Reading Comprehension is the most neglected aspect of Indian School Education; the focus needs to be on that

I have been thinking of this issue since December when I interacted with a niece and nephew of mine (see below). Today I came across a TOI report on Indian students being at the bottom (2nd from bottom), which made me reflect further and write this post. Following are some excerpts from that report.

Fifteen-year-old Indians who were put, for the first time, on a global stage stood second to last, only beating Kyrgyzstan when tested on their reading, math and science abilities.

India ranked second last among the 73 countries that participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted annually to evaluate education systems worldwide by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Secretariat. The survey is based on two-hour tests that half a million students are put through.

The states of Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, showpieces for education and development, were selected by the central government to participate in PISA, but their test results were damning.

15-yr-old Indians 200 points behind global topper

Tamil Nadu and Himachal, showpieces of India’s education and development, fared miserably at the Programme for International Student Asssment, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Secretariat.

An analysis of the performance of the two states showed:

In math, considered India’s strong point, they finished second and third to last, beating only Kyrgyzstan

When the Indian students were asked to read English text, again Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh were better than only Kyrgyzstan. Girls were better than boys

The science results were the worst. Himachal Pradesh stood last, this time behind Kyrgyzstan. Tamil Nadu was slightly better and finished third from the bottom

The average 15-year-old Indian is over 200 points behind the global topper. Comparing scores, experts estimate that an Indian eighth grader is at the level of a South Korean third grader in math abilities or a second-year student from Shanghai when it comes to reading skills.

The report said: "In Himachal, 11% of students are estimated to have a proficiency in reading literacy that is at or above the baseline level needed to participate effectively and productively in life. It follows that 89% of students in Himachal are estimated to be below that baseline level."

The detailed and insightful blog posts here, here, here, here and here have more details on this PISA test and MHRD’s reaction to India’s performance.

So here are my personal thoughts on this.

As I mentioned earlier, this December I interacted with a nephew and a niece in India. This niece lives in a small town (Vyasanagar) and had 85%+ in her class ten exam and was preparing for her +2 Science exams. She was very good at solving math problems on topics that she had already learned. For some reason I asked her to read a new section in the book and solve the problems at the end of the section. She could not do it. She asked me to explain that section. Upon further inquiry I found that her studying pattern was to attend "tuition" where the tuition master would explain a particular section of a book and then give problems. In other words she was lacking in "reading comprehension". The same story with respect to my nephew, an engineering student. He could not read a section on his own and understand it well enough to solve the problems at the end of the chapter.

Considering the prevalance of "tuition" in India the above are not isolated cases. I think the "epidemic" of tuition is due to the fact that most school students in India have not developed the "reading comprehension" skills. That is because developing the "reading comprehension" is neither emphasized nor tested and this is especially true with respect to "Reading comprehension in English".

Starting from the very beginning, English text books have a series of chapters with stories, essays or poems and at the end of it there are questions with respect to them. This seemingly suggests that students using those text books are being taught  "Reading comprehension in English".

That is not the case.

Most often, the teachers or the tutors read the text and explain the students those chapters. At times they may ask the students to read the text aloud.  But that does not automatically develop the "reading comprehension" skills.

I am surprised that the neglect of the development of "reading comprehension" skills has not been widely noticed and acted upon. Following are pointers to some places where they have been noticed. But I am not sure they have been properly addressed.

The wonderful organization Pratham  has a "Read India" program. Following is an excerpt from their main page:

Read India was therefore launched on a national scale in 2007 to help achieve the following objectives:  

    * All Std I children know at least alphabets & numbers.
    * All Std II children can read at least words & do simple sums.
    * All Std III-V children can at least read simple texts fluently & confidently solve arithmetic problems.

Later in that page they have:

In 2009-10 Read India moved to the next level, Read India II, focuses on higher grade-specific learning competencies, where basics have been achieved.2010 onwards, Read India II moved from our previously used model of short-term large-scale learning campaign mode to a longer, more sustained presence in the villages that we work in, in order to bring about a deeper more permanent impact.

However, no where in that page "Reading Comprehension" is mentioned. But by googling the phrase "Reading to Learn R2L methodologies Pratham" I was able to reach the page where "reading comprehension" is mentioned in the following context.

