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Reading lessons from India

| November 13, 2012 | 0 Comments

By David Harrison

We all know the facts, right?

Only one in two children complete eight years of schooling, only two thirds of Grade 6s can read at a Grade 2 level of competency, and there’s a general malaise in the public education system. Only this time I’m not talking about South Africa, but India. That country has many of the same challenges that we do – the main difference being that it has 20 times more children to educate! Recently I, together with other colleagues from the DG Murray Trust, visited Pratham, a large non-profit organisation that promotes reading across India. We were intrigued by its claim that it could get young children to learn to read within six weeks and that it could help those lagging behind to catch up. Pratham’s main purpose is to provide intensive support to Grade 3s whose reading ability lags behind that of their sameage peers. It currently reaches 150 000 children in schools and works with 7 000 teachers. Children’s reading ability is assessed using a set of simple cards, allowing each child to be categorised into one of five reading stages (Diagram 1).

A large-scale, soundly evaluated reading initiative

Then, alphabet and phonics charts (barakhadi) are used to develop the next building blocks of reading. Hindi, as with most Indian languages, follows a simple phonics structure. Unlike many English words, you spell Hindi words as you say them (which meens their is know knead to get yourselph into a spelling not!). There are 24 consonants and their verbalisation is changed by adding one of 12 vowel strokes e.g. ka, kaa, ki, kee, ku, koo, kay, kai, ko, kow, etc. Children then learn to associate the phonics with rhyming words and begin to recognise the phonics in short paragraphs.

Pratham also works with younger children. In a balwadi – a small preschool in a Mumbai slum – we watched volunteer mothers read to a group of children. Then came the startling thing: these small children, three and four years old, stood up one by one and told the story to the others. They spoke with such confidence and pride. Then they sat around the teacher and watched as she read the story again, this time tracing the words with her fingers. Finally, they all shouted out their own words, which rhymed with pictures on a phonics chart.

We were struck by the fact that these children would all be comfortable reading their own mother tongue by the time they went to school. That’s a skill that will give them a leg-up in life, because we know that early competency in one’s home language not only improves second language development, but cognitive skills as well.1 And Pratham can prove it. It is one of the few large-scale reading initiatives that has been soundly evaluated and found to work – and to keep working for children who have been through the programme.2

Integrating writing and numeracy

Pratham’s essential premise is that children learn best from each other. At a reading camp for children whose reading ability lagged that of their classmates, we saw children telling stories, writing them out with chalk on the cement floor and reading them back to their classmates. It was the children and not the teachers who corrected each other, in a playful and supportive manner. Initially, Pratham did not focus on writing, but has now recognised the importance of integrating reading and writing. Now, the children are encouraged to draw a ‘mind map’ of their story before they start to write it, which gives it structure and form. And they celebrate ‘inventive spelling’, which makes critical neural connections between sounds and written words. (So often, we overcorrect spelling and actually undermine the fluency of thought and language.)

Pratham has also realised that early literacy cannot be divorced from early numeracy development, and has developed a similar methodology to enable children to understand basic concepts of scale and arithmetic. The first step is for children to learn to say numbers from one to 100, and then in hundreds to 1 000, and then in thousands to 10 000 – and so on. In this Reading lessons from India BY DAVID HARRISON Accelerating literacy 1. Read a story, get the child to recite the story, and then read it along with you. 2. Use phonics charts and help the child to identify phonics in text (read and write). 3. Learn with rhyming words (using 12 forms of each letter). 4. Say anything, write anything. Independent Education • Summer 12 25 way, children quickly develop a sense of the decimal quantum jumps in numbers. Next, children count as they point to and play with corresponding objects, whether beads or play-money. Pratham believes that the ‘combined active method of learning’ – seeing, saying, touching – integrates numeracy concepts in children’s minds. Once they are comfortable with the basic concepts of sizes, shapes and arithmetic, they are encouraged to say word sums out loud until they are familiar with the language; and finally, they start to record what they do.

Nal’ibali shaped by Pratham

Pratham’s other amazing feat is Read India, a national reading campaign with volunteers in 350 000 villages! It put first responsibility for reading back in the hands of parents, not the school teachers. It places hundreds of thousands of beautiful books into the homes of the poorest. Recently though, the campaign scaled back to work in 25 000 villages – still of considerable size but more manageable in terms of support and quality control. What makes the campaign work is the availability of books at a fraction of the price we pay in South Africa.

The experience of Pratham has shaped the development of a similar national reading initiative in South Africa called Nal’ibali, which launched in June this year. Nal’ibali (Xhosa for ‘here’s the story’) is a national reading for enjoyment initiative to get people in South Africa – adults and children – passionate about telling and reading stories. We see this kind of intervention as crucial for tackling the literacy crisis here, because it is from a place of enjoyment and personal relevance that real reading and learning begins. More than just words on a page, reading and sharing stories can help develop a sense of self-worth, connection and belonging among children (and their parents or caregivers), help heal hurt and divisions and, in so doing, lay the foundations for routes to success from an early age.

A simple design

Nal’ibali’s design is simple: we want to grow a network of informal but committed reading clubs run by adult and teen volunteers, parents, librarians, teachers – in fact, anyone with a passion for reading. The reading club model is a flexible one where sharing books and reading with children can take place in groups as small as five or as big as 50. They can happen almost anywhere – in afterschool care groups, homes, libraries, museums, clinics and crèches. Through its network, Nal’ibali offers support, information and inspiration to all who want to start or to those who already run a reading club. This includes mentoring workshops, mobile and online resources, as well as the distribution of Nal’ibali supplements to clubs, initially in Gauteng, the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu- Natal.

The initiative is supported by a mass-media advocacy campaign promoting the value of reading and sharing stories to society at large, inspiring and encouraging storytelling and reading with children of all ages as well as the formation of reading clubs. Avusa Media Group is our main print partner, while the Project for Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA), based at the University of Cape Town, supports the reading club initiative. But our hope is that Nal’ibali will become an initiative of which everyone feels part! Already, there are over 100 Nal’ibali reading clubs across the country.

Stories are powerful learning tools

One of the shortcomings of the current debate about education in South Africa is that the power of parents is ignored. We focus a lot of attention on ‘teachers, textbooks and time’, but not nearly enough on developing learning ability. Fact is that most South African children come into the school system with ‘learning impairment’ – and the gaps between richer and poorer children just widen over time. Parents have the power to develop their children’s language and reading ability, right from birth – by telling stories, even if they themselves can’t read. Stories are probably the most powerful tools for education that parents and teachers can share.


1. Roberts, T. (2008) ‘Home storybook reading in primary or second language with preschool children: Evidence of equal effectiveness of second-language vocabulary acquisition.’ Reading Research Quarterly, 43 (2).

2. Banerjee, A., Cole, S., Duflo, E. and Linden, L. (2005) ‘Remedying education: evidence from two randomized experiments in India.’ Bureau of Research & Economic Analysis of Development, Working paper No. 109, Duke University. Available at:

Category: Summer 2012

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