Rawshon Ara Akter teaches at a government primary school in Saturia Upazila of Manikganj. According to her, many third-grade students in her school struggle while reading a simple passage in Bangla. And yet those students are getting good grades. Mahmuda Akhter, a teacher from another school, has a similar observation: “Once, while teaching an eighth-grade class, I asked a student to read a passage from her Bangla textbook. Sadly, she started crying silently in shame instead of reading out loud.”
These beg the question: where do we stand when it comes to literacy skills? A question that comes with a troubling answer. Even though Bangladesh has made praiseworthy strides in improving access to basic education, there are many children who are left behind in the development expedition of Bangladesh just because they lack Bangla literacy skills. Now on the threshold of becoming a middle-income country, Bangladesh must consider setting new targets to improve its education status, especially in terms of primary education. It has become crucial to think beyond the high enrolment rate and take a critical look at the sector to generate more effective solutions.
Each year, we see students passing their Primary School Certificate (PSC) exams with flying colours. But underneath the rosy picture is a reality that's quite troubling. According to the National Student Assessment 2013, 25 percent of students in grade III cannot read simple texts, interpret clearly stated information, identify the meaning and correct spelling of high-frequency words, and recognise correct use of punctuation. The Education Watch 2016 report states that “…from 2002 to 2016, literacy skills improved somewhat at different grade levels, but it still remains unsatisfactory for primary grade completers.”
The Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS) paints a worrisome picture of what those 25 percent of students from grade III (who failed to achieve their grade level of competencies) will face in the secondary level. The bureau's report titled Bangladesh Education Statistics-2016 mentioned that a total of 38.3 percent of students in secondary level have dropped out in 2016.
Working with the aid and social development sector in Bangladesh has taken me to places where most of the people subsist on fishing or agriculture, surrounded as they are by the mighty rivers. Their children's enrolment in primary schools does not give them hope, because they know that their children cannot read and write properly. They know that stipends, free textbooks, benefits of school feeding programmes will help them for a short term, but these will not change their fate as long as their literacy skills do not improve. And one day they will wonder, what is the point of sending children to school if it does not make them competent in their native language Bangla and open up opportunities?
Most experts in the education sector claim that poverty is the most reasonable cause behind dropouts in primary education. But we have to consider the reality that failing to achieve expected literary skills in Bangla fortifies the fear of learning early in life. And this fear can make any student drop out, irrespective of their parents' financial condition.
Reading is a foundational skill that is the bedrock not just of education but also of life-wide learning. The early years of school are very important because this is when this bedrock is built. And primary school is the place where children can achieve their literacy skills.
If we look at the primary schools, we will find that three hours are usually allocated for each shift in a school, of which the duration of “Bangla class” is only 40 minutes. This short period is not enough to help most children improve their Bangla literacy skills.
However, several organisations have been working closely with the government at the local and national levels to look at how best practices could be scaled up. Efforts are being made to address the issue of insufficient time allocation for the subjects like Bangla in primary school and make an effective use of after-school hours. And some of these efforts have been amazingly successful.
In my view, a combination of leveraging inside-school initiatives and catalysing out-of-school activities like Community Reading Camp, under the READ project of Save the Children Bangladesh, can have a sustainable impact on children's literacy skills. By creating spaces where children can participate in fun and innovative literacy activities outside the school, especially for the children of grade I-II who encounter difficulties in learning, literacy skills have been seen to improve significantly. But what I find remarkable is that some of these spaces have been engaging young people in the community to facilitate after-school activities with very positive results.
Once a child achieves literacy skills, it becomes easy for her/him to continue formal education and make the best use of her/his academic results in future. There is no alternative to being creative and interactive in our approach to education, while simultaneously not compromising practical learning outcomes. For Bangladesh, which is among the most densely populated countries in the world, the strength of its rural community has so far been untapped. The power of the people, if correctly leveraged, carries great potential for enhancing its future generation's literacy skills.
This is the least we can do to unleash the endless potential of our children to make a better Bangladesh.
Meher Nigar Jerin is Deputy Manager of Media Relations at READ, Save the Children in Bangladesh.