Building blocks of education


Stories are a great medium for learning and when children read books in their mother tongue, that makes them read better and therefore make more sense of their education. Manisha Chaudhry, editorial head, Pratham Books, talks about the need for quality regional language books in India. My dadi told us stories on demand every night whenever she came to stay with us. One of my favourite stories was the one about Sheikhchilli. He came to his sasuraal and he loved the khichdi that they served him. Next day he left to go home but wanted to remember the name of the amazing dish laced with the goodness of desi ghee, the taste of which still lingered in his mouth. So being Sheikhchilli, he loudly repeated to himself khichdi, khichdi, khichdi that soon turned into kha chadi kha chidi… (bird eat, bird eat). As the farmers heard him say kha chidi kha chidi, they thought he was exhorting all the birds to eat up the crop that they were about to harvest! Needless to say, he was ticked off soundly and told to say Ud chidi ud chidi (bird fly, bird fly) instead. ..and so the story went on with equally interesting twists and turns until Sheikhchilli struck camp behind his mother’s hut because he had been told to halt at sundown. But that story is for another day.

Manisha ChaudhryEven allowing for the fact that my Dadi was a natural storyteller, the story opened up endless possibility of playing with my language as my cousins and I came up with endless variations starting with the word khichdi. As we played, we learnt to talk better and our games also grew in complexity. At the same time, we started eyeing all the Hindi magazines for children and adults that were there and before we knew it, we were trying to read, without anybody forcing us to do so.

You will hear similar accounts from many people who grew up listening to stories in their mother tongue. If they were lucky, they also got some interesting reading material in their language and this was a great accelerator to their becoming readers.

Current learning abilities of children…

We have to look at these stories against the backdrop of the current crisis in learning outcomes in primary schools across the country. Enrolment levels of children in the age band of 3-14 years in school are at an all time high at about 96%. However, survey after survey is revealing that learning levels are abysmally low.

It is heartbreaking to see that basic skills are eluding our children with as many as half the children in class 5 in government schools remain unable to read a class 2 text. The situation is not very different in private schools as reading with meaning poses a huge challenge. The C-A-T cat mane billi learning model is one that is robbing a generation of the language skills required for meaningful communication. Children are growing up without an adequate vocabulary in their first language or in English.

What is the big piece that is missing in the education jigsaw puzzle that is making up such a distorted picture? How do we progress from literacy towards meaningful education for the large mass of children coming to school for the first time?

Reading is learning…

Perhaps the answer lies in taking some simple first steps. Stories and texts in the mother tongues build on what the child knows already. They help her to expand her vocabulary as she begins to form opinions and express herself in a language that is familiar. If she further gets her first taste of simple books in her own language, she climbs over obstacles of reading with meaning with ease and a sense of autonomy and pleasure. Reading, like any other skill, improves with practice and what better way to do this than with colourful, age appropriate books in the first language?

Once a child is reading, then a most basic building block of education is in place. Bit by bit, thereafter, the school introduces her to the world beyond that of her immediate experience. She learns in her own way, at her own pace and is ready to learn other languages also.

Dearth of regional language books…

Unfortunately, most children do not get to read books in their mother tongues. A very large number have a home language that is different from the medium of instruction. They have little support at home for what the school system demands of them. They have to sit in classrooms where the teacher has to work under severe constraints. There is little by way of bridge material that will ease the transition into the ‘mainstream’ or official language that is usually the teaching medium.

Even in the more mainstream languages of the India, there are not enough books being published for young children. This is both perplexing and worrying. The stories in each language are what make up the core of the culture of its speakers. The little traditions, the food, the festivals and the fools such as Sheikhchilli are what ground the next generation into their own place called home. They also transmit the wisdom that helps children make sense of human relationships and develop resilience in the face of an ever-changing world.

The solution…

Publishing for children in Indian languages is a vital link that will make our children read better and therefore make more sense of their education. It will also connect them to their own languages and culture through the medium of stories. Just as we recognize that food is a basic requirement for children to grow well physically, we have to realize the value of mental and emotional nourishment that can be provided with the presence of good books in their lives. The first books in their own language are what will set them on the course of becoming readers and therefore autonomous learners.

With over 380 million children in the school going age group today, it is time the publishing industry stepped into the breach and took note of this nascent market. It is the future of our children that is at stake and everybody must weigh in at this crucial time to build up the demographic dividend.

Manisha Chaudhry is a writer, editor and translator, fluent in Hindi and English. She has many years of experience as a publishing professional and in the social development sector. She began working with India’s first feminist publishing house ‘Kali for Women’ in 1986 and has been a consultant to a range of organizations in the development sector and the UN. Her work has been published by Kali for Women, Oxford University Press, Zubaan Books, Yatra Books among others.She is currently the editorial head at Pratham Books and adviser to the Kahani Festival and festival adviser to JUMPSTART 2016.She was the founder trustee of Bookaroo.She has been in the forefront of many new initiatives to democratize the joy of reading and improve access to holistic education.

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