Room to Read
Through the use of public-private partnerships, Room to Read is able to sustainably scale-up its efforts to increase foundational literacy for children
On September 11, during his address at the Conclave organised by the Ministry of Education, the Prime Minister articulated how the National Education Policy 2020 emphasised on foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) and ensured that children 'learn to read' so that they eventually are able to 'read to learn'. Though oral reading fluency (ORF) or the effective speed of reading with comprehension, is used as a measure for early grade reading competency in various countries across the world, this is relatively new to India.
ORF is however something that 'Room to Read' (RtR), an international non-profit, has been working on since 2012 through research and practice. Room to Read's Literacy programme results across five states provides evidence to the fact that large scale improvement in ORF and comprehension scores is possible with structured reading instruction in early grades. And once these learning gains are achieved by the end of the second grade, it provides a bedrock for subsequent improvement in reading and comprehension.
With the vision "World Change Starts with Educated Children", Room to Read was established in the year 2000 in San Francisco by John Wood, a corporate turned philanthropist, who is also the author of the best-selling novel 'Leaving Microsoft to Change the World'.
Room to Read India was established in 2003. In its first ten years, it was a small organisation establishing school libraries in government schools and implementing an intensive but small-scale life skill programme for girls. However, it was soon realised that setting up school libraries had limited impact since most children in the school were not even able to read and write at their grade levels. That's when the organisation focused on developing a comprehensive literacy programme, based on international research and a deep understanding of Indian languages and scripts. For the next five years, the organisation evolved a literacy model that worked for Indian 'akshara-based' languages and scripts.
When I came to know Room to Read in 2017, during a series of regional workshops on showcasing NGO-led best practices, they had demonstrated some excellent results on foundational literacy across 200 government schools of Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand. Children in these schools were reading three times more fluently than their counterparts in other schools of the same district, with a significant improvement in their comprehension levels. The model was essentially simple, comprising explicit reading instruction in grades one and two, a school library for grades one to five, and an enabling reading environment in the school and at home; focus on both reading skills and reading habits in order to improve reading outcomes among children. Their unique proposition was the instruction approach and the quality of materials (workbooks, teacher guides and the library books), which were developed/ chosen after extensive research.
The organisation was already looking at scaling up their model to benefit more schools and children. Room to Read presented a scaffolded "I do – We do – You do" approach to scale-up that involved demonstrating evidence (I do) in a small set of schools, then working in partnership with the government to implement a scaled-up version over larger geography (We do) and finally providing technical support to institutionalise the learnings into the government system for statewide upscaling (You do). The key innovation in this process is the 'We do' phase wherein Room to Read works closely with the key government institutions at the district and sub-district level to ensure that there is an all-round understanding of the foundational literacy principles and greater ownership of the programme interventions. This approach, which is co-implemented by the government, is more sustainable in the long run, less dependent on RtR staff, and therefore less expensive.
In the subsequent years, Room to Read adopted this approach across several districts of Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The results from these scale-ups show that these efforts have been able to positively impact children's reading outcomes at a reasonable scale. In some cases, the fluency and comprehension scores of children in these scale-up districts were even more than those in the demonstration schools.
Room to Read has now also extended this 'I do – We do – You do' approach of scaling up to their school library and girl's education programmes as well. In Nashik district of Maharashtra, this approach is being used to scale up a school library programme across the entire district. Similarly, Room to Read's small scale, high-impact life skills programme for girls have now been scaled up to cover all KGBVs and residential girl's schools in the states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and more recently Telangana, benefiting thousands of additional girls. I was so happy when at a recent Nexus of Good event, Sourav Banerjee, the Country Director of Room to Read India shared that they are aiming to benefit over 13 million children by 2024; almost a five-fold increase in their reach.
Public-private partnerships have been a critical component of these scale-up efforts. While implementation in the demonstration/ 'I do' schools are largely funded by private resources (CSR, foundations and individuals), during the partnership/ 'We do' phase implementation costs are shared between government and private donors. Once the programme learnings are institutionalised into the system and the programmes scaled across the state (You do), most costs are borne by the government; the private funders only support the critical component of Room to read technical support in this phase. In Room to Read's case, various private donors like Bajaj, Hans Foundation, IKEA Foundation, Warburg Pincus, Motivation for Excellence, Central Square Foundation and bilateral/multilateral agencies like USAID and UNICEF have supported these initiatives.
As an organisation, Room to Read has been able to not only demonstrate impressive results in improving foundational literacy among children and life skills among adolescent girls but also sustain those results on a larger scale. The organisation has also invested heavily on research and in developing a deeper, nuanced understanding of various aspects of foundational literacy (e.g., children's literature, multilingual situations etc) and life skills (e.g., gender, employability etc). In the aftermath of Covid, the organisation used all these experience and expertise to come up with high-quality online and offline content to keep children engaged during their school closure and ensure their education continuity. Most of these contents have been shared through various government platforms.
NGOs like Room-to-Read demonstrate that good work can not only be done, it can also be scaled through public-private partnerships in the true spirit of Nexus of Good.
Views expressed are personal