Goal: Every student will attain foundational literacy and numeracy by Grade 3.
“Attaining foundational literacy and numeracy for all children will thus become an urgent national mission, with immediate measures to be taken on many fronts and with clear goals that will be attained in the short term (including that every student will attain foundational literacy and numeracy by Grade 3). The highest priority of the education system will be to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school by 2025.”
– National Education Policy, 2020
Children in their initial years of schooling (formal or informal) acquire some basic skills that help them to learn other skills in different subjects. We call these foundational skills and they are prerequisites to building other skills. Basic literacy and numeracy are foundational skills that are fundamental to learning for each child. They provide the base to build other skills in primary schools and so on.
But can every child – even from poor families – learn to read? Evidence suggests that with sufficient instruction even poor students should decode material in their textbooks and attain fluency by the end of grade 1, or at the latest by the end of grade 2. It is reasonable to set a country-level goal that by the end of grade 2, almost all students should read fluently—that is, at about 45–60 words per minute. The goal set by the National Education Policy, 2020 of every student attaining foundational skills by grade 3 is one of the big steps for India and efforts will be needed on all fronts, from all involved to ensure we don’t miss this goal.
Foundational literacy skills include reading and writing, while foundational numeracy skills include fluency in the four basic arithmetic operations. Students acquiring them should be able to –
- read a given text accurately and fluently
- write with clear and communicable language
- comprehend a given text
- perform basic arithmetic operations accurately and fluently
If acquired, reading and writing skills can help students comprehend any given text and communicate their ideas effectively. This is critical not just in learning language, but any subject. If acquired, the sense of numbers and the ability to manipulate them by performing different operations on them can help students in understanding how number systems work and expand that understanding to other intermediate and advanced mathematical concepts and even apply them to scientific understanding.
It is essential to ensure that in the initial years of schooling every child acquires these foundational skills. This is because unlike other skills if these foundational skills are not acquired, it is likely to lead to children getting pushed out of the education system at some point in time. For example, a child who is unable to read and comprehend a given text is unlikely to absorb new information in any subject; a child who is unable to perform basic operations and manipulate numbers is unlikely to understand other number concepts. And this with increasing years in school just adds to the gap in the class level of the child and his/her actual learning level.
Our research suggests that there are certain skills that serve as prerequisites to foundational. We call them pre-foundational skills. They can be measured as early as classes 1 and 2 and can be predictive of children acquiring foundational skills. These pre-foundational skills include the ability to –
- recognise letters and words fluently
- recognise numerals accurately and fluently
- compare two given numbers
- perform addition and subtraction of single-digit numbers accurately and fluently
On one side there are very few studies, like the ASER test, being done nationally around the measurement of such foundational skills and on the other side, even with tests like ASER, we do not measure the full spectrum of foundational skills and even miss out measuring some of the important skills. One such example is measuring fluency in some of the skills like number or letter recognition, arithmetic facts and oral reading fluency. For example, a student is said to be fluent in addition facts and subtraction facts if he will be able to answer 20 or more addition facts and subtraction facts correctly in a minute. Some of our recent studies on foundational skills indicate a large gap in the fluency of students in government and private schools. The private school students above 75th percentile in grade 3, above 50th percentile in grade 4 and above 25th percentile in grade 5 were fluent with addition facts. In government schools, even the students above 90th percentile were not fluent in both addition and subtraction facts in grades 3, 4 and 5 (except grade 5 in addition facts). It is important to note that around 32% of the government school students could not answer a single subtraction fact correctly by early grade 3 whereas the curriculum recommends that students should be able to subtract numbers up to 99.
We believe it is possible for any teacher to impart these pre-foundational skills effectively to each child, provided they are aware of these. Equally important for them is to know where they stand so that they can estimate the effort involved in achieving the set goals.
Various independent studies have been indicating that India may be seriously lagging behind in terms of providing foundational literacy and numeracy skills to the majority of the children, especially in government schools. While it is important to realise and take efforts at the policy level to initiate action on this front, it may not be enough unless there is systematically collected and available data around who is learning and who is not and who is behind by how much. One should be able to measure and report what percentage of students are achieving the pre-foundational and foundational skills and also benchmark them against how the peers are performing. Based on that specific methods by which teachers can effectively build these skills in their students could be designed. This will enable any teacher/educator to measure the learning levels and identify the gaps that can be remediated effectively.
 H. Abadzi, Efficient Learning for the Poor, 2006, p 47