who are far behind the scheduled curriculum may lose interest and fall behind even further.

The Research: Interventions that restructure classes by learning level, rather than grade or age, can produce large gains in learning outcomes.

Since 2001, J-PAL affiliated researchers and colleagues have partnered with Pratham to evaluate several programs aimed at improving student learning through pedagogical interventions. These include:

  • Balsakhi (child’s friend) program, which recruited young women to lead remedial education classes for two hours during the school day. The program targeted children in grades 2-4 who were identified as falling behind their peers.
  • Reading camps, which trained community volunteers to teach basic reading skills outside of schools for two to three months over the summer.
  • Read India, which tested the relative impact of four different interventions in rural, government-run primary schools. These included 1) training government teachers to provide remedial classes over the summer; 2) providing schools with teaching and learning materials to help students master basic literacy and numeracy; 3) providing teaching and learning materials as well as training teachers on how to use them; and 4) training community volunteers to support teachers either during the school day of after hours.
  • Learning Enhancement Program (LEP), in which government teachers in the state of Haryana assessed students’ Hindi literacy levels at the beginning of the year through a 2-minute rapid test and then restructured the class according to those levels, rather than grades, for one hour per day within school hours.

Results from these evaluations show that programs that reorient classroom instruction to teach at the level of the student are consistently effective, raising test scores by between 0.07 and 0.28 standard deviations. Combined with evidence from Kenya, which showed the efficacy of organizing classrooms by students’ initial learning levels, these findings led to the emergence of teaching at the right level as a general, scalable lesson within J-PAL’s portfolio of education research.

While the implementation of this model can take many forms (e.g. with government teachers or lightly trained volunteers/para teachers; during the school day or outside of school hours), there are three key components that are consistent across the various programs studied: 1) Students’ learning levels are assessed at the beginning of the school year or program, 2) students are grouped based on their learning levels, and 3) students are taught in these groups using level-appropriate materials rather than based on a rigid national curriculum.

“The idea is simple: Teachers group children by ability instead of grade level…And children abandon the official textbook for a few hours to concentrate on the basics — taught not in the usual rote-memorization mode, but through games.” The New York Times. October 23, 2014.

From Research to Action:

Teaching at the right level emerged as a policy lesson through an iterative process of research and implementation, and Pratham has continued to develop and tweak its programming based on evidence. Starting in 2012, Pratham began to focus on two specific programs grounded in the evidence and designed to be scalable.

The Learning Camp model, implemented directly by Pratham staff with assistance from locally recruited and trained volunteers, provides intensive bursts of instruction in math and Hindi for 8-10 days at a time for up to 2 months. Students in grades 3-5 are grouped according to learning level (i.e. whether they can read letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, etc) and are taught using level-appropriate materials tailored for each group. The environment of the camp is different from normal teaching as it is interactive; there are different activities including math and language games and much of the work is done in groups.

Pratham also works with state governments in India to integrate teaching at the right level into the government school system. In this model, government teachers set aside one hour per day to reorganize their classrooms by reading ability rather than grade. Students are then taught using level-appropriate materials. Pratham trains and cluster-level education staff to implement the program and train and support teachers.

Following the success of Pratham’s programs in India and similar programs in Kenya, the Government of Ghana is now piloting its own version of teaching at the right level. Members of the Ghana Education Service (GES) visited India to learn more about Pratham’s models for targeting low-performing students. Based on the success of these programs and insights gained from observing them programs in the field, the GES, in partnership with the Ghana National Association of Teachers (GNAT) and the National Youth Employment Program (NYEP), decided to pilot a new program, the Teacher Community Assistant Initiative (TCAI), to see how TaRL might work in the Ghanaian context.

TCAI trains teachers and teacher community assistants (TCAs) to provide instruction at the learning level of their pupils. A number of variations on remedial education have been tested among a nationally representative sample of schools. Preliminary results suggest that having TCAs provide remedial instruction targeted to the lowest performing pupils, both during school and after school, can improve basic literacy skills after just a few months.