Entering first grade ready to learn takes more than a book and a pencil and the enthusiasm every young child brings to learning. To be better prepared for school, it helps for a child to have acquired certain basic, foundational skills.[1] Let’s look specifically at reading. When young Joy walks into her first-grade classroom on that momentous first day of school, what skills does her teacher hope she brings with her? Certainly, Joy will need the ability to understand and speak in the language the teacher will use to teach. This extends also to being able to understand elements of a story that she hears read aloud. Her teacher also hopes that Joy will have learned to play with the sounds that make up words and even to name the letters that represent the sounds she hears. If Joy has these emergent literacy skills, she will be ready to learn the kinds of skills in first grade that will set a strong foundation for the rest of her life. Children with a strong foundation in oral language and emergent literacy skills have a much greater chance of becoming successful readers, and success in reading in early primary grades can predict success in later years of schooling.

From birth, a child’s home environment and experiences can help lay that foundation. When a child’s caregivers talk with that child and engage her in oral give-and-take, when they play with and expose her to letter sounds and tell or read her stories that are rich in vocabulary, they are building that foundation. Unfortunately, not all children are able to benefit from that kind of environment—and that’s where quality early childhood and kindergarten programs play a particularly critical role. Quality pre-primary programs help children gain those critical early skills, leveling the playing field for children so that they all have a solid chance of success in first grade and beyond.[2]

Early Childhood Education in Liberia

Over the past 10 years, the Liberian Ministry of Education has made great strides toward strengthening early childhood education (ECE) in Liberia. The Ministry’s Bureau of Early Childhood Development (ECD) and its partners have developed a comprehensive set of policies to support the provision of high-quality early childhood services, including a National ECD Policy, an Early Learning Framework, an ECD Curriculum, and a Professional Development Framework. Together, these policy documents create a solid and evidence-based foundation for early child development and learning, and they demonstrate a strong political will to strengthen the system to support the country’s youngest students.

However, Liberia is not yet seeing the desired outcomes of its investment in ECE.  Fewer than one third of three-to-five year-olds are able to attend early childhood programs,[3] and even when they do, many ECE teachers use didactic and rote-learning instructional methods in the classroom, rather than the developmentally appropriate and play-based curriculum called for in the nation’s curriculum. As a result, Liberian pre-school-aged children are not able to demonstrate strong emergent literacy when they enter first grade.

Overage enrollment also is a challenge in kindergarten classrooms. Nearly half of students enrolled in Liberia ECE centers are six years old or older; many children start ECE late and so do not progress into first grade until they are eight, nine, or even ten years old[4]—well beyond the government’s target age (6 years).[5]   With such wide age range in a single classroom, ECE teachers struggle to find instructional approaches and activities that can meet the diverse learning needs of all students.

Read Liberia’s Kindergarten Model

In true partnership with the Liberian Ministry of Education, USAID launched the Read Liberia Activity in 2017 to directly increase learning outcomes in grades 1 and 2 and, importantly, to improve the oral language and vocabulary skills of kindergarten children in Liberia. Read Liberia has collaborated with the Ministry of Education to improve existing teaching and learning materials in grades 1 and 2—including teacher instructional guides, student activity books, and student decodable and leveled readers—and had by the end of 2020 distributed a total of 370,789 teaching and learning materials to a total of 122,148 students. Read Liberia also partnered with the Ministry’s Bureau of ECD to develop and pilot a play-based kindergarten program that benefitted 5,400 learners in 60 ECE centers. The kindergarten teacher guides were developed to directly align with existing curriculum themes, so that teachers could easily integrate the 30-minute literacy lessons into their daily routine.  

What does a play-based kindergarten program look like, and how can play be used to promote learning? Children learn through play, whether structured play as might occur in an ECE classroom or unstructured play that one might observe children doing in their backyards or on a playground.[6] Play builds cognitive, physical, social, and emotional skills and engages young children in the kinds of interactions in which they can fully participate. Play stimulates the brain, fosters creativity, and helps children regulate their emotions and impulses.[7]  Play also gives children outlets for energy, all things that are not fostered when young children are expected to sit still and listen to the one-directional instruction that comes from teachers in a non-play-based approach to instruction.

For Read Liberia, developing a play-based model for kindergarten instruction meant embedding stories, singing, dancing, role playing, and rhyming throughout lessons, encouraging all children to learn and practice new vocabulary, play with letters and letter sounds, and both ask and answer questions. Through the Read Liberia kindergarten program, children were encouraged to be children and to bring their innate curiosity, hunger to learn, and energy to every task.   

