Strengthening Early Grade Reading and Math Education Across the World
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.
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.
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.
How possibly could I have spent my life better than helping people learn how to read.Cristine Smith