An Interview with Language & Literacy Expert: Dr. Shailaja Menon

Dr. Shailaja Menon’s area of research and teaching is Language and Literacy. Shailaja has worked for important national research centres in the United States, such as the Centre for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement at the University of Michigan, and the Centre on Personnel Studies in Special Education at the University of Florida. Shailaja has her doctorate degree in language, literacy and learning disabilities from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and degrees in human development and psychology from MSU, Baroda, and Delhi University, respectively.

Her main area of interests and focus are- How children learn to read and write in Indian languages; How teachers learn to teach literacy; Language and diversity in multilingual Higher Educational settings

READ Alliance recently got an opportunity to drop by the Azim Premji University campus to meet Shailaja Menon. Read excerpts from our conversation below-

You have done extensive research in this field of early literacy; can you share insights from the field and your years of research?

  • At the outset, I want to clear that my research wasn’t interventionist; it was mapping the terrain because nobody in India has done a careful detailed and systematic mapping of these practices. Mine was a three year long project of ‘What is’ not ‘ what is actually happening’ to see if I can change it and make it better.
  • It was a longitudinal study in Yadgir district (Karnataka) and Sonale district (Maharashtra). We went to government schools in both these districts and tracked 360 students twice a year to carry out detailed assessments of children’s foray into reading Marathi and Kannada. We weren’t looking for yes/no answers, but actually trying to understand where is the problem, what is the problem, what is going on etc., and we tracked the children’s progress on a variety of such indicators related to early literacy.
  • This was one part of the project, the other part was classroom observations to know how are teachers transacting, their use of the curriculum, we did teacher interviews to understand teacher beliefs, teacher knowledge on early reading and literacy.
  • Third part of the study deals with an analysis of the curriculum materials- Bal Bharti curriculum in Maharashtra and Nali Kali curriculum in Karnataka. We took marginalized children in each school and did a case study on how are these academically, socially marginalized children using this curriculum. Broadly this is the scope of the project.
  • Some of the things we found out are things that people would already know, they would feel that, yes we know all of this, but it is the first time that it has been empirically tested in a research that is defensible.
  • To talk about the first major point- Children are reading below expectations is not news for anyone, but in our exploration and examination of what is happening, we have found that particular aspects of the script in Kannada and Marathi use Alphasyllabic script (which for a common person is much easier to read and learn than English, we write exactly as we speak, pronunciation is simple, however, we use many more symbols in the Alphasyllabic script, we have ‘Matras’, we have ‘Samyukt Akshars’ and these are very challenging to read).
  • We have over these three years documented children’s errors, and found that it takes far long for children to master even the ‘Mool akshars’ and the pace of our curriculum materials is not according to that. As per the curriculum, by first grade children should have learnt the ‘Mool Akshars’ and by sometime in the second grade they should have mastered the whole script- the ‘Matras’ ‘Samyukt Akshars’ among other things. By middle of second grade, children are given very complex passages. However, the reality is that well in to the third grade, children are still mastering these things. We stopped our study at the third grade, and I can very confidently tell you that children know ‘Mool Aksharas’ but there is so much confusion in ‘Matras’, ‘Jod Akshars’. To make matters worse, the curriculum material does not provide any revision practice. All of this is at the script level.
  • We also found that there is a huge disconnect between the kind of logic of the curriculum and the worlds that these children come from. For example, the presentation of our materials has to be to teach the script, it doesn’t take the child’s oral language into account. They want to present words in the curriculum that have the least number of ‘Matras’ and ‘Samyukt Akshars’, because that’s the natural progression of teaching language to the children- you want to first teach ‘Mool Akshars’ then ‘Matras’ then ‘Samyukt Akshars’ and so on. So the curriculum uses easy words with no ‘Matras’ and ‘Samyukt Akshars’, but the language children use at home, i.e. their oral language is full of ‘Matras’ and ‘Samyukt Akshars’.
  • There are many instances when the teachers teach the children to not use common words but rather uncommon yet simple words which have no relevance to their daily life. For example, children are taught to say ‘Gaj’ instead of ‘Haathi’, ‘Vaanar’ and not ‘Bandar’ as the kids have not been taught grammar till then. The words without ‘Matras’ and ‘Samyukt Akshars’ typically are sanskritized words which have no relation or resemblance to the everyday life.
  • The child’s oral language, which is the richest resource they bring to language learning, is left at the door of the classroom. Instead these artificial words enter teaching script, which are strange and something a child can’t use to express themselves. There is no motivation for the child to wish to express themselves in this strange new system of learning symbols, there is no opportunity for the child to learn to communicate and express what is language, what is the aim of learning literacy, there is no relevance created in the child’s mind. The children are not made to understand why they are being taught what they are being taught, relevance and meaning is not established.
  • Third thing which we found is that teachers use rote and repetition as a method of teaching and lack content specific knowledge and content specific pedagogy. Their teaching is guided by their own experience, and various researchers, who have given some new terminology like- constructivism, child-friendly, joyful, fearless. Between rote and repetition, which is from their experience, and these big terms, which sound very fancy; there is a whole gap on the knowledge required for a teacher to understand what language learning is, how literacy fits into early language learning and basically how to deal with different levels of children while incorporating the child’s background into teaching them.
  • For example, if a child can’t read, the teacher only has one technique and that is- to make the child repeat till he or she can read fluently. They don’t have a repertoire of teaching pedagogy that comes with content knowledge to fall back on while teaching.
  • Teachers believe that the aim of early literacy is script mastery, whereas there are many other aims and objectives of early literacy which are not being addressed. These include, establishing relevance of literacy, understanding what you read, reading and writing to communicate, to be able to critique, aesthetic engagement, all of these are missing as the focus is only on script mastery. But script mastery is also something they are failing at.

