Writing is one of the most basic, yet also one of the most critical skills children learn in primary school. We are evolutionarily programmed to acquire spoken language but writing is a complex skill which has to be learnt with significant effort. Learning to write involves mastering multiple skills like spellings, grammar and syntax, while building on working memory and organization skills to express ideas effectively. Writing can be a functional or a creative exercise of expression, and students must acquire basic skills of both.
What is the quality of writing (in the state language and English) of students in middle school in government schools in rural India?
In 2019, we, Educational Initiatives (EI), assessed about 100,000 class 5 economically under-privileged government school students from rural Uttar Pradesh in language, mathematics and general aptitude to identify the top students academically. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and, if it were a country by itself, would rank 5th in the world, ahead of Brazil! The top 3000 students based on this test were given a second test, as part of which they had to write a 100-150 words’ paragraph in Hindi. They also had to write 3 sentences in English about a given picture. (The English question was designed to be easier since Hindi is their first language and they were expected to be at a much higher level in it.)
For the Hindi writing exercise, students were expected to write a paragraph of 100-150 words on any one of the topics below:
For the English writing exercise, they were expected to write three lines on any one of the pictures below:
50 student responses were picked at random for this analysis. We examined these writings looking at aspects like grammar and spellings, coherence of sentences and the overall quality of the writing to understand the competencies of the top 3% students of Uttar Pradesh.
Insights about the students’ Hindi writing
Hindi is the most commonly and widely used language in Uttar Pradesh, hence, it is very likely the first language for most of these students is Hindi. It is the medium of instruction in most or all government schools in the state. Therefore, it is expected that students, especially the top 3%, will demonstrate a high degree of competence in the language.
An analysis of the student responses showed that a majority of students were able to write a paragraph of at least 100 words for this exercise. Out of the 50 responses analysed, none of the students had left the question unanswered (we often find students of this class struggling with paragraph writing and sometimes not writing anything, but it is clear from the data that was not a challenge with this group – the top 3% of students who had already cleared one test before.)
On analysing the content of the writing, we found that just over half (57%) of the students had written responses relevant to the topic. In other words, they had comprehended the topic correctly and were able to come up with relevant ideas related to it. A sizeable number of students (31%) did not write a paragraph which was completely related to the topic. Most had written certain irrelevant points in their response, for example, a student who was writing about the three wishes she would like to see fulfilled digressed into a wish which had already been fulfilled!
Beyond this, 12% of students wrote paragraphs which were completely irrelevant to the given topic. Of these 12%, two percent students wrote paragraphs which were largely based on the overall topic but not specific to the question asked. In the question about an invention they would want to make, for example, many students talked about inventing something that would be beneficial to everyone but did not specify the invention (see picture). A final 10% students seemed to ignore the questions and instead write about ‘standard’ topics like ‘The Cow’ or ‘My School’ or about their hobbies! This highlights the prevalence of rote learning in our system – these students were either not able to comprehend the question or were writing about something they had previously prepared or had learnt even though that was not what was being asked. Hence, we can say that largely students are able to ideate and write a paragraph. However, we should remember that we are talking about the top 3% of the students here.
Moving to the errors observed commonly, it was found that each paragraph had, on an average, about 1.71 grammatical errors. Students made errors related to conjunctions (संयोजक), prepositions (संबंध बोधक), plural form of words (बहुवचन), verb forms (क्रिया के रूप) and punctuation (विराम चिन्ह). Incorrect verb forms were observed in a considerable number of students. Some students tend to start a sentence in one tense and end in other. Table 1 has some examples of these.
|… मैं बड़ा होकर एक हास्पिटल खोलुगा और उसके सभी कार्यो को निःशुल्क कर देता||
|मै चहती हूँ की मै अध्यापिका बानूगी|
|मैंने सोचा है कि जो मेरे पिताजी बनना चाहते हैं वह मैं बन सकु|
Table 1. Examples of errors in verb form
Another pattern of errors was found in conjunctions. Students made errors related to the relationship that different conjunctions help in establishing. They used incorrect conjunctions especially in cause-effect type sentences. Apart from this, students also sometimes extensively used one specific conjunction in the entire paragraph repeatedly to write only one long sentence as a paragraph. Table 2 has some examples of these.
|मुझे विश्वास है कि मैं जब बहुत पढ़ाई करूगी और मैं जिलाधिकारी बनने के लिए सभी परीक्षा पास करूगी ||
|सविनय निबेधन है कि मुझे दो दिन से बुखार आ रहा है क्योंकि आप मुझे दो दिन का अवकाश दे तो आपकी महान कृपा होगी ||
|मैं डॉक्टर बनु क्योंकि में बीमार व्यकित का इलाज कर सकूँ|
Table 2. Examples of errors in conjunction
Around 53% of the students analysed made mistakes in punctuation. Students mostly missed using commas and full stops, especially in long sentences, which hindered the reader’s comprehension of the paragraph. There were also instances where students have not used any punctuation in the entire paragraph (snapshot added below). Another notable pattern that we saw was that students used both हम (meaning ‘we’) and मैं (meaning ‘I’) to mean ‘I” in the paragraphs. In Uttar Pradesh, ‘हम’ is sometimes used to address oneself while speaking. Students might be using ‘हम’ while speaking and ‘मैं’ while reading books. This might have led them to use the words interchangeably.
