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Language and Literacy Learning
in the Accelerated Programme for Reading in Bangalore
Gowri Vijayakumar, M.Ed. (Harvard)
It is quite common in India's multilingual landscape to assume that "knowing a language" is a simple matter. Tamilians speak Telugu, Kannadigas speak Tamil, and everyone seems to follow enough English and Hindi to meet basic needs.
In Bangalore's increasingly cosmopolitan context, everyday communication brushes aside language barriers as insignificant. Yet the politics of language has a long history in South India, and remains an undercurrent to all aspects of public life. In the case of children, the politics of language masks even more fundamental challenges: language shapes social, emotional, and cogitive development in primary education.
This paper will explore the results of an accelerated programme for reading conducted in 2006 in 1410 of Bangalore's government primary schools through the lens of language. Ultimately, these results underscore the fact that policy decisions on medium of instruction cannot remain in the realm of politics or nationalism. They must take into account the conditions under which children are most likely to develop functional literacy skills.
Language in Primary Education
Language is a plainly visible aspect of teaching and learning in Bangalore's government classrooms. Many teachers complain of the difficulty of teaching children who do not speak the medium of instruction before entering school. Since some second-language learners are also migrant labourers or the children of migrant labourers from other states, issues of long absenteeism, late school entry, child labour, and the general trauma of displacement may add to the basic comprehension barriers they face.
Evidence proves that children learn better when taught first in their first languages , performing well in all subjects and even acquiring second languages more quickly. The argument is intuitive: when students have to learn a language and learn "through" a language at the same time, they face greater challenges than students who already know the language. A study by Thomas and Collier in the United States finds a direct correlation between amount or duration of first-language instruction and average percentile rank on national standardized tests. Dutcher finds that children instructed in their first languages have achieved well in several countries, with improved test scores in all subjects in Guatemala, improved retention rates and achievement levels in Papua New Guinea, and improved pass rates in Mali.
Medium of instruction also affects the strength of linkages between home and school. According to Snow, the transition to school is "likely to be less difficult for a child whose home literacy experiences and verbal interactions most closely resemble what goes on in the classroom." Such linkages allow students to apply to written language the "tricks of the trade" they have learned in oral language. Including first languages in school instruction allows for greater parental and community involvement in schools, since many parents may not speak the language of instruction. A study of six successful high schools in Arizona and California in the U.S. found that involving parents of language minority students was one of eight main factors contributing to their success. Beyond involvement in school-level decisions, parents can also support students' day-to-day learning activities - helping with homework, making connections between home and school, monitoring student progress, and interacting with teachers.
Bilingual Education Strategies
What about bilingual education strategies that integrate first-language education with instruction in a national or international language? Evidence suggests that bilingualism has great cognitive benefits, including superior nonverbal reasoning and awareness of language structure. Rather than replacing one language with another, good bilingual education allows for a complementary relationship between languages, such that proficiency in one language improves proficiency in another. Further, students in bilingual classrooms may perform better in subjects outside of language. For example, in several United States studies, children in bilingual programmes in upper elementary grades performed better in both reading and math than children in programmes that demanded immediate transition to English.
More broadly, first-language study gives children and parents a sense of pride and accomplishment. The United Nations has referred to the right of every minority student to "use his or her own language," a need Dutcher calls a "linguistic human right."
Language Policy in Karnataka
The state of Karnataka was originally defined mainly on the basis of language, by uniting geographical units with Kannada-speaking majorities. In 1963, the Karnataka Official Language Act defined Kannada as Karnataka's official language. Still, Karnataka is highly multilingual: according to the 2001 Census, out of 10,000 people in Karnataka, 6,626 speak Kannada as their mother tongue, 1,054 speak Urdu, 703 speak Telugu, 357 speak Tamil, 360 speak Marathi, 256 speak Hindi, 146 speak Konkani, and 133 speak Malayalam.
