India: Literate, but cannot read

Don Osborn dzo at
Fri Feb 22 16:17:53 UTC 2008

Innteresting article. I've often wondered what goes behind the oft cited
literacy figures - what is counted as being literate and how - and have also
been a fan of the SLS concept pioneered (I believe) by Brij Kothari.

Another question regarding literacy figures that never seems to be addressed
in the case of multilingual societies is: Literate in which languages (or
even scripts)? It has been said that you only learn to read once, but the
practical (functional) reality I've noted is not so simple. My first
exposure to this was in Togo around 1980 when a Togolese university student
doing a research project with the development project I was working with - a
native Ewe speaker whose education was entirely in French - had to sound out
a short Ewe text like a school child to get its meaning. Many times over the
years I've heard people in West Africa who had some level of literacy in
French or English claim an inability to read let alone write their first
language. Without going into the reasons for that, the phenomenon of being
L2 literate but L1 "illiterate" or semiliterate seems too significant to
overlook entirely - not just for statistics but for the quality and degree
of literacy.

In the other direction, one wonders if literacy skills in a script not
officially favored in a country may be undercounted. At least from looking
at the figures for literacy in places like Nigeria, Senegal or Gambia where
Ajami (Arabic alphabet) transcriptions are still used by people locally for
languages like Hausa, Wolof and Mandinka, it is impossible to know if those
literacy skills are counted or not. (Ajami usage is linked to Koranic
schooling.) Then there is the N'Ko movement in Mandephone regions and the
ongoing use of Tifinagh in Tamasheq-speaking populations. In other words,
are there people who can read but are not "literate"?

Anyway, we're halfway through the UN Literacy Decade and it seems like we're
still asking fundamental questions.

With regard to Kothari's SLS approach, I think it deserves to be explored in
other regions and various types of visual media as well. Adding
karaoke-style SLS to music videos in diverse languages in Africa might be an
interesting way of promoting literacy in those languages - at least some of
the major ones (it also would certainly be of interest to non-native
speakers who are learning the languages, and perhaps it could get funding
from that angle first). Another approach might be to use a
closed-caption-style SLS in didactic videos. A few years back while in Niger
I suggested this for a project on a health video (inspired, actually, by
Kothari's work), but ultimately it was not funded. The idea was that if you
have a video resource in a local language that you will use with people for
learning, why not add the SLS and increase the value/impact of the resource?
>>From a development (communication) point of view this would seem to make a
lot of sense.

Don Osborn

> -----Original Message-----
> From: owner-lgpolicy-list at [mailto:owner-lgpolicy-
> list at] On Behalf Of Harold Schiffman
> Sent: Friday, February 22, 2008 9:22 AM
> To: lp
> Subject: India: Literate, but cannot read
>  Literate but cannot read
> 2
> 2 Feb 2008, 0001 hrs IST,Brij Kothari
> According to the 2001 census, India's literacy rate for the
> population, aged seven and above, was 65.4 per cent. What does this
> number really mean? Can 561 million people, that this rate implies,
> read a newspaper headline in their own language? Not really. What it
> means is that households across India reported 65.4 per cent of its
> members to be "literate", when the census fieldworker showed up. The
> literacy rate is a perceptual number - people perceived to be
> literate. It is not an accurate indicator of the proportion of readers
> in the population.
> What if the national census actually tested for reading ability? We
> did just that, with a sample of around 20,000 people drawn from 3,200
> randomly chosen households in four Hindi states - Rajasthan, UP, MP
> and Bihar. First we followed the census approach. Then we asked every
> household member, aged seven and above, to read a simple text in
> Hindi, of 35 words, that a student in class three would be expected to
> read. Those who could read it correctly, at their own pace, were
> marked as readers.
> Those who could read only parts of it, or took recourse to sounding
> syllables before putting together words, were classified as
> "early-readers". The rest were non-readers, who could not read at all.
>  The census approach gave us a literacy rate of 68.7 per cent in the
> sample. The reading test, in sharp contrast, resulted in 26 per cent
> readers, 27 per cent early-readers and 47 per cent non-readers.
> Even if one were to club the readers and early-readers, at best 53 per
> cent could be considered to be readers. The census method, thus, led
> to an overestimation of the literacy rate, in the Hindi states, by a
> whopping 16 per cent.
> Why is there such a big overestimation? First, in the 1990s, the
> National Literacy Mission did a remarkable job of drumming up interest
> in literacy and started off millions of people on the path to
> literacy. Once someone acquires beginning alphabetic knowledge, that
> person becomes "literate" in family and self-perception, for life, and
> therefore, in the census. The 1990s added nearly 100 million
> perceptual literates, permanently to the census. Many of them,
> however, never quite attained functional reading ability or relapsed
> quickly into non-reading in a lifelong sense.
> Second, our data show that 90 per cent of those who completed first
> grade, were automatically reported as literate. First grade completion
> is now very high among children aged 6-14, because enrolment itself,
> nationally, is over 93 per cent. So whether a child can read or not,
> if you can get her to enrol and complete first grade, she immediately
> joins the ranks of the literate.  Yet, our testing found that, at
> first grade, less than 1 per cent were actually able to read a simple
> paragraph, 27 per cent read it like an early-reader, and 72 per cent
> could not read at all. Even after the completion of grade five, 26 per
> cent could not read at all and only 12 per cent could read it
> comfortably.
> These two reasons explain why the literacy rate is galloping but not
> the ability to read. For the latter to improve, national policymakers
> would need to draw upon innovative strategies that can make lifelong
> reading, inescapable at a mass level.
> One such strategy that we have been advocating for national policy
> adoption, is Same Language Subtitling (SLS).
> Essentially, SLS is the idea of adding karaoke-like subtitles to film
> song-based content on TV, in the same language as the audio. SLS is
> well-researched and proven to improve reading ability, is
> cost-effective, and causes automatic and lifelong reading.
> SLS allows a school-going child to pick up emerging reading skills in
> school and right away practise them at home. This constant interplay
> of school learning and home practice of an essential skill, such as
> reading, deserves more policy attention.
> In the census we have 260 million so-called "literate" people who
> cannot read. National progress ultimately depends on their ability to
> read, not our ability to call them literate.
> (The writer is an adjunct professor at IIM, Ahmedabad.)
> --
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