Literacy is not only an end but a means to most other learnings as well as social and economic empowerment. Early language and literacy (reading and writing) development begins in the first years of life. The interactions that young children have with literacy materials such as books and stories, and with the adults in their lives are the building blocks for language, reading, and writing development. This understanding of early literacy development complements the current research supporting the critical role of early experiences in shaping brain development.
In India, several large-scale studies reveal that a significant percentage of our young children fail to achieve basic levels of reading achievement. The incidence of reading failure is even higher within poor families, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and ethnic minority groups and this impacts negatively on their later literacy learning.

Large proportions of Indian children grow up in non-print environments with little or no access to contextual reading materials in their mother tongue/first language. Classroom organization and pedagogies adopted in the schools do not acknowledge and appreciate multilingual diversity that forms the basic fabric of Indian society. Classroom pedagogy does not ensure continuity between oral and written language and between mother tongue/first language and medium of instruction. The availability/usage of comprehensive diagnostic assessment systems related to early literacy to inform classroom instruction remains negligible. There is a lack of system level composite initiative to influence reading culture both at community and school level.
The main challenge for early literacy programming in India is to articulate conceptions of literacy that place a high value on children’s oral language skills, and yet develop a strong foundation on reading and writing as part of the mainstream public schooling.

Conclusively, the key issues around early language development in India, especially where there is a substantial tribal and dalit population lie in four main areas: a. Multilingual education context in language learning remains one of the key concerns for children from diverse communities who are entering schools in large numbers post enactment of the Right to Education Act, 2009. In certain specific pockets of some states, there exist as many as four to eight different languages/dialects, which are different than the state language used for classroom instruction b. Curriculum, Pedagogy and Teacher Education issues exist with respect to teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, approaches and strategies for teaching language, as well as teachers’ attitudes towards capacities of tribal and dalit children. Issues remain as existence of a blanket curriculum, discounting the child’s home language and the competencies the child brings into the classroom, the primacy of the textbook over the child’s experience and culture, the absence of the child’s voice in the classroom and the absence of recognition that children come from non-literate environments c. Lack of continuum in approach across pre-primary and primary years. The existing models of reading practiced in government primary schools do not account for their lack of prior access to early learning processes through pre-schooling to help them transit to school, d. Systemic issues exist in terms of lack of a decentralized mechanism in the government education system at the state and district levels to understand and address reading deficits, insufficient technical capacity to design multi-lingual strategies, assessment protocols and provide support for reading instruction.

In this context, there is a need to understand and unravel the notion of early literacy for marginalized children and design an early literacy program that can be applied at scale to positively impact children’s reading abilities. Since past few years, this domain has caught the much-needed attention in our country. The efforts in this direction have been focused on government, donors and other stakeholders to improve pedagogy, classroom process and pupil achievement. This conception includes giving high importance to oral language skills to develop a strong foundation in reading and writing. As most marginalized children access public schooling system in India, early literacy programs need to be cognizant of the diversity and accommodate the cultural and linguistic context of young learners, adapt an “integrated process” in classrooms, facilitate culturally sensitive and non-threatening learning environments allowing opportunity for learners to follow their own learning trajectories within some broadly defined learning parameters.

The program must recognize and build on the following key positions on early language and literacy:
• Literacy is not an end but is a means to other learning, and social and economic empowerment.
• Oral language and literacy are overlapping domains used extensively, both inside and outside of classroom settings for communication, expression and knowledge generation.
• Listening, speaking, reading and writing develop concurrently rather than sequentially.
• Conceptions of literacy must build upon oral language skills of learners rather than just as a process of encoding and decoding of the script (with or without meaning).
• Young children should be provided with opportunities to participate as emergent readers and writers for an extended period (3-6 years of age) before being expected to develop into conventional readers and writers (6-8 years of age).

The Early language and literacy program must follow the ‘principle based’ approach (Position paper on early language and literacy 2016, National Technical Core group, supported by CARE India and USAID)

1. Link oral language to literacy and teach it concurrently with literacy skills.
2. Emphasize on drawing and independent writing as forms of expression.
3. Develop multilingual capacities in children.
4. Integrate identified essentials for literacy instruction and learning into a comprehensive, concurrent model of literacy instruction.
5. Consider literacy instruction as a socio-culturally and socio politically embedded set of practices.
6. Adopt in Early Literacy teaching, a Gradual Release of Responsibility with teacher’s responsibility shifting from I do, we do to you do.
7. Make contextual, level specific reading resources as an integral component of any early literacy classroom

The above principles must be engrained in a five-pronged strategy:

1. Develop School as an enabling System that promotes learning and equitable environment for all children. This can be achieved through working with teachers, head teachers and educational functionaries to ensure schools provide a caring, and a physically and emotionally safe environment for all children. Schools must be sensitive to social, cultural and linguistic differences of children, provide non-threatening expression spaces for teacher and children, create opportunities and forums to enhance children’s confidence and self-image, provide a stimulating, print rich environment such as libraries and reading corners and a welcome space for parents and community in the classroom.

2. Develop Teacher as a Catalyst through building their teaching capacities, enhancing their sensitivity, and creating an enabling teacher support system, so that they are aware of children’s diverse backgrounds, cultures and languages, and use these as resources in the classroom, understand literacy as a continuum across stages of development, recognize the need for differentiating instruction as per children’s needs, effectively use and create learning resources from the immediate context.

3. Continuous Measurement of learning levels, against a set specific indicators for different grades of primary schooling. must be integrated and used in the classroom processes to understand children’s needs. Eight reading specific competencies to track are oral language development, print awareness, sound and symbol awareness, phonic awareness, phonemic awareness, comprehension, reading fluency and expression – writing.

4. Development and use of bi-lingual contextual reading resources to ensure access and exposure to a variety of print materials in schools and communities, based on the local culture and language of children. This allows for a smooth transition from home language to standard (school) language.

5. Create Reading Culture in the Community through community libraries for both children and adults. Adults must be encouraged to read with and for children.

In addition to the above, equally important is to create awareness, understanding and collective voice to influence implementation of a strong early language and literacy program at grass root level.

Posted By : Technical Director Education