Prothom Alo in association with USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and Save the Children, Bangladesh organised a roundtable titled “Reading Skills in Mother Tongue: Foundation of Quality Education” on January 20, 2018. Here we publish a summary of the discussions.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed, Professor Emeritus, BRAC University
Many research studies have shown that a student can learn best in their mother tongue. It also helps them to learn other languages. In Bangladesh, we generally impart education in the mother tongue up to higher secondary level. Although our students can speak and express themselves fluently in Bangla, they lack adequate skills in writing and reading in the language.
There are both positive and negative sides of our primary education system. Bangladesh has almost attained universal coverage in primary education. We have also achieved gender parity at the primary level. But besides these achievements problems persist. For example, one in every five children drops out before reaching class V; there are other issues such as lack of teachers, poor quality of education, inadequate number of educational institutions in remote areas, and so on.
It is against this background that we want to discuss today's topic. Every two years, the Directorate of Primary Education conducts National Student Assessment (NSA) to assess the level of learning achievement of students of class III and V in specified subjects such as Bengali and Math. It shows that in Bengali, only one-third of the students of class III are up to the level while three-fourth of the students at class V are below the level. In math the situation is worse. Sixty percent students of class III are below the benchmark. In class V, 90 per cent of students fall below the standard. But this year 95 percent of students have passed at the primary level. What can we glean from these two very opposite facts? I think there is something wrong in our examination system. Currently, the minimum pass mark is 30 percent which is very low. Globally, in the multiple choice question system minimum pass mark is 60 percent. Again there is a gap between the assessment systems of NSA and primary school tests. We are also not giving enough importance to school-based formative assessment. There are also other problems in the public examination system such as question leak, inefficient marking system, and so on. Last but not least, our examination system is overwhelmingly dependent on memorisation which seriously hinders the quality of learning. We all agree that the PSC and JSC systems are not fruitful.
There are several objectives and subjects in primary education. We need to emphasise upon foundation skill that is learning to read so that they can read to learn. All our educational activities at the primary level should be geared to achieve this goal. Education in the mother tongue is indispensable because it helps most in the cognitive development of a child.
The Directorate of Primary Education undertook a project called Each Child Learns which was aimed at improving skills on language and math. Unfortunately, it has been abandoned.
The Third Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP) is going to end soon. We are now moving towards PEDP IV. But we are not very clear on the importance foundational skills will get in the new PEDP or how they will improve on this subject. Improvement of reading skills as a basic skill should be given special focus in PEDP IV. All the relevant facilities such as classrooms, training of teachers, and preparation of supplementary reading materials need to be developed accordingly. We should also set a benchmark for assessment of a child's reading level.
With the support of USAID, Save the Children is implementing a project called READ (Reading Enhancement for Advancing Development) which is aimed at improving early grade reading competence. Currently, one million students of more than 5,000 schools are involved in this project. It has proven to be effective in developing reading proficiency of early grade students. Similar types of projects are run by various other non-government organisations. The government can incorporate the good practices of these efforts into the mainstream primary education system.
Shahin Islam, Acting Chief of Party - READ, Save the Children in Bangladesh
I want to highlight the steps READ has taken to improve Bangla reading competency of students. This project started in 2013. So far we have reached about 5,112 government primary schools. We are working with students from class I to class III. There are several components in improving reading skills which are developed through five inter-related components. READ systematically addresses all five: phonemic awareness, letter knowledge, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. We have taken the first step to encourage teachers to include these skills in their teaching methods. We provide supplementary reading materials to children according to their competency level. Every three months teachers do assessment of children based on these five elements. It improves the formative assessment system. Teachers bring changes to their teaching methods following the result of the assessment. We also provide learning materials such as chart of most common vocabularies to facilitate the teaching process. In addition to regular activities, we are running some community programmes to create opportunities for learning outside schools and create the culture of reading at community with the involvement of community.
I would like to highlight some achievements of the projects. At class III, 92 per cent of children can read on their own, 71 per cent can read with comprehension, and 89 per cent most used words are recognised by the students of our intervened Government Primary Schools.
