Acquiring literacy in schools


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WIDESPREAD literacy has been a desirable goal in India since pre Independence days. However, there is a wide gap between goals and reality. Even though the percentage in terms of literacy has increased, the absolute number of illiterates in the population has not decreased. In fact, it is larger than ever. Most people who are considered literate (due to the liberal census criteria) are incapable of comprehending what they read. Studies dealing with this situation usually highlight home-based factors, but equally we need to focus on school factors for a better understanding of the dismal performance in literacy learning (Kumar, 1992).

In our country, the primary responsibility of facilitating literacy acquisition falls on schools, the only learning site for most children. However, even while discussing language education little attention is paid to literacy learning. The National Curriculum for Elementary and Secondary Education: A Framework (NCERT, 1988), a precursor to the currently in news, The National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCERT, 2000), has devoted little space to literacy learning. It merely states, ‘In the first two years of primary stage... the child should be helped to acquire the basic skills in reading and writing in his/her mother tongue/regional language’ (p. 22). It refers only briefly to comprehension along with pronunciation, voice modulation, good handwriting, and spelling. Literacy learning should not be treated in such a casual manner because failure to acquire literacy will affect learning across the educational spectrum.

It is important to look at the quality of materials and literacy instruction in Indian primary schools. Textbooks form the core of teaching in schools. Consequently, an examination of textbooks will reveal the type of literacy instruction that children receive in the school context. This paper focuses on the textbooks used in the early grades, that is, Hindi primers.

Primers, specifically prepared for the purpose of teaching reading in early grades, are used to impart literacy in most Indian classrooms. They play an important role in teaching reading in the absence of other types of reading material, such as children’s literature. They form the basis of literacy curriculum and dictate how it should be taught. Thus, children from non-literate backgrounds are likely to be exposed only to these type of texts and form conclusions about literacy and acquire literacy skills from them. In a country with a high dropout rate in early years of schooling and low literacy rates, the role of these texts becomes even more important. Therefore, they need to be assessed with care. In this paper I analyze current Hindi primers, assess the quality of reading they offer, and discuss if indeed they support literacy acquisition in young children.



Traditionally, reading was narrowly conceptualized as a decoding process, that is, finding oral equivalents of written language. In terms of literacy acquisition the dominant perspective (reading readiness) considered learning to read as learning to decode. Clearly, then, the instructional implication was to master decoding. This was accomplished by mastery of subskills in a sequence. Additionally, there was a tendency to focus on formal and not functional aspects of language while learning to read (Teale and Sulzby, 1986).

In terms of material, it meant that the texts were structured around letter-sounds and children were expected to master the letter-sound correspondence and learn about blending to decode words. The assumption behind constructing materials was a ‘bottom-up’ approach to reading, where the whole consisted of parts and by learning parts one could learn the whole.

This view of reading has been challenged in recent years. An alternative perspective, emergent literacy, based on a different and broader conceptualization of reading and development has gained prominence. Literacy is not viewed merely as decoding but rather the whole act of reading, including comprehension (Mason and Sinha, 1993). Emergent literacy perspective advocates literacy learning by interacting with meaningful texts for genuine purposes including enjoyment. This perspective focuses on all aspects of language (semantic, syntactic, and graphophonic), and not merely on phonics.

The instructional implications are that children are not to engage in sequential mastery of phonics as in the earlier perspective but are to engage in literacy in a meaningful manner. Authentic tasks are recommended to promote literacy acquisition. According to Hiebert (1994), authentic tasks ‘involve children in immediate use of literacy for enjoyment and communication. They are not the tasks that have typified school literacy instruction, in which pieces of literacy... have been practised for some undefined future use’ (p. 391). Additionally, literacy learning is considered easier if it is sensible, interesting, and relevant (Goodman, 1986). In terms of texts the recommendation is to use predictable but interesting texts with natural language patterns, not the earlier artificial language patterns.



Ten current publications of Hindi primers were analyzed from an emergent literacy perspective. The first level of analysis identifies text structures and the underlying assumptions about literacy acquisition. The second level of analysis assesses the quality of content, style, and interest level of these texts.

Structure of the texts: The analysis of the structure reveals an over-reliance on a traditional phonics approach. In all the primers chapters are constructed around specific letters (specifically on vowels). Generally, they follow the order of Hindi alphabets. Only rarely do they change the order.