Read to learn (R2L) picks up where Learn to Read leaves off.  Out-of-school children are the priority of the program. Once children have built their basic reading skills, they are taught how to read with comprehension and express what they have learned. R2L classes have two phases:

  • Phase 1 (R2L1) strengthens reading, comprehension of school and other texts, and independent writing.
  • Phase 2 (R2L2) ensures that the children complete the basic curriculum for Grade III as prescribed by the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT).

The 2006 NCERT document at makes the following point.

3.5 Text Books

All this implies much more teacher and learner control over the texts used in class, including textbooks. Curricular freedom cannot exist in the presence of a single prescribed text. Earlier practices of choosing from a range of available texts can be revived; some states like Orissa have come up with innovative textbooks with short units that can be “covered” within a single class (Sunwani 2005), incorporating the idea of a reading card. Language should be seen as a “dynamic” text, i.e. exposure should be to new occurrences of comparable language samples everyday, rather than repeatedly to a single text
that is mastered (Amritavalli (1999) makes an analogy with the learning of a raga in Indian classical music). This will prepare the child for tests of “unseen” comprehension passages. Teachers and learners need to evolve for themselves a balance in the use of predictable and unpredictable texts that suits their individual levels of comfort.

But I wonder if anything has been done about it.

What needs to be done is from the very beginning "Reading comprehension" should be emphasized and tested. How? As suggested in the above mentioned NCERT document, students should be trained to read passages on their own and answer questions about them. They should be tested with respect to passages they have not seen before. This needs to happen in every class starting from the class where they learn the language.

The site makes a good case of the importance of "Reading Comprehension" and how should it be approached differently from the traditional approach. (The traditional approach is followed in India with additional drawbacks of the teachers and tutors doing the comprehension.) Following is from that page:

Teaching Reading

Traditionally, the purpose of learning to read in a language has been to have access to the literature written in that language. In language instruction, reading materials have traditionally been chosen from literary texts that represent "higher" forms of culture.

This approach assumes that students learn to read a language by studying its vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure, not by actually reading it. In this approach, lower level learners read only sentences and paragraphs generated by textbook writers and instructors. The reading of authentic materials is limited to the works of great authors and reserved for upper level students who have developed the language skills needed to read them.

The communicative approach to language teaching has given instructors a different understanding of the role of reading in the language classroom and the types of texts that can be used in instruction. When the goal of instruction is communicative competence, everyday materials such as train schedules, newspaper articles, and travel and tourism Web sites become appropriate classroom materials, because reading them is one way communicative competence is developed. Instruction in reading and reading practice thus become essential parts of language teaching at every level.

Reading Purpose and Reading Comprehension

Reading is an activity with a purpose. A person may read in order to gain information or verify existing knowledge, or in order to critique a writer’s ideas or writing style. A person may also read for enjoyment, or to enhance knowledge of the language being read. The purpose(s) for reading guide the reader’s selection of texts.

The purpose for reading also determines the appropriate approach to reading comprehension. A person who needs to know whether she can afford to eat at a particular restaurant needs to comprehend the pricing information provided on the menu, but does not need to recognize the name of every appetizer listed. A person reading poetry for enjoyment needs to recognize the words the poet uses and the ways they are put together, but does not need to identify main idea and supporting details. However, a person using a scientific article to support an opinion needs to know the vocabulary that is used, understand the facts and cause-effect sequences that are presented, and recognize ideas that are presented as hypotheses and givens.

Reading research shows that good readers

  • Read extensively
  • Integrate information in the text with existing knowledge
  • Have a flexible reading style, depending on what they are reading
  • Are motivated
  • Rely on different skills interacting: perceptual processing, phonemic processing, recall
  • Read for a purpose; reading serves a function

Reading as a Process

Reading is an interactive process that goes on between the reader and the text, resulting in comprehension. The text presents letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs that encode meaning. The reader uses knowledge, skills, and strategies to determine what that meaning is.

