Is premature English making India a super-dunce?

In the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) international competition for children’s learning, India came 72nd out of 73 countries. The Annual Status of Education Report (Aser 2011) reveals that the proportion of Class 5 children able to read a Class 2 text has fallen from 53.7% in 2010 to 48.2% in 2011. The proportion of Class 3 students able to do simple subtraction sums is down from 36.3% to 29.9%. India is bidding to be a super-dunce rather than superpower.

The government’s two flagship programmes, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act, emphasize huge spending on school infrastructure and teacher training. But learning outcomes have not improved at all despite Rs 100,000 crore of extra spending in the last five years.

One answer is to make teachers more accountable for results. But politicians of all parties fear teachers’ unions, and dare not discipline them. Instead, politicians pretend that higher spending is the solution.

Desperate parents find free governments schools so bad that they have shifted massively to private schooling. The proportion of children in private schools is up from 18.7% to 25.6%, with another 26% going for private tuitions. The puzzle is that not even the huge shift to private paid education shows up in improved learning outcomes.

Many research studies (eg. Muralidharan and Kremer, Tooley and Dixon) have found that private schools yield better learning outcomes. But this is not vindicated at the national level in ASER’s surveys. Can so many researchers be wrong? Can millions of parents be wrong?

We need more research to find answers. Maybe research studies so far have focused on relatively strong states. Maybe outcomes have improved in higher classes but not yet in elementary schools. Maybe the shift to private schools will improve outcomes with a lag.

A fourth possibility is that states and private schools have shifted prematurely to teaching English, or teaching in the English medium. Poor parents desperately want their children to learn English. Thousands of private schools have come up, especially in the Hindi belt, with outlandish names like Saint Convent School, or even Popatlal Convent School. But not even the teachers in such schools know decent English.

Some state governments have made English compulsory in Class 1. But premature teaching of English may worsen all learning.

Educationist Helen 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… If they cannot read fast enough, then all their mental attention is taken up in decoding the letters…If a child cannot read quickly, it cannot follow what text books or teachers are conveying. All schooling can bypass such children. They can spend eight years in school and remain functionally illiterate.” This sound so much like India!

Elite children enter school with a vocabulary of 3,000 words, and can read easily. But poor children start with a vocabulary of just 500 words, and struggle to read. Teaching English in Class 1 compounds the problem. Here again elite children speaking English at home can easily cope. But a new language devastates poor children, who struggle to read even in their mother tongue. They may fail to acquire the minimum required speed (one word per second) for comprehension. Such children will obviously have poor learning outcomes.

But children who learn to read fluently in their mother tongue can easily learn English later. In an experiment in Zambia, some children were taught both English and the local language in Class1, while others started English writing only in Class 2. The difference was astounding. The first group had reading scores two grades below the standard benchmark in English, and three grades lower in the local language. But where English was introduced later, English reading and writing scores shot up 575% above the benchmark in Class 1, 2,417% in Class 2, and 3,300 % in Class 3. Scores in the local language showed leaped up too. This system was extended to all Zambian schools.

Lesson: start with mother tongue, and introduce English later. The issue in India is not Hindi vs English. Rather, a good Hindi foundation improves English learning later. The trap to avoid is premature introduction of English, or teaching in the English medium to children who don’t speak it.

Is premature English teaching an important reason for the failure of high government spending and private education to improve learning outcomes? I suspect so. But we need fresh research and experimentation to find out.


  • I agree fully that IQ of children increases by educating them in their mother tongue. Less than 2% of the population is migrating to other countries or other states and many are not English speaking countries and many are not Hindi speaking states. For the sake of 2% students / children benefit, 98% student’s learning time is being wasted in teaching English / Hindi whose capacity/IQ to learn more languages is limited. This wasted time could be better utilized to enhance their professional skills by teaching in their mother tongue and to better their future productivity / earnings. I confidently doubt about the relevance of English to Indians

    Instead of preaching Hindi language learning to non Hindi speaking people, national Integration can be achieved by implementing common script to all Indian languages by making any Indian language learning easier since their syllables & syntax is same and at least 20% common vocabulary . This would encourage Indians to learn other languages voluntarily when they go outside their state being already familiar with the script. A new common script is the need of the hour for the Indian languages. English has four scripts to write. Similarly, every Indian language can have at least two scripts for national integration.

  • I’m 40 years old. Most friends/colleagues of my generation began schooling with English, and learnt the English alphabet before we learnt Kannada or Hindi. It worked well for us. This is what I choose for my children too. My point: despite the factors these researchers mentioned, many teachers already make English education work well.

    I suspect that these government programs failed because they hired incompetent teachers. This is what you brought up with “… not even the teachers in such schools know decent English”. However, you and these researchers ascribe poor literacy to so many other factors. I ascribe it to just one. What about tougher exams before they’re allowed to teach?

  • Hey Swami,

    So you have nicely come up with some workable solutions. I agree with them.

    But what about the short and medium term implications of the fact that”India came 72nd out of 73 countries”. Don’t you think there will be some real nasty implications about this ?

  • Learning in the mother tongue and then introducing english at a later stage. – I to begin with don’t agree to this as india has 30+ languages & close to 25K dialects and teaching in the mother tongue would be extremely difficult if not impossible.

    The only possible solution is to start disciplining the teachers & take them to task on improving the quality of education, Its quite ridiculous on the amounts that we spend 100,000 Crores on some of the Educational flagship schemes over this five years have not yielded any results. Some methods include investing in setting up a performance based system that rewards teachers who innovate and bring in better forms of learning rather than teachers who introduce the rote based system that we encountered when in school. Hope the government is able to introduce this concept soon despite all the opposition from the government teachers who are resistant to change.

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