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'Early Literacy Symposium' at Aurangabad, November 2018

QUEST organized a 4-day 'Early Literacy Symposium' for teachers and teacher educators from Maharashtra. Stalwarts from the field shared their work and strategies. It was a rich exchange of ideas, theoretical & practical knowledge! It was supported by READ Alliance & Center for Knowledge Societies.

Early literacy is still an emerging field in India especially in the context of ground-breaking research in Indian languages for children learning in difficult circumstances. Despite every teacher dealing with it inside the classrooms, there are no noteworthy efforts to amalgamate best practices in this domain in varied sociolinguistic contexts. Teachers either follow a prototype suggested by the state or try to emulate a model spread by word of mouth without adequate training. 

Hence, QUEST organised this symposium of experts and selected teachers with noteworthy achievements on ‘Early Literacy’. The symposium was a one-of-its-kind opportunity to both teachers and experts to exchange views. The participants were teachers and teacher educators from Maharashtra who have been known to try different approaches in their regular work. 

The symposium was formally inaugurated by Chief Guest Ms Pavneet Kaur, CEO of Aurangabad Zilla Parishad. In her speech, she commended QUEST’s work and shared information about some projects by other NGOs working on education in her jurisdiction. She said that when such initiatives scale up, they do not work very effectively. She urged everyone present to think about this aspect when they are designing new educational ventures.

The schedule of the symposium was as follows:

The proceedings of the 4-day symposium were filled with a rich exchange of ideas on Early Literacy. Theory inputs were immediately followed by information on how to use them in practice. Participants were exposed to some new techniques like running records. Detailed information about how various organizations in different parts of India have worked on Early Literacy was also quite useful for the participants.

  

Session 1: Early Literacy – Current Indian Scenario

Dr. Madhuri Dikshit

A position paper on ‘Early Literacy in India’ was published in 2016 by CECED, CARE India and USAID. Dr Madhuri Dikshit spoke about the contents of this paper in detail and critically analysed it for the participants. She said that the paper defines literacy in very broad terms, taking it beyond mere learning of the alphabet, to using literacy to ensure social justice. She appreciated the fact that the paper shifts the conversation on education from outreach numbers to the quality of education delivered. She also drew attention to the difference between language education and literacy education discussed in the paper.

Session 2: What is reading?

Nilesh Nimkar

Nilesh Nimkar mentioned two strategies of meaning making which we usually adopt – the ‘bottom up’ approach, in which we break up the unfamiliar words into meaningful parts and create meaning out of it; and the ‘top down’ approach, in which we use our existing ‘schema’ to understand text. It is therefore desirable, he said, that the material for early literacy should be from the children’s own context, so that they can relate to it easily. He lamented the lack of such reading material for early readers in regional languages and urged the participants to help create a bank of passages in Marathi based in specific local / regional contexts. He also asked the participants to understand the limitations of the language textbooks, which puts more responsibility on the teachers to use different strategies to make them relatable in different contexts.

Sessions 3 & 4: Emergent Literacy - Part 1 & 2

Archana Kulkarni & Meena Nimkar

The resource persons asked the participants to read an article provided in the compendium, about Emergent Literacy. The importance of using children’s story books was emphasized. Archana Kulkarni said that a ‘reading culture’ needs to be created, where books and other reading material is readily available in the home and classroom. A number of educational films produced by QUEST were screened during the session, on the following topics: read aloud, shared reading, creating a library in the classroom, demonstration of simple recipes and writing those recipes etc. 

 

Session 5: Introducing Script

Nilesh Nimkar

Nimkar spoke briefly about the historical evolution of scripts. He later explained the various writing systems – some having symbols only for consonants, like the ‘Abjad’ system, and others having a complex set of symbols for consonants, vowels and how the vowels are attached to the consonants, like the ‘Abugida’ system etc.

Session 6: Organization for Early Literacy Promotion (OELP)

Keerti Jayram

As one of the founders of ‘Organization for Early Literacy Promotion’ (OELP), Keerti Jayram recounted the journey of the organization since 2006. She then shared OELP’s 4-block model of teaching early literacy: every day, the teachers plan specific activities for read aloud, teaching words, writing and expression and strengthening specific abilities – in that order. In addition, she said that based on the local language, they started teaching groups of alphabets together, which was different from the traditional varna-samuh

Session 7: Decoding and Fluency – Running records

Shalini Narnaware

Shalini introduced a technique called ‘running records’ which is useful for calculating the speed and fluency in reading. She explained in detail how these records have to be taken, using graded paragraphs. She asked the participants to listen to a recording of a paragraph, and to mark the correctly read words and errors on the handout of the same paragraph. The participants appreciated this practical exercise as they were able to use the technique and clarify their doubts on the spot.

Session 8: Role of children’s literature in early literacy – I

Akhila Pydah & Shalini Narnaware

Shalini then gave a demonstration of how to conduct a read aloud session with children, using the book 'Kaku che baal'. Later, Akhila listed a few pointers on how to select good books for children, as follows:

  • Is the theme relevant for the readers’ age group and context?
  • Does the book present a biased view about certain people?
  • Does it commend violence?
  • Does the story have interesting characters that children can relate to?
  • If it is a non-fiction book, does it share the information in a structured but flowing manner?
  • Is the language easy to understand?
  • Are the illustrations related to the text, look appealing and complement the story-telling?
  • Does the book present good values?

