Literacy needs an urgent quality fix
Sep 11 2013
Something about India’s literacy perplexes me. We often hear official pronouncements of having gone from a low literacy rate of 18.3 per cent (1951), just after independence, to 74 per cent in the last census (2011). Indeed, that is tremendous progress. However, there are some questions that no government has posed with any seriousness over the decades: How literate are our so-called ‘literates’? How many of them can read something as basic as the headline of a newspaper?
As parents, we would never be satisfied if we were simply told that our child is literate. We would find out how literate and what she/he can actually read or write. Every parent knows that literacy lies on a continuum, from being able to recognise the first few letters to writing one’s name to, eventually, reading and, perhaps, even writing books. Everyone is somewhere on that long continuum.
So where do our more than 1 billion citizens lie on the literacy continuum? How many are to the left of the ‘able to read the headline of a newspaper’ marker — meaning they cannot read simple texts, and how many are to the right — meaning that they are functional readers?
Sadly, there are no official figures on the quality of literacy. Governments confronted with a low literacy rate tend not to ask it anywhere in the world. When all the impetus is to drive up the literacy rate — somehow, anyhow — strategies that can quickly maximise it hold sway. They have for over 60 years in India. We need to rethink that approach fundamentally. And to do that, first, we need to acknowledge the problem squarely.
Several well-researched studies have grappled with the question of our nation’s literacy quality. The findings may come as a shock. According to the 2011 Census, India had 778 million officially ‘literate’ people (census literates) and 273 million illiterates. There is no disputing the fact that the illiterates cannot read a newspaper headline. What is astonishing is that 50-60 per cent of the census literates, too, cannot. A staggering 662 million or more Indians, or 63 per cent, cannot read a simple text.
If it is hard to believe that only 37 per cent Indians can read functionally, I suggest a simple intervention. In the next census, rather than asking the head of the household who all are ‘literate’, in which case the inclination is to say ‘yes’, simply ask of each individual, “Can you read the bus board, a letter/chitthi or any simple text?” No testing required.
Just asking a more concrete question would give us an accurate insight into quality. We researched this in Rajasthan, UP, Bihar and MP to understand the discrepancy between census literacy and actual ability to read anything, only to find, that more than half the census literates cannot read.
Merely estimating the enormous national challenge of low quality literacy is insufficient. Surely, as prime minister, you need solutions. One solution is to unleash the power of the parent. There are scientifically sound tools to assess a child’s progress toward a timely acquisition of reading skills, by the end of class 2. This should ideally be done by an independent agency that can then make the results available to parents and planners.
Parents in villages served by government schools often do not find out whether their child is learning to read or not, at an early enough stage. Finding out by class 5 is too late. The blame then shifts to the child and not the system that might have failed her/him early on. But knowing by class 2 allows parents to alert teachers, schools and administrators. There is nothing as powerful as parental pressure.
If early-detection is an important part of the solution, habitual print exposure and reading practice, every day, from early childhood to adulthood, would create the conditions for universal quality literacy. The solution here is simple, though somewhat out-of-the-box.
India has 750 million TV viewers who watch an average of 150 minutes every day. Turn some of that daily screen time into inescapable, automatic and lifelong reading practice, by subtitling all song-based programming in the ‘same’ language as the audio. ‘Same language subtitling’ is my life’s work so I won’t say much more here, except that it is scientifically proven.
Finally, sir, policy-making needs a greater infusion of experts in various fields. When a Raghuram Rajan takes over as RBI governor or a Nandan Nilikani is recruited to head UIDAI, we know we are in meritorious hands. Quality literacy, part of our nation’s soft infrastructure, also needs leadership of stature and expertise.
All of education, lifelong learning and ultimately the economy, builds on our literacy infrastructure. Improving its quality is ever more urgent in an increasingly digital and mobile world, that has put information and learning literally in people’s palms. Our literacy rate may be rising, but its quality is holding back the palm from igniting minds.
(The writer is a social entrepreneur and is on the faculty of IIM-Ahmedabad)