Perspectives on literacy

Perspectives on literacy


Perspectives on literacy

Imposing a language on children in the absence of the environment of that language is confusing. Yet, that is how languages are taught in schools. Sonali Bhatia looks at other, more natural methods of linguistic training that can be adapted in schools.

“Imagine that you are given a Class III science text book and asked to study for an exam,” says C P Viswanath, CEO, Karadi Tales. “Sounds easy? Well, now imagine that the text book is in Hebrew.”

Thus do the participants at Sutradhar’s Open Forum on Language and Literacy get a powerful insight into the plight of students in hundreds of schools across the country.
Imposing a language on children in the absence of the environment of that language is confusing, to say the least. Many Indian schools are in the predicament of teaching the entire syllabus in a tongue that is alien to students and teachers alike. This results in a situation where the text book and examination are in English, and the actual instruction is in the regional language. This is unduly stressful for both students and teachers, and, contrary to fostering language learning, it makes the language bewildering and scary.

How, then, do you create the environment for the language? Well, you may have to discard some dearly-held beliefs and go back to how children learn their mother tongue. “In India, children not only learn their mother tongue naturally, they become multilingual naturally,” says Viswanath.  “You’re a Maharashtrian, so Marathi happens.  You live in Bangalore, so Kannada also happens. Your parents know English, so English happens, too. Throw in a Gujarati neighbour, and, at the age of two, you are prattling away in four different languages!”

But how do these languages ‘happen’? The answer is — no one really knows. Linguists and neurologists have been trying for years to understand how a toddler masters vocabulary, syntax and grammar without being formally taught these. There are several theories, none of them definitive.

Formal vs informal

So, we try to understand the difference between how languages are formally taught in schools, and how they are absorbed by a child naturally in a conducive environment.  In a school, language teachers tend to start with the smallest unit — the letters of the alphabet, and move on to words and sentences.

The process of absorbing the mother tongue seems to move in the opposite direction. A child who is immersed in the language first has confusion, then moves to context, followed by understanding phrases within that context. Individual words are learnt later.

Thus, the natural absorbing of language seems to be a process of breaking down rather than building up.

Keeping this in mind, Karadi Tales has evolved three paths to language learning: The Action Path, the Music Path and the Story Path. The three paths work in tandem with each other to immerse children in the language, encouraging them to derive meaning through multiple exposures to a word or phrase. They are also introduced to various parts of speech, like nouns, verbs and adjectives, through day-to-day use of the language.

The Action Path, for example, introduces language through the body. So, the teacher says: ‘Touch one eye’ while performing the action of touching the eye. Children repeat these words and mimic the action. Instructions and actions increase in complexity, till you could have: ‘Pull your ear with your right hand while rubbing your stomach with your left hand and jumping’. When exposed to a variety of such instructions, children slowly move to grasping the meaning of individual words and phrases.

In the Music Path, children hear phrases repeated to a tune, like: “My name is Bindiya, I am from India”. Children sing along, without, at first, comprehending what they are singing. Then, the teacher introduces herself to the class in English, saying, “My name is Hemavathi.” This helps the students understand the meaning of the song. Slowly, they become adventurous with language and start using it themselves: ‘My name is Lakshmi, I am from Bangalore.’

The Story Path comprises book and audio CD. Thus, it includes written words, illustrations, narration and background music. These are carefully chosen and synchronised to create a whole linguistic experience. The background music gives a clue about the mood of the page. Illustrations help stimulate the child’s imagination. The narrator’s expression boosts understanding of what is being said and read. Thus, the child goes from comprehending the context of the story to the mood of each page and then grasps the meaning of each paragraph, sentence or word. “It is much like story time at granny’s knee,” says Viswanath.

In answer to a question about using video to teach language, Viswanath is of the opinion that video is good for entertainment but not for language learning. “When the eye is that busy moving around the screen, the audio becomes mere noise. Real language learning is not actually taking place.” The Karadi Path, on the other hand, provides an action-packed, multi-modular experience for the child. A typical language period in a Karadi Path School comprises ten minutes each of the action path and music path, and twenty minutes of the story path. The child becomes an active learner of the language, with the focus on thinking and understanding, and not just reading and writing.

Sonali Nag, Founder, Promise Foundation, is also quick to stress the importance of comprehension in the development of literacy. Defining Skill Reading as ‘reading which is fluent, accurate and with meaning,’ she explains that this requires two large chunks of skills — the knowledge of the ‘akshara’ (letter of the alphabet) along with spoken language skills.

