Foundational skills

From Ed•sy•clopedia
Cultivating student learning

Learning levels vary a lot—and, often, are low.
Let's raise them.
Edsyclopedia icon cultivating student learning.png
Introductory articles
Key categories

Foundational skills (also called "basic skills" or "FLN") are competencies that lay the groundwork for thriving in future life and education. Foundational skills are commonly defined as including, at minimum, basic literacy and numeracy.[1][2][3]

Foundational skills are often discussed in the context of the learning crisis, i.e. the fact that the overwhelming majority of children in the world attend schooling, but large proportions of these children do not receive a quality of education that equips them with even the most foundational literacy and numeracy skills despite spending this time in school.

The importance of cultivating foundational skills early

Learning gaps emerge early—and when children fall behind early, they rarely catch up.

For instance, Singh (2019) analyzed Young Lives panel learning data from Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam, and found that while learning differences between these countries are small for children at age 5, the gap widens quickly over the following three years and is already large at age 8.[4]

Children fall behind when the curriculum moves faster than their progress in learning. Once children miss acquiring foundational skills, it is unlikely they will be able to engage with a higher-grade curriculum. Consequently, they stop learning even if they remain in school. For example, in Punjab, Pakistan, the curriculum expects children to master single digit addition by first grade—but 65% of third graders had not mastered that skill.[5] Research from Uganda demonstrates the lack of focus on foundational skills and competencies in the primary grades’ curriculum, and advises for a curriculum adjustment to children’s actual learning levels rather than quickly progressing to teaching higher-order skills which children will not benefit from unless foundational skills are mastered.[6]

Moreover, low learning is often an underlying cause for dropout. In a mixed method study, Zuilkowski et al. (2016) find both a strong quantitative association between low learning and later dropout in Kenya, and in interviews with parents and students were able to trace back the underlying reason for dropout to low learning.[7]

Children who are not supported to gain foundational skills early are unlikely to catch up later on (analysis of MICS data from 18 countries in Silberstein, 2021, Figure 6). Editable slide available at the Policy brief builder.
In this example from India, the formal curriculum has left many children far behind—with the largest gaps for those who did not gain foundational skills early and never caught up. Editable slide available at the Policy brief builder.

If education systems do not help children to cultivate foundational skills early in their school careers, subsequent educational interventions may fail to benefit most children. An evaluation of textbook provision in rural Kenya concluded that only top-performing students saw test score gains from the availability of additional textbooks, while the intervention had no impact on lower performing students.[8] This is because a poorly calibrated curriculum had left children so far behind they had not mastered English-language literacy, so they did not benefit from English textbooks. Similarly, an evaluation of the effect of primary school scholarships in rural Cambodia found that poverty targeted scholarships increased enrolment and attainment but had no effect on learning. Children were already so far behind that increased enrolment had no impact on learning achieved.[9]

Defining and measuring foundational literacy and numeracy

See also: Learning trajectories, Student assessment, and Citizen-led assessments

Widely used measures of foundational literacy and numeracy include:

  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is responsible for developing a methodology to measure ‘minimum proficiency levels’ in literacy and numeracy, at different levels of schooling, regularly and reliable across countries and assessments—as stipulated in SDG 4.1.1.[10]
  • PISA: The OECD has also developed elaborate background methodologies for assessing literacy, numeracy and science skills in PISA and establishing proficiency levels for these subjects (OECD 2019a). In an effort to harmonize different thresholds, Level 2 proficiency in PISA corresponds with the minimum proficiency levels set out in the SDGs.[11]
  • Learning Poverty: The World Bank defines learning poverty as "being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10" (p. 6).[12]

Statements affirming the importance of foundational literacy and numeracy

Consensus statements

  • In 1990, UNESCO's Jomtien Declaration emphasized that "literacy is a necessary skill in itself and the foundation of other life skills".[13]
  • In 2000, the World Education Forum published the Dakar Framework for Action, which made a commitment to "[improve] all aspects of the quality of education and [ensure] excellence of all, so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills".[14]

