A first-of-its-kind study by Tata Trusts reveals the reasons why foundational literacy education in Indian languages for children is lagging

Why do Indian children struggle with literacy even when taught in their mother tongues? Mastering a language in terms of reading and writing skills is a basic capability. Yet a majority of children in early education classes across India are unable to read and write at their grade levels even when taught in Indian languages.

This is not news. A host of surveys and research studies have reported the problem for many years. What was not clear, however, were the specific reasons why regional language education was proving inadequate. These are serious concerns as there are implications at a fundamental level for how we plan education and development of children, how they are taught in schools, and the basic tenets of the education system.

Tata Trusts and the Azim Premji University came together to understand the issues through a path-breaking study, titled ‘Literacy Research in Indian Languages’ (LiRIL). The study findings show clearly that a complete overhaul of teaching material is required to bridge the gap between what is taught and what is comprehended.

“Tata Trusts was aware of paucity of original research on literacy development in Indian languages,” says Amrita Patwardhan, head, education and sports, at the Trusts. “We saw this as a unique opportunity to address a long-standing gap in literacy research in Indian languages.”

In early 2011, Tata Trusts organised a consultation with partner NGOs to conduct field work in social development. The aim was to observe on ground the methods followed in teaching children to read and write in two Indian languages — Kannada and Marathi — and to document the challenges faced by learners in this process.

“We lack research in the Indian context on the effectiveness of teaching in Indian languages,” says Shailaja Menon, associate professor at Azim Premji University, who spearheaded this study over the past five years. “There’s a huge body of work globally which we often reach out to for reference in this area. But education is a social and cultural enterprise and our needs and issues are very different.”

The need was for detailed and rigorous research that delved into the specific nuances of how children read and write in Indian languages. In other words, a ‘longitudinal’ study, called so because it involves observations made over a long period of time.

GOING TRIBAL

Wada (in Maharashtra) and Yadgir (in Karnataka) were the areas chosen for the study. These are considered as highly socially and economically disadvantaged areas, and are dominated by tribal communities. “Tribal belts are notoriously difficult for educational interventions,” says Ms Menon.

Two NGOs that had already been working in education-related interventions in these areas — QUEST and Kalike respectively — were entrusted with conducting the research in the local government schools. With both NGOs having worked in education-related projects with Tata Trusts in the chosen regions, securing official permissions and acceptance of the team for the LiRIL project among parents and teachers wasn’t too difficult. Furthermore, local youth were selected to be part of the operational teams, which helped as well.

The LiRIL study highlighted the need to reform literacy instruction in India to bridge the gap between what is taught and what is comprehended

Two different curricula were chosen. The schools in Karnataka followed the multi-grade, multi-level Nali Kali curricular approach, while those in Maharashtra used the Balbharati textbooks. The study took two years to take shape, with piloting of research tools and techniques happening between 2011 and 2013.

Post that, the three-year study tracked children from the beginning of grade one up to grade three, the formative years for education. Quantitative data was collected over six rounds, as were qualitative insights based on classroom observations, teacher interviews, case studies, in-depth student study and curriculum analysis.

About 360 children were monitored at each research site, with a total of 720 children tracked during the entire period. To assess their level of learning and understanding of what was being taught, the children were interviewed separately. Each interview was conducted over a two-hour period in a supervised space away from the classroom environment.

Key findings of the study

  • Performance at the end of grade 1 was strongly predictive of performance at the end of grade 3. This highlights the need for strong instruction in grade 1, and for early identification of children who require individual attention.
  • 70-75% of the time in language classes is spent on lower-order skills such as copying and learning letter-sound correspondence by using repetition or revision methods. As a result, children have been learning to read and write, but they are often unable to understand what they read.
  • The Kannada and Marathi scripts (like many others in India) are more complex than what is anticipated by existing curricula. A majority of the children mastered most alphabets by grade 3 but were still struggling to master vowel sounds and combinations of vowels and consonants. The study revealed that a child’s ability to read alphabets and vowel sounds is one of the most significant predictors of word-reading accuracy in both Kannada and Marathi.
  • Two curricular approaches — textbook-based and ‘multi grade multi level’ — which look quite different on the surface, actually share deep similarities in terms of emphasis on lower-order skills in the early grades and on rote-and-repetition as favoured methods of teaching and learning.
  • Teachers appear to be poorly prepared to teach early language and literacy through their pre-service and in-service teacher education programmes.

