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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reading to learn

Reading to learn


INDIA is on the path to becoming a knowledge society. But, does this hold true for all of India or is it just something urban India prides itself on? 


  "There are still remote areas in the country where children have no access to any reading material. And education is not confined to textbooks, a child needs to be exposed to a variety of reading material including newspapers, magazines, books, comics, posters, and so on. Only then can we spark their imagination and improve their vocabulary," says Deepa Sankar, education economist, World Bank. 


   Echoing similar sentiments, Sunisha Ahuja, programme director (Asia Region), Room to Read, adds: "To become a knowledge economy, we must first create the knowledge. Despite recent economic growth, India still faces lack of basic resources especially in the field of education." However, there are a few individuals and organisations that have taken up the challenge to tackle illiteracy through 'reading programmes.' They include Room to Read, Pratham and Jamghat. 


   Room to Read is a non-profit charitable organisation founded by former Microsoft employee John Wood based in San Francisco. It is dedicated to building education infrastructure in developing countries to end the cycle of poverty. The organisation has operations in many South and Southeast Asian countries, including India, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Sri Lanka. It has recently expanded to Africa as well, having set up operations in South Africa and Zambia. 


   Room to Read India chapter was established in 2003, with the aim to provide children a friendly environment that encourages reading. Especially in areas where illiteracy rates remain high and few educational resources exist. "We work with rural and urban slum communities in five key states — New Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttaranchal, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. The aim is to improve the educational infrastructure. And while most of our libraries are in government schools and non-profitrun alternative education centres that serve the most disadvantaged populations, nearly 15% are located in community centres," says Ahuja. 


   The majority of children's literature available today caters to an urban audience, which is why kids from rural areas and slums do not identify with the reading material. Therefore, Room to Read has also started publishing its own material to help bridge this gap. "It is a shame that urban kids who have access to such a variety of reading material spend most of their time on the Playstation or watching TV. On the other hand, when these underprivileged children get their hands on the books, their enthusiasm and excitement is worth seeing. That is, perhaps, our biggest reward," adds Ahuja. 


   Another such initiative by Pratham, Read India, aims to inculcate the 3R's among children across the country — reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. It focuses on the introduction of 'learning to read' (and arithmetic) activities in schools. This includes simple interventions like incorporating a reading period aimed at improving fluency in reading to teaching the use of alphabets. 


   "Read India is a focussed campaign and we have received excellent feedback. We have been using various teaching-learning materials besides reading cards and, as a result, many students who struggled earlier have now learnt to read. In fact, we are now moving from learning to read to reading to learn," elaborates Madhav Chavan, founderdirector, Pratham. 


   Pratham's newspaper Bachpan, which introduces interesting reading material to primary school classes, is also being used as part of the Read India campaign. This eightpage tabloid is distributed twice a month to 10,000 government primary schools in Bihar. "What is most interesting about the paper is that it is layered according to the different learning levels of students," says Chavan. 


   Swagata Pillai, project head, Bachpan, adds: "Our aim is to strengthen reading skills and build a reading habit among primary school children. Despite high enrolment levels in most states, a substantial proportion of school-going children in primary grades cannot read simple text fluently. So, this is like a supplement to textbooks." 


   Jamghat, an initiative of I-India, is what nearly 4,00,000 homeless children in the Capital call home. This 'home' provides for their essential needs such as food, shelter, clothing, schooling and vocational education. The model aspires to indoctrinate selfdiscipline, group coordination, and a family-like atmosphere among the children. The prime objective is their eventual rehabilitation. 


   Among other things, the children are also encouraged to inculcate the habit of reading. Says Amit Sinha, its founder-director: "From texts to story books, Jamghat provides children with a lot of reading material. For two hours everyday, these children are made to read stories from different storybooks, which may also include lessons on hygiene and cleanliness. As a result, such habits are introduced in their daily lives.'' 


   Thanks to these initiatives, reading has opened up a new world of knowledge for these young and inquisitive minds. And hopefully, when India realises its dream of becoming a knowledge society, it would hold true for all parts of the country and the entire population.





Sunil Sharma


Dil Se Desi Group


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