I would like to recommend some good practices of our project that are effective in enhancing reading skills of children and which can be incorporated in Diploma in Education and subject-based training courses implemented by the Government of Bangladesh. This needs to be regularly followed-up at school level by the education officials at Upazila level.
There are four required skills for learning a language properly: reading, writing, listening and speaking. In the existing system students are assessed based on their writing skills only. The three others skills should be included in the assessment system.
There should be a benchmark for assessment of a child's reading level.
K M Enamul Haque, Deputy Director, Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE)
SDG indicator 4.7.1 highlights improvement of assessment framework to ensure quality education. SDG target 4.4 and indicator 4.7.1stipulate that both teachers and students should be informed beforehand about the assessment system. In our existing system there is a gap in this regard. We should work on it.
At the primary level the contact hour is around 500 hours a year which is far below the global average. Double shifts, natural disasters, and shortage of teaching staff cause further loss of learning hours. In Bangladesh this gap is filled by private tuition or coaching. But these shadow efforts cannot ensure quality of education. Therefore we need to seriously think about increasing learning hours at the primary level.
Our learning system is further affected by an unfavourable student-teacher ratio and competency gap of teachers. Teachers should be employed in a more planned manner to keep the student-teacher ratio at a standard level.
We should promote culture of reading in schools by developing school libraries. We should also introduce ICT-based teaching and learning in our primary education system.
Finally, PEDP IV should work on preparing ground so that we can assess competency of our students at the international level.
Md Afzal Hossain Sarwar, Policy Specialist (Educational Innovation), a2i, UNDP
Reading is like eyesight. Reading is not only the tool of learning, but also the tool for learning. Children need to be skilled in reading to comprehend so that they can decode those words into knowledge. A study shows that 90 per cent of students of class I who are weak in reading can't recover from the deficiency up to class IV. Therefore we should focus on reading at the starting point of the education system.
Students should be given more levelled supplementary reading materials to facilitate their reading skills and learning. We are training teachers on how to use Bloom software to create supplementary reading materials. In cooperation with Save the Children we have established an e-learning platform named Muktopaath through which teachers will be able to get free training on developing multimedia contents. We should also adopt digital technologies to improve learning environment in classrooms.
Kate Maloney, Education Team Leader, USAID Bangladesh
The reason why reading matters is because in order for Bangladesh to achieve its wider development goals and to become a middle-income country Bangladesh needs to develop human capital. A child who is weak in the first grade is weak in the fourth grade and who then goes on to become a worker as a teenager who struggles to learn quickly on the job, to think critically and to adapt. Human capital development starts on the first day a child arrives at kindergarten. We have global data that says a 10 percent increase in the number of students who are able to read results in a 0.3 percent increase in GDP. So without improvements in reading skills and quality education, Bangladesh would not be able to invest in the future of Bangladesh.
Md Habibur Rahman, Assistant Teacher, Kasundi Govt. Primary School, Magura
There is serious shortage of teachers in primary schools. A teacher has to take several classes on different subjects. It is really difficult for them to develop competency in teaching a subject. The government should seriously address this issue.
Through the READ project we have gotten training on improving teaching methods which has been really helpful. It has also provided teaching and assessment aid. Every three months we assess progress of the students.
Under this project, a reading corner has been established in our school. There is a “book captain” in every class who distributes and collects books among his or her peers. It has improved reading proficiency of our students. They are also getting benefits of reading camp conducted outside the school by community teachers.
Jyoti Akter, Parent, Saturia, Manikganj
I have two school-going sons. The younger one participates in the reading classes run under the READ Project. His reading capacity is much better than his elder brother. He is very confident about reading any text and can do it fluently while my older son struggles to read a long sentence. My younger son regularly participates in competitions and wins prizes. Reading development programmes should be run in every school.
Professor Syeda Tahmina Akhter, Director, Institute of Education and Research, University of Dhaka
We should improve our teacher training programmes. A teacher must have a clear idea about how to teach, what the objective of teaching is and how to achieve it.
In every school there should be supporting teaching staff who can relieve the overwhelming pressure on the teachers to teach a large number of students. There should also be block teaching facilities for students who need special attention and instruction. Parents should encourage and help children in reading books.
