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Primary schools are failing our children

  • Published at 07:39 pm May 27th, 2018
Failing to teach reading Photo: BIGSTOCK

Primary schools need to do a better job promoting reading comprehension and competency

Khaled, a student of class III, was sitting on the third row of a rather crowded class of some 40 boys and girls. It is one of the government primary schools that one comes across plying the main road in the countryside.

A colleague and I, passing visitors, with the teacher’s permission, wanted to ask Khaled to read something to us.

We asked Khaled to read a passage from a story in his Bangla textbook, that has been already taught in the class. He read with reasonable fluency, halting or hesitating once or twice, but pronounced the words correctly. 

We praised Khaled’s performance and asked if he would read from the Bangla newspaper we had with us. Khaled stood quietly and was not responsive. Encouraged by the teacher not to be shy, he tried to utter the syllables of the words in the headline, not reading the full word or the sentence, as one would do normally.

Khaled obviously had difficulty reading a text that was not familiar to him. The textbook passage had been read out and repeated in the classroom and he could repeat it for the visitors. Khaled captured the familiar passage in his “sight memory.” He has not really learned to read, mastering the decoding of letters and words and the sounds they represented. 

If Khaled cannot read a Bangla text that has not been already drilled in the class, he would not be able to read the text books on other subjects or do his math, because that also requires reading and understanding the math problem.

How many of the primary school students are in Khaled’s shoes?  

Do primary school graduates learn to read? 

A National Student Assessment is carried out every two years, under the auspices of the primary education directorate, to assess the learning outcomes for Bangla and math for class III and V students. The 2015 survey showed that less than a quarter of grade V students read at the expected grade level and only 10% could count at grade level. Grade III students did somewhat better, but the weak foundation for a large proportion at that level led to a worse outcome for a larger proportion for grade V.

Other independent assessments showed similar results. Education Watch 2016 reports that six-seven years of schooling was required to have at least an initial level of literacy skills (defined as recognition of letters and words and the very basic level of reading) for 80% of the respondents. 

At the same time, up to 98% of the students have been passing grade V public examination in recent years. How can the independent assessment and the public exam results be reconciled?

Very high pass rates in primary completion exam are based on 30% marks set as the passing mark. The traditional 30% or 33% pass mark was based on five or six essay questions in the exam. Essays have now been replaced by short answers and MCQs, for which, in most countries, the passing grade is 60%. A passing score of 30% does not include the essential skills content which is covered in the national assessment for Bangla and math. 

Why foundational skills? 

There are 13 objectives and 29 terminal competencies in the primary education curriculum -- two of these objectives (and competencies) are about language skills, math concepts, and their use. There are eight subjects and textbooks and/or teachers’ guides for these subjects in primary education.

Do these things carry any sort of workable value to the cause of education?

It is internationally agreed that “learning to read” and then “reading to learn” must be given top priority in primary education. This is closely linked to numeracy skills.

Skills in the first language is also closely linked to cognitive growth of a child -- thinking, reasoning, understanding cause-and- effect, and expressing oneself coherently, to be precise.

Let’s not forget that our primary school learning time is only about 500 hours a year, half of the world standard. In fact, in reality, it may be much less.

Is the concept of foundational skills understood and accepted in our primary education? Each Child Learns, under the Primary Education Development Program (PEDP3), was an initiative based on this concept. It was not properly implemented and has now been abandoned.

In the Fourth Primary Education Development Program (PEDP4), funded by the government and donors to be started this year, it is not clear what the fate of foundational skills will be. The current thinking does not seem to recognize the importance of foundational skills and the need for special measures.

National Curriculum and Textbook Board specialists and decision-makers appear to be unsure about what the right approach should be. 

This is a serious problem, given the state of reading competency of our primary education students and exam candidates.

The Reading Enhancement for Advancing Development (READ) project, implemented by Save the Children International (SCI) -- with the collaboration of the Directorate of Primary Education (DPE) and USAID -- aimed to improve early grade Bangla reading competencies among students of grades i-iii. READ has a target to directly benefit an estimated 1.1 million students throughout 5,112 schools in select districts of Bangladesh.

The READ project has led to an increase in the number of self-reliant readers by about five times compared to the baseline. A similar overall progress in reading skills has not occurred with students in general as made evident by the National Student Assessment. 

What needs to be done 

First, policy-makers must recognize the critical importance of enabling students to acquire the foundational skills of reading with sufficient comprehension and competency.

Second, approaches and methodologies of early-grade reading, which have shown good results, should be made mainstream in primary schools without delay.

Third, making time and space for reading exercises, every day, is necessary. Teachers should allow students the required time to read, write, listen, and speak.

Fourth, work should begin to establish grade-level benchmarks for reading competency, particularly on fluency, accuracy, and speed.

Finally, teacher training has to offer teachers practical suggestions for instructing classes with varied ability levels of students. 

Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at BRAC University.

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