In Private, English‑Medium Schools in India, Reading Ability Lags Years Behind
Credit: Anjalee Menon
Only 2.1% of fifth graders and 3.9% of sixth graders in 106 private, unaided, English-medium schools across 20 states in India have mastered fundamental reading skills appropriate to third-graders, according to a new report by Stones2Milestones, a reading advocacy group that offers an assessment service.
This is not to say these children read at a third-grade level. Rather, that these few children are able to effectively apply fundmental skills, which should have been developed by third grade, to texts suitable to their current ages. Some of these skills include:
- Evaluating the effect on the reader of the author’s language and style choices
- Understanding the meanings of age-appropriate vocabulary, as well as synonyms and antonyms
- Making inferences about gaps in information
Take for example, the ability to infer, says Aditi Mehta, head of content, training, and impact at Stones2Milestones. It’s a literacy skill that all international English reading standards identify as a box to be checked in third grade. Yet India’s sixth graders struggle to exercise the skill in age-appropriate ways on age-appropriate texts.
The jump in reading skill after third grade is profound. Prior to grade four, English literacy education focuses on teaching children to learn to read; in grade four and beyond, students transition to ‘reading to learn’ — skills established by third grade become more and more refined as their studies are increasingly conveyed via text in textbooks, regardless of subject. It’s a developmental jump that is a challenge even for children from English-speaking homes in the strongest school systems. And it’s near-impossible without the foundational reading skills that many children in English-medium schools in India appear to lack.
“It’s a narrow window when children can pick up the will and ability to read,” says Nikhil Saraf, co-founder of Stones2Milestones.
The consequence is not merely the facility to enjoy a good book. “Research has also shown that being able to read at expected grade level fluency, with comprehension by the end of grade 3, is the single largest predictor of all future academic success,” the report states.
When a child is behind on reading skills, performance in all other subjects takes a hit. “His understanding of that topic gets hampered. Hence, that can extend to him not being good at maths, not being good at science, not being good at social science or any other subject,” Saraf says.
The problems underlying students’ lag in English reading skills are systemic. The tone is set by early-grade English pedagogy that favors rote memorization rather than understanding. At a national level, India lacks explicit, grade-wise literacy skill benchmarks for the English language. Recommendations from NCERT, the national, autonomous advisory body for Indian schools, focus more on goals than measurable outcomes or strategy:
“The learner should develop the habit of reading for information and pleasure; draw inferences
and relate texts to previous knowledge; read critically and develop the confidence to ask and
answer questions,” reads the NCERT syllabus for English classes, grades 1-8.
Inference and the ability to relate text to previous knowledge are literacy skills, but there’s no guidance for teachers on how best to impart these skills, or even examples of what degrees of these skills are age-appropriate for each grade.
Compounding this is the fact that, while pleasure reading is encouraged in teaching syllabi, in practice, pleasure reading has little place in classrooms, which means it often finds little value in homes. It’s no coincidence, Saraf says, that the report found higher reading skill scores in students who reported reading more frequently in English outside of school.
“A major thing we see is that, in India, reading is not given the attention it needs,” Saraf says. “Yes, children are going to schools. Yes, children are reading in the classrooms. [But] reading for pleasure, not purpose, is not celebrated in Indian schools.”