Written by Puja Trisal
In most conversations on India’s primary education, a common refrain is the lack of basic skills among children despite years of schooling. This is a formidable challenge that policymakers, teachers and education practitioners have been battling for decades.
It can be tempting to straitjacket the issue into a linear problem, concluding that children do not acquire these skills because of lack of attention and concentration. It would also be skewed if one were to bucket this problem as a binary function of children’s intelligence levels or rather the lack of it. This issue is much more multi-dimensional.
The challenge, while straightforward, is rather daunting: How does one ensure that schooling results in learning. At 97 per cent, India’s enrolment rate in primary education (Grades 1-5) is comparable to that of developed countries. While this is a commendable achievement in itself, available data on basic skill levels show some worrying trends.
Various governmental, as well as non-governmental surveys, indicate that we are currently in a learning crisis. According to the National Education Policy 2020, an estimated number of five crore students have not attained foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN), the ability to read and comprehend basic text and the ability to carry out basic addition and subtraction. This is a piece of statistics that demonstrates the enormity of the problem.
How do you make sure that children acquire these skills by spending time in schools? Having broadly achieved the goal of universal enrolment at the primary level, focus now needs to decisively shift towards turning schooling into an outcome-based learning process, rather than a purely attendance-driven activity.
The inability of students to read and comprehend simple texts in the initial grades translates into low learning levels in the higher grades. It further brings to focus the fact that even though grade 1 and 2 seems the easiest to teach, it requires the most thought and in-depth research into Early Grade Literacy, more so in the context of our country. India is a country of polyglots where multilingualism is a norm, rather than an exception. In such a scenario, teaching the state language without any cognisance to the child’s language further complicates literacy acquisition. Besides, the combination of approximately 400 sound and symbols in Indian scripts that children are required to automatise in the initial grades to be able to read fluently requires that the script is taught in a planned and structured manner.
Along with the opportunities for oral language development and orthographic awareness, it is important to expose children to a variety of meaningful texts. Libraries (and books) are often looked upon as an “icing on the cake” like a “good to have” rather than a “must have” to complete the literacy experience for the children. Exposure to a variety of texts is necessary, not only for deeper extended comprehension, but also for developing fluency.
In many ways, the National Education Policy 2020 that has accorded the “highest priority to achieving FLN by all students by Grade 3” echoes a similar approach to deal with this learning crisis.
The NEP has set a goal of achieving universal FLN in primary school by 2025, which will be undertaken on a mission mode. The NEP, to be sure, places adequate emphasis on the curriculum aspect, with increased focus on “reading, writing, speaking, counting, arithmetic, and mathematical thinking throughout the preparatory and middle school curriculum, with a robust system of continuous formative/adaptive assessment to track and thereby individualise and ensure each student’s learning”.
This is a significant departure from the existing attendance-driven one-size-fits-all approach that leans heavily towards rote learning. The NEP also favours an outcome-based method with specific hours daily as also regular dedicated events over the year on activities involving these subjects. Teachers, one of the most important constituents in this process, will see their training and education programmes reformulated, while the early grade curriculum will be redesigned to have a renewed emphasis on FLN.
According to some experts, one essential feature that primary education programme designers should note is the need for integration of literacy and numeracy, mixing mathematical terminology as a part of daily language, and blending easy-to-understand conversational language in teaching mathematical ideas.
The curricula as well as teachers’ pedagogical attitude should have a distinct effort to tie together certain key things for foundational learning. Specially for literacy, meaning construction of what is being read is to take centre stage along with an effective speed for reading. The pedagogy must tie in all components of “learning to read”, namely, orality, phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, vocabulary, fluency, reading comprehension and writing. Reading comprehension is the overall umbrella under which all linguistic processes flourish.
That said, the FLN mission will also have to prepare adequately for a post-Covid normal. There are new realities that the mission will now have to encounter, particularly when schools reopen not at once, but gradually over a long period of time. It would not be entirely incorrect to assume that the primary classes will be the last ones to return to normal schooling given the need to strictly adhere to COVID-19 protocols.
The FLN mission is a national mission. That said, the state governments should have enough autonomy in deciding practices based on local contexts that will not be uniform across states. This will require a collaborative approach from the Centre, state governments, civil society organisations, local communities, and the corporate world. Such an approach will also ensure that the mission is not driven by the purpose of achieving certain immediate goals, making the purpose ineffective and reductionist.
The post-Covid new normal of screen-based learning carries the risk of falling prey to a mechanistic approach prompted by a bundle of algorithms. The post-Covid learning environment will be a blend both offline and online resources. The goal will be to strike the most optimal blend that will be compatible with diverse contexts in the country. In the new normal world, home will emerge as a learning space alongside the school. This would call for a concerted effort and involvement from parents in helping children develop a habit of reading at home.
The writer is director operations, Room to Read, India