Strengthening Early Grade Reading and Math Education Across the World

A world of possibilities

Strengthening Early Grade Reading and Math Education Across the World

Cristine Smith and Darrell Earnest are multiplying the number of teachers world-wide skilled at teaching reading and math to the youngest children.

Professors Cris Smith and Darrell Earnest

To break the ice in her courses, Cristine Smith poses a conundrum to her students. She tells them to imagine a young child that they love, and then asks, “If I were to offer the child $10 million, through you, only with the caveat that they could never learn how to read, would you take it for them?” The discussions that follow this question get to the heart of how valuable literacy is. 

The value of literacy—and how we learn to make sense of symbols and patterns in the process of reading—has been at the heart of Smith’s work throughout her career. 

In recent years, Smith, associate professor of international education, has collaborated with Darrell Earnest, associate professor of math, science & learning technologies, who brings the same kind of passion to the question of how we learn math. Together, they have worked for a program in Nepal to ensure that more children get the instruction they need to be fully literate in both areas. 

If I were to offer the child $10 million, through you, only with the caveat that they could never learn how to read, would you take it for them?

Cristine Smith

Back at UMass, both Smith and Earnest are part of the early grade reading in developing countries certificate program—a pioneering fully online graduate certificate program for practitioners abroad working to improve early math and reading education. The certificate program is one of the only of its kind available in the country. 
Smith and Earnest came to their shared work from opposite directions. It was international work that introduced Smith to literacy education and early grade reading, while it work in early grade math education that brought Earnest to international opportunities. 

Professor Cristine Smith stands with three Nepali female educators

Smith’s work in early grade reading began when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, teaching English. An agency doing literacy work in Nepal came to a Peace Corps training and offered to teach the volunteers a method for teaching people to read and write in Nepali. Smith jumped at the opportunity. She had two students—a girl who at dropped out of school and a woman who had four children and had never been to school—and found a great passion for literacy work.

After this experience, Smith earned a second B.A., a master’s and a doctorate, all focusing on international education. She continued to spend a great deal of time abroad—primarily in Bangladesh, Nepal, and India—working on literacy programs for women and girls, often through the organization World Education. These included a program in Nepal on adult literacy and health education, and another in Nepal and India on women’s economic empowerment and literacy. For much of her career, Smith has been particularly interested in adult literacy and out-of-school literacy for girls, and in recent years she began working on improving early grade reading as it has become a key concern in the field. 

Earnest’s introduction to early grade math was a research project on algebraic thinking that he worked on early in his career. “I was lucky to work with some very smart, thoughtful and sensitive researchers who were interested in how to introduce children to certain notational systems, to help them begin to reason about change in the world,” he recalls. “What I really appreciated about it was how seriously the project took children's thinking.” Two decade later, he’s still fascinated by how children think and learn.

Professor Darrell Earnest in Nepal

Earnest’s current work revolves around how children think and learn about math, how they, for example, begin to make sense of different mathematical symbol systems. He’s also begun researching how children begin to make sense of time and how we can help them understand it. “You can’t see it, you can’ touch it, but it’s actually the heart of a lot of the analysis of the world that we do.”

In 2016, Smith began working on a UNICEF funded World Education project in Nepal, to enhance early grade reading and math and brought Earnest in to oversee the math side. Working with staff in Nepal, they focused on improving teacher training and supervision, developing learning sequences and outcomes, and improving communications between school and parents.

According to Smith, teachers in countries like Nepal often have very little training. “The training they get about reading traditionally has not been very good,” she explains. “So they just teach how they were taught, which is by rote—just repeat after the teacher.” The biggest hurdle has been to develop texts, materials, and methods for teaching and then training them how to use the tools, which is all very new to the teachers.

For Earnest, it was also a challenge to communicate how to incorporate play into the teaching of math. “Play doesn’t always feel like the academic content that we want children to be working on, but really it’s how children learn,” he notes. He was also fascinated to learn what kind of everyday resources children in Nepal build on to learn math and how they can be leveraged in classroom learning—what kind of counting and number activities they engage in as a natural part of childhood and how this is different from resources and activities among children in the U.S.

Play doesn’t always feel like the academic content that we want children to be working on, but really it’s how children learn.

Darrell Earnest

Working with Smith in Nepal, Earnest began to particularly appreciate what early reading and math have in common: “What kids are doing in these early grades has a lot to do with symbol sense and symbol recognition,” he explains.  

In spite of the challenges Smith and Earnest saw in undertaking educational reform, there’s been progress. According to Smith, World Education recently completed a three-year study in Nepal in the school districts where they’ve worked and the results are good. Previous statistics had shown that less than 10% of kids would get to third grade able to read. With interventions, children are not only able to read, but are able to do it with a certain level of fluency. “It’s important that kids not only learn to read letters and words, but that they read accurately and at a speed where they comprehend what they’re reading,” Smith explains. “They are starting to show that with good teacher training and good materials, all kids really have a chance to learn how to read and write.”

In 2013, after so many years working abroad, Smith began developing the early grade reading in developing countries certificate program to expand the the number of practitioners around the world proficient in educational reform and teacher training. It came out of conversations Smith had with John Comings at World Education, a graduate of the UMass International Education program, and Ash Hartwell, currently at the Center for International Education. USAID had begun pouring funds into reading reform programs in developing countries, supporting interventions including new textbooks in local languages, training and coaching for teachers, better supervision, and parental involvement. Smith and her colleagues saw that many of the people working on these programs—staff of USAID or of non-governmental organizations— had very little education in reading. At most, their training might just be in the form of brief webinars. “We thought there was a market for people who actually wanted a certificate, because they really wanted to dig in and write assignments and be part of a longer course with people from around the world who were also working on reading,” Smith recalls.

Teaching materials for early grade literacy and math in developing countries

In response, Smith worked with Kate Hudson in the higher education program to create the graduate certificate. The program, which launched in 2015, consists of five fully-online courses: How Children in Developing Countries Learn to Read, Systems for Supporting Early Grade Reading, Teacher Preparation and Support for Early Grade Reading, Materials and Technology in Early Grade Reading, and the Role of Community and Family in Supporting Early Grade Reading. This fall, they’ve added a course taught by Earnest, expanding the program to include early grade math and how children develop mathematical ideas. Participants can take just one or two courses if that meets their need, or complete the entire certificate program. If they want to continue their education—working on a masters or doctorate in international education at UMass Amherst—they can apply the credits to those programs. 
Participants in the certificate program have been in places like Bhutan, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Senegal, working at USAID, EDC, AIR, Banyan Tree, World Learning, UNICEF, and other international organizations. Some are Americans working abroad in these countries while some are locals. The program has been very successful in its short existence: more than a dozen students have earned the certificate, and approximately 200 individuals have taken at least one course. 

Professors Cristine Smith and Darrell Earnest

While supporting education reform abroad, Smith and Earnest’s work and the certificate program has significant benefits for UMass as well. The certificate program bring a broad, international, and diverse group of students to UMass courses who are able to contribute enormously given their experiences and challenges in the countries where they work. Further, Smith and Earnest’s work provides UMass graduate students valuable opportunities to engage in research and connect to an international network. Together, the outreach, research, and certificate program enhance the reputation of UMass Amherst’s College of Education as one of the foremost leaders in international education. 

“And it’s just cool. It’s a great thing to do,” Smith adds.

How possibly could I have spent my life better than helping people learn how to read.

Cristine Smith