Enhancing education indicators by improving literacy rate

UN Sustainable development Goal 4 strives to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.  The 17 SDGs are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by 193 Member States including India, at the UN General Assembly Summit.

The Ministry of Education (erstwhile MHRD) along with several other stakeholders like NITI Aayog has been actively working towards reaching the SDG targets. However, to supplement the efforts of the government several private/non-for-profit players have been also actively designing and implementing intervention strategies to bring about positive changes to the education indicators.

DEVI Sansthan, Dignity Education, Vision International is one such NGO, established in 1992, which has been providing an outstanding education for the underprivileged, for years. Under the leadership of Dr. Sunita Gandhi, the organization’s vision is to enable a fully literate world and empowerment through holistic, meaningful, and quality education. The focus is to accelerate the process of achieving foundational literacy and quality in education through systemic change that includes replicable, research-based, time-efficient, cost-effective, and learner-centric processes, and scale them up through advocacy, collaborations, government programs, and people's participation.DEVI Sansthan, Dignity Education, Vision International has the vision to fill the literacy gap in schools and to make 20 lakhs children and adults literate by 2022 in collaboration with governments and voluntary organizations.

Currently, the organization is focusing on Foundational Literacy & Numeracy (FLN) Programs, pan India which works with Government Schools, Out of School Children (OoSC) Programmes within and outside of schools, Adult Literacy Programs in slums & villages, and Global Dreamshaala. 

DEVI Sansthan, Dignity Education, Vision International has designed an intervention methodology that was backed by data and research. The methodology helps a child or adult literate and numerate in just 30 hours of contact time (versus 3 years in schools, or 300 hours in an adult literacy program). This methodology was piloted with learners of various ages and implemented in various settings including government schools, slums, villages, budget private schools, colleges, universities, NGOs, and other institutions, and improvised subsequently. The team also tested and developed highly replicable, scale-up models of Foundational Literacy & Numeracy Programs at near-zero costs. The FLN teaching-learning materials were developed in 13 Indian languages. Spoken English and subject-matter content were developed and implemented at several schools nationally, with a current presence in 22 States.

To give the reader the backstory and the ideation process:

Dr. Sunita Gandhi often pondered, “Why so many children and adults cannot read, especially in the 21st century when we have the will, the resources, and the advantages of technology?” In this context, she spent time and effort to create a disruptive intervention. After 14 years of trial and error, she was successful in creating an engaging curriculum but did not match the needs of the underprivileged. Like other typical programs, these too required substantial time commitment, fixed locations, and trained teachers. Dr. Gandhi went back to the drawing board in 2014 and started this time by taking an experimental approach and posing some impossible questions, for example, can a completely illiterate person in India (an adult or a child): 1) Learn to read in just 1 month (not the typical 6 months for adults, or 3 to 5 years for children). 2) Have just 15-minute classes per day (not the typical 2 hours, or longer).To achieve these seemingly impossible goals, Dr. Gandhi knew she needed a highly disruptive approach. She wondered whether she could draw upon the advantage the learner already had of being able to speak their language. Along with cognitive powers of the mind, could this be used to teach them the alphabet more quickly than assuming they know nothing?

With these thoughts, Dr. Gandhi started a learning laboratory in her office in the January of 2014 with her first illiterate learner, a 27-year-old mother of two children whose name was Baby.

Dr. Gandhi started to teach Baby in this new way. She showed her picture of an object, asked its name (bat, for example) and its first sound (‘b’). She then showed her the symbols for the first sounds (the letter ‘b’). She repeated the process with another object (apple, for example) and asked her to share its first sound (‘a’). She proceeded to ask the learner to combine the two first sounds to make her first word (‘ba’). This simple methodology utilized three research-informed principles of moving from: known to unknown, concrete to abstract, and simple to complex. The result was simply startling! Baby could picture read 6 words (made of 10 unique letter symbols) in the very first fifteen-minute session. Surprisingly, she could read these 10 letters without the support of pictures! The methodology was working. (see video)

Schools typically only teach one letter a week and there are some 50 letters in the Hindi alphabet.

The new methodology was tried out with other learners of all ages. This became the quickest way to teach the entire alphabet. Learners started to add up sounds to make words. Words added up to make sentences. Learners no longer had to rote memorize the letters but could derive them on their own. The instructor thus played the role of a facilitator, requiring minimal training.