Organisational statements

  • In 2020, the World Bank Group stated "overarching goal" of its Education Sector Strategy 2020 "is not just schooling, but learning" (p. 1), also stating that, "In the primary years, quality teaching is critical for giving students the foundational literacy and numeracy on which lifelong learning depends" (p. 4).[15]

Statements by high-profile individuals

  • In 2021, Girindre Beeharry, inaugural director of the global education program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote that "[Failing to prioritize the development of foundational skills over other learning objectives] is a bit of an invitation to build a skyscraper not from the foundation up, but by placing windows, doors, and roof mid-air, in defiance of gravity."[16]

Universal, early, conceptual and procedural mastery of foundational skills (UECPMFS)

This section summarises, and draws heavily on, Belafi, C., Hwa, Y., and Kaffenberger, M. 2020. Building on Solid Foundations: Prioritising Universal, Early, Conceptual and Procedural Mastery of Foundational Skills. RISE Insight Series. 2020/021.

The growing literature on learning trajectories show that education systems need to prioritize universal, early, conceptual and procedural mastery of foundational skills (UECPMFS). Each word in this phrase encapsulates a key aspect of foundational learning. Reaching UECPMFS should not be considered the end goal of education systems, but critical building blocks for other aspirations.

The elements of UECPMFS are as follows:


Global education goals have always been universal, ranging from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to the World Declaration on Education for All in 1990 (also referred to as the Jomtien Declaration) and the Millennium Development Goals that specified universal access to primary schooling as a target. The Sustainable Development Goal for education (SDG 4) adopted in 2015 took this a large step forward and established learning targets along with schooling targets, aiming for every child in the world to gain at least minimum proficiency in basic skills by 2030.

Issue 1: Most children lack foundational skills

Despite these universal declarations, most children lack foundational skills in many countries, even after spending many years in school. They need steeper learning trajectories to reach the aspired learning goals.

Using Financial Inclusion Insights (FII) data, Kaffenberger and Pritchett (2017) find that across 10 low- and middle-income countries, half of young adults with primary schooling as their highest level are functionally illiterate.[17] The Indonesian Family Life Survey (IFLS) revealed that 20% of students graduating from senior secondary levels (having completed 12 years of schooling) do so without having mastered foundational mathematics at the grade 1 level.[18] ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) data from rural India showed that more than half of grade 5 students have not mastered grade 2 literacy.[19] Additionally, the World Bank's learning poverty measure shows that 80% of 10-year-olds in low-income countries are not able to read and understand a simple text.[12]

Furthermore, at current levels, even among advantaged groups, children are learning very little, and achieving parity would still leave many without basic skills. Simulations using data from 10 countries across Asia and Africa show that achieving gender parity—both in schooling attainment and learning outcomes—would leave 30% of women illiterate because in many countries even men have low learning outcomes on average.[17] Similarly, analysis of schooling and learning differences by socioeconomic status in India, Pakistan, Kenya, Akmal and Pritchett (2019) find that, while achieving equality for the poor would improve outcomes, it would still leave many without basic skills because even more advantaged groups have low educational outcomes on average.[20] Tackling inequalities needs to go hand in hand with raiding learning levels for all.

Issue 2: Increasing access alone will not solve the learning crisis

Increasing access to a low-performing system is not sufficient to ensure learning for all—improving access and learning will both be required to address the learning crisis.

Achieving the goal of learning for all will require understanding not only the learning levels and trajectories of children who are enrolled, but of all children. The latter requires models that can simulate counterfactual scenarios of learning among those not currently enrolled to get to the full picture of cohort learning. What limited data is available on such counterfactuals suggests that more schooling alone would leave many without basic skills, and would have little to no effect on the percentage of children reaching the minimum proficiency levels stipulated in the SDGs.[21]

Issue 3: Most learning measures focus on students, not cohorts

Many learning assessments focus only on children who are in school, rather than measure the learning of an entire cohort of children both in and out of school. As a result, these learning assessments depict progress on student learning for children that are enrolled, but they do not indicate progress on cohort learning.