The chapters in all primers begin with a list of words (sometimes with illustrations). The words are selected on the basis of similarity of sounds and are in no way connected to each other thematically. For example:

(a) car, bhat, sagar, sarcar, dama, sham, talwar, sal, and kala (car, rice, sea, government, asthma, evening, sword, year, black) are listed in the same lesson because they have common ‘a’ (rhyming with car) sound (Shiksha Bharati, p. 12).

(b) mithas, sitar, barish, palish, takia, bilav, dahina, lifafa, khatia, tikia, nariyal, shanivar, ravivar, cycle (sweetness, sitar, rain, polish, pillow, cat, right, envelope, bed, tablet, coconut, Saturday, Sunday, cycle) are used in a lesson based on ‘i’ (vowel in hit) (Gyan Ganga Praveshika, p. 37).



Children are supposed to practice reading (sounding out) these words and then given some sentences to read. The list is generally quite lengthy (as many as 84 in one primer). The words are selected on the logic of sound, not meaning. The words have no thematic unity and are disconnected to each other in terms of meaning. Therefore, the only purpose of reading is to practice the sounds mechanically. If one tried reading those words, very tedious reading will result.

The chapters have some sentences following the list of words. The sentences are constructed using the letters and vowel sounds learnt to that point. An effort is made to use almost all or maximum amount of words with that particular sound. For example:

Sarla idhar aa. Bazaar ja kar gazar ka halwa la. Mata ka kahna maan. Namak mat kha. Rama apna samay kharab mat kar. Bazaar ja kar badam la (Shiksha Bharati Praveshika, p. 13). (Sarla come here. Go to the market and get some carrot halwa. Obey your mother. Don’t eat salt. Rama don’t waste your time. Go to the market and get some almond.)

These sentences have at least one word with vowel sound ‘a’ (rhyming with car). The other words are learnt in the previous chapters. Vowel sounds such as ‘i’ or ‘o’ are not utilized because they appear later. Again the primary consideration is to practice the sounds and learn to decode. What the text means is not a major concern. Most often the sentences are not connected (the details will be discussed later). Theme is considered along with letter-sound in few texts, e.g., Bal Bharti series.



Since language production is not dictated by specific sounds, the resulting texts are highly unsatisfactory. On analysis of content, style, and interest, there are three major problems with these type of texts: meaninglessness, unnatural language, and uninteresting/irrelevant content.

Content – meaningless texts: Due to the compulsion of using specific sounds, the overall meaning of texts is ignored, leading frequently to absurd texts. The sentences given in each chapter are also constructed on the same logic. The list of words and sometimes sentences have no thematic unity. The only logic of their selection is that of sounds, not meaning. The text structure shows blatant disregard of meaning. As long as the sentences fit into the scheme of correct sound there is no concern whether they make sense or not.

Absurd sentences: There are several examples of absurd sentences in the primers. Due to the restriction of sounds and total disregard for meaning, bizarre sentences are constructed. For example:

(a) The primers begin with lesson based on ‘a’ (vowel in but). They are referred to as words without vowels (matra) and include vowel sounds if they are not blended with consonant sounds.

Kah. Ish kah. Ose kah (Bal Manjri, p. 13). (Say. Say God. Say dew.)

aam par chadh. (Deepu Hindi Reader, p.17). (Climb on a mango.)

ek aurat aai. woh chhat par gayi. khatmal pakad kar utar ayee (Bhasha Sagar Praveshika, p. 20). (A woman came. She went to the roof. She caught a bug and came down.)

(b) Lesson based on ‘i’ (vowel in hit):

Gilas sir par mat rakh (Indradhanush Swar Mala, p. 19). (Don’t keep the glass on your head.)

(c) Lesson based on ‘o’ (as in coat):

Mote ghore se daro. Chhote ghore se darna uchit nahin (Bhasha Bodh, p. 38). (Be afraid of fat horse. It is not proper to be afraid of a small horse.)

(d) Lesson based on ‘r’ (as in harp):

Sarp mat ban (Bhasha Sagar Praveshika, p. 14). (Don’t become a snake.)



Disconnected texts: Texts without any thematic unity also contribute to meaninglessness. Again the logic of construction is sound, not meaning. Since the sentences are totally independent of each other, the reader doesn’t get any help from the context in reading. However, even if the reader can read the sentence the texts hardly encourage meaning construction, as is clear from the examples listed:

(a) lesson based on ‘a’ (vowel in but):

Ose par chal. Path par mat thak.