More specifically, Read Liberia collaborated with the MOE’s Bureau of ECD to develop a Teacher’s Guide[8] that was organized by thematic area (Figure 2), and a Student Activity Book[9] that incorporated engaging pictures, simple vocabulary, and places to draw and practice forming letters. The daily 30-minute lessons emphasized interactive whole group as well as play-based small-group activities, such as read alouds, vocabulary, phonological awareness, and letter recognition activities. Prior to using these materials, teachers were trained on how to use the Teacher’s Guide and trained again as a refresher half-way through the school year. Teachers also received monthly coaching support from Read Liberia coaches.

Kindergarten Pilot Evaluation

To measure the impact of this pilot, Read Liberia conducted an impact evaluation that was designed to measure differences in performance on four emergent literacy skills as a result of the piloted model. The evaluation measured the performance of children in schools with a Read Liberia-supported kindergarten class and compared that performance with the performance a “comparison” group: children in schools without a Read Liberia-supported kindergarten class.

Read Liberia intended to pilot test this kindergarten model from August 2018 through September 2020, collecting baseline pre-test data on student emergent literacy skills in September 2018 and endline post-test data on those skills in September 2020 (once children who had completed the full year of the kindergarten pilot entered Grade 1). However, the COVID-19 global pandemic closed schools in March 2020, and children who had gone through the pilot program were out of school from March 2020 through February 2021,[10] and not able to be post-tested until March 2021. At both points in time, all children were tested in four skills: expressive vocabulary, letter name identification, letter sound identification, and listening comprehension (Table 1).

Table 1. Kindergarten Pilot Impact Evaluation Assessment Tasks


Emergent literacy skill

Skill demonstrated by pupil’s ability to:

Expressive Vocabulary

Oral language

List words known in a specific category (e.g., animals, foods)

Letter Name Identification

Letter recognition

Identify letter names by sight

Letter Sound Identification

Phonological awareness

Identify letter sounds

Listening Comprehension

Listening comprehension, oral language

Respond correctly to different types of questions about a text read aloud to them


Evaluation Results

Given the disruption in the school year and a full year between the premature end of the program and the endline data collection, it is not surprising that, looking only at mean scores, scores in both Read Liberia and comparison groups and across the skills either remained the same or declined over from baseline to endline (Table 2).

Table 2. Summary of Performance by KG Pilot and Comparison Schools

Subtask score


Mean % score Baseline [95% Confidence Interval]

Mean % score Endline [95%Confidence Interval]

Expressive Vocabulary: Overall
[20 items]

KG Pilot






Letter Name Identification
[10 items]

Read Liberia KG






Letter Sound Identification
[4 items]

Read Liberia KG






Listening Comprehension
[5 items]

Read Liberia KG






* p < .05

However, using a difference-in-difference analysis and looking at the average intervention gain in Read Liberia pilot schools above and beyond the corresponding gain in the comparison schools, we are able to see the added impact of the intervention on emergent literacy scores. With this analysis, significant gains for the KG pilot students were registered in two of the four subtasks: letter sound knowledge and listening comprehension.

Letter Sound Knowledge.

Knowledge of letter sounds is a fundamental element of phonemic awareness, and in this subtask, children were presented with four letters and asked to say the sound of the letters. The maximum score that could be achieved was 4.0.  

On this task, kindergarten children in the Read Liberia program (pilot children) answered only 64.6% correctly and comparison-group children answered only 54.5% correctly at endline (an average of 2.6 and 2.2 letters answered correctly, respectively) (Figure 3). Twenty-one percent of comparison students scored zero on the subtask at endline compared with 12.7% of Read Liberia pilot students. For this subtask, the impact was a difference of 7.4 percentage points, which was statistically significant (p < .01): Read Liberia kindergarten pilot children gained an average of 7.4% more letter sounds compared with comparison children.

Figure 3. Letter Sound (% correct out of 10), Kindergarten (KG) Pilot and Comparison Students, Baseline and Endline 

Listening Comprehension.

Listening to and being able to comprehend the meaning of a narrative is important for children’s literacy development. In this subtask, children listened to the assessor read a short passage about a cat stealing a dog’s hat and answered five questions to demonstrate their level of understanding. The questions measured both explicit comprehension (e.g., “What color was  the dog’s hat?”) and inferential comprehension (e.g., “Why did the dog chase the cat?”).