We need to increase education contact hours at the primary level. Unfortunately, there is no difference between coaching run by schools and regular classes.
We should stop the PSC exam. It unnecessarily creates stress among young students and hinders their learning process. Instead of periodic exams we should adopt a continuous assessment system and ensure joyful learning.
Mohammad Shah Alam, Country Director, Sisimpur
There are many different approaches to teach children reading such as whole language approach, phonics instruction and so on. We have seen that the phonics-based approach taken by USAID is delivering good results. This approach helps beginners understand the correspondence between letters and sounds. With this knowledge a student can spell a word effortlessly and thus read a text fluently. We should start reading improvement programmes from the very beginning of a child's learning career.
Different types of reading materials are needed for creating a learning environment. We must increase use of ICT in content development. Finally, we need to emphasise on reading habits among students because that is the precondition of achieving good reading skills.
M Habibur Rahman, Senior Adviser- Education, Save the Children in Bangladesh
PEDP IV should put special emphasis on improving reading competency of early grade students.
Up to the age of three is the formation period of our brain. Therefore creating foundation of reading in mother tongue should be part of early childhood development. It should begin at the family level. Our teacher training programmes are largely focused on theoretical issues. We should review the teacher training curriculum and include more practical topics.
A classroom should be a place for joy for a student. It will attract them towards learning new things and increase their retention capacity. The books prepared by NCTB need to be made more readable and enjoyable for young students. Only textbooks are not enough for creating reading habits. We need to introduce at least 100 supplementary books for children.
Monwer Hossain Khondker, Head of Partnership & Project, BRAC Education Programme, BRAC
We need to conduct extensive research on how to improve reading skills in the mother tongue. A BRAC research study showed that students who learn in the mother tongue do better than students who learn in a foreign language.
Currently, BRAC runs the Innovation for Improving Early Grade Reading Activity (IIEGRA) programme with the support of USAID. It aims to improve reading proficiency among the students of early grades I, II and III in primary schools. We should be more innovative in preparing teaching and learning materials for early grade students.
Prof. Nazmul Haq, Executive Secretary, Bangladesh Forum for Educational Development (BAFED)
We need to set a benchmark for assessing reading competency in Bangla. It should be based on intensive research.
There should be a list of suitable words for every grade, and children's book writer should know those. Due to a lack of graded vocabulary many words used in primary school textbooks are beyond the level of comprehension of students. For teachers, it is very important to explain the meaning of text besides just reading out loud.
Prof. Iffat Ara Nasreen Majid, Director, Institute of Modern Languages, University of Dhaka
In Bangladesh, primary schools are lagging behind in phonemic understanding, letter knowledge, and comprehension. Generally, students speak in their dialect at home but learn standard Bangla in the classroom. Children are also confused about the correct pronunciation of letters. Reading fluently does not comes with the understanding of meaning. These gaps need to be reduced.
We need to improve reading competency of students through both intensive and extensive reading practices. Teachers should help students absorb as much meaning from a text as possible through intensive reading techniques and there should be available supplementary reading materials to facilitate extensive reading practice. We need to ensure that both teaching and learning are fun.
Exam anxiety also hinders the learning process. We need to rethink our assessment system.
Dr Jinnat Imtiaz Ali, Director General, International Mother Language Institute
We acquire the mother tongue. It is different from learning other languages. This important fact needs to be considered in designing any language learning programme. Another important language teaching method is to make the relationship between phoneme and letter clear to a child as ensuring standard pronunciation has always been an issue. Besides this, children should be given the opportunity to read and learn as much as they can. Reading storybooks and storytelling is a great way to enhance their learning capacity.
International Mother Language Institute (IMLI) has become a category II institution of UNESCO which means that it will serve as a hub of knowledge and research and contribute towards new forms of learning and mother tongue education in the region and throughout the world. We have conducted an ethno-linguistic survey which shows that there are 40 more languages other than Bangla in the country. IMLI is responsible for introducing education up to a certain level for all linguistic communities in their mother tongue, even in those languages that do not have any writing system. For the latter group, we will develop a corpus of these languages in correspondence with the everyday existence of members of these linguistic communities. We will prepare textbooks and supplementary readings in these languages. But the problem is, where will we get adequate number of teachers for teaching these languages?
