New learning plans could help 52 per cent class 5 rural students who can’t read (Special to IANS)

Salgaon (Sirohi district) In a classroom in the government school here in southwest Rajasthan, about 25 students from standards 3, 4 and 5 standing in a circle, animatedly recited a story spoken by a specially trained volunteer-called a Team Balika (Team Child) — their recitation gradually rising in decibels with every repetition.

Run in government schools by Educate Girls, a nonprofit, the recitation was a prep session for a new style of learning, an attempt to address declining arithmetic and language skills nationwide, despite a Rs 1.2 lakh crore ($17.7 billion) investment in universal education, leaving millions of students ill-prepared for employment.

Instead of the traditional blackboard-and-chalk style of rote learning, the students, like hundreds of others in six Rajasthan districts — Ajmer, Bundi, Jalore, Pali, Rajasamand and Sirohi — learn by pictures instead of words, puzzles that help them find words, alphabet cut-outs they can put together and other uncommon learning aids that whet their appetite to learn.

The programme appears to be working. In 2015, these creative-learning sessions, conducted at least twice weekly during school hours with 79,695 standard 3, 4 and 5 students in 3,399 rural Rajasthan schools, helped record average score increases –irrespective of gender and social background — of 45 per cent in Hindi, 26 percent in English and 44 per cent in math.

Sitting with other children on a durrie (carpet) — benches and desks are a luxury — Rahul Chauhan, 9, was engrossed in and clearly enjoying a story in his work book, Hathi aur Hiran (the elephant and the deer). He explained why. “Because of the pictures and because I like to learn stories to tell (outside of school),” said Chauhan, a broad grin on his face.

After the prep session, students were organised into three groups based on their learning level, which was determined by a test held two months ago at the start of the intervention, instead of by their class. So, a standard 4 student might be in a group with standard 3 students learning to identify alphabets, ensuring that no child is left behind.

This strategy, developed in 2005 by Pratham, a nonprofit working towards improving primary education, has been adopted by Educate Girls. It is called “teaching at the right level”.

Teaching at the right level helps weak students catch up, a process vital to schools across rural India, where 52 per cent of class 5 students cannot read a class 2 textbook in Hindi, according to the Annual Status of Education Report 2014 (ASER 2014) by Pratham. Barely one in four class 5 children can read simple sentences in English or subtract double-digit numbers.

Educate Girls trains both volunteers — whom it designates Team Balikas — and teachers in creative teaching methods, but Salgaon school lacked a trained teacher, reflecting the fact that less than one in five primary school teachers is adequately trained, IndiaSpend reported in May 2015.

The Educate Girls programme, too, is affected by India’s general teaching inability. English improvements, for instance, trail those in maths and Hindi because the language is not spoken in rural Rajasthan. “So, the Team Balika’s own understanding of the language is poor,” said Pallavi Singh, regional manager of Educate Girls.

The Salgaon government school had no regular English teacher, said headmaster Ashok Kumar, which illustrates another fact: India is short of 556,000 primary school teachers.

Of the teachers available, many stay absent or are assigned non-teaching jobs. Almost 24 per cent teachers were absent during random visits to rural schools, found this 2015 study by the University of California, IndiaSpend reported in September 2016.

“We are assigned all sorts of duties, from making election voter lists to counting livestock,” said Dalpat Singh Rathore, a school teacher.

Last year, Himachal Pradesh piloted Pratham’s intensive-learning programme in Hamirpur district. Encouraging early results, including 14 percent improvement in students who could read a text with two or fewer mistakes and 12 per cent improvement in division skills — simple division was considered a problem area for class 5 students despite being taught in class 3 — led the state government to own the concept, albeit with some customisation.

“We have increased the length of the learning programme to 45 days and start the day with a two-hour learning session before switching to the regular curriculum,” said Ghanshyam Chand, state project director for Himachal Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (National Middle-School Education Programme).

“We have also expanded the scope of the initiative to include assessment of students, to remove any teacher bias from the process and to encourage regular grading,” he said.

“With the Programme for Result Enhancement, Resource Nurturing and Assessment, as the expanded state government programme has been called, for which Pratham is a technical advisor, we expect to put a stop to primary students being promoted to the next level without imbibing basic language and math skills,” said Chand.

(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform. Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend. Feedback at respond@indiaspend.org)

–IANS/IndiaSpend

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