Reader knowledge, skills, and strategies include

  • Linguistic competence: the ability to recognize the elements of the writing system; knowledge of vocabulary; knowledge of how words are structured into sentences
  • Discourse competence: knowledge of discourse markers and how they connect parts of the text to one another
  • Sociolinguistic competence: knowledge about different types of texts and their usual structure and content
  • Strategic competence: the ability to use top-down strategies (see Strategies for Developing Reading Skills for descriptions), as well as knowledge of the language (a bottom-up strategy)

The purpose(s) for reading and the type of text determine the specific knowledge, skills, and strategies that readers need to apply to achieve comprehension. Reading comprehension is thus much more than decoding. Reading comprehension results when the reader knows which skills and strategies are appropriate for the type of text, and understands how to apply them to accomplish the reading purpose.


Section Contents

Goals and Techniques for Teaching Reading
Strategies for Developing Reading Skills
Developing Reading Activities
Using Textbook Reading Activities
Assessing Reading Proficiency

One should read the above pointers to get the whole picture of how to do it right.

January 15th, 2012

PIB: Educational Complex in Low Literacy Pocket for Development of Women Literacy in Tribal Areas

Following is from


16:49 IST

Rajya Sabha 

  No project has been sanctioned in the last three years (2005-06 to 2007-08) in districts other than identified low literacy districts and areas having Primitive Tribal Groups (PTG) girls population under the scheme “Educational Complex in Low Literacy Pocket for Development of Women Literacy in Tribal Areas”, revised and renamed as “Strengthening education among ST girls in low literacy districts” in 2007-08.


            The details of identified districts under the scheme “Educational Complex in Low Literacy Pockets for Development of Women Literacy in Tribal Areas” in which the projects were sanctioned during the last three years is annexed.


            The Government is implementing the Literacy Programmes of National Literacy Mission in 597 districts of the country with special focus on female literacy, a targeted scheme of strengthening education among Scheduled Tribe girls in low literacy districts, as well as, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan with specific components to improve girls education in all districts of the country.


            This information was given by the Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Shri M.A.A. Fatmi in reply to a question in Rajya Sabha today.








Name of District


Andhra Pradesh


























Himachal Pradesh




West Singhbhum



Raichur and Mysore


Madhya Pradesh












Thane (for PTGs*)

Nanded (for PTGs*)













Sawai Madhopur




West Bengal


May 7th, 2008

HDF (Human Development Foundation) making a B-School with difference

The Chairman of HDF is Dr. Dhanada Mishra, Ph.D in Civil Engineering from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Among other credentials, Dhanada is the state coordinator of Pratham, an AID Saathi, SEEDs board member and a decent human being. He is the Chairman of the Human Development Foundation (HDF), which is in the process of establishing a business school with difference. With him at the helm of the HDF School of management, HDF’s vision of "an empowered and proactive community enriched by quality human resources" and mission of "facilitating a participatory movement to strengthen development initiatives by promotion of quality human resources and encouragement of shared leadership", and with Dhanada as the chairman of the board of trustees of HDF, I think this B-School will not only be a top-notch B-School in the country but will also be a B-School with difference. To understand what I mean by a B-school with difference, let me copy and past the Chairman’s message below.

Dear prospective students;

Welcome to HDF School of Management!

As you consider your choices for higher education in Management Studies, I would like you ponder for a moment about the kind of institution that you would like to spend two precious years of your life in. As you look at the options I am sure you will realise that you are faced with two very stark choices. On one hand you have public sector institutions offering programs at affordable costs to students selected in highly competitive admission process. It is no doubt that some of these institutions are world-class. Unfortunately, most of the public sector institutions provide poor environment for overall growth of the individual in the sense that they lack the entrepreneurial spirit which is reflected in weak placement effort, lack of up-to-date curriculum, weak industry linkage and so on. These aspects are more pro-actively addressed by the second group of growing number of institutions promoted by edupreneurs in the last one and half decade. However, it may not be an exaggeration to say that most of these second set of institutions are characterised by high fees, unethical commercialisation, lack of transparency and poor quality.

