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Don’t force kids to read to learn. They aren’t ready yet.

Is Indian education system ready to assess reading & comprehension skills of students yet?

According to the World Literacy Foundation, “The cost of illiteracy to the global economy is estimated at USD $1.19 trillion.” US is calculating the cost of illiteracy and is spending a lot to enhance reading skills of native speakers of English language in America.

Are they creating fuss out of it? Is it really that severe? English spelling system is a challenge for native speakers too but its impact in India is at crises level. According to UNESCO, there are more than 770 million people across globe who cannot read or write. Sub-Saharan Africa, and south & west Asia, have the most horrible illiteracy complications, with more than 50% of people not able to read & write.

Labor Force Report, 2003 says that “Only a little more than half of the students in today’s U.S. elementary schools learn to read and write well enough to be functionally literate.” According to 2015 NAEP reading achievement level set at gender baseline, 66% Male students are below proficiency level, 72% of female students are below proficiency level across US. Also, NAEP reading achievement set at school location (cities) baseline shows that 68% of students are below proficiency level. Below proficiency level means that they are unable to integrate & interpret information given in text & apply their knowledge of the text to draw conclusions & make evaluations.

Are these figures real? What exactly are they assessing them on?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that simple. Every assessment has different objectives and measures. Before we even start to discuss what should be our objectives & measures as a developing country, we must find out if we really need such sort of an assessment.

Let’s first try to understand the difference between Basic Level of reading skills and Proficiency Level of reading skills as defined by NAEP, US. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the largest nationally representative​ and ​continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Basic Level of reading: Student is able to locate relevant information and apply his knowledge of text to identify the details that support a given interpretation. Proficiency Level of reading: Student is able to integrate & interpret texts and also able to draw conclusions & make evaluations.

Majority of states in US keep their cut-off scores for proficiency well below NAEP’s. Average difference is around 40%. Just imagine that you shared your assignment with two teachers and one gives you D & the other gives you A.

Now, why there is such a big difference? NAEP’s Proficiency bar is set by educationists & subject matter experts to set an aspirational goal for what they believe, based on their expertise & knowledge, students should know and be able to do at each grade level. However, most US states have set proficiency cut-off at lower levels because it was the easiest way to adhere to NCLB requirements of bringing all students up to 100% proficiency level. So, some countries are measuring the level of proficiency in terms of integration & interpretation of text, conclusion, evaluation and ability to make a judgement, while some are stuck at measuring whether or not students are able to read (India).

It’s extremely sad. If you can’t even teach students to read individual words, how can you expect them to develop interest in reading and read to learn? Why would they want to?

Kids are under a lot of pressure because Indian parents expect way too much from kids. Most kids don’t like classroom reading because they don’t like being in a situation where they get stuck at identifying the right pronunciation of words. However, it has always been about being able to read text as fast as possible. It’s embarrassing & demotivating. When it comes to reading at home, most of kids avoid reading to learn and are forced to sit and study (read). But how would a parent know if the kid is really studying? Making a child sit to study is a task in itself for most parents and they don’t even take the trouble to confirm if the child is really studying. They are happy just seeing their kid with a book & that’s it. However, parents get the shock of their life when they see result. They were too particular the whole year. In fact, they made it a routine to force their child sit to study.

Till the time we don’t create their interest in reading, they will not study. It’s as plain as a pike staff. So, is it about sitting with a book & not studying or being able to read or being able to comprehend & learn as well?

It’s all connected! If they get stuck at individual words and find new words difficult to read, they are also delaying the process of learning. If a child faces difficulty reading words in text, he would definitely not register words that quickly. Registering new words is quite a task when you find it difficult to read, especially if they are not from your native language. As a non-native learner, you would have only a few instances to register those many words.

The focus of education system here in India for initial three grades is majorly on encouraging kids to memorize spellings of as many words as possible and encouraging them to learn to read. Students are forced to memorize, and the center of all prevalent techniques is solely on memorization skills. Students waste a lot of time memorizing spellings & pronunciation and are unable to develop interest in reading.

We often find our students struggling, hesitating, stumbling and taking time to decide on the right way of pronouncing words while reading or speaking. Not being adept at spelling restricts their overall academic performance and employment prospects.

We should do the first thing first! The best approach is to help kids with reading first and help them develop automaticity in reading. If they are able to read and are not scared of new words and are comfortable reading, they can concentrate on reading to comprehend and learn. We shouldn’t directly jump to comprehension and expect kids to read to learn when we are not even able to develop their interest in reading.

Help kids learn to read first, help kids develop automaticity in reading, help kids develop interest in reading and develop vocabulary. We shouldn’t directly jump to comprehension, interpretation, evaluation and judgement. These all are secondary.

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