Jal thal nabh par mat thak. Ab chal yagya kar (Saras Shabda Bodh, p. 8). (Walk on dew. Don’t be tired in the road. Don’t be tired at water, land, sky. Now perform yagya (a religious ceremony).

(b) lesson based on ‘i’ (vowel in feet):

Vir ban. Tir chala. Geet ga.

Larki nadi gayi. Woh machhli layegi.

Jalpari ki kahani kah. Larai mat kar.

Bakri bhagi. Hathi aya. Larki giri.

Chil udi. Nani ki chari nikal pari (Hindi Reader, p.13). (Be brave. Sing a song. The girl went to the river. She will bring fish. Tell a story about mermaid. Don’t fight. The goat ran. Elephant came. The girl fell. Grandma’s stick came out.)

The texts usually have more disconnected sentences in the early chapters because of the restrictions in terms of the vowel sounds.



Incomplete stories: Sometimes a few sentences are connected but the authors do not feel compelled to maintain the link or build the story. For example:

Lesson on ‘u’ (vowel in put):

Ek kachhua tha. woh yamuna nadi par gaya. kachhua pul par chadh gaya. woh bahut dheemee chal chala. Bulbul aa. phur phur karti udti ja (Shiksha Bharati, p.19). (There was a tortoise. He went to the river Yamuna. He climbed on the bridge. He moved very slowly. Nightingale come. Fly away.)

In this passage the story is abandoned halfway. The last two sentences have nothing to do with the preceding text. Unfortunately, these types of text are not rare. The disregard for meaning displayed by these texts is a matter of serious concern. These texts can only misteach what reading is all about. They are bound to be difficult to read because reading is a sense-making activity and these texts do not permit one to make sense.

Style – unnatural language: (a) The sole consideration of phonics results in a highly unnatural language pattern. The sentences are often choppy and lack flow. This happens more so in the beginning lessons as the constraints (in terms of letters) are more. The sentences have to be composed using limited sounds (learned till the point) so that they appear choppy. The following excerpt from a lesson aao, khana khao (come eat food) demonstrates the point:

Aao, Kamla aao. aao, madan aao. Khana ban gaya. Meera ko saath lao. aao, khana khao. sab milkar khana khao. aao, Meera aao. aao, khana khao. mataji, dal-chawal do. lo meera, dal-chawal lo. saag lo, chutney lo. madan, roti lo, raita lo. khana chaba-chabakar khao (Bal Bharati, Part I, p. 36-7). (Come, Kamla come. Come, Madan come. The food is ready. Bring Meera along. Some, eat food. Eat food together. Come, Meera come. Come, eat the food. Mother, give me rice and daal. Take Meera, take rice and daal. Take spinach, take chutney. Madan, take bread, take raita. Chew the food while eating.)

(b) There are constant shifts in the text. For example, the text changes from a series of commands to that of narration and back to command. This is a common occurrence in the texts. It results in a bizarre reading experience. For example, the lesson based on ‘u’ (vowel in put):

Pul par ja. Gumsum na rah. Gungun mat kar. Chhupkar bat mat sun. kuli saman laya. Darwaja khula tha. Munmun awaz sun kar ayi. Saman dukan ka tha. Uska bhai guria laya tha. Woh bahut khush huyi. Burhiya kahani sunati thi. Gulab chun. Hapur ka sabun la. Munmun pul par batua na rakh. Muni ki kutiya ja. Burhiya rui lai. Kapra bun (Indradhanush Swar Mala, p. 27). (Go to the bridge. Don’t be quiet. Don’t hum. Don’t eavesdrop. The porter brought some things. The door was open. Munmun heard him. It was from a shop. Her brother brought a doll. She was very happy. The old woman was telling stories. Pick roses. Bring soap from Hapur. Munmun don’t keep the wallet on the bridge. Go to the hermit’s cottage. The old woman got some cotton. Weave cloth.)



In this case the text begins with a series of commands, shifts to narration and then back to command.