In the above scenario, Human Development Foundation (HDF) is making an attempt to create a third alternative where the best characteristics of public and self-financed education can be offered to the students. The Foundation itself is based on the deep concern of a set of individuals for the over-all development of the society through creation of high quality and ethical human resource to tackle our myriad problems. The School of Management is but one of the several ventures to offer students high quality education at a modest fee. It is driven by highly qualified and motivated faculty. It provides opportunity to students for exposure to social sector development projects for hands-on feel for one’s responsibility towards society beyond career aspirations. Thus, it aims to create a balanced, competent and wholesome individual equipped with the best tools of the trade, ready to engage with the society be it through the corporate sector or through the development sector.
The vision of the foundation, ‘an empowered and pro-active community’, can only be achieved by creation of high quality human resource on a scale matching the enormity of our future needs. We believe that through our passion for this vision, hard work, team effort and dedication we will create an environment where you can achieve your true potential as a management professional of highest caliber ready to take on the world.

I look forward to meeting you in near future.

Dhanada Kanta Mishra, Ph. D. (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

1 comment April 5th, 2008

Orissa has the highest percentage of out-of-school rural children in the country

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2007 released by Pratham, Orissa tops the list of states with 8% out-of-school children in  the 6-14 age group in rural areas. This number is almost double the percentage all over India (4.2%). The good news is that the percentage has gone down from 9.1% in 2006 to 8.0% in 2007. Rajasthan and Bihar, however, have reduced the percentage from over 10% in 2006 to 6.5% in 2007.

The following table shows the numbers for the 30 districts in Orissa. Some of the numbers are truly alarming.


January 17th, 2008

Read India Campaign in Orissa: A report by Dr. Dhanada Mishra

Review Report of Read India Campaign in Orissa (Jul – Nov 2007)

Dhanada Mishra 


Pratham started its ‘Learning to Read’ and library activities in the slum areas of Cuttack in 2003 and later the direct program was expanded to Jaypore town in Koraput with support of BILT. Later the program was expanded when Pratham Orissa in collaboration with Orissa Primary Education Program Authority (OPEPA) conducted a pilot of ‘Learning to Read’ in 4 blocks of 4 districts namely- Kantamal of Boudh, Tikabali of Kandhamal, Basta of Balasore and Thakurmunda of Mayurbhanj during the period Nov 06 – April 07. The pilot received positive response and now the campaign has moved to 24 out of 30 districts of Orissa. We are covering 181 blocks (roughly half of the state) in these 24 districts. The blocks have been chosen in consultation with OPEPA on the basis of backwardness in terms of various parameters such as out of school children percentage, results etc. as compared to state average.

The campaign was launched on 28th of July with a 2 day state level consultation with various partner organizations. The campaign is 3 months old and community based as the OPEPA partnership to implement it through the school system is yet to be finalized, but likely to take place very soon.

No. of Districts: The campaign will now cover 24 out of 30 districts of Orissa

Target Children: The target group is the children in the age group of 6-14 years.

Learning Goals

    The target children should be able to read 6 letter words and simple sentences, passage, short stories without conjoined letters.

Achievements and Shortfalls:

    • Mobilisation
      • Reach – We have reached about 18340 out of approximately 25000 villages. We have realized that there has to be a change in tactics to speed up our reach by collaborating with existing network of NGOs, SHGs, Government programs such as OTELP, Watershed mission etc. We realistically expect to reach any where between 15000-20000 by middle of November.
      • Partnership – Formal partnership (MOU) with OPEPA is yet to be signed. But we have got in principle letters of support from State Project Director addressed to all DPCs, we have letters of support from Revenue Divisional Commissioner (RDC)s of two out of 3 zones where most of our districts are located in support of our campaign addressed to collectors. Number of districts are giving us good support with out formal MOU. We have partnership on the ground with about 30 NGOs. We have received small local financial support from one group of educational institutions (CSREM) and a US based NGO – IAFF. Partnership proposal with UNICEF is being negotiated for joint campaign in Koraput and Raygada districts. Some 3811 schools are conducting L2R classes.
      • Personnel- Number of volunteers mobilised was about 14500 at roughly one per village.
    • Training: Almost 17500 volunteers out of 23800 volunteers mobilised have been trained by the end of November. No. Of teachers (700), SHG members (100), Anganwadi workers (1400) have been mobilised but those trained have been much smaller in comparision.
    • TLM: Pratham – Pratham has printed and distributed about 220000 sets of materials to the trained volunteers at the rate of set of 20 booklets per volunteers so that the trained volunteers can start the classes. About 4600 volunteers had received the material by end of November.
    • Teaching-Learning Activities – About 280000 children are involved in the classes by the end of November.


