The teaching of reading during early childhood — when attitudes, habits and skills acquire life-long foundations — assumes crucial significance for the efficient functioning of democracy.
Literacy is the foundation of school education but in our country the term ‘literacy' is used almost exclusively in the context of adults. This is not surprising, given the embarrassingly large share of India in the global count of adults who can neither read nor write. Why India's share has not dwindled significantly is partly related to the fact that the years spent by children in primary schools do not necessarily make them literate. Many who acquire a tenuous grip on literacy during those years fail to retain it in the absence of opportunities to read, compounded by elimination from school before completing the upper primary classes. Even in the case of those who acquire lasting literacy, schooling fails to impart the urge to read as a matter of habit. Those who learn to perceive reading as a means to expand knowledge and awareness are a minority. Sensational surveys of children's poor performance in reading tests throw little light on the deeper problems that the teaching of reading in India suffers from. If these problems are not addressed in an institutionalised manner, the newly enacted law on the right to education will remain ineffective.
The ability to decipher isolated letters of the alphabet is not a promising beginning in the child's progress towards becoming literate. However, this is precisely what conventional wisdom tells teachers to focus on. The wisdom is based on millennia-old practices which enabled a few children to become literate. When we apply this wisdom today, we forget that the method worked in a socio-cultural context which was altogether different from our context now. When literacy was confined to a thin upper strata of society, the teacher demanded from his wards a mastery over letters and sounds for its own sake. It took years to acquire such mastery, and the methods used to ensure it included oppressive drills and a punitive regime that can have no place today. When people feel nostalgic about traditional education, they forget that it was based on a view of childhood few would approve today. Moreover, the traditional system had no intention to cover all children. The methods it used for the teaching of reading are unsuitable for a universal system of education. The traditional approach does not recognise the child's nature and agency, nor does it respect individual differences.
The traditional methods are incompatible with the modern psychology of childhood and the knowledge available today on the acquisition of language-related skills. Contemporary expertise is based on the premise that children have a natural drive to explore and understand the world; hence, reading should give them the opportunity to make sense of printed texts from the beginning. ‘Making sense' as an experience involves relating to the text, generating a personal engagement and interpretation. If children are not encouraged to relate to the text, or if the text they are given has little meaning or relevance, the outcome will be a crude kind of literacy, which will remain isolated from their intellectual and emotional development. If this wider meaning of reading is applied to make an assessment, our system of primary education will arouse far greater concern than children's test scores in achievement surveys do. Persistent effort under the pressure to perform does make children capable of reading aloud a written text, but they fail to find any meaning in it. And the ability to decipher a text mechanically does not encourage children to actively look for new texts to read. The anecdote narrated by ChinnaChacko, a former member of the NCERT, in a paper she presented at the International Reading Association in 1971 continues to hold true. When she asked a child to read aloud, he asked: “With the text or without the text?” Reflecting on the methods used in Indian schools for teaching children how to read, ChinnaChacko wrote: “Many things are done the same way they have been done for centuries and, as a result, our primary teacher-training schools and primary schools are like museums in which old ways are carefully preserved.”
The cost of this museum-mentality is high, if we take into account the role that a reading public plays in a democratic order. The practice of democracy assumes both the habit and the capacity in all citizens to engage with matters which transcend personal or immediate reality. We can call it the metaphysics of daily life under modernity. It compels every member — without exception — to share a collective anguish and to respond to it in one way or another. Engagement with this expanded universe cannot be sustained without the tools of literacy, in addition to — and not as a substitute of — the oral means of interaction. In this model, reading serves as more than a skill; it becomes an aspect of culture. It must enable citizens to reflect on what is going on, not merely a skill to decipher printed texts. From this larger perspective, the teaching of reading during early childhood — when attitudes, habits and skills acquire life-long foundations — acquires crucial significance for the efficient functioning of democracy. This perspective implies drastic changes in the currently practised pedagogy of reading in pre-schools and the primary classes. Instead of letter-recognition and mechanical decoding, pedagogic effort must focus on building bridges between words and meanings, and on nurturing an interpretive stance from the earliest stage. This kind of pedagogy requires meaningful texts and a sustained use of children's literature. The texts used for the teaching of reading should treat the child with dignity, showing respect for the child's inner drive to interpret and relate. The sociology of the text content is equally important. We need texts that make children excited about the social and cultural diversity that they encounter in their ethos. We also need kind and affectionate teachers who are themselves habitual readers and can encourage each child to perceive reading as a means to pursue his or her own interest.
A 40-part series of books for beginner readers, published by the NCERT, successfully responds to these various expectations. Entitled Barkha, this series was prepared by the department of early literacy and libraries under a special project of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. The little books included in this series mark several innovations, including those in design and illustration, and not just in the conception of child-centred narratives. In place of the usual patronising attitude towards children that we see in educational literature, the Barkha books present real children, doing the kinds of things ordinary children do at home and in the neighbourhood. A radical attempt has been made in these books not just to move away from stereotypes, but to challenge them. It is the first time in India that a graded reading series, with a literary approach to reading, has been introduced. The early literacy department of the NCERT, which created this series, has been working with several State governments, encouraging them to develop similar material in their languages and to train teachers to adopt the imaginative approach to reading what Barkha represents.
Strangely enough, the NCERT has decided to close down the department that was promoting this approach. This is not the first time in India, or within the NCERT itself, that a distinct attempt to focus on reading and libraries has been prematurely abandoned. Institutional vicissitudes are much too common to require comment. One can only hope that the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which controls the NCERT, will review this decision and restore early literacy's academic identity. Strong institutional leadership is required to motivate State governments, NGOs and private publishers to take children's literature, especially its neglected aspects like design and illustration, seriously. The illustration copied here from a children's book recently published by the National Book Trust shows how insensitive even a reputed publishing house can be towards violence on women. After decades of advocacy for gender-sensitive material for children, the larger scenario remains quite alarming. Many NGOs have now taken to publishing for children, and in the absence of expert guidance and institutionalised review processes, they are churning out poor quality material, often with explicit ideological bias. State governments purchase such material with the copious funds that the SSA provides for classroom libraries. The NCERT does need to play a leadership role in this anarchic scene.