Can TV teach children comprehension?

Learning to teach literacy with Ubongo

Busara Center
5 min readMar 13, 2023

by Anushka Ghosh and Edel Koki

illustration by Lynette Gow

The things we believe about something, whether true or untrue, define our approach towards it. In Europe, for example, the tomato was considered poisonous in the 1700s as it was believed that aristocrats got sick after eating them and died. It wasn’t until Italy popularized the pizza from Naples in the 1800s that tomatoes managed to clear their name, opening the path to what is now a fundamental part of most meals.

It is for this (and other less tasty reasons) that innovation often begins with examining what we believe about things. Take the television, as another example. When it comes to childhood development, TV has largely been demonized, being seen as either a distraction or an all out impediment. Yet educational television might be one of the most promising forms of education technology in low-income countries for two reasons:

  1. Scale: It can reach large audiences as TV ownership rates in low-income countries are high. For example, 45% of households in Kenya own a television (Uwezo 2022)
  2. Effectiveness: Evidence shows that educational television can support children’s academic and social-emotional development in low- and middle-income countries. (Watson and McIntyre, 2020)

Ubongo, Africa’s leading edutainment company, is using this information to challenge the idea of what a classroom looks like, where and how learning happens. The largest classroom in Africa reaches over 32 million households across 41 countries monthly. We have partnered with Edtech Hub, who work to develop an evidence base for better decision making around technology in education, to look into the impact of Ubongo’s TV programmes. Together, we will look at their children’s edutainment shows and estimate the impact on four learning outcomes: positive effect towards reading, literacy, social-emotional learning, and gender attitudes.


We have just completed the pilot stage of the study and most interesting at the moment is what’s going on in literacy. Literacy is tricky to develop and measure, especially in countries where multiple mother tongue languages are spoken and English is not commonly used at home. The Kenyan government also recognizes the need to shift to a competency-based learning model in the early years of a child, with the implementation of the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) . While the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the implementation of this new model of learning significantly, the government continues to strive towards a more holistic approach to learning and assessment. This includes several scaled national policies aimed at improving literacy and numeracy such as the Tusome National Literacy Program and the Primary Mathematics and Reading (PRIMR) Initiative. Despite these efforts, learning outcomes have been poor with approximately 3 out of 10 children in grade 3 able to perform grade 2 literacy tasks (Uwezo, 2016)

There are five fundamental skills that are generally accepted as necessary to master the process of reading: phonological awareness, phonics (method of instruction to teach the relationships between sound and symbols), vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension (Armbruster, Lehr & Osbron, 2003; Vaught & Linan Thompson, 2004). These individual skills build on each other and work together to create the ultimate goal of reading comprehension.

The Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) measures students’ progress towards reading through subtasks aligned with these five fundamental reading skills. As these skills are acquired in phases, at any given point in time, some subtasks are likely to have floor effects (that is, most children in the early grades would not be able to perform at a sufficient skill level to allow for analysis) or ceiling effects (almost all children receive high scores), depending on where the children are in their development.

With this in mind, we worked on a simple instrument to measure literacy that could report on the foundation levels of student learning, including an assessment of the first steps students take in learning to read. We built this instrument using EGRA principles and designed it at a grade 2 level, to cater to a sample of students between the ages of 6–9. Our instrument tracks two main indicators:

  1. Oral reading fluency: What was the percentage of words read aloud correctly?
  2. Comprehension: Could the children summarize the plot, identify the main character, infer from the text, or predict it?

This is what we saw in the data:

  1. The students found it very hard to read the words in the familiar words section. The words seem to be far beyond the literacy levels of students across all grades.
  2. While some students were able to read the passage in the reading comprehension section, most performed poorly in the comprehension questions. Most students could not answer the comprehension questions, especially those on inference and prediction.
  3. Most students performed very poorly in the listening comprehension section and were unable to answer the questions.

Our results were thus in line with existing evidence that a high proportion of Kenyan primary school children struggle to read at grade level.(Usawa, 2022). To cater to this, Ubongo pivoted from their original programming to build “higher order” reading comprehension skills such as inference and prediction, to the development of foundational skills under the literal bucket, such as scanning and summarizing. Together with Ubongo, we have used this data to go back to the drawing board to prioritize what most Kenyan children who watch their show need at the moment. Ubongo will now focus their programming on building the literal bucket of comprehension skills, and lightly touch upon the inference bucket, and we will alter the comprehension sections to reflect that. These are the kind of data-driven, child-centered educational programmes we need at the moment, especially when the global pandemic has severely impeded learning, and brought to light the glaring gap in access to quality educational content, especially amongst marginalized communities.

When the people in Europe thought the tomato was poisonous, the real culprit was actually the pewter plates that aristocrats used, which were high in lead. The tomato, being high in acid, would leach the lead and aristocrats would get lead poisoning. The TV is a tool, and rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we should be asking ourselves how we can use this tool, which is effective at grabbing and holding attention, to create centres of learning. We should be asking where does learning happen, and how do we make sure we are teaching in the most effective ways?

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Busara Center

Busara is a research and advisory firm dedicated to advancing Behavioral Science in the Global South