This multilingualism has been a constant undercurrent to debates about language policy in Karnataka, which have often been more about cultural rights and identity politics than about the best way to teach children to read. After 1956, Karnataka's general policy allowed for choice of languages; students could choose their first language from Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, English, or Sanskrit.
In 1982, alongside public pressure to make Kannada the language of state in Karnataka, the Government issued a circular dictating that Kannada would be the sole first language for all students, with 15 "grace marks" on the Kannada examination for students whose mother tongue was not Kannada. Only students in VIII or IX Standard migrating from outside of Karnataka would be exempted from the policy.
The Linguistic Minorities Protection Committee and a group of protestors challenged the new policy before the High Court as a violation of linguistic rights. Judges ruled in their favour, and by 1989, students could again choose their mother tongues as their first languages, as long as Kannada was an optional second language starting in Standard III and a compulsory second language starting in Standard V for those whose mother tongue was not Kannada.
Starting in 1994, however, again as an attempt to assert Kannada's pre-eminence in Karnataka, the state government declared that all new schools - both public and private -- must be Kannada-medium. While many private schools skirted this requirement, government schools followed the policy, and introduced English as a second language in Standard V. In response to public demand, starting in 2007, government schools moved the introduction of English as a second language to Standard I. "Linguistic minorities" in schools opened before 1994 are now required to study Kannada and English as well as their mother tongues.
The Indian Scene
Across India, parents appear to equate good education and job opportunities with English-medium education. In Tooley and Dixon's study of 315 low-income parents who sent their children to private unaided schools in Hyderabad, for example, 90% stated that English medium was "very important" to them in choosing a school, and another 6% said it was "quite important." English medium was by far the most important factor in their choice of school. Yet Miller points out that "while no one is denying children the right to learn Hindi or English…this does not mean they need to become the medium of instruction….it remains important to start first with the children's own language, and then move on to the standard language." After interviews with parents, Miller found that many could not distinguish learning to speak English and using English as the medium of instruction - their main desire was for their children to speak English, not necessarily to learn all subjects in English medium.
The ideal situation, then, is for primary-school children to learn in their mother tongues, with high-quality teaching of Kannada and English. The National Curriculum Framework 2005, in fact, advocates a "multilingual" approach: "We should…move towards a common school system that does not make a distinction between "teaching a language" and "using a language as a medium of instruction" - essentially, multiple languages should be applied throughout the curriculum in a complementary manner. Research suggests that such an approach will maximize children's ability to learn to read, but it is, like all initiatives, critically dependent on high-quality teaching and monitoring. Unfortunately, implementation of India's well-formulated educational policies has always been difficult.
The Karnataka Learning Partnership
The Karnataka Learning Partnership (KLP) is a unique public-private partnership between the Government of Karnataka, through the Education Department with support from Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), and the Akshara Foundation, a non-profit organization. Starting in July 2006, KLP conducted a 45-session accelerated reading intervention for all children in Bangalore schools who could not read a simple sentence. After receiving training in the intervention's teaching methodology, government teachers implemented the programme in "centres" of 20 children, selected for the programme through a baseline assessment. Each child in the remedial intervention was evaluated 3 more times over the course of the programme: at the 15th session, the 30th session, and the 45th session. Currently, using the same institutional model, KLP is implementing a 60-session math programme - called Nagu Nagutha Ganitha (NNG) - that utilizes an innovative, hands-on curriculum. Within the next year, KLP will extend its reading programme to 10 districts in Karnataka as the Oduva Siri (Reading Support Programme [RSP]).
Though both KLP's math programme and its reading programme have been time-bound interventions, KLP is meant to inspire sustainable change in the quality of the government school system through innovative solutions and the use of data and technology. Analyzing data with respect to language is part of this effort.
This work is original analysis of data collected in Bangalore by the Karnataka Learning Partnership in 2006. All secondary sources are cited.
The author would like to acknowledge the Akshara Foundation for its support, particularly Ashok Kamath, Managing Trustee.
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Gowri Vijayakumar, M.Ed. (Harvard)
Research Analyst, Akshara Foundation
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