In 2012, The Economist Intelligence Unit released a report titled ‘Benchmarking Early Education Across the World’, which ranked the state of early education in 45 countries along 4 indexes: social context, availability, affordability, and quality. India ranked last or nearly last on all four of these indexes. Since then, several organisations have put in a concerted effort towards improving all aspects of early education, but we still have a long way to go. There is mounting evidence which shows that the quality of early childhood learning is strongly predictive of academic success well into high school, higher education, and beyond – so in effect, a strong focus on achieving results in the early education system is bound to facilitate progress in other development areas as well.

This article aims to illustrate some of the relevant research from neuroscience and psycholinguistics and findings from EI’s work on the field in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. It also discusses current classroom practises in English and Hindi instruction and ways to use this research to create better early language classrooms and learning spaces.

What should educators know before setting out to create effective interventions in early language education?

While there are many ways to define literacy, we can refer to the four essential language skills to state that when a child learns to listen, speak, read, and write a language, they have become literate. Although conversations about early literacy generally tend to start at the age of 4 years, there is evidence of children beginning to acquire ‘language’ as early as 16 weeks in the womb. This suggests that the trajectory of language development starts not with words, but with the most elemental unit of language, viz. sound. Between the ages of 0 and 4, children from all backgrounds acquire quite a few concepts of grammar, a fairly large vocabulary anywhere between 1000 and 2000 words, and can comprehend the tone of the speakers around them at a phenomenal speed. Of the four essential skills, the fundamentals of listening and speaking are covered even before a child enters school.

Once schooling begins, the primary challenge lies in the other two essential skills: reading and writing. Unlike the process of language acquisition until 4 years, reading and writing requires learning, which is a more conscious and effortful process. Further, while all children acquire the basics of language through listening and speaking, regardless of which language and their socioeconomic background, this is not the case with language learning. Nuances in scripts of different languages and access to print-rich environments start to become roadblocks on the path to literacy.

Working with data from EI’s Hindi-language adaptation of the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) in government schools in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, we found that a significant proportion of students from grade 1 all the way to grade 5 struggles at the level of letter-reading. In the state of Rajasthan, a timed test of letter reading administered to about 1300 students showed that a whopping 46% of students in Grades 2 and 3 and 20% of students in Grades 4 and 5 couldn’t read more than 10 letters in a minute. This implies that 1 in every 5 students in grades 4 and 5 are struggling just to read letters. Children who struggle to read letters while the rest of their peer groups move on to reading and understanding words, sentences, and paragraphs in language and other classes, a ‘learning gap’ is created. Since this learning gap magnifies as children move up grades, identifying and addressing the specific hurdles faced by these children is of prime urgency. In order to do this, it is essential to first take a closer look at the cognitive processes involved in reading words and attaining the desirable fluency levels at the right age/grade level.

What does the neuroscience of reading tell us about learning to read?

Studies on the neuroscience of reading have established that while each language might have phonological (sound-related), semantic (meaning-related) and syntactic (sentence structure-related) quirks, the fundamentals of reading cognition are the same whether a child is learning to read Russian or Malayalam. Of these fundamentals, phonemic awareness or the ability to recognise, differentiate between, and manipulate or blend sounds orally is one of the first skills required to pick up a language.  Quite a bit of this skill is developed in the child’s social environment much before formal instruction in schools begins. This means that at the very beginning of school, educators are tasked with drawing upon and enhancing students’ phonemic awareness so that they can learn decode text.

Decoding refers to the highly perceptual task of recognising letters, mapping them to the correct sounds, and being able to ‘sound out’ the  blended sounds in the right sequence. When students are at early stages of proficiency in decoding, we refer to them as emergent readers. Early emergent readers’ limits of working memory allow them to start with decoding 2 symbols at a time. Seasoned emergent readers can comfortably use the technique of ‘sounding out’ words, but doing so for every word in a paragraph or story is cognitively taxing and limits the speed at which they can read. In order to progress to the next stage of reading ability, children have to have enough practise (ideally with guidance of a teacher or caregiver) to be able to recognise certain frequently occurring words upon sight. Once children have adopted various word recognition strategies, their reading speed gradually increases (ideally to 40-60 words per minute) and we can refer to them as early readers.

How do educators currently aid in developing these cognitive functions?

The most commonly seen classroom instruction in English first familiarises children with the 26 alphabets in the sequence we all know from popular songs like this (link). This explicit instruction of letter shapes and sounds is linked to some of the early steps involved in decoding. However, unless teachers also provide explicit instruction in blending sounds, the last step in decoding tends to be the first of many hurdles for emergent readers in the English language. Typically, the next step (or one that’s carried out in parallel with the last few iterations of alphabet instruction) is lists of 2-4-letter words which students fluent in the alphabet are encouraged to read. For the English language, teachers have certain established resources which provide lists of sight words with increasing difficulty levels, such as Fry’s and Dolch’s lists.

