New Delhi: In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh this summer, thousands of children are reading about Pahalwan Ji’s adventures. Folded onto a standard A4 sheet, these adventures proceed thus: Pahalwan Ji consumes 10kg of milk and 50 rotis daily. He lifts 100kg in weights, works out a lot and bullies children in his spare time. But one day, as he lifts yet another little boy to squeeze him, the boy tickles Pahalwan Ji, making him dance and writhe. Pahalwan Ji is humiliated, and he never bullies children again.
Pahalwan Ji exists, in line drawings and text, on one of the 40-odd “story cards” of Pratham Books, a Bangalore-based non-profit publishing house. As a part of Pratham’s Read India partnership with state governments, hundreds of thousands of these cards are making for a rather unique reading list in intensive summer reading camps.
Innovation in learning: Pratham, a non-profit publishing house from Bangalore, has sold four million story cards, most to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, India’s universal education initiative.
“Most state governments are having problems with reading skills,” says Ashok Kamath, managing trustee of Pratham Books. “They’re able to teach kids to read, but they’re not able to ensure that they continue reading.”
The Read India campaign was designed to solve that problem, and it has involved efforts such as incredibly inexpensive books and a network of around 5,000 libraries across the country.
“These libraries aren’t big places. They’re often just a small cupboard, a trunk, or a plastic bag,” Kamath says. “But these kids can’t buy books; they’re too expensive. So this is the only way to give them books.”
Pratham’s story cards are an extension of the non-profit’s low-cost book model. Pahalwan Ji made his debut in a 2006 book that was priced at Rs15. His story card costs Rs1.50. “At that price, poor children can own cards of their own,” Kamath says. “Or, a class can buy a set of 20 and rotate them among students. It targets a completely different segment to traditional books.”
Mostly in vivid colour—although Pahalwan Ji is a black-and-white gentleman—Pra-tham’s story cards tell a simple narrative. They are essentially thick sheets of laminated paper, printed front and back. “There isn’t as much room for illustrations, but it’s sufficient. And they’re crumple-proof, you see,” Kamath says, twisting one into knots and watching it resist valiantly.
Since its first large shipment in January 2007, Pratham has sold four million story cards, many of those to be injected into Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, India’s universal education initiative. Some states like Bihar have bought the cards directly; others, such as Assam and Gujarat, have taken the concept and printed cards for their network of schools.
“Each student can read one, and then pass it on to another student,” says Meera Suresh, joint director of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme in Uttar Pradesh. “We were earlier trying to use story books in schools, but these cards can circulate much more easily.”
One Bangalore study suggests how effective the use of reading cards—a close cousin of Pratham’s story cards—can be. In late 2006, the Karnataka Learning Partnership distributed nearly 3.3 million cards to 69,800 children across 1,309 city schools.
Before the start of the 45-day study, these children were assessed and classified into five slabs of reading competency: the zero level, the letter identification level, the word identification level, the sentence level, and the paragraph level.
As they progressed along the learning curve, the children at the three lowest levels, the “non-readers,” were re-tested every 15 days. The study found that 64% of the children from these three levels progressed to at least the sentence level of comprehension. “Only 2% of children continued to remain at zero level, and over 95% of children showed movement up the reading scale,” the study’s report noted.
In Bihar, A.K. Pandey, an official in the state’s Shiksha Pariyojana Parishad, is waiting for assessments from reading camps conducted in June. “The results aren’t back yet, but I see more than 60% of non-readers moving into the reader category,” he says. “We must have distributed around 150,000 cards in that one month alone.”
Using the cards thus, as reading material to supplement textbooks, does not come without its own problems. “Every teacher has to be trained—how to differentiate children by reading levels, how to then use the cards,” Pandey says. “This is a hurdle. Pratham had to have a volunteer or two in every village to guide the process.”
Rukmini Banerji, Pratham’s north India head, estimates that 87,000 village volunteers have pitched in for the summer, each armed with, among other things, packs of story cards.
“The summer is a big boost,” she says. “To build the reading habit, you need material coming in constantly. One textbook per year is simply not enough.”