I wish you could have been there. The little girl, a third grader, in a sky blue uniform with a white sash sat across from the evaluator. Her manner was shy, her voice barely audible but her dark eyes were determined. She was going to do her best, no doubt about it, despite a bunch of strangers standing around to watch.

A young girl in Pakistan attempts to read the story of Rani, testing her reading and comprehension skills as part of an Early Grade Reading Assessment being carried out in Pakistan.

A young girl in Pakistan attempts to read the story of Rani, testing her reading and comprehension skills as part of an Early Grade Reading Assessment being carried out in Pakistan. Credit: Christie Vilsack

The evaluator explained that she could help us understand how children read by participating in some word games. He told her about himself and asked her to do the same. He asked about the language she uses at home with her family.

Each page required a certain task. The first determined whether she knew where to begin reading on the page and in what direction. She used her pointer finger to show that she did.

Next he asked her to say the name of some letters, and then to name some simple words. She could do this also.

Then he asked her to say the sounds produced by letters (b is the sound made by the letter “b”). And then he gave her some made up words to sound out like pum and tep. Most of us remember this as phonics, which we learned in kindergarten and first grade. This task was more difficult for her.

When he asked her to read a short paragraph she stumbled through the words and the timer went off long before she finished. Anyone watching could tell it was the letter sounds that were tripping her up.

She was so busy trying to decipher the words that the meaning behind the story escaped her. She couldn’t tell the evaluator why the character, Rani, was scared of what was behind the door, or why she smiled when she saw it was just a mouse.

By now 33,000 children in Pakistan have been tested, a random sampling in each of Pakistan’s seven administrative units. The test that was used in Pakistan is called EGRA, the Early Grade Reading Assessment, and it was developed with World Bank and USAID support to RTI International here in the United States, starting in 2005.

EGRA is an essential tool in our educational toolbox as USAID invests in teaching 100 million children to read in 39 countries around the world. The EGRA instrument is translated into the local language and tests the foundational skills of reading as well as reading fluency and comprehension. It can help teachers know which skills need more attention and can help policy makers know which aspects of instruction need more attention and funding.

If you’ve had a child in a U.S. school then he or she has probably taken DIBELS© or another oral assessment in the early grades to test her or his understanding of the key building blocks of reading.

EGRA was inspired by DIBELS and other early grade assessments and experts at RTI, USAID and the World Bank, other institutions picked the key skills and subtests that predict reading competency and can be tested in the context of developing countries. EGRA is so easy to administer that any of us could do it with our own children and get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

We can use the data we gather from the test to help ministries of education determine how best to proceed to meet the reading needs of their students and where to invest their scarce resources.  EGRA is also a diagnostic tool that can provide teachers and principals a roadmap for improving teaching and learning. USAID works to build capacity at the ministry level, train teachers and develop textbooks in a languages that children speak and understand, and produce supplemental reading materials so that government officials, communities, and parents develop sustainable programs that improve students’ reading skills.

In developing countries, the solutions are not difficult to understand. They mirror the solutions here at home. Those who work on these issues say it’s carrying out the solutions under difficult circumstances that is a bigger problem.

How do you administer tests if no one in the country knows how to assess early grade students? If schools are far from cities and towns and transportation is difficult? If schools have been closed by insurgents? How do you administer the test if an earthquake has suspended classes? How do you get to villages high in the mountains to administer the test? And if you get there and there aren’t the necessary number of students in the classroom to make the test statistically correct because they’re farming with their parents in the fields, what do you do?

It’s essential to find ways around such barriers because the most important person in the room is the child who wants to learn, who wants to know about the girl, Rani, in the story and why she smiles at the end.

The evaluator in a primary school in Pakistan talks with the young girl about the reading assessment, explaining how it works and what she will be doing.

The evaluator in a primary school in Pakistan talks with the young girl about the reading assessment, explaining how it works and what she will be doing. Credit: Christie Vilsack

The little girl before me smiles at the evaluator as the assessment ends, smiles shyly at all of us because she has done her best. We leave with a sense of purpose. It’s hard to teach 100 million children to read, but it’s not impossible. And, when we succeed, this little girl and many like her will be able to raise her own children, including her daughters, in a culture that values education and the economic and global security it ensures.