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Reading troubles

July 17, 2019

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The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THE good news is that a large number of Pakistani children (perhaps almost as many as those of developed countries) are enrolling in kindergarten. The bad news is that only a small percentage of these children remain in school. The terrible news is that of those who do remain in school, very few, only between four to 12 per cent of third graders, are actually able to read fluently while understanding most of the content.

Where statistics for listening comprehension are concerned, few were able to answer the three questions asked in Urdu. “If they got one question correct, they would score 33.3pc for getting one out of three questions right. Across Pakistan, scores ranged from 19 to 32pc.”

The statistics were published in a recent report, Why Can’t Pakistani Children Read?, released by the American think tank the Wilson Centre and authored by researcher Nadia Naviwala.

This bad news about education is not new to Pakistan. For many decades, little money was devoted to the country’s education budget. Prog­ram­mes were started and abandoned midway; improvements were piecemeal at best. The new report indicates that the situation might have improved on some counts. Pakistan’s budgetary allocations for education have increased over the years, according to the study. Other funds have been pledged by international development organisations.

Sadly, the money that is spent is not producing educated Pakistani children — where ‘educated’ stands for the simple ability of being able to read.

In sum, what is not being taught and not being learned is not for lack of funds. While there is always room for more resources, it can be said that probably for the first time in Pakistan, money is actually being spent on education.

Sadly, the money that is spent is not producing educated Pakistani children — where ‘educated’ stands for the simple ability of being able to read. The well-researched report presents the contradictions, assumptions and failures of a hodge-podge system that, on the one hand, expects teachers to deliver, and on the other, doesn’t seem to have any real way of attending to the failures (such as children being unable to read a sentence in Urdu or English).

One cause for this is the fact that children rarely learn the language they speak at home in the books they read at school. The consequence (you’ve guessed it) is a tendency to learn by rote or memorisation rather than actually learning to read and comprehend the written language.

Even worse is the situation of English, reading it or understanding it while it is being spoken to them. Messy assumptions and deceptions rule in this case; for it is not just the children who cannot read, let alone understand the language, it is the teachers themselves who are not familiar with it.

The report cites a survey that says “…94pc of teachers at English-medium private schools in Punjab did not speak English”. ‘English-medium’, the report finds, dangles the possibility of upward mobility and access even while those supposed to teach it are pretending that they refer to the medium of instruction when all they are really referring to is the medium of textbooks. A pile of English-language textbooks then permits a school to call itself an English-medium school.

The report provides an in-depth and comprehensive (including a host of technical solutions and metrics) analysis of the issues observed in the over 100 classrooms which were surveyed. Reading it, however, one cannot but consider how all of Pakistan’s self-deceptions can be witnessed in the condition of its schoolgoing but uneducated children.

In thousands of Pashto-speaking children’s inability to comprehend Urdu, lie seething issues of language supremacy — which language is a national language and which is a divisive one. In the eagerness (and self-sacrifice) of parents who cut corners and skip meals to send their children to an ‘English-medium’ school is the much-peddled lie that English opens doors, English signifies the possibility of greater things, a life that is less deficient than the one they have endured themselves.

At the centre of reading ability is the issue of language politics. Locally relevant education and the use of local languages as the first language children are taught to read may be the answer to actually ensuring that they can read, but it prods and pokes at other delicate deceptions. The issues of which languages are the country’s ‘official’ languages, which are ‘unifying’ languages, which may be perceived as the means of division, are all open questions in Pakistan even as it gets ready to turn an elderly 72 years old.

Attached to the language issue, is the issue of electoral politics that continues, more or less, to be attached to ethnicity. Should every province be granted complete freedom to decide which language is taught to its children? What will this do to the federal funds for schools?

But for now, the report on reading clearly shows that there is a cost to all these unanswered questions, of the class divisions that keep the poor aspiring without the rich ever delivering, and ethnicity and language attached to varying degrees of belonging in a country.

The result shows itself in the country’s schools. Children go to school, and a lot of them do enrol, full of hope and expectation. In government schools, they are confronted with apathetic teachers (if they even choose to teach) and a curriculum that seems a world away from their own, unfamiliar words, sounds and expectations.

Unsurprisingly, many stop going to school or are pulled out. Many of the lucky ones, those who do stay and stick with it, cannot accomplish one of the most basic functions of education ie to be able to read with comprehension.

Unlike previous laments over the educational system, this one does not require the allocation of many billions more. Instead, it asks that the education bureaucracies that run these networks of state schools to consider the truth that they have almost completely failed to educate the children they hoped to teach.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2019