Other Highlights of Achievements:

  1. 196 blocks in 24 districts have been identified and block coordinators, district coordinators and zonal coordinators selected, trained and deployed.
  2. Almost 23800 volunteers have been identified in about 18300 villages and training is going on.
  3. About 17500 volunteers already trained and conducting classes.
  4. 12 page TLM has been designed and printed and being distributed in phases as more and more volunteers are trained and getting ready to start classes.
  5. Letters of supports have been received from SPD and two RDCs.
  6. MOU under negotiation with Orissa’s largest Newspaper group.
  7. Pratham has conducted a ‘Story Writing and Story Reading’ festival in 1500 panchayats in collaboration with SAMBAD – the largest circulating Oriya daily. Almost 15000 children have participated in this festival and it has created thousands of stories written by children that can be used by us in creating material for the Reading campaign.
  8. In collaboration with UNICEF Pratham organised a ‘Reading can be Fun’ stall on Children’s Day for the state level function. UNICEF is considering a proposal to partner with Pratham in their reading program in Koraput and Raygada districts.
  9. In collaboration with Institute of Mathematics and Application (IMA), Bhubaneswar and its director Prof. Swadhin Pattnaik (most well known mathematician of Orissa), Pratham volunteers helped conduct the Rural Mathematics Talent Search Examination (RMTS) on November 18th. As a result of our help, almost 10000 additional class VI students could take the test in almost 100 centres in remote rural areas. This partnership is likely to help us in the future with our work in ‘R2L’ in mathematics.
  10. Number of corporates have shown interest in sponsoring Read Orissa campaign as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility program.
  11. Negotiation is underway with the ICDS department for conducting a 10 block pilot of the Sishubachan program through the Anganwadi centers.
  12. The Skill development program being run at Central Toolroom and Training Center (CTTC) has expanded from one pilot batch of students to four batches.
  13. Spoken English pilot at the Government High School, IRC Village in Bhubaneswar is running well with children showing good progress.
  14. First issue of ‘Pratham Parikrama’ – the newsletter of Pratham has been published.


All in all it has been an exhilarating experience, as we go about taking the campaign forward and reaching out to children far and wide in remote corners of the state. We hope to work closely with OPEPA at the state level and education department officials at all levels and finally primary school teachers to ensure that all of our children are able to read, write and do arithmetic.

1 comment December 13th, 2007

Dhanada Mishra’s READ Orissa campaign diary

(For those who do not know, Dhanada is a Ph.D in Civil Engineering from University of Michigan, is in his early forties, was principal of JITM after passing over many offers.)


As I sit in a review meeting of our campaign in the Cuttack office surrounded by eager young faces as zonal cordinators, state office functionaries, state head of projects etc., I am bombarded with passionate arguments about the progress of our efforts in the 180 blocks of 24 districts in different remote corners of the state. As we look in to the number of volunteers mobilised, numbers of those trained, numbers of classes started, the meeting erupts with arguments and counter-arguments. Some one doesn’t believe the numbers, some one defends vociferously as for a while I sit back and let the energy drain and enjoy the passion that people bring to their work as which is perhaps only possible in my new occupation! We discuss and debate our work culture, the need to open up more, to take more people with us in the campaign, the urgency and importance of motivating that grassroots level volunteer, the need for travelling to keep in touch and support each other, the enegy, the passion, the dedication to the cause stands out above the occasional din of arguments and counter-arguments. Welcome to the Read Orissa Campaign at its peak!

As I adjust in to this new life of no office, no 9-5 office hour, no Sundays to take a break, there has been very little opportunity to reflect on this dramatic transition from that of a volunteer to a full-timer, let alone write the experience down. When I relocated suddenly back to Bhubaneswar, to re-occupy my parents’s home leaving my job at JITM, Paralakhemundi behind, my parents as well as Babita’s (my wife) parents were perplexed with a tinge of concern as to what I was up to. I was not sure how to put it to them, other than saying that I am on a sabattical and will be working on social issues full-time. This was not very convincing for most of my family and well wishers and I had to make up some story like I am still working for JITM on their Bhubaneswar campus etc.

Continue Reading 4 comments October 28th, 2007

Pratham and Dhanada sign MOU with Sambada on primary education

October 27th, 2007


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