Assessment of literacy and foundational learning in developing countries

This review examines the quality and range of tools used to measure literacy and foundational learning in developing countries


This review examines the quality and range of tools used to measure literacy and foundational learning in developing countries. It covers the assessment of language and literacy skills in children from age 3 to 14 (or preschool to Grade 8). It also includes assessment tools from studies published between 1990 and 2014, rated as ‘Moderate’ or ‘High’ in methodological quality.

There are 2 main reasons to assess children’s learning and underlying skills:

  1. Assessment can monitor educational quality. Communicating test results about what children can do (or cannot do) can improve decision making at every level of the education system. This improves educational quality and thereby lifts children’s attainment.

  2. Assessment can inform teaching practice. Teachers who assess well and use test information well, teach better. Towards this aim, the synthesis collates measures that potentially could be part of a teacher’s toolkit.

The review is underpinned by a Systems View of Reading, which sets literacy in the context of other language, cognitive and social skills. This view highlights the importance of developing complementary skills together with each benefitting from the development of the other. The various skills and knowledge that children require to read with meaning inform each other and develop together. They do not necessarily develop sequentially. With this theory providing an underlying framework, the review identifies the most common assessments used to measure all subskills: emergent literacy, symbol knowledge, reading accuracy, spelling, reading fluency, reading comprehension, narrative writing, vocabulary and other areas of spoken language assessment.

Each section gives an overview of why it is useful to assess the skill, the approaches that have been taken to assessing it and current innovations and challenges. The validity and reliability of assessments are discussed wherever these are reported in sufficient detail. The review also discusses lessons learnt, gaps in evidence and recommended future directions for literacy assessment.

The final report is accompanied by an Evidence Brief and 2 Briefing Notes:

  • Assessing literacy in developing countries: What is available and what is required?: Evidence Brief

  • Contextual issues in the assessment of children’s learning: Briefing Note

  • What to test and why: Briefing Note

This work was supported by the Promise Foundation and Oxford Policy Management. It was funded under the Department for International Development’s Education Evidence Products programme.


Sonali Nag. Assessment of literacy and foundational learning in developing countries: Final Report. Health and Education Advice and Resource Team (2017), xiii, 94p

Published 12 June 2017