Fig. One of many Fry’s Lists of levelled sight words

While typical classroom practises for Hindi language instruction are sparsely documented relative to those for English language instruction in India and around the world, we know that the 47 alphabets in Devnagri script (Hindi) are taught in a much more systematic arrangement than the sequence of alphabets in the Roman script (English). From various early grade textbooks and studies of early grade interventions like the LIRIL Report, we know that vowels are typically taught first, followed by consonants, maatras (diacritics), and finally jodakshars (joint letters). This graded and systematic way of approaching alphabet instruction is an excellent way of introducing all the written symbols a child is required to know.  Based on a 100-day literacy plan proposed by Dr. Helen Abadzi, children can be taught to recognise all the alphabets in English, and all the basic forms of alphabets in syllabic languages by the midpoint of their first year in school. Given that Hindi has many more basic and advanced symbols to learn, it is fair to target about 85% letter recognition and early stages of decoding for all students at the end of grade 1 in Hindi-medium schools.

Circling back to the point about differential language learning rates for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, children from higher-income countries or backgrounds grow up in a text-rich environment. This enables them to pick up early literacy skills quickly and without much explicit instruction in schools. However, since children who go to government schools often start formal instruction right at grade 1, a quick look at various Central and State syllabi for Hindi-medium schools reveals that children are expected to make enormous leaps in language learning right at the grade 1 level.  While there are additional constraints in learning Hindi – like the presence of maatras and various dialect influences — just as with English early grade pedagogy, the last step in decoding is given little to no attention as students go from letter introduction straight to word reading and comprehension. The result of these ambitious and unrealistic targets is students who are rushed through critical steps in the pedagogy of early reading and therefore increasingly struggle to keep up with their peers in all subjects as they move into higher grades.

What are specific ways that we can improve traditional practices around word reading instruction across demographics?

  1. Systematic and graded approach to alphabet instruction
    For English alphabet instruction, many researchers and practitioners have posited various new methods of teaching (like synthetic phonics, multi-sensory approach, etc.). In the best of these methods, each cognitive process is given due attention (which translates to plenty of practise and a good variety of culturally-relevant exposure). Less frequent letters and visually or auditorily similar alphabets are to be given more instruction time.

    Similarly for Hindi, while the alphabets are already arranged in a more systematic way in relation to the sounds they make, special attention needs to be paid to visually similar letters like (ब) and (व), (म) and (भ), etc. The presence of maatras at various positions makes the script visually complex, so maatras must be given equal if not more attention than the letters themselves. Less frequently occurring letters and letters whose use varies across different dialects also require more explicit instruction time. Many regional languages have done away with the usage of (क्ष) and (ज्ञ), e.g. in Punjabi ‘gyan’ is often spoken as ‘jyan’ which is easier to blend, ‘kaksha’ is often pronounced as ‘kachchha’ or ‘kassha’. This is evidenced by our data from government schools in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, where students across grades seemed to have more trouble recognising letters like (क्ष) and (ज्ञ).

  2. Special attention to the last step of decoding: blending sounds
    As discussed before, teaching practices across languages tend to proceed very quickly from letter recognition to word/sentence reading and reading comprehension in the first year of schooling. In order to remedy this, we recommend the use of not just lists of sight words, but systematically graded lists of words to decode as well. These lists would include all combinations of letters which have already been introduced, including non-words or invented words. Such resources exist for English learners, but aren’t used widely enough in early grade classrooms across the country, and certainly aren’t available or used in Hindi or other language instruction. Integrating approaches mentioned above like synthetic phonics with what we know about the capacity of children who are just beginning to decode, we can create resources for teachers which pay adequate attention to not just letter or symbol recognition, but also to blending sounds to synthesise words.
  3. Iterated practise of contextualised sight word lists
    While sight words are given attention in many English language classrooms, there is a need to carry out iterated practice of these before transitioning fully into sentence and passage reading, and reading comprehension. Further, in order to maximise the effectiveness of these sight word lists in English and Hindi, it is essential to curate words which the child is likely to encounter in their local community. This would ensure that each time the sight word activity is carried out, the child can make richer connections to the text they are reading and would be more likely to commit the words to memory.

This article covers just the tip of the iceberg of research and best practises in early reading instruction with a special focus on emergent readers. The next step in bridging this research to educational practice is large-scale implementation of these methodologies, both in traditional and digital learning spaces, and further honing in on the most effective of these practises.

Sources/further reading:

Varsha Manoj

Varsha Manoj

Varsha V is a senior educational specialist working on language pedagogy research.
Varsha Manoj

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