Listening comprehension performance increased slightly for the Read Liberia pilot children, with a mean increase from 54.1% to 55.9% over time (just over 2¾ questions answered correctly, on average) (Figure 4). Performance declined, however, for comparison students: from 44.1% of the questions correct at baseline to 39.1% (answering just under 2 questions correctly, on average). This impact was a difference of 6.8 percentage points, which was statistically significant (p < .01): Read Liberia pilot children gained, on average, 6.8% more in listening comprehension than comparison students.

Figure 4. Listening Comprehension (% correct out of 5), Kindergarten (KG) Pilot and Comparison Students, Baseline and Endline 

Listening Comprehension was the most challenging subtask for both groups of children. At endline, 30.4% of comparison students answered no questions correctly (scored zero); this percentage was only 12.7% for the Read Liberia pilot children.

Regression Analysis.

In addition, to better understand the impact of the Read Liberia pilot apart from other factors that could impact student performance, a regression analysis was conducted controlling for variables associated with the pilot outcomes. This analysis showed that the impact of being in the Read Liberia kindergarten pilot was positive and significant for three of the four skills: expressive vocabulary, letter names, and listening comprehension.

  • For the Expressive Vocabulary subtask, Read Liberia pilot students on average scored 6.5 percentage points higher than comparison school students (p < .001). Expressive vocabulary scores declined from baseline to endline for both groups, but there was less of a decline for Read Liberia pilot children: at endline, Read Liberia pilot children listed 58.4% of the total words possible, while comparison students listed only 48.7% of the total number of words possible.
  • For the Letter Names subtask, Read Liberia pilot children scored 5.6 percentage points higher than comparison children (p < .001). At endline, Read Liberia pilot children knew 90.2% of the letter names, compared with 80.8% for comparison children.
  • For the Listening Comprehension subtask, Read Liberia pilot children scored 9.3 percentage points higher  than comparison children (p > .001).

This evaluation also allowed researchers to analyze the factors that most strongly predicted a good performance in each of the subtasks. Several salient findings emerged from that analysis.

  • A better performance on the Expressive Vocabulary subtask was strongly related to learners’ age: older children performed better. As was indicated earlier to be a challenge in Liberia, this evaluation found that children entering Grade 1 were overwhelmingly overage, both at baseline and endline. At endline, the mean age of children was 10.7 years for the Read Liberia schools and 10.5 years for comparison schools, which is more than four years older than the expected age at entry into Grade 1 (6 years), according to the Ministry of Education’s policy.
  • In addition, the strongest predicting factor of good performance in Listening Comprehension was participation in the Read Liberia kindergarten pilot.

Key Takeaways and Implications

It is important to note that interpreting and generalizing these impacts is challenging given the impact COVID-19-related school closures had on the duration of the pilot and the timing of the impact evaluation endline data collection. While the COVID-19 context impacted both learners in the Read Liberia pilot and those in the comparison group, it was not possible to measure the degree of impact across all facets of learner’s lives and experiences, and so it is not possible to quantify the role COVID-19 may have played in the results. However, even though it appears that the Read Liberia pilot increased children’s skills relative to their comparison peers for some subtasks, for others the pilot may have just kept children from backsliding or insulated them from losing skills as steeply as they might have without the program.  

Even in the face of a system-level shock in the form of a global pandemic, these data suggest that the learning losses suffered by children like Joy due to the closure of schools may have been mitigated by attendance in a quality kindergarten program, at least in the domain of expressive language. Recent data from Ghana[11] further supports the idea that quality ECE programs provide a protective effect for student learning during system shocks. The COVID-19 shut-down has likely affected student learning in ways not captured in this study. Nevertheless, this study shines a bright light on the impact that quality programming for young children can have, even in the darkest of times.

Authors: Cat Henny, Jennae Bulat, Ana Robledo

[1] Stumbling at the first step: Efficiency implications of poor performance in the foundational first five years | SpringerLink

[10] Schools officially reopened in December 2020; however, for a variety of reasons—including concerns about COVID—many parents did not start sending their children back to school until January or early February, and so enrollments were not high enough to conduct a post-test until March 2021.

About the Expert

Jennae Bulat's picture
Dr. Jennae Bulat is the Senior Director of the Teaching and Learning team in the International Development Group (IDG) at RTI International. In this role, she oversees RTI’s international education teaching and learning technical focus, ensuring that RTI uses cutting-edge approaches and best research-based practices in its pre-primary through upper-primary programming. Specializing in early literacy development and inclusive education, Dr. Bulat has a strong commitment to facilitating learning across all populations, particularly among at-risk populations, such as girls and children with special needs.