  • PISA-D only assesses learning of 15-year-olds who are in school and attending at least grade 7. In 2018, among the countries that participated in PISA for Development (PISA-D), an average of 23% of students had minimum proficiency in literacy, and 12% had minimum proficiency in mathematics (OECD 2018). However, overall cohort learning is likely to be much lower, as only 43% of all 15-year-olds in these countries were eligible to participate, with the remaining 57% either enrolled below grade 7 or out of school. As a result, this assessment provides no information on the learning levels of the majority of children in these countries.
  • Other international large-scale assessments like TIMSS and PIRLS or regional assessments such as PASEC in Francophone Africa and SACMEQ in Southern and Eastern Africa only consider in-school children in their assessments.
  • Primary leaving exams (PLEs) are another common measure of learning, particularly in African countries. By definition, these assessments cover only children who are in school. Given the pressure for high pass rates, there is evidence that poor performing children are prevented from taking the exam (by being held back a year or by not being permitted to sit the exam) or may even get encouraged to drop out altogether. RISE research in Tanzania found that preventing only a couple of students from taking PLEs can have a significant impact on a school’s average test score and thus incentivize a strategy of identifying lower performing children and encouraging dropout.[22] PLEs, therefore, do not provide any reliable measure of cohort learning and progress towards cohort learning goals.
  • By contrast, the ASER assessments in India and Pakistan as well as the Uwezo assessments in East Africa include out-of-school children and younger grades as well.


See the section above,The importance of cultivating foundational skills early.

Conceptual and Procedural

Children must gain conceptual knowledge, understanding the principles within a particular domain such as literacy or numeracy, as well as procedural knowledge, being able to fluently complete tasks in the domain, neither of which can be achieved through rote learning. Conceptual knowledge is an understanding of the principles and interrelationships within a particular domain, whereas procedural knowledge is an ability to use sequences of actions to complete tasks in a domain.


For student learning to be meaningful and practicable, it needs to develop to a certain level of mastery. Without such mastery, any new learning attained will not be sufficiently consolidated for a child (or adult) to use effectively and flexibly, whether as a basis for more advanced learning or for responding to one’s environment in daily life.

To illustrate, if a teacher asks a student to complete a learning task for which they lack sufficient prior knowledge, then either:

  • They will fail to complete the task;
  • They will complete the task superficially, but will remember the new content inaccurately because they lack the prior knowledge needed to construct accurate mental representations of the new content[23]; or
  • They will complete the task superficially, but will not remember any of the new content because their working memory was fully occupied with strategies for completing the task, leaving no room for thinking about the meaning of the new content.[24]

Learning assessments have to define levels of mastery as adequate thresholds, and develop metrics to capture whether skills were acquired and mastered, both conceptually and procedurally.

This video illustrates the importance of mastering foundational literacy. If you cannot read fluently, the limits of human working memory are such that by the time you get to the end of a sentence, you will likely have forgotten the beginning of the sentence—which hampers comprehension and other more complex competencies.[25][26]

Foundational Skills

In their schooling process, children should acquire a wide array of knowledge, competencies, and skills. Nonetheless, to access this wide array, students need to be able to build on solid foundations, and those consist primarily of literacy and numeracy. If children do not learn how to read, they cannot independently access new content on other subjects. Overall, engaging with the curriculum in higher grades requires literacy. It is also difficult to imagine students following and mastering a more advanced curriculum in natural science subjects while lacking basic arithmetic. Moreover, foundational literacy and numeracy are pivotal for any adult to lead a self-determined life. These skills not only raise the likelihood of having choice over one’s economic livelihood, but also enhance the capacity to participate in society and in shared political decisions. Thus, literacy and numeracy should be basic individual rights. It is tempting to focus attention to secondary and tertiary education, where policy makers often expect to reap the highest economic benefits. However, without a focus on foundational learning for all, only a small minority of students will reap the full benefit from secondary and tertiary education.