The knowledge of the akshara leads to decoding the written word, while spoken language skills lead to understanding this word in context. A child who struggles with either of these will ultimately falter on the road to literacy.

The child must have varied experiences with spoken language, in order to have a reservoir of examples to dip into while learning to read and write. Children who don’t have a large enough spoken vocabulary become overly dependent on the akshara to read, and have difficulty even in decoding some words.

What do teachers do in the classroom, when children struggle to read, and their reading is jerky and meaningless?  In India, as in most parts of Asia, teachers order the child to write the given sentence repeatedly. “It is mistakenly assumed that repeat-writing aids literacy,” says Nag. “In fact, new research shows that repeat-writing evolved in Asian cultures where the alphabet is complicated to write, to aid motor development. The writing was in the air or on sand, not in a notebook with closely spaced lines. So the assumption that repeat-writing in notebooks aids literacy is probably a mistaken notion.

It may be better to have the child read the whole sentence through and try and guess the word in context.”

Spelling it out

When asked whether spelling needs to be taught, Nag responds in the affirmative. “Yes. Spelling needs to be taught, because it cannot be caught!”  About teaching English spellings through the phonics method, Nag says that the method itself is acceptable, but it is often implemented incorrectly in Indian schools. According to her, the phonics method should be used only if teachers are well trained in it. Otherwise, it is better to stick to whole-word reading and sight reading.

“You must remember that children want to learn how to read and write,” Nag emphasises. “Any school which applies a particular method consistently will get results.”
“Children want to read,” echoes Umesh Malhotra, Director, Hippocampus Reading Foundation. “The need now is for adults who believe that children want to read, and a system that helps them enjoy reading.”

Hippocampus’s reading-ladder is designed to encourage the child to interact directly with the book, and is based on the simple maxim: We do what we can do. “Basically, we identify the level of difficulty of each book, and put a colour coded sticker on it according to its level of difficulty. Then, we identify the level at which each individual child reads, and give the child a colour-coded library card.” The child matches the colour of her/his card with the sticker on the book, and can recognise which books will fall within her/his reading range.

This helps demystify the library, and ensures that children don’t choose books which are too high or too low for their level. “If reading is either too difficult or too easy, it becomes boring,” states Malhotra.

What’s more, the Hippocampus reading-ladder is an acronym — spelling out the words “GROW BY.” Thus, ‘Green’ is the most basic level, ‘Red’ the next level of difficulty, ‘Orange’ the next, followed by ‘White’ and ‘Blue’, with ‘Yellow’ being the highest level of difficulty.

So, a child who wants to relax with a slightly easier book, or challenge him/herself with a slightly tougher book, can do so easily by referring to the ladder and determining the level just below or just above that of her/his library card. Books become more like friends, seeming to say, ‘I’m a green book, I’m waiting for you’ or ‘I’m a red book, won’t you try me today?’ Regardless of the class the child is in, the reading level of the child is based on colour codes, and the child is free to change levels if desired.

In addition, Hippocampus designates about ten per cent of the books within each range as ‘recommended’ books. These books have a star symbol on them. ‘Recommended’ books are those which have an activity to go with them. On choosing a recommended book, the child requests the librarian for the accompanying activity, which is designed according to the level of the book.

“The book ‘Animal World’, for example, has a mask-making activity which the child can perform within the library period,” Malhotra elaborates. “Once the child makes the mask, obviously, friends will get curious and want to make a mask, too. So, peer recommendation comes into play. The child tells the friends to request the librarian for the book.”

Depending on the interest of the children, the librarian can now hand over the requested book, or do a ‘swap’. A ‘swap’ simply means that the children read another small book that would interest them, before they receive the book they have requested. This exposes them to more authors and publishers, and hopefully persuades them to widen the scope of their reading.

To add excitement to any library period, there are ten-minute ‘vibrancy’ activities that librarians can conduct. A popular ‘vibrancy’ activity is comic-book making. Children read a small story and render it as a comic strip. “These ten minute activities have children thinking, ‘hey! the library period is fun!’” says Malhotra.

Hippocampus’s GROW BY reading-ladder is running in several government schools in India, in five languages — English, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil and Urdu. It has also been implemented internationally by organisations like Room To Read, to much success.
Thus, when language learning is a natural, voluntary process in a conducive environment, literacy is bound to increase; the participants at Sutradhar’s Open Forum are convinced of this!

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