(c) There are some sounds that are not frequently used in Hindi, for example, ‘ri’. However, since it is listed in the alphabet, lessons are devoted to it. In these cases the language changes to very sanskritized Hindi. Since it is not easy in terms of vocabulary one wonders what sense children make of the text. For example:

kisise ghrina mat karo. trin mrig ka bhojan hain. Mrig vriksha par nahin chadh sakta. prithvi ke jeev-jantuo par kripa karo. kise par vritha dosh mat lagao (Gyan Ganga Praveshika, p.66). (Don’t hate anyone. Grass is deer’s food. A deer can’t climb the tree. Be kind to the animals of this earth. don’t accuse anyone unnecessarily.)



This lesson is concerned with the sound ri. Due to the compulsion to use this sound several highly sanskritized words are used, e.g., trin, mrig, vriksha, vritha. Simpler substitutes are available for all these words in Hindi which are more familiar to children but the need to use these words arises because of the sound ri which appears at the end. The familiarity or difficulty level of the words is disregarded to accommodate this sound.

It is evident that the authors are not concerned with creating readable texts in terms of style. The constraints they work with is bound to make their writing contrived. The effect of such texts will be to hinder literacy development, as natural language patterns help children use their prior knowledge of language to read. Dealing with a language pattern which is totally unfamiliar and lacks any flow can well alienate children from the literate medium. Emerging readers will deal with unfamiliar medium of literacy with unfamiliar and difficult language.

Irrelevant/boring texts: Very rarely was any attempt made to make the texts relevant or interesting for children. As stated earlier, there is little attempt made to create meaningful texts so the texts are bound to be irrelevant and boring. Even when there is an attempt to stick to a particular theme, it is rarely interesting because little attention is paid to the style of writing and the story element.

(a) The texts often contain a series of commands. For example, this excerpt, based on ‘o’ (vowel in coat), illustrates the point: dhol bajao. chor bhagao. shor na machao. paathshala chalo. kitab kholo. bolkar padho. dekhkar likho. tote ko ram-ram ratne do. coat pahno. topi pahno. motor lao (Hindi Reader, p. 19). (Beat drum. Scare the thief. Don’t make noise. Go to school. Open the book. Read aloud. See and write. Let the parrot say Ram-Ram. Wear coat. Wear hat. Bring car.)



In almost all primers, the texts use this style of writing. This shows the condescending attitude towards children, who are at the receiving end of these commands. It is unlikely that children would find such texts exciting or worth reading.

(b) Sometimes they have a very philosophical and moralistic tone. It is highly unlikely that children would enjoy these type of texts. For example: Nirdhan me ishwar ke darshan kar. barf ki tarah nirmal ban. nirbhay rah. sharmnak marg se bach. jurm mat kar. baat ka marm samajh (Bhasha Sagar Praveshika, p. 14). (See God in poor. Be pure like snow. Be fearless. Avoid shameful path. Understand the meaning of utterance.)

(c) Even when the texts are thematically coherent, they often tend to be insipid and dull. They lack the story element and are not concerned with making the text interesting. These texts fare poorly when compared to children’s literature. It is unlikely that children will feel motivated to read texts that do not includes their point of view or offers anything of interest.

These texts reveal a unidimen-sional commitment to phonics to the exclusion of other aspects of language. The underlying assumption about reading and literacy acquisition process is more akin to earlier views of reading (reading readiness) than to the more recent perspective of emergent literacy. It can be argued that these texts, instead of promoting literacy learning, might indeed hinder it. The message conveyed to children is that reading is a meaningless, boring activity, without any relevance to their lives, or resemblance to the language they already know. This is a specially dangerous message for children who have minimal literacy encounters outside school and are solely dependent on schools for literacy learning.



From the cognitive point of view as well, these texts are problematic. Learning of subskills and then waiting to add it all together to read meaningful texts is hardly a sensible model of learning how to read. A key function of reading (in this case enjoyment) is totally ignored. These texts certainly ask children to learn to read and then wait to use the skills in some indefinite future.

Though literacy is a major concern, it is surprising that the processes that contribute to effective literacy have been ignored so drastically. It is not that advances in theory building and research in literacy learning and even the major shifts of perspective are recent occurrences. So why have these shifts gone by unnoticed in a country where literacy is such a major issue. Why have these perspectives not influenced the Indian instructional environment?

It is, therefore, imperative to make substantial changes based on recent emergent literacy perspective; to discuss the nature of literacy acquisition and to decide the logical starting point in school. There is also a need to redefine the meaning of an easy text. A text is not easy if it aims to teach one sound at a time. Indeed, the examples in this paper demonstrate that this method makes the text less accessible to children.




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