Session 9: Bridging the Learning Gap: Level Based Learning Program

Balasaheb Limbikai

From his experience as a headmaster of an Ashram School, Balasaheb shared the problems faced by marginalized children from nomadic tribes who attend his school. He has been implementing QUEST’s level-based learning program in his school. He screened a short video in which one of the school teachers implementing the program shared her observations. 

Session 10: Using Technology for Assessment of Literacy

Mandar Kulkarni & Mayura Dolas

Mandar and Mayura are software professionals who have created a special tab-based system for assessment of literacy for QUEST’s level-based learning program. They gave a demonstration of this tool, in which each participant was given a tab, and was asked to ‘solve’ the test. Through a local server, their ‘results’ were computed and displayed within minutes of completing the test! Mandar and Mayura said that this technology would definitely bring down the total time taken for initial assessment.

Session 11: Cultural politics of language

Kishore Darak

Kishore Darak started by exploring the meaning of culture. From the participants’ responses, it emerged that ‘culture’ is not fixed, but an ever-changing phenomenon. He gave a number of examples how the language we use can create a distance between the teacher and the taught. He said that using a particular language can provide an advantage to those who already have a ‘cultural capital’ in that language. The questions from the participants revolved around the helplessness their students feel, and also their own helplessness in coping with the demands of the dominant system. 

Session 12: Multilingual classrooms: The tribal experience from Maharashtra

Pralhad Kathole

The issues raised in the earlier session were reiterated in this session, with a focus on how to deal with them in actual classrooms with children who come from multilingual backgrounds. Pralhad Kathole listed the various tribal languages spoken in Maharashtra and mentioned their categories – Indo-Aryan, Dravid and Austro-Asiatic. To bring these languages into the classroom, Pralhad said that the teacher must use activities such as picture talk, object talk, songs and stories. He gave examples from his classroom, of text written on the board by the teacher, as told by the children. They obviously did not look like the standard language, but he stressed that this technique was the first step in making the children feel accepted.

Session 13: Pragat Shikshan Sanstha’s work on Early Literacy

Dr Manjiri Nimbkar & Dr Neelima Gokhale

In the first part of the session, Dr Manjiri Nimbkar spoke about the method of teaching literacy developed by Dr Maxine Bernsten - grouping certain alphabets together which appear commonly in everyday language, rather than follow the traditional sequence of alphabet. Dr Nimbkar mentioned that this approach has worked very well over the years, specially with children from marginalized backgrounds. Dr Neelima Gokhale said that the definition of literacy worldwide has gone beyond mere knowledge of the alphabet – it now includes the development of socio-emotional skills, a little knowledge of Math as well as ability to handle / access technology. The teacher, therefore, must be alert about what kind of language she uses in the classroom, how she asks questions to the children and what information she exposes the children to.  

Session 14: Literacy pedagogy in ABL Classrooms

J K Patil

‘Activity Based Learning’ is a technique followed in some schools in Maharashtra. J K Patil was one of the first teachers to implement it in his school. However, he shared frankly, that the ABL methodology did not put much emphasis on early literacy. While the children were reaching the expected level of reading, they did not necessarily comprehend what they were reading. It was only when he attended workshops conducted by PSS and QUEST that he realized this limitation. With the help of PSS and QUEST, he has incorporated many activities in their classrooms to nurture early literacy. 

Session 15: Language and Learning Foundation

Alimuddin Khan

Language and Learning Foundation (LLF) is working in the field of Early Literacy since 2015, in 5 states of the Hind-speaking belt. Alimuddin Khan shared their approach and methodology. In a typical week, he said that the teachers work on 4 aspects of literacy – oral language, reading, decoding and writing. After 4 days of inputs and activities, the teachers conduct an assessment given in the book on day 5, and day 6 is devoted to working with children who have not performed well, to address their specific difficulties. 

Session 17: Historical Evolution of Reading Pedagogy

Dr Shailaja Menon

This session provided a historical overview of the various learning theories and their reflection on Early Literacy work in India. Dr Shailaja Menon listed the 4 dominant models: Synthetic phonics model, Analytic phonics model, sight-word approach and whole language approach. She warned against the tendency to mix activities from various models and to call it a ‘comprehensive’ model. She said that comprehensive approach is not about conducting read aloud and other activities in a vacuum – it also involves teaching phonics. However, she stressed that a teacher must plan all these activities daily to help the children move smoothly towards literacy.

Session 18: Performing children’s literature: The Goshtarang experience

Geetanjali Kulkarni

QUEST has been running an unusual initiative called ‘Goshtarang’ for the last couple of years. Geetanjali Kulkarni, who heads this project, spoke about how they combine theatre and story-telling to present children's literature in rural schools, with the aim of reading-writing enhancement. When they perform the stories in the schools, they conduct various activities with the children by showing them the storybooks and pictures. She said that the final objective of the Goshtarang initiative is to get children interested in books, and this has been successfully achieved!

Conclusion

The proceedings of the 4-day symposium were filled with a rich exchange of ideas on Early Literacy. Theory inputs were immediately followed by information on how to use them in practice.

Participants were exposed to some new techniques like running records. Detailed information about how various organizations in different parts of India have worked on Early Literacy was also quite useful for the participants.