Using this 'upside-down' method of teaching, the first learner Baby in two sessions on the same day, one 5 minutes long and another 15-minute session about two hours apart, was able to read full sentences and formed from several difficult letters of the alphabet. The next day, in the third overall session, Baby was able to show mastery of the previous day's content and almost flawless reading of both previously learned and new content. Learning from this experiment and others along the way, we were able to reduce the number of booklets from 25 to just 2! This meant hugely reduced costs of delivering on literacy making the process highly scalable. 

Another success story is that of 40-year-old Shaheen, 40, who asked the team member a simple and yet deep question: ‘How can I learn to read at this age? He responded to her confidently, that if she worked hard, she certainly would be able to. She struggled for the first few lessons, compounded by the embarrassment of onlookers watching sometimes and mocking her. As it turned out Shaheen was one of the fastest learners ever – She went from being unable to recognize a letter to reading sentences fluently, in just one month.  She now helps the team in teaching her daughter Shazia. 

The program witnesses some generic successes:

  • SCHOOL STUDENTS AS VOLUNTEERS: An estimated 2.5 lakh children and adult learners have been made literate by efforts of school-going students across India using the literacy toolkits in Summer Campaigns that were held each year for five years since May 2014.
  • COMMUNITY-BASED VOLUNTEERS: In the first of its kind community-based pilot 800 women were made literate by the efforts of community-based volunteers using the toolkits. This was without remuneration and has paved the way for the replication of this program across the nation. 
  • POLICY REPORTS: A detailed and most recent door-to-door survey of literacy was carried out by 4,000 teachers directed by DEVI Sansthan in collaboration with the DM and the CDO. This survey covered 15 lakh children and adults 6-60 years of age and covered all rural blocks of Lucknow district and a sample of urban wards. This led to the mainstreaming of 10,000 out-of-school children. It also led to two policy documents: Why Can’t Children Read and Accelerating Adult Literacy which have been discussed with the policymakers. 
  • GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS: Two models of implementation have been tested to fill the literacy gap of primary-aged children in government schools. 
    1.  MODEL A: Using pre-service teachers (BTC DIET Students) to teach 3871 children in 81 government schools of Lucknow that showed a 43-percentage point gain in reading levels in 36 instructional days; and,

    2. MODEL B: Using primary school teachers teaching differently using Global Dream methods in their own classrooms in 5 government schools in Hamirpur. This led to 50 percentage points increase in reading levels in just 37 instructional days. 

    The goal for the next two years :  

    The aim is to scale up and expand pan India in the following areas: English Language and Spoken English Programs, Ed-Tech Mobile Apps & Online Tools, Training / Professional Development Programs for Teachers and School Heads, and Large-scale Assessments.  The organization is shifting its focus to the scaling up of its literacy and education programs. These goals are to be achieved through Ed-Tech tools, training, assessments/research, networking, advocacy, policy-level interactions, and fund-raising.  The goal is to reach 20 lakh learners by 2022 by creating systemic reform in government schools, Samagra Shiksha, through teacher training and other means.

    A Global Dream App has been developed during the COVID period that offers two further advantages: a. Zero and near-zero learner costs, and b) eliminating the need to train a volunteer. These are major advantages. Additionally, the organization will be publishing the research findings and subsequently advocate for wider acceptance of the same including public policy. 

    In the words of Dr. Gandhi, “in the journey of education, literacy has the highest impact by far. It is the biggest delta in a person’s life.  Literacy is the foundation on which the rest of the education builds; if the foundation is strong then the rest of the education will be all solved. Millions of children even in school do not get the foundational literacy that they deserved to get and suffered for the rest of life. Because of covid, millions of children are not getting the foundational skills necessary for survival. Even before the covid, millions of children were not getting the survival skill of literacy and numeracy. Something has to be done. In this age with technology and artificial intelligence and so many options that humanity has, how is it that we cannot handle the literacy problem? We have a solution that we have developed and tested, and we believe this can solve the literacy problem but now we need the will.   The government needs to take a leadership role clearly if we must solve the problem of literacy not just in terms of declaring that literacy is important it’s a goal but to allow true partnerships with the people in a manner that has already worked in the past. We can draw inspiration from Ernakulum, Kerala because that's the model that worked even in those 30 years old, it worked. So rather than asking people to come out of their world and help the government, we need to ask them to help in solving literacy problems and that will create the difference.”


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