By Hannah-May Wilson, Program Manager, PAL Network Secretariat

Friends and classmates Pratima, Bharti and Neha

Meet Bharti. Bharti is 11 years old and she loves to play with her friends. Her best friends are Neha and Pratima. Bharti and her friends are in Grade 5. They go to school in a village in the Kuldabad region of Maharashtra, India. 250 children from the village attend the local primary school. The school compound is big and the classroom walls are painted with colourful shapes, pictures, letters and words. Bharti has been attending the local school since she was 6 years old. Bharti likes wearing her school uniform and sitting with her friends.

Despite having spent 5 years in school, Bharti cannot read. There are a few children in Bharti’s class who can read the Grade 5 textbook, but Bharti and her friends mostly listen to the teacher and look at the pictures. In Bharti’s school, children are taught in the official state language – Marathi. But Bharti and her friends speak a different language at home. Twenty years ago, their grandparents migrated to farm cotton and sugar cane. In Bharti’s home, both her parents speak Telugu. Bharti’s parents rely on the teachers to ensure that their daughter is learning.

100 million children left behind in India

Data from Pratham’s ‘Annual Status of Education Report’ (ASER) shows that half of all children enrolled in fifth grade in India are unable to read a simple text meant for second grade children. This means that close to 100 million children are at least 2-3 years behind where they are expected to be, according to the national curriculum. ASER data shows that more than 50 million children in Grades 3-5 need immediate and urgent help if they are to have a real chance of completing primary school. These children not only need to acquire foundational literacy and numeracy skills, but they also need to be helped to reach the level expected of their grade in order to move ahead.

Whilst universal primary education is meant for all children in India, learning remains only for a few. Schools organize classrooms based on children’s age and grade, assuming that children enter Grade 1 at age six, and progress through the grades in a linear and uniform manner until they finish primary school in Grade 8 at age fourteen. As children progress, curriculum expectations get progressively more difficult. Children are not allowed to repeat grades, so many move from one grade to the next without having learned what is expected in the previous grade. Subsequently, children get left behind. Once left behind, it is very unlikely that these children will gain these foundational skills later on.

Every child can learn

Bharti learning Maths

Faced with this crisis in learning, one of India’s largest NGOs – Pratham, has been developing models and methods to improve children’s basic reading and maths skills at scale. The central belief of Pratham is that every child can learn. For the last ten years, the main focus of Pratham’s work has been on children aged 7 and above who are likely to be enrolled in Grades 3-5. Pratham’s experience indicates that these children can acquire foundational skills quickly, with the right help.

The idea is simple: children are grouped by learning level rather than by age or grade. Teachers and children abandon the official textbook for a few hours to concentrate on learning the basics, through interactive activities and games. First, children are assessed one-on-one using the ASER tool. They are then grouped by learning level for at least part of the day or part of the year. Teaching-learning activities and materials for each group are carefully designed to make learning fun and appropriate to the level of the child. Each group has an instructor, who can be a school teacher or a community volunteer. Throughout the entire process, children’s learning progress is monitored through simple assessments to help them reach the next level. Pratham’s model is called ‘Teaching at the Right Level’ (TaRL).

Learning can be fun!

Last month, Bharti’s school welcomed Pratham to train classroom teachers and local volunteers to run four short ‘Learning Camps’ over 60 days, using the ‘TaRL’ approach. On the first day, Bharti felt nervous when she was asked to read simple words in Marathi. Even reading letters was difficult. In maths, Bharti knew the numbers from 1 to 100, but adding two numbers together was hard. Bharti felt like crying.

It was confusing when the teacher asked Bharti and her friends to move the tables to the side of the classroom and sit on the floor in a circle. The teacher encouraged them to create stories using picture cards, and play fun games using letter cards. Bharti and her friends laughed so much. After a week in the learning camp, they could recognize nearly all the letters in the alphabet. It was so fun that they asked to take the materials home to practice. For the first time ever, Bharti felt like she belonged in her school. She could feel she was making progress and she really wanted to move to the next group.

250 million children all over the world need urgent help to catch up

Globally, more than 250 million children, like Bharti, have not acquired foundational skills in reading and maths, despite half of them having spent at least 4 years in school. Data from citizen-led assessments across the PAL Network demonstrate that many countries in the global South face similar challenges. Having conducted assessments for several years, findings suggest learning levels across the network are low, and not improving. Unless assessments are accompanied by targeted learning interventions, no progress will be made. Teaching at the Right Level is a rigorously evaluated pedagogical model that holds exciting potential for PAL Network member countries to scale, building on their own vast networks of local partner organizations. In a workshop held last week in Aurangabad, India, seven PAL Network countries committed to piloting the model within the next 12 months. Bharti did all the convincing herself. ‘How do you feel when you’re reading?’ we asked her. “Like I’m flying”, she answered.