According to you, what the major bottlenecks in the Indian primary education sector?

  • Teacher knowledge- it is not sufficient to give teacher general pedagogical tools without giving them a deeper and more meaningful understanding of literacy. Teachers just don’t need to be told- ‘Make your classrooms and teaching child-friendly’, instead they have to be taught and explained- what does it mean to be child-friendly, what is the meaning of constructivism in early language learning?
  • Let me given an example- for teachers’ constructivism is using cards and fancy textbooks for teaching. While observing classrooms and Maharashtra, we found that 7-8 year old children are taught language by using index cards on child marriage which are written at college level. The children just couldn’t grasp anything through these cards, however, for the teacher; he/she had used a constructivist approach to teaching.
  • While analyzing innovative curriculum, we found that mostly the logic used in these curriculums is based on script acquisition, it doesn’t go beyond. Our understanding of Indian script and the tendency to dismiss it as very easily acquirable is a bottleneck.

How do we overcome this? How do we ensure that there is sufficient teacher knowledge, so that maximum learning happens?

  • I think there is a lack of awareness in early literacy, even amongst educators. If you read the latest draft of the National Education Policy, you will be shocked to find that the word ‘Literacy’ is used in the context of adult literacy or preschool programs, but even then it may not necessarily be called literacy. Early grade literacy is not understood, literacy is only seen as making our illiterate population literate by teaching them how to sign their names. To understand what literacy is, how it is foundational to school learning, to create awareness even among educators, NGOs, practitioners is an uphill battle.
  • Articulating, networking, advocacy, creating visibility, linking it with already known concepts so that people don’t see this as an abstract but something more relatable can be done at one level to create awareness on literacy.
  • That’s on one level, but there is no escaping teaching education. Efforts need to be made to make our teachers more effective, this can be done using technology as an aid but not as a replacement of teachers. Technology is nothing without someone to guide it, and to what extent is literacy being acquired in teacher less classrooms, how are children being taught critical thinking skills, how are we establishing the relevance of what the child is learning.
  • There are no teacher education programs in our literacy courses; teachers are taught language learning theories, which explain how children learn. Something that is not very important as children join schools with oral language skills. How children learn language is not going to teach the teacher how to teach language in class. Creating courses which focus on teaching language and making these courses widely available is the need of the hour. Putting these courses in D.Ed and B.Ed curriculum are some ways to make our teachers better equipped to teach language in classrooms.

Reading is a habit, how do you think this habit can be inculcated amongst our teachers, children and other stakeholders in the early reading sector?

  • Are we reading ourselves? Children can’t be socialized into practices that are not a part of the community. So if the community is not a community of readers, so from where will this child develop the habit of reading? Do our teachers have this habit? When we ourselves are not readers, what right do we have to ask our children to become readers? Children grow up in cultures, if the culture doesn’t seem to value reading as a habit, then children are not going to read.
  • One of the things I have been trying to do is to get teachers to become readers. Let me tell you, it is not a quick-fix solution; I have to work intensively with a group of teachers, bring them together for professional development workshops. So it is a long journey which is sustained, slow yet intensive.
  • If reading has not made a difference in my life, in what way can I expect it to make a difference in the lives of the children in my class? We have to genuinely realize the power of reading in our life. A good way is to bring teachers together, read short stories, discuss it from different angles, and then there may be instances when you would have that ‘Aha’ moment where a story connects with you. That’s when you will have no trouble passing this habit on to your students or other children.
  • I always tell me students, if at any given day you aren’t able to pull out a book from your bag and discuss it in detail, you aren’t a reader. Become a reader yourself, before you try to inculcate this habit in your children.
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