Are Children Really Learning? Exploring foundational skills in the midst of a learning crisis

March 29, 2022

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were serious questions about whether children were actually learning. With widespread school closures and other disruptions to the education system brought about by the pandemic, the learning crisis has escalated to new heights. As the pandemic enters its third year, 23 countries – home to around 405 million schoolchildren – are yet to fully open schools, with many schoolchildren at risk of dropping out. Over the past two years nearly 147 million children missed more than half of their in-person schooling, amounting to 2 trillion hours of lost learning. Children have to get back to the classroom, but changes are needed to ensure that they really learn, starting with the foundational basics of reading and numeracy. 

This report offers unique insight into the extent of the learning crisis by providing an in-depth picture of which children are most at risk of not acquiring foundational learning skills. The analysis of 32 low- and middle-income countries and territories uses newly released data to examine the equity perspectives of the crisis, exploring learning outcomes among different subgroups of children, with a focus on the most vulnerable. 


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How do we measure foundational learning?

Basic reading and numeracy skills developed during early education serve as building blocks for future learning.

Foundational reading skills are assessed by asking the child to perform three tasks:

Foundational numeracy skills are assessed by asking the child to perform four tasks:

Key findings

The majority of children have lagged behind in mastering foundational skills in either reading or numeracy

Children are expected to have acquired foundational reading and numeracy skills at the end of Grade 2. But in half of the countries analyzed, only 30 per cent of children attending Grade 3 have foundational reading skills and a mere 18 per cent have foundational numeracy skills. Among many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than one in 10 children have foundational learning skills on time.

Share of children attending Grade 3 with foundational reading and numeracy skills 


Wealth inequality is a major determinate of foundational learning skills attainment

When looking at the factors that impede the attainment of foundational learning skills, poverty is the most striking, particularly with regard to reading skills. The likelihood that a child in the lowest wealth quintile has foundational reading skills is 16 percentage points lower than for a child from the highest wealth quintile. For foundational numeracy, the difference is 9 percentage points. Other factors that influence foundational reading skills include gender, urban-rural location, functional difficulty status, parental involvement in their children’s education and the home environment.

Change in the likelihood of having foundational reading and numeracy skills of children attending Grade 3 by various characteristics


Out-of-school children are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized children in society

In some countries, the percentage of out-of-school children is particularly alarming, most notably in Chad, where half of all children aged 8-14 are out-of-school. Even more striking, the data reveal that in the Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, and Sierra Leone the children who are out of school do not have any foundational reading skills.

Percentage of children aged 8-14 with foundational reading and numeracy skills by school attendance 

Data emerging from several countries indicate that COVID-19 -related hardships and shuttered schools have led to a worsening of the numbers of out-of-school children. For example, in South Africa, the number of out-of-school children tripled from 250,000 to 750,000 between March 2020 and July 2021, and in Malawi, the dropout rate among girls in secondary education increased by 48 per cent between 2020 and 2021. In Kenya, a survey of 4,000 adolescents aged 10-19 years found that 16 per cent of girls and 8 per cent of boys did not return when schools reopened. Further evidence also points to substantial numbers of children not returning to school following reopening: in Liberia, 43 per cent of students reportedly did not return to the classroom when schools reopened; and in Uganda about one in 10 students at the primary and secondary levels did not report back to school at reopening.


Moving closer to the goal of foundational learning skills on time will require speeding up the pace of learning

In the countries analyzed, the current pace of learning is so slow that it would take an average of seven years for most schoolchildren to learn foundational reading skills that should have been grasped in two years, and 11 years to learn foundational numeracy skills.

Years needed for children to be in primary school to reach threshold of 70 per cent having foundational reading and numeracy skills 


Efforts are needed to recoup lost learning from the pandemic

The prolonged school closures and other major disruptions to the education system brought on by the pandemic have led to substantial learning loss. Simulations comparing the impact of a year of school closures on different age cohorts of children (Grade 1 and Grade 6) reveal that younger children are at risk for more substantial and sustained learning loss than older children. A child currently enrolled in Grade 1 could suffer a 27 percentage point reduction in reading mastery by Grade 9. This signifies the urgent need to redouble efforts to make up for this period of learning loss. If effective learning recovery strategies are introduced, both younger and older children can be expected to regain nearly all of their lost learning by the time they reach Grade 9.

Post – COVID recovery simulation of learning losses in foundational reading and numeracy skills from one year of school closures and mitigation strategies

Reading skills

Numeracy skills


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Education and COVID-19                 Education overview                 Learning and skills