On International Mother Language Day: Use science driven approaches to improve local language literacy

Previous research suggests that teaching in local language that the children are familiar in makes them literate faster. Many countries have formulated policies to ensure that local language is the language of instruction at school. However, many countries still prefer English or French as their official language at school. Research suggests that it takes at least two years to become proficient in English and three years for French. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine why the children start lagging behind what they are expected to read at grade level. This picture gets more complicated if we add to the mix, lack of trained teacher and textbooks or even if the school has textbooks, they are far too dense for new readers to learn how to read.

The Center for Sustainable Development used principles of cognitive-neuroscience to improve learning levels of children in two countries- Malawi and India. The researchers developed supplemental reading materials with local stakeholders and designed a simple routine for the teachers to follow. To be effective, teachers will be trained to follow a simple routine of 5-6 steps: (a) demonstrating the shape and sound of a letter, (b) showing combinations with existing letters, (c) ensuring that all focus on the target letter, (d) asking students to practice reading individually for about 20 minutes a day, and (e) passing by every student and giving corrective feedback for a few seconds. Even with 60 students in a class, a teacher may have sufficient time.

The results in both the contexts were promising. In Malawi, the classes were held in the community, after schools. Community based volunteers were recruited to teach Chichewa (local language). Most of the volunteers were secondary school graduates. The children attended neighborhood primary schools and attended this language class in the afternoon. In the classes where this reading method was taught, there was a lot of improvement in children recognizing letters and their corresponding sounds correctly. Below given are results from one of the indicators of the reading exercise.

Comparisons by grade of the treatment and control groups indicate some interesting variances. With respect to letter sounds, all treatment groups improved by the end of the program, with a 19% increase for grade 1, 45% increase for grade 2, 44% for grade 3, 53% for grade 4, and 43% for grade 5. Given that this program was aimed to improve letter sound knowledge and reading fluency for the earliest readers, these modest improvements by grade 1 students indicate that the program needs to put more emphasis on the improvement of the earliest readers skills.

Following Malawi, the approach was implemented with Government schools in Telangana State in India. The approach yielded positive results there as well. The two sites Telangana, India as well as Malawi are proof of concepts that reading programs should be designed based on science driven models. In this case we had used a strong literature base that existed on cognitive neuroscience. Secondly, these results were only possible in case of local languages. This 100 days literacy approach works best with “transparent orthographies” or languages in which what you write is the same as what you speak. These luckily happen to be most local languages.

On this day of the International Mother Language Day, let us pledge to use science-driven approaches to improve literacy effectively and efficiently. Let us start early so that we are not playing the catch-up game with literacy.

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