The neglected R in Education
Not many consider reading as an important skill to be developed, for the simple reason that it does not carry marks. But good reading ability is important for the student to comprehend lessons, understand the questions and write relevant answers, writes Kamala Balachandran
India holds the dubious distinction of having the most number of illiterates in the world. Given that we are the second most populous country in the world, it is certain that we will continue to occupy this position for many more years to come. Optimists may point out that the number of literates in the country is growing every year even if the rate of growth is not what one would call, robust.
All of this is statistics. What is truly relevant is for us to see how far the first generation literates are empowered and how significantly they are better off than their illiterate, counterparts.
India’s definition is far more simple and humble. Our official definition of literacy is ‘the ability to read and write for a person of age seven and above”
Unfortunately literacy head count is not based on results of reading-writing tests. While gathering data, it is assumed that all children in Class III and above, who have attended school for two years, can (and should be able to) read and write, and are therefore’ ‘literate’. But on the ground there is a big difference being statistically literate and literate by definition.
It is no exaggeration to say that most primary school children, of seven plus years, coming from economically weaker sections of society and enrolled in government and some category of private, English-medium schools, are not literate by definition. This can be established with just a simple test. Present these children with age appropriate reading matter and you will find that nine out of ten, fail the reading test. While almost all children age seven recognise the letters of the alphabet (English or regional language) they are clueless as to what they represent when presented in groups.
Surprisingly, most children manage to write something in their answer sheets and get promoted to the next, higher class. With little improvement in their reading ability, the student passes through middle school and then high school and the gap between the reading and writing ability gets wider by the year.
And so we have, in an SSLC class, a ‘good’ student, who can copy from the text and write the answers neatly, faltering and needing a lot of help and prompting when attempting to read a passage aloud.
Reading skills of students attending the ‘better’ schools is not ideal either. With one teacher having to teach fifty odd students, there is just no way the teacher can give attention to each child and develop his/her reading capability. So of the Three ‘R’s in education, wRiting and aRithmetic hog all the time while the primary R which is Reading, gets zero attention.
Parents too do not consider Reading as an important skill to be developed. For the simple reason that it does not carry marks! But good reading ability is important for the student to comprehend lessons, understand the questions and write relevant answers. Even in Arithmetic and Geometry, unless the student can read the question correctly and understand the problem, he/she cannot proceed to solve it.
Reading is paramount
Young children should be made to read aloud individually so that the teacher can check the pronunciation and diction. The child should know where to pause and how to modulate the tone. Only then can the student grasp the full meaning of what he/she is reading. Yet, in all classrooms, it is the teacher who reads out from the text while the students follow the lines in the book open in front of them.
This passive following is quite like listening to a song when someone sings it. You know the lines and the tune but only in mind. You cannot sing it because it doesn’t come out right. Teachers are well aware of the importance of practice in reading. Occasionally they do make the children take turns and read paragraphs aloud by turns. But it doesn’t get done on a regular basis because it is time consuming and distractive in a large classroom.
A simple solution
With stunted reading skills, limited to learning the questions and answers, it is not surprising that most children are not motivated to take up extra reading.
So what is the solution? My suggestion is that parents should make the children read out aloud at home, from text books as well as from other printed sources like newspaper, books etc. This activity must be enforced for a minimum of ten minutes every day for as long as the child is in the primary classes.
And if you wish to teach or help out with the education of a child from disadvantaged backgrounds, keep the focus on developing reading skills. Start with making the child read different words (you could write them out first and later point them out from printed matter) and then move to reading sentences. Effort put in this direction will not go waste. It will make a lifetime difference, even if the child were to drop out from school at some point of time.