A recent news report highlighted the fact that only 48.3% of Indian children in Class 1 could read the English alphabet, even in big capital letters. The annual education audit by the NGO Pratham showed that Gujarat had the worst record: only 25.3% of Gujarati children could read capital letters in English, and only 8% could read English sentences. To rectify this, and join the globalisation bandwagon, the Gujarat government proposes to teach English in Class 1. Other states are making similar moves.
Yet this is an error. Global research shows that children should learn reading and writing in their mother tongue first. Only after they can read fluently at a minimum of 45-60 words per minute can they absorb what they are reading. Such fluency is most easily achieved in the mother tongue. Once that is established, learning a second language becomes much easier.
Premature teaching of a second language — like English — can prevent a child from learning to read fast enough in its mother tongue. Early reading and writing is vital: children that cannot do so fluently by Class 2 will likely never catch up with classmates in higher classes.
These insights flow from research on the neurological foundations of learning. In “Efficient Learning for the Poor: Insights From the Frontier of Cognitive Neurosceience”, educationalist Helen Abadzi shows that human short-term memory works well for up to 12 seconds. So, within 12 seconds, a person should be able to read a sentence (or complete grammatical unit), process its meaning, and classify and file it within his or her mental library (what experts call “cognitive networks”).
In a separate work, Abadzi writes “people must be able to read one word per second, or per 1.5 seconds at the outside, to be functional readers. If they read more slowly than that, they find that they have forgotten the beginning of their sentence by the time they reach the end.” Children struggle to decode letters of a new language. If they cannot read fast enough, then all their mental attention is taken up in decoding the letters, and no attention is left for grasping the meaning of the text.
If a child cannot read quickly, it cannot follow what textbooks or teachers are conveying. All schooling can bypass such children. They can spend eight years in school and remain functionally illiterate. This, alas, is common in India.
this is not an argument against learning two or three languages. Indeed, children under 8 earn new languages most easily. But research shows that proficiency in one language makes it easier to master a second. Learning the first language expands the cognitive networks of a child’s mind, making it easier to grasp the same concepts in a second language.
Rich children with pre-school education enter school with a vocabulary of 3,000 words, but poor children may have a vocabulary of just 500 words. So, poor children already struggle to keep up in Class 1. Their struggles can become intolerable if they have to learn a second language.
Abadzi recounts an experiment from Zambia. Initially, children were taught both English and the local language from class1. In an experiment, some schools taught only oral reading in Class 1 and English writing from class 2. The results were astounding. Earlier, reading scores of children were on average two grades less than the standard benchmark in English, and three grades lower in the local language. But once English was introduced at a later stage, reading and writing scores shot up 575% above the benchmark in class 1, 2,417% higher in Class 2, and 3,300 % higher in class 3. Scores in the local language showed similar upward leaps. The system was then extended to all schools in Zambia.
This holds a lesson for India. English skills are undoubtedly important, and give us a big edge over China. Poor parents are keenly aware that English language skills improve earning ability, and so many have switched their children from government schools to private schools claiming to teach in the English medium.
Gujarati parents say, “My child already speaks Gujarati: why teach that again in school? Why not English?” That logic sounds impeccable, but is mistaken. Once a child has become good in Gujarati, it will more easily become proficient in English. The issue is not one of Gujarati versus English. Rather, good Gujarati is a sound foundation for good English.
Faced with half-empty classrooms in government schools, some state governments plan to introduce English from class 1 to win back students. That would be a serious error.
English is important. But even more important is reading and writing in your mother tongue.