This is what the global learning crisis looks like, in real time

Building bookworms.
Building bookworms.
Image: Reuters/Antony Njuguna
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If you want to understand what it’s like to struggle with reading, take a look at the animation below.

It’s a striking image that communicates the seriousness of the global learning crisis. Luis Crouch, chief technical officer for the international development group at RTI, a research-based nonprofit, is part of a team that helped develop reading assessments that are widely used in the developing world. He created this slide to show the average difference in reading fluency between the poorest 40% of children in the world and kids in the OECD (which is made up of rich countries).

This slide demonstrates only fluency, not comprehension, which is of course the ultimate goal of reading (most experts think the two are causally linked). Crouch also notes that it’s not a precise average of all the assessments, but an approximation of a roughly representative sample. But the broader point is clear.

“If by the time youth are in high school, they are reading very slowly, they simply won’t be able to get through a proper high-school curriculum, or read for enjoyment,” Crouch said. “You cannot, for instance, enjoy literature if you read very slowly, and literature is sometimes one of the most efficient ways to learn about other times and other cultures.”

There are many levels to the global learning crisis. Six out of 10 children and adolescents worldwide do not have a basic level of proficiency in reading and mathematics, according to the Unesco Institute of Statistics (pdf). That translates to 617 million children and adolescents around the world, about three times the population of Brazil.

And while the world has made great progress in getting more children into school, it has become abundantly clear that going to school is not the same as learning. According to the World Bank (pdf), when third-grade students in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda were recently asked to read a simple sentence, like “The name of the dog is Puppy,” 75% did not understand it. In rural India, less than three-quarters of kids in the third grade could not solve a two-digit subtraction problem—such as 46 – 17. By the fifth grade (around age 10-11) half still couldn’t do it. Calling it a “crisis” does not appear to be hyperbole.