Kenya: EMERGE Reading

October 3, 2016

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, many children read below grade level. Causes include overcrowded classrooms, poor teacher training, and little family support for student learning. Often, though, the problem begins before children even enter primary school: Many students aren’t ready for school and can’t read a single syllable when they enter first grade. Policy makers are therefore looking for ways to increase school readiness and promote pre-literacy skills to ensure that all children have the foundation they need to succeed in the classroom. 

Research area: Early Childhood Nutrition, Development, and Health

Country: Kenya

Evaluation Sample: 38 rural villages

Timeline: 2015 - 2019

Intervention: Pre-literacy promotion, free children’s books 

Researchers: Lia Fernald, University of California at Berkeley; Pamela Jakiela, University of Maryland; Owen Ozier, World Bank 


Kenya is one of the best-educated low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and yet many primary school students read below grade level and seven out of ten students in third grade, for example, cannot read at a second grade level. In poor rural areas, teacher quality is particularly low and the problem is compounded by the fact that many children begin primary school unprepared and with minimal pre-reading skills.  In rural parts of western Kenya for example, 84 percent of children under five years old live in homes that do not have a single children’s book.   Researchers are evaluating a low-cost program that produces and distributes children’s storybooks to households with children between ages two and six, to increase school readiness.


Researchers will sample 114 rural villages and then randomly assign 38 of them to one of two treatment arms or a control group. In the first treatment group, six books in Kenya’s two official languages, English and Kiswahili, will be distributed to parents of young children in the area; in the second treatment group, six books in Kenya’s two official languages plus the local mother tongue (i.e. the tribal language) will be distributed to parents. After the community meeting, a local community leader will receive a stipend to organize follow-up sessions with mothers from the community to further encourage mothers to read. The meetings will also give families the opportunity to trade and exchange books.  Maria’s Libraries will continue to provide a small number of additional books for each household on a monthly basis for 3 months after the initial meeting.  The control group, meanwhile, receives no books.   Researchers will determine the effects of distributing children’s storybooks and supporting family reading on learning outcomes and student preparation for primary school.