Teaching literacy, numeracy key

Teaching literacy, numeracy key

In the past, students who knew counting up to 500 or 1,000 at early grade levels were considered bright in mathematics

Representative Image. Credit: Pixabay Photo

Ever since the release of Annual Status of Education (ASER) report in 2005 by Pratham, as a citizenship initiative with an aphorism about literacy and numeracy, fear gripped in society and more importantly among education departments of governments.  

The report had pointed out that 35% of children in the age-group of 7-14 years in government schools cannot read even simple paragraphs and 52% were not able to read a short story. Further, 41% of children in the same age group were unable to solve even two-digit subtraction problem. Though the findings were based on the survey conducted in rural households of 485 districts, without standardised procedures, it still accounted for an alarming and sensational revelation. 

Even the ASER–2018 report did not present an optimistic picture. It indicated that only 50% of children in grade-5 in rural India could read a grade-2 level text and only 28% of children in grade-5 could solve a division problem. It is similar to what in 1983 the US administration came out with a report titled ‘A Nation at Risk’. 

The report divulged statistics of how 13% of all the 17-year-olds in US were considered functionally illiterate. The same among minority groups being as high as 40%, and all that in turn, could lead to downturn of the economy. Critics viewed this as ‘shock and awe’ campaign ignoring the significant improvement in US schools. 

The New Education Policy (NEP) - 2020 also assumes that the ability to read and write and perform basic operations with numbers, is a necessary foundation and an indispensable prerequisite for all future schooling and lifelong learning. It affirms what is reported widely by ASER and others that currently more than five crore children in elementary schools have not attained the basic ability to read and comprehend basic text and the ability to carry out basic addition and subtraction with Indian numerals. 

Perhaps, in order to resolve this, the NEP mandates three years of pre-school before class I, as part of foundational stage of learning for five years. This is a momentous departure from inadequate presence of pre-primary segment in government schools, or with two-years, mostly in the private sector. 

Although Anganwadis, which were intended to provide health and nutrition to children in the age-group of 0-6 years facilitate learning, they will now be fully integrated into the school complexes/clusters as per NEP. 

The major question now is not about provisioning, which the NEP has recommended in unequivocal terms, but of transaction. Schools are replete with examples of how in the name of learning, students are forced to undergo formal schooling even before grade-1. It involves abstract learning, rote memorisation, unwarranted evaluation, prominence to cognition, ignoring affective and psychomotor abilities which are critical at that stage.

Losing interest

If NEP recommendations are misconstrued on numeracy and literacy, the schools could whizz through to make tiny tots run the risk of losing interest before they are set for learning. However, NEP suggests far more child-friendly ‘flexible, multi-level, play/activity-based learning at foundational stage. Light textbooks, formal but interactive curriculum that paves solid groundwork across subject areas, are given importance. 

The NCERT, in its pre-school curriculum-2019, points out that the aim of learning at this stage is to provide strong foundations for all round development and life-long learning and preparing the child for school.

The learning outcomes developed at national level from grade 1-8 also point out what to expect from child in different subject areas. The learning outcomes at grade-1 maths such as ‘works with numbers 1-20 and applies addition and subtraction of numbers 1-20 in daily life’, radically redefine the expectations from students. 

In the past, students who knew counting up to 500 or 1,000 at early grade levels were considered bright in mathematics. The counting involved abstraction, rote memorisation but did not emphasise on understanding of relationship of numbers with one another. Contrarily, if the child understands the relationship of numbers even up to 20, the same can be applied to any large number later. 

Teaching of ‘zero’ to young children of grade-1 is difficult and this was overcome with a concrete learning experience. This exercise not only involved maths but also environment and language. It also integrates teaching, learning and assessment. This way, without much apparatus, children could be made to understand the stage specific learning outcomes such as the relationship of numbers from 0-20. 

Branding children as poor performers is unjustified without providing them opportunities to learn. What we require is a deep reflection on how learning could be made a far more joyous and long-lasting experience. The problem is not that children are not learning, it is only that ‘we are teaching not in the way they want to learn’. 

(The writer is Principal, Regional Institute of Education, Mysuru)