Parental, familial, and community support interventions to improve children’s literacy in developing countries: a systematic review

Publication Details

Spier, E, Britto, P, Pigott, T, Roehlkapartain, E, McCarthy, M, Kidron, Y, Song, M, Scales, P, Wagner, D, Lane, J and Glover, J, 2016. Parental, community and familial support interventions to improve children’s literacy in developing countries: a systematic review, 3ie Systematic Review 26. London: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie).

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Elizabeth Spier, Pia Britto, Terri Pigott, Yael Kidron, Julia Lane, Eugene Roehlkepartain, Peter Scales, Dan Wagner, Michael McCarthy, Mengli Song, Janis Glover
East Asia and Pacific (includes South East Asia), South Asia, Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean
Pre-Primary and Primary Education
Equity Focus
Review Type
Effectiveness review

Main findings

Headline Findings: a summary statement

Many practices widely used in LMIC that work outside of formal education systems had a goal of improving children’s learning outcomes, but few showed any evidence for (or against) their effectiveness. The evidence that is available is almost entirely focused on children ages 5 to 7 and on a very limited selection of intervention strategies (including educational radio and television, interventions that show families how to support learning, and tutoring by peers or community members).

Evidence Base

Screening of over 10,000 studies yielded just 13 studies that were ultimately included in the review. Two of these studies focused on educational television (in Indonesia and Turkey), four on interventions that showed parents how to support children’s learning (in Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan) and five on tutoring (in Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Tajikistan, and Yemen).

Implications for policy and practice

Educational television approaches to child literacy in developing countries attempt to use  on-air television broadcasts or DVDs of programs to promote a variety of literacy and other developmental outcomes in preschool children from letter recognition, pattern grouping, and basic counting, to health, social development, and cultural awareness. Most are intended to be compensatory, provided in countries where formal preschool programs are either not widely available or not widely affordable, and target children and families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The studies reviewed here did show that educational television (whether viewed at home or outside of the home) has a positive effect on children’s early literacy development when children view these programs 3–5 days per week over several months. Occasional viewing did not produce these effects.

Among the most common approaches intended to improve children’s early literacy are programs that aim to help parents be better able to support their children’s learning. In the developing world, these approaches are typically used in settings of limited formal preschool opportunities but high rates of parental literacy. Programs are quite varied in structure, duration, and intensity, but almost all include take-home assignments for parents and children to work on between sessions. This approach requires parents or other adult caregivers to have the time available to attend sessions and to engage in these activities with their children. The results of this review tell us that, although these approaches may work well in some contexts (Armenia, Kazakhstan), there is no evidence that they work universally. However, the limited number of studies available makes it difficult to draw any valid conclusions regarding the kind of context and/or intervention required for this approach to have a positive effect.

Child-to-child approaches to literacy in developing countries use older children in primary grades to help preschool children develop literacy skills. There is a vast body of literature in general on peer ‘helping’ or ‘mentoring’ in developed countries, in particular on peer tutoring. These studies tend to show mostly positive, but sometimes insignificant, results for the mentored or tutored students and generally positive outcomes for the older students who are the peer helpers, mentors, or tutors. However, these studies typically focus on school-age children and youth helping other school-age children and youth, not on helping preprimary-aged children. These studies also tend to be framed as supplemental approaches to enrich school-based content learning, not as a primary approach for learning broadly foundational literacy skills. There are also similar models, using community volunteers. The few studies available from LMIC suggest that the effects of tutoring vary widely from country to country.

Implications for further research

The results of this review have substantial implications for future research. There were many practices widely used in LMICs that work outside of formal education systems with a goal of improving children’s learning outcomes, but few interventions have any evidence for (or against) their effectiveness. The evidence that is available is almost entirely focused on children ages 5 to 7, and on a very limited selection of intervention strategies. Policymakers and practitioners implement programming that they believe will be effective, but in most cases, there is inadequate information available for evidence-based decision making. Empirical evidence is urgently required regarding the effectiveness of interventions that are currently receiving significant investment of scarce resources, such as technology-based supports.

There is a need to prioritize the study of interventions that are already in widespread use but lack evidence of their effectiveness. For interventions that have a positive impact on at least some contexts (but maybe not others), replication studies are needed to determine which children will benefit from these interventions and under what conditions. There is also a great need to expand the evidence base to include understudied populations (such as children over age 7) and include research from more regions (such as Latin America).


For a majority of the world’s children, despite substantial increases in access to primary school, academic learning is neither occurring at expected rates nor supplying the basic foundational skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century. Numerous initiatives are underway globally to try to improve children’s literacy development, including interventions that work through parents, families, and communities. These initiatives are intended to supplement children’s school-based learning or provide alternatives for children who do not have access to preprimary or primary education. This review addresses evidence of what works to improve children’s literacy development in low- and middle-income countries, with interventions that work through parents, families, and communities.

Research objectives

The objective of this systematic review was to examine the effectiveness of parental, familial, and community support programs in improving children’s literacy outcomes in developing countries. We explored the following questions: (1) What models of reading and literacy learning programs have been implemented in homes and communities in LMIC? (2) What models of reading and literacy learning programs implemented in homes and communities in LMIC have empirical evidence regarding their level of effectiveness? (3) How effective are these models in improving children’s literacy outcomes?


To be included in this review, studies had to have been published in 2003 or later and include a test of an intervention involving parents, families, or community members with the goal of improving children’s literacy development; children ages 3 to 12 (or preprimary or primary school age); and a comparison group. The studies had to take place in LMIC (according to their 2013 World Bank classification). Studies that addressed educational radio were eliminated from consideration because a systematic review of the impact of educational radio already exists that demonstrates its positive effects on children’s literacy development in primary school (Ho & Thukral, 2009).

Searches for academic literature took place from May to July 2013 in 15 online databases from across the disciplines of anthropology, economics, education, international relations, political science, psychology, and sociology. To capture grey literature, they searched the websites of United Nations agencies, multinational organisations, and governmental agencies; and reached out to contacts in the field.

The authors had hoped to obtain information that would allow us to identify the relative effectiveness of different interventions in the same context. In other words, they were hoping to be able to provide information for the field regarding the effectiveness of interventions with the same conditions and those conducted for different populations within the same general context. The scarcity of empirical studies and their limited focus on just a few interventions prevented them from being able to provide this information. Numerous descriptions of interventions exist, but few contained a study of program effectiveness in reference to a comparison group. They found only one study that addressed an intervention for children ages 7 and older, and found no studies from Latin America. Therefore, they were left with significant gaps in their ability to generalise findings to state what works in LMICs to improve children’s literacy outcomes using interventions outside of the formal education system.

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