Dr Md Abu Hena Mostafa Kamal, ndc, Director General, Directorate of Primary Education
The Primary Education system of Bangladesh is uniquely one of the largest education systems in the world. We have got around 130 thousand Primary Schools and Centres, 600 thousand teachers and 20.10 million students. The government has been trying to impart comprehensive training to primary school teachers over the last couple of years. Diploma in Primary Education (DPED) program has been launched in association with the Institute of Education and Research, University of Dhaka. It is a very extensive training that provides teachers with the better skills and knowledge to improve the quality of delivery of education to the children. We are also providing 12 days long ICT training on computer applications and digital content development. A large number of teachers are being trained through this initiative. There is an online platform called Shikkhok Batayon (Teacher's Portal) where digital contents are uploaded by teachers on a regular basis. Our Honourable Prime Minister has declared in Davos Conference 2016 that nine lakh teachers would be included in this platform. I hope in the near future we will be able to export digital education contents through such initiative. We are also working closely with a2i to facilitate use of technology in primary education sector.
Interactive multimedia classrooms are very effective in improving the learning environment. It increases students' interest and retention capacity significantly. We have already established 9,000 multi-media classrooms. This year 50,000 laptops are being distributed to the govt. primary schools.
I fully agree with the idea that we need more research on every aspect of primary education. We are trying to institutionalise research programs and create scope for cooperation between government and non-government organisations in this regard. In the PEDP 4, we will put special emphasis on this issue.
The Reading Corner run under the READ project is a praiseworthy initiative. It has proven to be an effective intervention to improve reading capabilities of young students.
To increase education contact hours the government is successfully running school feeding programs where 75 grams of nutritious biscuits are being given to students. Our Honourable Prime Minister takes special interest for this initiative. We are also working for popularising mid-day meal in schools. Our Honourable Minister for Primary and Mass Education has declared that mid-day meals will be ensured in every school by 2018. We are also successfully running second chance education programs for deprived/ marginalised students.
To facilitate primary education for ethnic minority communities in the mother tongue we are providing text books and reading materials in five ethnic languages.
The government is spending a lot in infrastructural development for the primary education sector. Establishing a joyfull reading environment it is an integral part to this plan. We have established beautiful and well-equipped school buildings even in remote areas. Government has already built 12,000 new schools under the program period of PEDP-3. Two new project have been taken up by the government under which 40,000 classrooms will be built in old government primary schools and 25,000 classrooms will be built in recently nationalised primary schools. Tk. 14,000 core will be spent in these two projects.
Government has been providing all new books in Primary School students at the very fast day of the calendar year since 2010 successfully. This is a remarkable achievement of the government. We are making efforts to make our books more interesting and attractive to young learners. We have kept scope for revision of books in PEDP-4. NCTB is working on improving curriculum and teaching methodology.
We are seriously considering both the periodic and continuous assessment system. We are keeping apt attention to learn from global good practices. We have successfully achieved the Goal-2 of the MDGs, i.e. Universal Primary Education. It encourages us to embark on the journey to achieve SDG-4. SDG-4 is a kind of paradigm shift which requires a lot more effort to accomplish. We have already set indicators and disseminated those to field level. Necessary policy formulation and changes are taking place hand in hand.
Our aspiration and firm conviction is to ensure that our children will become able leader of the country in the days to come with good human quality, patriotism and heartfelt feelings for the war of independence.
Abdul Quayum, Associate Editor, Prothom Alo
Parents, particularly mothers, should be encouraged to look after the reading habits of children. By reading aloud to their young children, parents help them acquire awareness of language long before they are able to read. It also increases likelihood of later overall school success. Local government bodies should be involved in raising awareness among parents about this issue. Media also has a big role to play in this regard. Every year Prothom Alo organises Borno Mela and Bhasha Protijog to encourage language learning among young students.