Understanding What Works in Oral Reading Assessments

Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), Karen Mundy, Chief Technical Officer, Global Partnership for Education (GPE), and Pat Scheid, Program Officer for Global Development and Population, The Hewlett Foundation

When assessing whether children can read, we should remember why reading is so critical, and why we should be concerned when children miss out on this critical skill. Everyone reading this blog had a moment in childhood when meaningless swirls on a page began to make sense. As adults, our ability to read benefits us in a multitude of ways, every single day. There is no doubt that our lives would have been diminished and constrained without it.

The profound importance of reading is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goal for education (SDG 4), with governments committed to ensure that all children are in school by 2030, and learning what they need for adult life. The emphasis is on the transformative power of education, with the ability to read – and assessment of that ability – a key ingredient in this transformation.

Oral reading assessments make it easier for all children to be assessed

A new ebook reviews one tool to measure early reading ability – the oral reading assessment – which is attracting growing interest from governments. Understanding What Works in Oral Reading Assessments, from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), Global Partnership for Education and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, draws on the first-hand experiences of donors, implementers and practitioners across 60 developing countries.

Oral reading assessments are conducted one-on-one with each child in order to measure, in essence, what that child is expected to know and able to do. Because children respond orally, any child can participate, including those who are not in school and those who are not literate, in contrast to pencil-and-paper assessments
that require the ability to read and write at least some words.

The benefits of oral reading assessments


The ebook confirms that oral reading assessments have some advantages over international and regional assessments. They punch above their weight in terms of policy impact – being smaller, quicker and cheaper than major assessments – and operate in local languages. Such characteristics matter where assessment funding is limited and there are a number of languages in use. The results can usually be shared fairly quickly and can be used to ‘catch’ children who are struggling to read.

There are often many partners involved in oral reading assessments and they are not restricted to school settings: many are conducted by citizens in households to help fill gaps in the delivery of quality education. Through this collaborative approach, some oral assessments are developing family-support programmes to help parents not just understand the results but use the information to strengthen the foundational literacy skills of their children and households.

Limitations of oral assessments

Oral reading assessments do, however, have their limitations. They are not comparable across countries or languages, so while they allow governments to conduct an assessment without fear of being ranked against other countries, they cannot currently be used for global monitoring. However, they may be used to establish local benchmarks as the international community develops a global approach to measuring reading skills in the early grades of primary.  We must also recognize that these assessments require significant human resources and time, and their open-source accessibility carries the risk that some of the organizations might not apply them correctly and come to the wrong conclusions.

The ebook outlines six recommendations to make the best use of these assessments to improve learning:

  1. Develop an assessment plan for comprehensive reform: Data from oral reading assessments should guide system-level reforms to improve learning. So right from the start, policymakers must clearly identify who will be tested, as well as the relevant knowledge, skills language level and perceptions or attitudes to be assessed.
  1. Collect additional information: Sound interventions need information on the context of each child, as well as data on reading skills.
  1. Emphasise relevant skills and be conscious of culture and language: Consider the foundations for pre-reading skills and recognize the specifics of culture and language. 
  1. Ensure good organization: Teams need clear protocols that reflect best practice on logistics, monitoring throughout the process and follow up.
  1. Share the results in the right way with the right audiences: Results must be understandable to key audiences, so that everyone has a stake in efforts to improve learning.
  1. Use the data to raise awareness and design interventions to improve teaching and learning: Assessment results must lead to action, so support local ownership of results and follow up.

An investment we can’t afford not to make

There is strong donor support for oral reading assessments, but we need greater advocacy and better use of resources to translate assessments into better learning outcomes. We also need more knowledge sharing and dialogue on what works, and why, within and across countries.

Can we afford not to do this? A UIS paper published earlier this year argued that the benefits of good assessment data outweigh the costs of inefficient education systems. We maintain that oral reading assessments are examples of ‘good assessment data’: they can detect and address reading problems early enough in life to make a difference. Such early detection is essential, not just to reach an individual child, but for our collective ambition: ensuring that all children are learning what they need by 2030.

5 thoughts on “Understanding What Works in Oral Reading Assessments

  1. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.
    I would very much like to read ‘Understanding what works in oral reading assessments’, though I have not yet done so.

    All the conclusions reached from running our pilot early grade reading Programme were generated from our own analysis of our own data and experience. Similarly, our practice was informed by the results of our analysis and evaluation of our own data. We have been running our programme for over 3 years.

    We used a modified early grade reading test to establish a base line before our intervention began. It is possible that, as the schools involved knew that this was the precursor to our intervention, that their attitude was positive towards the project. Yet I am not sure that the assessment process actually contributed to the acquisition of reading skills by teachers and pupils. It’s an interesting point, though.


  2. The above post by Ronnie Katzler makes a very interesting reading. Looks like a sure case of putting theory into practice. However, can Ronnie tell us whether the “pilot early grade reading programme” he introduced in Uganda was based on the contents of the ebook “Understanding what works in oral Reading assessments” published recently. If so, which particular chapter of the book informed his practice?


  3. We work in Uganda, where we introduced a pilot early grade reading programme at the request of the local rural education authority, with whom we were already doing other work.

    The individual context of each different location, where illiteracy is widespread and early reading is largely absent, is a critical clue to the needs of that location’s pupil and teacher population.

    ‘Context’ includes geographical area, level of isolation, training of teaching staff, training of head teachers, amount of available ongoing CPD, support of government, attitude of the community to teachers and education in general, teacher salaries, ability of teachers to read, availability of reading materials at home or in schools, hunger, learning environment, family and community demands on pupils’ time, early marriage etc etc etc.

    If the context is assessed and defined accurately, the tools for bringing reading to the communities can begin to be designed, to be contextually relevant.

    Our approach evolved to be active, interactive and full of ongoing, small successes that enthused and motivated the children and their teachers. In the higher echelons of the local administration, it was the schools’ success that encouraged the officials to support and encourage the programme. Our assessment tool informs us of the areas of progress and reveals the gaps that need to be filled; the training is then adjusted to bring greater success in subsequent training programmes.

    The process can fail if rushed, if treated as a one-fits-all approach, and if assessment and monitoring are not endemic, over the long, long term, until the necessary good practice becomes commonplace and ingrained in the teaching and learning process.

    This is not an Assertion that only we are right in our approach, only that we have had some significant, exciting successes with our team and the children and teachers of the schools in areas where we work.


  4. The real beneficiaries of testing are the statisticians and staff of donor agencies. Also contractor staff, hundreds of them! They get salaries, pensions, and exciting travel. They produce publications, they organize conferences, and present their findings. UNESCO, World Bank, Global Partneship, Brookings, would have no jobs without the test related financing.

    But children? That’s a different matter. But how many have learned to read better as a result of testing? The donors handily say that’s not their business. Teachers or governments somehow have to figure that out!

    It’s like salesmen selling expensive vacuum cleaners with attachments that no one can use.

    Disagree? Please write a blog and point to specific low-income countries that made specific classroom improvements after testing and showed results. Can you find even one??


    • We welcome debate and encourage you to dig deeper into the ebook, which presents first-hand experience on how oral reading assessments are being led and used by communities (not just governments, donors or UN agencies) to improve the educational experiences of their children while holding authorities accountable in low-income countries. So please take a closer look at how citizen-led assessments are leading to results across Eastern Africa, Pakistan and beyond. The ebook also focuses on government-led initiatives. Clearly, we couldn’t cover every issue but the articles present a wide range of experiences. Feel free to continue the discussion and send us a blog post.


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