New Delhi: Azim Premji University and Tata Trusts recently announced the findings of a three-year-long study focusing on literacy habits of students reading in vernacular languages. The findings of the report, titled “Literacy Research in Indian Languages" (LiRIL), were released recently in Mumbai.

The study focused on students in Class I-III and mapped their progress as they were promoted to the next class to ensure consistency in the cohort. The research was carried out in Yadgir and Palghar districts in Karnataka and Maharashtra respectively, where two different kind of curricula were followed—activity (based in Karnataka) and textbook-based (in Maharashtra).

The study assessed the ability of students to recognize characters in the local languages, and while students could recognize the root alphabet, they struggled to identify the compound character formed by joining “a" to the root character. While 32% students in Palghar could recognize the compound character, only 22% in Yadgir could recognize the same.

“Often, poor learning outcomes are attributed to lack of diversity in curricula, this research shows that even an activity-based curriculum couldn’t help the students as the teachers were ill-prepared and lacked the pedagogical tools required to teach Indian languages," said Shailaja Menon, principal investigator of the project and faculty member, Azim Premji University. “Indian languages can be complex and lack of data on teaching challenges in this area leads to teacher training not being attuned to Indian peculiarities."

Learning outcomes at primary levels first came into prominence with the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), which mapped students’ ability to do basic mathematical calculations and reading abilities.

Menon explains that this study employed mixed methods including gathering quantitative data, interviews with teachers, classroom observations, case-study interactions with students from socially disadvantaged groups as well as curriculum analysis. “Discussions around poor learning outcomes have been ad-hoc and focused on broader factors such as teacher absenteeism and not on specific challenges within a classroom even when the teacher is present," she adds. “What students learn and how they engage in a classroom is also based on their socio-economic backgrounds."

“Given that many of these students came from disadvantaged backgrounds, managing attrition within the cohort was the key challenge as sometimes long-term migration in search of better opportunities meant that the student would move to another school," explains Amrita Patwardhan, head, education and sports, Tata Trusts.

According to Menon, meaning making is a high order thinking skill that students will achieve after being able to identifying and learning the letters. “However, teachers spent most of their time on just identifying the letter which is a low order thinking skill that they could not move to the next complex stage of combining letters to form words and make meanings," she says.

One of the main concerns flagged by the report is that early literacy is a rather new area for research with very little or negligible focus on early literacy in Indian languages. Further, curriculum materials cannot exist in isolation from effective pedagogical tools, the report adds. The complexity of decoding and comprehending Indian scripts has not been fully captured by the current curriculum and that remains a major challenge.

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