Literacy and reading programs

Uddalak Datta

lets-carry-books-to-readers ‘Schools with a Reading Agenda’ is an emerging concept among development activists focusing on primary education. There is a rationale behind this concept, of course. Education helps people strengthen their personality and capabilities through a self-help process. If literacy is the threshold of a systematic education process, reading is an essential element in the introduction to formal education. Reading with comprehension is the stage when one is competent to receive education formally. Writing with comprehension and developing a reasonable information-base are the other two stages in formal education. Right from acquiring basic competencies to reading with comprehension, every competency can be attained through a ‘learning’ process.

Initiatives have been taken up by various organizations and also by different governments to improve or introduce reading in schools. However, the results achieved are far from what is desired. One of the reasons for this is the way these initiatives are carried out. Any large scale effort is initially implemented as a pilot project in a limited number of schools and for a limited time-span. This often becomes a deterrent to evolving a foolproof model that can be applied universally. Also changing an existing behaviour and ensuring that a new way of doing something becomes a habit requires a well-knit web of interventions over an extended period. The pilot initiative should only be the initial phase of a long-term proposition. But most initiatives are designed as pilots only and it is often presumed that learning from the pilot will be extended by the school system. Although dimensions to be integrated (conviction and skill building among teachers, concurrence of parents, systemic validity and so on) are well-thought out for the pilot intervention, no well-thought out plan accompanies the pilot intervention to ensure that there is continued implementation of the initiative.

Another critical aspect is need assessment. There are two types of limitations in most initiatives with regard to need assessment:

  • Often, initiatives are planned on the basis of a common perception based on the available average statistics with regard to a specific geography. Such an average scenario may not be applicable to a specific school. Many baselines reflect such a gap between universal and case-specific situations.
  • As stated above, baseline assessments are done as part of the implementation with the limited purpose of benchmarking the initial status of children’s performance for outcome evaluation. There are other factors that influence the reading ability of a child, for example, background variables of the child, teacher’s attitude and capability, etc. These factors are not adequately considered while assessing the need on which to base the intervention design.

In short, a pre-design phase of research must inform the pilot design. The term ‘pilot’ is used very generously these days. A pilot initiative should be a part of a well-articulated design to be followed by a scaled-up intervention. Hence, there cannot be a pilot without a prototype design in place.

There are other reasons too:

  • One very important dimension is the skill–habit continuum. It is an accepted fact that grade one and two are the most effective stages to initiate reading skills in children. But, there is no clear cut-off grade stage for the development of the reading habit. The entire process of developing the reading habit is a longitudinal one and is quite complex. While skill acquisition is specific to early primary grades, the process of habit formation passes through higher levels; it is difficult to project at what stage one will become a habituated reader as it is depends on various factors.
  • The other critical aspect is the stage of independent readership. To become a habituated reader, one should be an independent reader. At the same time, to become an independent reader, one should be continuously engaged with reading, across different levels of complexity. In both cases, the common but crucial requirement is reading opportunity. At the primary level, reading opportunities should be balanced with the basic reading skill development process, while at higher levels the balance should be with both the development process of higher order competencies and the process of habit formation. The balancing act at higher levels is tricky as there is a wide variation in the reading material available to each individual according to his or her interest and pace. To ensure appropriate reading material to meet individual needs, the provisioning should be wide-ranging and dynamic. The library (or any other source where reading material can be obtained) should include a variety of books, magazines and other material with a frequent flow of new additions (and replenishments). Continual availability of appropriate reading opportunity at all levels is key.

While dealing with the appropriateness of reading opportunity, attention should be given to the element of content literacy, as textbooks also play a crucial role in the overall achievement of the students. Content literacy refers to learning across content areas (e.g., social studies, science, etc.) which requires middle-grade students to acquire and apply reading and writing strategies to construct knowledge. ‘Constructing knowledge, a meaning-making process, goes beyond just acquiring information. To make meaning and build understanding, students need both general literacy skills and content-specific literacy skills.’1

It is extremely crucial to be absolutely clear on the objectives of an initiative focusing on strengthening the reading ability of children. The objectives may be limited to the following:

  • Help children develop grade-specific literacy skills and competencies in early primary grades.
  • Help children develop literacy skills and competencies to become independent readers.
  • Help children develop literacy skills and competencies for improved learning achievements.
  • Help children develop literacy skills and competencies for improved learning achievements and ensure development of reading habit.

For each objective, the intervention would require a specific design such as,

  • The most critical common component would be reading opportunity as it requires the design to be flexible to allow appropriateness across levels. For example, an initiative with an objective of helping children develop literacy skills and competencies for improved learning achievements, the reading opportunity should have material to strengthen content literacy.
  • To ensure the development of a reading habit one would require to first convince teachers that reading is a necessary skill, as they have to first demonstrate a love for reading in order to pass it on to their students. Moreover, developing a lifelong love for reading requires a lifetime of literacy efforts. To summarize Joseph Sanacore’s views2, teachers and administrators who support these efforts view the language arts from a “bigpicture” perspective but realize that they must act in specific ways. Determining students’ attitudes toward reading, giving them experiences with different texts, providing them with opportunities to select resources and to read them in school, and helping them connect skills and strategies to interesting and meaningful contexts are only a few of the ways that support a reading habit.
  • It is quite obvious that as continual intervention with appropriate reading opportunity is crucial to help become an independent reader and to help develop the reading habit, interventions should cover all the levels in a phased manner so far as a cohort is concerned.
  • Timeline is the other important factor to be determined strategically.

Story-telling-2 The story becomes more complicated when we get into the issue of literacy in the context of Indian languages. Research and practice in western and developed countries (such as, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Australia and New Zealand), mostly in English and European languages, provide the theoretical bases of most of Indian initiatives. Such principles are not entirely applicable in the Indian context – both from a conceptual perspective due to fundamental differences in linguistic structure and culture and from an operational perspective due to the logistical and systemic differences. There is an urgent need for indigenous research on Indian languages and in Indian contexts to inform effective interventions for reading skill development in early grades.

The multi-lingual situation, often reflected in Indian classrooms, is the other challenging issue in the Indian context. This is linked to the gap between home language and school language, which is often a matter of great concern at the primary grade level. The most critical (and fundamental, of course) question that arises under this circumstance is – literacy in which language? This is indeed a complex question to answer. Even though there is a possibility to deal with region specific situation with regard to gaps between the school language and the home language by developing a bi-lingual literacy model, such a proposition is likely to face problems in situations where the home language does not have a script of its own. Script may be a concern even in a situation where the two languages (school and home) have scripts of their own!

Of course, there are other larger issues that cannot be ignored when looking at the big picture, such as school curriculum, student assessment, teaching methodology, pre-school input and so on. Yet, we must start thinking along these lines to be effective in addressing the pressing concern that our children are not able to read properly after graduating from primary school, which is the one basic requirements for continued formal education, not to speak of promotion of a reading culture.

  1. http://www.literacymatters.org/content/overview/definition. htm, website hosted by EDC, viewed in November09
  2. Sanacore, Joseph (2001). Struggling Literacy Learners Benefit from Lifetime Literacy Efforts. http://orders.edrs.com/members/ sp.cfm? (viewed in October 2009)

The author is an independent consultant based in Delhi. He has been working in the field of primary education for almost two decades. He has worked for government programs and with organizations like Plan International and Room to Read to further the cause of education. He can be reached at [email protected].

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