Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about
It is in times like these when one goes back to the drawing board and takes a look at the basics—such as reading. Something that we do naturally, as you are doing now. Skilled readers will zip through this article in a jiffy, quickly absorbing the idea, making a note of the embedded model, and some of them may even make a note of what they can use in the future. Each of us takes away something different that is ultimately of economic value to the reader, their organisation—or even of value to the writer here.
Those who can't read, cannot participate in this economic exercise.
Those who cannot read are excluded due to their inability to join in the deal flow. They are denied a degree of economic freedom because they cannot enter this space. In a way, even having this conversation about them feels wrong—it is like talking behind their backs. They are the disinter-mediated, voiceless in their own narrative. They cannot know what is being written about them, nor can they correct any mistakes. And this is wrong.
Reading is a skill that is essential to people's well-being, health, hygiene, negotiations and economic growth. The number of people who cannot read is shocking. The UNESCO in a 2012 report found that 774 million people worldwide, including 123 million youth, could not read or write. Even those at school are lagging behind in reading age relative to their chronological age. UNESCO's 'Education For All Report' puts the number of functionally illiterate children in primary schools at 250 million. They will always remain behind others unless they are able to step up and read for comprehension, analysis and building better arguments.
Without strong reading skills they will continue to operate sub-optimally. While observers of communication do speak of this brave new world that is beyond scripts, it remains to be seen if it can be of any economic use. People with smartphones do communicate in emoticons, videos, recordings and more—they tend to use little language, and very little of what is considered traditional reading skills. Yet, these are social applications, not work. And people do manage to navigate smartphones with low levels of literacy. They are used to store phone numbers, to access the internet, to download ringtones and other multimedia stuff. Not efficiently, but sufficiently. Maybe it is time to take another look at our definitions of functional reading.
Much has been invested in reading over the past decades both by government and non-government sectors. Pedagogues continue to evolve—the world has gone to phonics and back, has dabbled in late-learning, and much more. Teachers struggle with large groups and do well with teaching assistants, others work on buddy systems that help slow learners, while many innovate to create games and activities that will encourage their students to read. More than other learning outcomes, reading is clearly correlated with parental education levels. Children whose parents are well-read find the resources and the space to read more and are therefore more competent readers. At the same time, students with excellent teachers and open access to good public libraries tend to match achievement levels.
How do you help people read?
Better incentives: Reading is a skill that is supposed to be developed in the early years of life when there is little incentive to read. In many rural communities, reading is not a part daily routines and there is very little to show that reading leads to a better life. The current system has little provision for those who drop out of reading and learning institutions early on—they are doomed to remain semi-literate unless there is an intervention. The sooner children learn to read, the better it is—but children need incentives. This is a call for innovative ways to encourage reading till it becomes a habit, or even an addiction.
Support and community engagement always improves reading levels. Even illiterate parents who watch over and support their children reading are able to improve learning levels dramatically. Community support for reading could include neighbourhood reading sessions, shared tutors, libraries and other shared resources, and even peer pressure. When reading becomes embedded in the culture of a community, competencies follow.
Net the outliers: There will always be some loss from the reading cohort and an active effort needs to be made to bring these outliers back into the reading fold. Once the outliers step away, the effort is far greater both for the individual and group to help them catch up with their cohort. The outliers may need alternative pedagogues to keep them interested in reading till they reach self-sustaining competence levels. This may include adult literacy sessions, parent and child reading groups and other models that take individuals to self sufficiency.
They say that it takes a village to bring up a child. It may not be that different for reading —it may actually take a network of specialists to bring about a reading revolution that is the first step to an inclusive society. The Read Alliance is one such initiative to bring together a community of participants in the reading space. Others such as Room to Read work with government schools and enable libraries. A large chunk of the work towards reading has been done by Pratham Books in India, taking off from where the National Book Trust left off—both are making excellent books for children at reasonable prices.
The NBT books and the Pratham Books style and distribution models are different, yet both carry a serious commitment to reading. Katha too invests in stories and has extended their model to schools where children go through a stepped process to achieve independent reading levels via stories. There are may others investing in reading either directly or indirectly. And there are many innovations that need to be captured and replicated.
These efforts are among the prominent ones; there are myriad smaller ones that exist and improving reading levels bit by bit. Yet, year on year, we see reports of slippages in reading levels in India. It may be time to raise the game and bring about a reading revolution. This cannot just be a private sector effort, as the Read Alliance is; nor can it just be a government initiative such as the Year of Mathematics a couple of years ago. It is time for these silos to be broken to be able to catalyse the networks and make use of synergies. It is time for micro entreprenuers to partner with the majors in order to help everyone attain the dignity of participation through reading.
Let us fix the basics first. Or there will be too many left behind.