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The benefits of a Life-wide Learning approach to education

- Child learning
©Saima Malik

The benefits of a Life-wide Learning approach to education

Insights from a randomized control trial of Save the Children’s Literacy Boost programme in Rwanda

Can the global learning crisis be solved by exclusively focusing on schools? An evaluation of the Literacy Boost programme in Rwanda demonstrates the crucial need for community learning activities beyond school walls.

Merely attending school does not guarantee an education. Approximately 250 million children cannot read regardless of school attendance, and 200 million young people finish their schooling without basic skills.

What is fueling this learning crisis? One hypothesis is that the crisis arose because most efforts to improve education have adopted a “School-Only” approach to addressing literacy and learning challenges. In a school-only approach, educators and development partners support children’s learning during school hours and within the school walls, while ignoring learning opportunities in homes and communities.

To better address the real challenges that children face in learning both within and outside of school, Save the Children has developed an alternative approach called “Life-wide Learning”. This approach combines enhanced school experiences with wider community activities to help children build a broader, stronger, and more sustainable foundation for learning. Save the Children’s Literacy Boost intervention embodies this approach: Literacy Boost simultaneously enhances instruction through teacher training, educates families to better support children’s learning outside the school and engages children in fun, community-based learning activities throughout the year.

In other words, rather than focusing only on the 14% of a child’s time spent in classes annually, life-wide learning seeks to improve learning opportunities during 100% of a child’s waking year.

Literacy Boost in Rwanda

To test the impact of the life-wide learning approach, Stanford University researchers, in partnership with the Rwanda Education Board, conducted a randomized controlled trial of Literacy Boost in Rwanda. For this evaluation, all sectors within one Rwandan District were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  1. a school-only approach that offered teacher training,
  2. a life-wide learning approach that combined teacher training with community action activities, and
  3. a control group that received neither intervention.

The teacher training component, adapted for the Rwandan context from the global Literacy Boost model, provided early primary teachers with a series of monthly in-service trainings on improving reading pedagogy over the course of the school year.  The sessions followed an action-reflection methodology, asking teachers to reflect on their previous training and experience before learning about, practicing, and planning new ways to teach reading skills.

The community action component included several strategies to infuse children’s daily lives with a stronger culture of reading. In participating sectors, a Rwandan NGO called Umuhuza implemented a series of Reading Awareness Workshops in every village, targeting students’ parents and family members. These workshops discussed topics such as children’s language and literacy development, emotional well-being, reading to children, and reading material creation. Local volunteers also led regular village-based Reading Clubs for children, and volunteers paired children into Reading Buddies, providing young learners access to older, skilled readers. Other activities included Reading Festivals and Competitions. Finally, Kinyarwanda-language reading materials were provided to participating schools and communities. These materials were generated by a separate, nationwide program that worked with Rwandan authors, illustrators, and publishers to improve the availability of quality local-language children’s books.


Credit: ©Saima Malik

Impact evaluation results

The final impact evaluation of this program convincingly demonstrated that the school-only approach does have a positive impact on students’ learning—and that the life-wide learning approach to supporting community learning activities adds significant additional benefit, over and above the gains from teacher training alone. In particular, involving families and communities creates greater numbers of readers who read fluently and with comprehension than simply training teachers alone.

Other findings from the study include:

  1. Despite the encouraging results overall, too many students struggled to gain basic skills. Across all groups, 31% of the students tracked over two years did not meet a Basic Literacy Threshold at end line.
  2. Both types of treatment group significantly increased the number of students promoted into the third grade of primary school, by approximately 44% compared to the Control group students. However, early primary level repetition rates are still very high. Overall, nearly 2 in 5 students repeated at least one early primary level.
  3. Teachers in the intervention groups had significantly higher scores on their knowledge, beliefs, and practices regarding reading instruction, and their classroom walls were decorated with significantly more print materials.
  4. Students in the life-wide learning group experienced improved literacy ecologies at home, especially on three of five literacy ecology factors: reading habits and interactions, reading materials, and child interest/engagement.
  5. The most consistent predictor of students’ literacy outcomes in the formal assessment was student interest and engagement in literacy activities at home.

The qualitative components of the research illustrated how the life-wide learning approach could have impact on children’s literacy growth, despite less than ideal home conditions. For example, a child from an impoverished home with dim prospects for developing adequate literacy skills in 2013 became a confident reader by 2015. A mother who could not read assumed an outspoken role in supporting her children to learn, following her attendance at Reading Awareness Workshops. At the same time, the conditions in some home environments appeared to negate any potential effect of community literacy interventions.

This finding, too, confirms the main message of this research: promoting literacy growth requires a comprehensive effort that touches children’s lives in and out of school.


Credit: ©Saima Malik


This blog post is adapted from the executive summary of Literacy Boost in Rwanda: Impact Evaluation of a Two-Year Randomized Control Trial. The full report can be found here.

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank the research participants in Gicumbi district, Save the Children Rwanda and Umuhuza staff and data collectors, Save the Children USA, and participating Rwandan institutions, particularly Stanford’s co-researcher Janvier Gasana, Director General at the Rwanda Education Board.

Contributed by : Elliott Friedlander, Research Director at Friedlander Research Claude Goldenberg, Professor of Education at Stanford University