UECPMFS at a glance

See also

External links


  1. UNICEF (2019), Every Child Learns: UNICEF Education Strategy 2019–2030.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Belafi, C., Hwa, Y., and Kaffenberger, M. 2020. Building on Solid Foundations: Prioritising Universal, Early, Conceptual and Procedural Mastery of Foundational Skills. RISE Insight Series. 2020/021.
  3. Beeharry, G. (2021). The pathway to progress on SDG 4 requires the global education architecture to focus on foundational learning and to hold ourselves accountable for achieving it. International Journal of Educational Development, 82, 102375.
  4. Singh, A. 2019. Learning More with Every Year: School Year Productivity and International Learning Divergence. Journal of the European Economic Association.
  5. Pritchett, L. and Beatty, A. 2015. Slow Down, You’re Going Too Fast: Matching Curricula to Student Skill Levels. International Journal of Educational Development, 40:276-288.
  6. Atuhurra, Julius & Alinda, Violet, 2017. "Basic Education curriculum effectiveness analysis in East Africa: Using the ‘Surveys of Enacted Curriculum’ framework to describe primary mathematics and English content in Uganda," MPRA Paper 79017, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  7. Zuilkowski, Stephanie Simmons & Jukes, Matthew C.H. & Dubeck, Margaret M., 2016. "“I failed, no matter how hard I tried”: A mixed-methods study of the role of achievement in primary school dropout in rural Kenya," International Journal of Educational Development, Elsevier, vol. 50(C), pages 100-107.
  8. Glewwe, Paul, Michael Kremer, and Sylvie Moulin. 2009. "Many Children Left Behind? Textbooks and Test Scores in Kenya." American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1 (1): 112-35.
  9. Barrera-Osorio, Felipe and de Barros, Andreas and Filmer, Deon, Long-Term Impacts of Alternative Approaches to Increase Schooling: Evidence from a Scholarship Program in Cambodia (August 23, 2018). World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 8566, Available at SSRN:
  10. Montoya, S. 2018. Meet the SDG 4 data: Measuring How Much Children are Learning. GPE blog. 18 July.
  11. Chapter 10, "Measuring global education goals: How PISA can help", in OECD (2019), PISA 2018 Results (Volume I): What Students Know and Can Do, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris.
  12. 12.0 12.1 World Bank. 2019. Ending Learning Poverty: What Will It Take?. World Bank, Washington, DC.
  13. "World Declaration on Education for All and Framework for Action to Meet Learning Needs". UNESCO. 1990. World Conference on Education.
  14. "The Dakar Framework for Action". UNESCO. World Education Forum. 2000.
  15. "Learning for All Investing in People’s Knowledge and Skills to Promote Development". World Bank Group. 2020.
  16. "The Pathways to Progress on SDG 4: A Symposium". Center For Global Development, 2021. report
  17. 17.0 17.1 Kaffenberger, M. and Pritchett, L. 2017. More School or More Learning? Evidence from Learning Profiles from the Financial Inclusion Insights Data. RISE Working Paper 17/012.
  18. Beatty, A., Berkhout, E., Bima, L., Coen, T., Pradhan, M. and Suryadarma, D. 2018. Indonesia Got Schooled: 15 Years of Rising Enrolment and Flat Learning Profiles. RISE Working Paper 18/026.
  19. Pratham. 2019. Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2018. New Delhi: Pratham. p. 52.
  20. Akmal, M. and Pritchett, L. 2019. Learning Equity Requires More than Equality: Learning Goals and Achievement Gaps between the Rich & the Poor in Five Developing Countries. RISE Working Paper 19/028.
  21. Kaffenberger, M. and Pritchett, L. 2020. Failing to Plan? Estimating the Impact of Achieving Schooling Goals on Cohort Learning. RISE Working Paper Series. 20/038.
  22. Cilliers, J., Mbiti, I., and Zeitlin, A. 2019. Can Public Rankings Improve School Performance? Evidence from a Nationwide Reform in Tanzania. RISE Working Paper Series. 19/027. p. 22.
  23. Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., and Clark, R. E. 2006. Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86.
  24. Sweller, J. 2010. Element Interactivity and Intrinsic, Extraneous, and Germane Cognitive Load. Educational Psychology Review, 22(2), 123–138.
  25. Luis Crouch, 30 April 2018, "Video: What does low learning really feel like?", RISE Programme blog,
  26. Helen Abadzi, 2 Dec. 2020, “In Order to Rise High, We Must Dig Low.” RISE Programme blog,