India’s students have poor learning levels. Can foundational education help them?
To focus on foundational learning, the draft National Education Policy proposes new curricular and pedagogical structure, with 5+3+3+4 design, covering the children three-18 years. Under this, pre-primary and grades 1-2 is considered as foundational stage; grades 3-5 as preparatory stage; grades 6-8 as middle stage and grades 9-12 as secondary stage.Updated: Oct 13, 2019 18:40 IST
When the draft National Education Policy (NEP) was released earlier this year, there was a lot of discussion on its different aspects: It’s ideological agenda, the proposed National Education Commission (which may be dropped now), and its excessive focus on education bureaucracy. Unfortunately, one of draft NEP’s key recommendations ---- foundational learning (FLN) ---- was not discussed in the media at length, even though several reports show that close to 50% children lack in basic literacy and numeracy skills, despite spending five years in school.
The draft NEP calls for achieving foundational skills ---- reading, writing and arithmetic --- for all children in primary school, and beyond by 2025, to become a national mission. It also talks about institutionalising a robust system of assessment to help teachers evaluate the progress of each student, and identify where each student is on the learning ladder. Without foundational learning, the draft NEP adds, the country could lose over 10 crore students from the learning system and to illiteracy. India’s school education system is the largest in the world, with over 260 million children studying in close to 1.5 million schools.
To focus on foundational learning, the draft NEP proposes new curricular and pedagogical structure, with 5+3+3+4 design, covering the children three-18 years. Under this, pre-primary and grades 1-2 is considered as foundational stage; grades 3-5 as preparatory stage; grades 6-8 as middle stage and grades 9-12 as secondary stage.
Catch them young
“Foundational learning is the ability to read with meaning and do basic math calculations by class 3. These are basic literacy and numeracy skills that are a necessary foundation for a child’s further schooling and Class 3 is the critical stage by when children need to learn to read in order to be able to read to learn further. So, those students who fail to learn basic reading and mathematics by then, find it difficult to catch up with the rigour of the curriculum in later classes and fall behind,” explains Bikkrama Daulat Singh, managing director, Central Square Foundation, a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation.
Developing foundational skills is a complex issue as there are a large number of factors that impact a child’s ability to learn: Gender, race, place of birth, or the social and economic condition of their family – all of these lead to wide disparity in children’s capabilities and levels of exposure. CSF research suggests that disadvantaged children have significantly lower learning outcomes in reading and mathematics.
“Children enrolled in government schools belong mostly to low literacy homes and deprived socio-economic backgrounds. They have limited exposure to different types of printed materials at home like books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets etc. For a significant number of children, the language they are most familiar with is not the language used and taught at school. Lack of quality preschool programmes further adds to the disadvantage of children in terms of their preparedness for formal school education. The teaching-learning process in preschool and early primary classes does not take into account the children’s home and community contexts, e.g. limited or no exposure to literacy practices at home, limited understanding of the standard version of language used at school etc,” says Dhir Jhingran, founder and director of Language Learning Foundation, and a retired senior IAS officer.
The importance of Class 3
Class 3 is the critical stage by when children need to learn to read in order to be able to read to learn further. So, those students who fail to learn basic reading and mathematics by then, find it difficult to catch up with the rigour of the curriculum in later classes and fall behind. “Providing these children with foundational skills in the early years ensures that all students, regardless of their socio-economic background, are given equal opportunity to perform well in schools and are better prepared to improve their quality of life,” adds Singh.
However, in a country as diverse in India, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improve foundational literacy. India can achieve this goal if some key gaps in our education system are addressed:
*Clearly define foundational literacy and numeracy by identifying the building blocks to foundational learning and articulating the associated competencies in simple, measurable terms. For example, for literacy, India could consider introducing a target of “x number of correct words read per minute”, and combining it with other metrics like alphabet awareness and simple word recognition.
* Strengthening classroom practices and surrounding environment: Teachers must be trained in the specialized skill of teaching to read, and a print rich environment with lots of posters and reading material.
* Redesigning the teacher education for foundational literacy and numeracy: Teacher education and development, both pre-service and in-service, should have a renewed emphasis on the teaching of foundational literacy and numeracy.
* Improved accountability through monitoring
* Multi-year planning and flexible funding for states: To enable states to take a holistic long-term approach to improving foundational learning outcomes, states would be required to create and share multi-year plans (at least three years), versus annual plans. The mission would offer flexible funding to states based on the plans they submit
How other countries are doing it
Kenya (Tusome Program that covers grades 1-3 to improve reading levels): Three primary components of the programme include: Teacher professional development; Teaching and learning materials development; Coaching and robust monitoring and evaluation.
Brazil (FUNDEF): Created a composite index of school performance. States have done away with teaching as patronage and instituted career ladders that condition teacher advancement on their performance on content and pedagogy exams, as well as attendance. Decentralised budgets, co-developed improvement plans, plus autonomy to high performers and technical assistance to struggling schools.
South Africa (Funda Wande): A new course to make sure that all Foundation Phase teachers know how to teach reading in their home-language and in English. The goal is to go beyond scripted lessons and ensure teachers fully understand what they are teaching.
A long-term investment
Investing in foundational learning has long-term advantages. Other than its impact on the future of those who go to government schools, it can also increase workforce participation and open up opportunities for social and economic advancement. Research has also linked foundational learning to increased employability and higher GDP too.