4 Simple Techniques to Improve Literacy in India’s Schools

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By Education Today

Posted on April 5, 2022


5 min read

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It was a winter afternoon and I was on my daily routine of walking in the park. There happened to be some first grader kids studying in the park. They recited and rhymed poems and told stories well. I was impressed by the way they were explaining things and discussing what was taught in the class. I sat near them on a bench. One of them was teaching others how to solve math problems. She was a leader. A guide. And quite brilliant.

I thought hard about why some students are able to perform while others struggled, even when they were taught from the same teachers, and lived in the same city, and had similar family backgrounds.

But there was one thing about this girl that was different. She was leading because she knew how to read. She could explain what was happening in the story because she could read it. This essential skill made a huge difference in her personality, confidence and ultimately in her potential. And it separated hers from the rest.

That young girl was more unique than she should be. The sad truth is that far too many kids are struggling to read at proficient levels. At some point, kids start believing that reading is a difficult thing for them, that they are not smart enough to do it, and, gradually, their prospects and interests decline. This disconnect is evident from the fact that only 30% students in India make their journey into High School.

As adults we need to acknowledge, recognize and reflect on this. Every kid learns differently and has unique abilities. But our current teaching methods have not evolved for making such a change. Our teachings are more of a monologue than a dialogue. It is a nation of billions reciting the same books and the same stories, expecting different results. We limit our kids’ abilities, imaginations and scope of thinking.

It is time to open the gateways of imagination and think from their perspective. Let’s make education more connected with kids. Let them create the stories that matter most to them. Let them learn to really read, not just recite, and they will put the effort in, because they are getting more in return.

It is more than improving literacy rates, it is increasing potential energy that drives the future of India.

Across the nation, in every region, in every state, even within a single school or classroom, improving English literacy rates substantially has proven to be a challenge. The core of the challenge lies in the complexity of the English language itself. While there are fewer sounds and fewer letters than either Hindi, Tamil or Marathi, the connection between the letters and the sounds is fundamentally broken. Every “rule” of English has an exception and so, in the child’s eyes, there are no rules at all.

While there is a growing movement internationally to address these challenges, including work by my company TinyIvy, there are a number of ways in which the social and emotional side of learning to read can be improved. Here are four suggestions that are very easy to use in your school:

  1. Tie Learning Topics to Interests: Make flashcards from the kid’s favourite words or their own drawings and use them as examples for teaching. Have the children illustrate one side of a sheet of paper with their image and then on a separate piece of paper write the word in black ink. Laminate these together, including both pages in a single laminate sleeve so the words are clearly legible.
  2. Capture the child’s stories in writing. Working in small groups, have your students come up with a story. This should be done without any pictures or prompts; it is a pure imagination exercise. Have one member of each group share the story out loud with the class. While they do so, use your phone’s Speech-to-Text feature to record their story. Edit and print out the story for the kids to read. It is best to wait 1-2 weeks before having the students read these works, so you trigger the memory of the positive exercise in creative exploration.
  3. Words from Art: Pair up the children in the classroom and have them work together to create a book. The children can either alternate who writes and who draws, or allow them to each focus on the area where they are most talented. Remember, the goal is not for everyone to write or to draw, we want instead to inspire creativity and create a positive emotional association with reading.
  4. Start a Journal: Journaling combines numerous elements of emotional and language development into a powerful exercise. Set up a “Writer’s Workshop” and begin each day with a few minutes of quiet time for the students to write about whatever comes to mind. They can write or draw in the book. They can come back to a page repeatedly or start something new. Encourage exploration over consistency, though be consistent in creating the space and time for exploration.

All of the above can be added to your curriculum and approach simply and at little cost, in any school. All of these ideas are part of the same simple truth: teach differently. Be open to innovation. Try new techniques. The truth is that the methods used historically to teach English produce far less fluent readers than we would like. There is a better way forward for us all to take where our practice and new experiences can drive the science of reading. That’s what our kids really need.

Meghesh Saini is the cofounder of TinyIvy, Inc. which delivers curriculum and technology to schools that enable every child to learn to read easily, effectively, and more accurately.