The five-year study threw up a lot of challenges. Longitudinal studies, by their very nature, pose difficulties for researchers and it was no different in this case. “It is extremely challenging to do such studies,” says Ms Menon. “Keeping everyone in the team on ground in the research locations for five years is difficult, as is keeping the ‘host organisations’ motivated. We had to recruit and train people and develop the assessment tools from scratch. Moreover, we had to sustain that capacity over time. As the child grew, we had to assess that growth in terms of learning.”

There was also the issue of children being tracked under the project dropping out abruptly. This was because many tribal communities migrate for work seasonally, and they take their kids along. Ensuring that each child was retained within the sample was, therefore, critical. “If a child was absent on a particular day, our field people would visit her home, or nearby areas to locate the family if they had moved,” says Ms Menon. “We kept track of each child as far as was possible.”

The problem is elephantine

This is an interaction between a teacher and a grade 1 student in Yadgir, Karnataka. The card used during the instruction shows the picture of an elephant.

Teacher (T, points to the card): What do you see?

Child (C): Aane (commonly used word for elephant)

T looks puzzled. She realises that aane is correct, but it does not fit the alphabets that have been taught at that level.

T: Yes, aane is correct, but there is another word, and that is salaga (for tusker).

Salaga is used in the curriculum because its easier to spell than aane; it also models the alphabets currently being taught.

C does not respond. T makes C repeat after her, then goes through three pictures on the same card. Finally, she comes back and points to the elephant picture again.

T: What do you see?

C: Aane.

T: Yes, correct, but I said salaga is another word.

T makes child repeat after her, then goes through the other three pictures and points to the elephant picture again.

T: What do you see?

C: Aane

T: (Impatiently) I said say salaga.

She makes the child repeat after her, then goes through the other three pictures and points to the picture again.

T: What do you see?

C: I don’t know.

Teacher moves on to next student.

Data collection was completed in 2016. The rest of the year was spent on data analysis and the final report was released in November 2017.

The study is path-breaking in more ways than one. It sets the tone to understand foundational language education better by breaking it down to an individual child-teacher level. “The study begins to answer the puzzling question of why,” says Ms Menon. “It complements existing research and the widespread understanding that India’s school-going children are not reading and writing proficiently. These are not generic but language-specific answers to the questions we have had for a long time.”

What sets the LiRIL study apart is that it comprehensively uncovers the reasons why several years of schooling have failed to equip these children with strong reading and writing skills (see Key findings of the study).

“LiRIL is unique. It has assessed multiple dimensions of literacy instruction and development, from student learning to teacher knowledge, beliefs and practices, and how two distinct curricula — textbook-based and ‘multi grade multi level’ — play out in classrooms,” says Ms Patwardhan. “We hope future research will draw from and build on what LiRIL has done.”

It has also established that spending all the time in grades one and two learning a script does not ensure that a child will be proficient in reading and writing.

THE STRUGGLE AND AFTER

“Literacy is most widely understood as the ability to recognise letters and stringing them together for decoding,” says Ms Patwardhan. “There is a tacit assumption that comprehension will take care of itself once decoding is mastered. This is one of the reasons why decoding and meaning-making are not taught together.” With poor comprehension, it’s no wonder that children struggle with basic literacy and in their ability to learn other subjects as they move to higher grades.

The study has highlighted the need to reform literacy instruction by bringing meaning-making to centre stage, and the need to do this from earliest years of the child’s literacy learning. It points to the need for reform at several levels: curriculum, teacher education and support, and teaching-learning material, all of which needs to be done with a long-term view to improve outcomes.

“Teacher education, at pre-service and in-service levels, is a weak link,” says Ms Patwardhan. “As a result, teachers have not been equipped with a current understanding of how children learn to read and write, and the kind of support that first-generation literacy learners require.”

Improving this situation will require extensive investment in teacher education, re-visiting curricular assumptions about pace of literacy learning, and ensuring the availability and use of engaging and authentic textbooks in language literacy classrooms.

In addition to the main report, three teacher guides have been prepared by the LiRIL team. Efforts are underway to share the findings with teachers, teacher educators, practitioners and policymakers, including the committee appointed to draft the Indian government’s ‘new education policy’.

The LiRIL study has drawn considerable interest at the official level in Maharashtra and Karnataka. “We are in conversation with the education departments of the two, and their representatives have attended our public dissemination event [where the report was presented],” says Ms Menon. “They were on board even before the release of the report and both the governments have been receptive of the intent of our research and findings.”

As a first step towards understanding India’s literacy challenges in greater detail, the LiRIL study serves its purpose fairly well. But, as Ms Menon says, “Fixing what is wrong is obviously going to be a long haul.”

— Vikas Kumar