The ability to read and write is the gateway to all other learning, yet many education systems across the world are failing to deliver the basics. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 1 in 10 students who enrol in secondary school have reached the minimum level of proficiency in basic reading and mathematics. This limits opportunities for primary school leavers who enter secondary education without the skills needed to engage with more sophisticated curricula in lower secondary school. It also poses a challenge for secondary school teachers, who are tasked to deliver a subject-specific curriculum, while simultaneously supporting students to catch up with foundational skills.
Given low levels of learning at the primary level, it is critical that secondary education systems provide opportunities for adolescents to develop their literacy skills. Strong reading and writing skills are critical at this stage in an adolescent’s life, marked by accelerated cognitive and socio-emotional development. As the curriculum expands and the demand for critical thinking increases, strong literacy skills empower students to navigate complex subjects, participate in relevant discussions, and develop independence.
PEAS exists to expand access to inclusive, quality secondary education where all students are supported to develop essential skills. Our schools serve marginalised children in rural communities in Uganda and Zambia, most of whom would not otherwise have access to secondary school. PEAS’ innovative approach to literacy learning builds on 15 years’ experience of running quality secondary schools and supporting young people with lower prior learning to catch up. We take a whole-school approach to promoting literacy, while identifying and targeting students that need additional support to access the wider curriculum.
Over the last 15 years, we’ve developed key insights into what works when it comes to supporting adolescents low prior learning catch up on foundational literacy in rural, remote areas.
1. Embed a whole-school, multi-pronged approach to literacy
Supporting learners to catch up requires a multi-pronged approach to literacy. At PEAS, we deliver this through our “Literacy Across the Curriculum” Programme, which aims to embed opportunities to develop literacy skills across the wider curriculum. We do this by integrating literacy components into our extra-curricular programme, establishing reading sessions and literacy-focused lessons, and training teachers to develop the skills and pedagogies needed to become literacy teachers. This fosters a consistent approach to literacy across the school, where all teachers are correcting common errors and reinforcing good reading and writing practices no matter their subject specialism.
Our whole-school approach is research-based and aligns with successful international models, recognising that students must have well-developed reading and writing behaviours to be successful in school and beyond. It focuses on key components of literacy to help students achieve reading and writing competence, with special emphasis on developing fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
2. Draw on technology to help teachers help their students.
Secondary school teachers play a pivotal role in supporting learners to catch up. But not all secondary school teachers are literacy experts, and many don’t have the skills or time to provide learners with the targeted support they need. At PEAS, we’re using low-resource digital technology to supplement and enhance, rather than replace, literacy teaching. Our remedial programme makes use of the existing ICT labs in our schools and a low-tech, offline software called Kolibri, making it highly cost effective. Our approach is informed by research from the World Bank, suggesting that such an internvetion – which uses software to allow personalised learning in a school where hardware already exists – is a “smart buy”. In schools where the hardware does not yet exist, we’ve adapted our approach to provide the same level of support to teachers, but without the use of technology.
Through the Kolibri platform, students are leading their own learning and engaging in content that is right for their level. PEAS has created contextually relevant literacy lessons, which cover several levels and skills ranging from foundational skills such as punctuation, spelling, and word types, to sentence, paragraph, and story level. We take an evidence-based approach to delivering remedial support, using assessments to identify needs at the school level. Based on assessment results, learners can target the specific skills they need support to catch up on. This tech-assisted approach to remedial learning empowers students to take charge of their literacy learning, giving teachers room to offer targeted support where it’s really needed.
3. Target groups with additional barriers
PEAS is committed to ensuring the accessibility and impact of our literacy approach for marginalised groups, but especially girls who face additional barriers to their learning. Through in-service training, we support our teachers to deliver inclusive, learner-centred lessons by following the “PEAS Top 10 Teaching Practices”, a set of ten guiding principles for quality and inclusive teaching. A recent external evaluation highlighted examples of gender-responsive teaching in our classrooms, and identified teachers’ “learner-centred approach” as a distinctive area of PEAS’ expertise (GEC-T 2021).
We appoint and support Senior Women Teachers (SWT) in every school to ensure female students feel safe and can learn. Our SWTs receive training to oversee the physical and emotional welfare of our female students and coordinate girl-focused activities. SWTs receive additional training in safeguarding, child protection and counselling on gender-specific issues, equipping them to provide these services where needed. External evidence shows that engaging with Senior Woman Teachers increased girls’ odds of developing reading and writing skills by 264% (GEC-T 2021).
Read the next blog in our series here.
If you’re interested in finding out more about how PEAS’ Literacy Approach is evidence-based, replicable and sustainable, stay tuned for our week-long series or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to support our work to empower adolescents with essential literacy skills, please contact email@example.com.
 UNESCO (2019) Meeting Commitments: Are countries on track to achieve SDG 4? Fact Sheet. meeting-commitments-are-countries-on-track-achieve-sdg4.pdf (unesco.org)
 World Bank (2020). Cost-effective approaches to improve learning: What does recent evidence tell us are “smart buys” for improving learning in low- and middle-income countries. GEEAP-Report-Smart-Buys-2023-final.pdf (worldbank.org)