Learning Letter by Letter in Mahbubnagar District, India

There are many opinions on how children learn to read. Many of them are based in experiences of teaching kids from typical middle-income families in the west. I started reading stories aloud to my girls when they were about 4 months old. Our kids are exposed to books early on. By the time our middle-class kids are about 6 months old they already know which side of the book opens and pretend to read, using their little fingers to trace the action of the story. Soon they even start copying the sound (of reading), repeating the sentences on the pages that they’ve heard so many times.

However, these experiences of my kids and others from similar middle income families do not speak to the reality that millions of children from low-income backgrounds are faced with. The chart below, representing several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, shows that at the end of 4thgrade, fewer than 30 percent of the children can read a paragraph (except Tanzanian children in Kiswahili). This implies that these children have been in school for 3 years or more and can’t read simple sentences in their local languages.

Source: World Bank (2018). Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa.  Regional Study on the Quality of Basic Education,. Tokyo, 3rdSeptember 2018.  Accessed http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/832221535674096676/090318-TICAD-seminar-14-Sajitha-Bashir.pdf

Grade 4 curricula in the countries listed in this table aren’t so different from the curricula used in our high-income country classrooms – children are expected to be analyzing texts, doing comprehension exercises, and writing short essays. Therefore, the benchmark for this chart should be that 100% of children are able to read paragraphs since in Grade 4, like our middle income children. Yet as we see here, this is far from the case.

Among many things, we blame the non-availability of textbooks, lack of motivated and properly trained teachers, poor school attendance among students, and the list is endless. Everyone is busy conjecturing here.

Maybe it’s time to return to what science tells us about how children learn. Human beings are born survivors, but not born readers.  Our brains need to be taught how to read. Unfortunately learning is a painful exercise.

Source: Abadzi (2014). Reasoning with Cognitive Neuroscience for Better Learning Outcomes (part I): Learning Basics. Comparative International Education Conference. Pre-conference Workshop, Toronto, Canada.  Also discussed inAbadzi (2016). Training 21st– century workers: Facts, fiction, and memory illusions. International Review of Education. Volume 62. Number 3.

Cognitive neuroscience tells us that each skill has a hierarchical process of learning.  These processes are sequenced based on the complexity level. The learning curves was first discussed by Speelman & Kirsner (2005, p. 122-123). This was further elaborated in the context of early readers by Abadzi (2016). The circles in the diagram above represent groups of processes involved in performing particular tasks.

As the graph suggests, one learns speech comprehension first which could be followed by learning letters. Therefore children need to be taught one letter at a time. Letters then can be blended together to form words followed by connected texts or sentences. These letters need to be taught consistently and slowly since our working memory is limited and can hold only limited number of items at one time. Of course practice is key here. The more we practice, the less time we take to perform each reading task. The less time we take to perform each task, the easier it becomes to decipher meaning from text and develop reading comprehension skills.

What are the common opinions that we hear around us- that children need to understand the context, that some children are visual learners, that we need to start with sight words. But these opinions don’t fully account for the reality that many children in grade 1 are asked to learn an official language – often French or English – which they may have never heard before, accustomed to speaking in their mother tongue at home. Previous research shows that learning in local languages first help to acquire literacy skills faster that can be transferred to pick up other languages down the road. Fortunately, cognitive neuroscience tells us that there is only one way that our brain perceives information and processes it. Thanks to scientists we know which parts of the brain get activated first by the reading process, and where that visual information travels to connect with parts of the brain that process language. Therefore all we need to do is teach in a way that lets the brain do its job and avoids these conjectures.

We need to feed the brain little chunks of information and provide enough practice so that build to a point where we remember it instantaneously. With corrective feedback and lots of practice we can train our brains to recognize and read text. We need to ensure that recognizing print gets embedded in our long-term memory and never gets lost. The earlier the better! With age our ability to grasp new languages reduced drastically. The brain of a 6 year old is more adept at learning languages than a 14 year old.

Source: Abadzi (2014). Reasoning with Cognitive Neuroscience for Better Learning Outcomes (part I): Learning Basics. Comparative International Education Conference. Pre-conference Workshop, Toronto, Canada.

Our brains are made to forget things. The more time elapses, the more we forget. What can save us from forgetting how to read is getting enough practice very early on so that reading comes automatically to us at an early age. The skill of reading then becomes like one of tying our shoelaces or riding a bike – very hard to forget even if we haven’t done it in a while. We do not have to make a conscious effort. Abadzi (2014) translates the cognitive psychological literature like the “forgetting curve” in the context of early readers. She elaborates that due to the limited working memory much information will get lost and if so, discusses how can brains be trained to retain information in this case becoming literate. In summary, by providing enough practice, children do not forget and they become automatic readers.

These principles are being used in a rural district in Telangana State in India. This academic year more than 2,000 children are reading one letter a day, and getting enough practice with ongoing corrective feedback from their teachers. The environment is the same, very challenging as always. The teachers do not have to invest time to create Teaching Learning Materials. The workbook created through multiple stakeholder meetings (including linguists, literacy experts, monitoring staff, teachers, textbook writers and others) makes things easier for teachers who face anywhere between 40-90 plus students in their classes.  The teachers follow 3 simple steps “I do”, “We do” and “You do” to make the children progress in their reading. Below given is a page of the book that everyone uses to practice reading. It’s a plain black and white book. We do not have big distracting color pictures in the book that cover most of the page in the pretext of making reading interesting for the children. The children are excited enough to come to school and practice to read in the limited time that they have. We do not ask children to write, since writing without understanding what the letters mean renders the exercise little more than an art activity. Children are better served learning to write once they know what it is they are writing. Here is a page from the Telugu book in which the letters are of different font sizes, generously spaced and helps to provide enough practice to children to read.

Source: A page from the Telugu Literacy Workbook.

There is one Champion in this entire process and without mentioning him this write-up will not be complete – The District Collector, Mr. Ronald Rose.  He decided that since children are not learning “adequately”, they should be given a simple textbook which helps them to get “concepts” easily. The workbook serves this purpose. Yes context matters and so the focus is first learning the local language – Telugu – and not English. Once children have mastered the concept of connecting letters to sounds, learning in additional languages becomes much easier.






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