Spellings can significantly impact the overall readability of a paragraph. A majority of students struggled to correctly use chandrabindus and anuswars, ि- ी matra, and similar letters like ड़ and ढ़ letter. Incorrect usage of chandrabindus fell into two distinct patterns – wrong positioning within the word (as in जाऊँगा being written as जाऊगाँ) and chandrabindus being missed at the end of words like सकूँ (written as सकू). This suggests that students are aware of only one type of usage of chandrabindu and have the notion that they always occur at the end of a word. Among anuswars as well, students miss anuswars in 1. words like मैं and में; and in 2. plural form of words like है (in the plural form), लोगो and खिलाड़ियो. This indicates that students might be incorrectly pronouncing words which end with chandrabindu and anuswar and following the pronunciation to write the spellings.
For ि- ी matra and similar letters like ड़and ढ़, students were found using them interchangeably, probably attributable to incorrect pronunciations. Table 3 has some examples of these.
|Chandrabindu||करूँगा written as करुगाँ, बनाऊँगा written as बनाऊगाँ and रखूँगा written as रखूगाँबनूँ written as बनू and चलूँ written as चलू|
|Anuswar||मैं, में, नेताओं written as नेताओ, हाथों written as हाथो|
|ि- ी||बेईमानी written as बेइमानीआशीर्वाद written as आशिर्वाद|
|ड़-ढ़||बड़ा written as बढ़ापढ़ने written as पड़नेपड़ेगी written as पढ़ेगी|
Table 3. Examples of spelling errors
These error patterns in grammar and spellings highlights the vastness of the problem. Given the background of the students, it was expected that at least the top students would be able to show strong technical knowledge in the Hindi Language and be able to express their ideas well. However, there are certain specific gaps in their understanding as well which hinders the expression ability. This tells us that functional knowledge of a Language does not necessarily lead to technical knowledge.
Insights about the students’ English writing
Let us now look at the insights from the English writing question. Among the top students, about 64% of the students were able to write three sentences on the given picture. Some students not only described the picture but also used their creativity to add their observations. One student, for example, highlighted the dangers of playing on roads for a picture where boys were playing on the road. This highlights that the top students are able to think creatively and express themselves in English. At the other end of the spectrum, around 15% of the students wrote completely irrelevant answers and 5% just wrote words in their response. The irrelevant answers were paragraphs based on India, school, village etc.
In the sentences written, students struggled with subject-verb agreement, articles and the correct use of singular and plural forms. They mostly missed ‘is’ and ‘are’ in the sentences. For example, they wrote ‘….a boy (is) pointing on moon’ and ‘There (are) many houses.’ Many students seem to be translating their sentences from Hindi to English and seemed unaware of the plural forms of words, using only the singular form even with simple words. (‘boy’ for ‘boys’ and ‘teacher’ for ‘teachers’) A number of errors were also found in the usage of articles.
A number of spelling errors appeared to stem either from students 1. spelling out the words exactly as they are pronounced or 2. reflecting the incorrect pronunciation they use. Examples of these are shown below.
|Word||Pronunciation||Spelling by students|
Examples of second case:
|Word||Spelling by students|
The analysis highlights that students – at least those in the top 3% of their cohort – are largely able to write a paragraph (in Hindi) and 3 sentences (in English) at Class 5 level. However, there are some specific kinds of gaps in the top students’ understanding of technical concepts and in their ability to think through and generate ideas even in Hindi. The extent of the gaps in the answers only suggests that much more serious gaps must exist in the entire cohort.
This highlights the need to emphasise not just on writing exercises for students but also the remediation of the gaps through classroom discussions on the written paragraphs. These teacher-led discussions can enable the students internalize the gap between ‘what they wanted to express’ and ‘what they expressed in the paragraph’. This exercise will help them understand the gaps better. Students should also be encouraged to also read more and not just limit themselves to their curriculum textbooks. Research has shown that reading helps in implicit learning of a language. It can help the students learn the correct spellings and grammatical rules of the language.
- Lenneberg, E.H. (1967). Biological foundations of language. Wiley.
- Perfetti, C. A., Rieben, L., & Fayol, M. (Eds.). (1997). Learning to spell: Research, theory, and practice across languages. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
- Effects of extensive reading and translation activities on grammar knowledge and attitudes for EFL adolescents. Juhee Lee, Diane L. Schallert, Eonsil Kim