For over a decade now the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) — an annual survey of learning proficiency in primary schools in India — has been hammering the point that in spite of high enrolment, learning outcomes have barely improved. The proportion of Class V children able to read a Class II text has decreased, more so in government schools, according to the 2014 edition of ASER. When judged for English language comprehension, 60.2 per cent of children in Class VIII could read simple sentences in English in 2009, as compared to 46.8 per cent in 2014.
A culture-specific test
Under-qualified teachers, poverty and ill-equipped schools notwithstanding, a less acknowledged reason for poor learning is dyslexia. What’s worse is that there aren’t standardised tests to detect dyslexia — a learning disorder in which people find it difficult to spell and process verbal and written instructions — among non-English speakers. “Generally 5-20 per cent of children around the world are dyslexic,” says Nandini Chatterjee Singh, who at the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar, Haryana, works on how the brain processes language, “The same numbers apply in India, where it’s tougher because children are schooled in multiple languages.”
To address this bit, Ms. Singh and her colleagues developed a questionnaire to test for dyslexia. Then, with associates from organisations such as the Centre of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences, Allahabad, Maharashtra Dyslexia Association, Mumbai, All India Institute of Speech and Hearing, Mysuru, and the Shanta Vaidya Memorial Foundation, Pune, set about interviewing and testing 4,800 children across the country to assess whether their diagnostic kit was useful in ferreting out dyslexia in Kannada, Marathi, Hindi and English. A stark finding was that those who had problems with English were likely to have problems in comprehending other languages too. Moreover it was necessary to test a child in their dominant languages to test for the disability. Though 96 per cent of Indian children are enrolled in school, barely 10 per cent communicate only in English.
The test, Dyslexia Assessment for Languages of India (DALI), consists of a Junior Screening Tool for students in Classes I and II and a longer Middle Screening Tool for those aged 8-10. It consists of testing the child’s facility for naming pictures, the ability to identify words that rhyme, distinguish the individual sounds that make up words and manipulate them, reason with ‘nonsense’ words (essentially, pronounce made-up words), comprehending paragraphs, and mathematical reasoning. The big lesson from the test, says Ms. Singh, is that children shouldn’t be forced to begin reading and writing until they are extremely comfortable in one language. “There’s much research to show that children can rapidly pick up a second language if they are fluent in one,” she says.
Psychologist and special-needs (children) educator Geet Oberoi, who was involved with the DALI exercise, says the test was a necessary tool to developing a “culture-fair” diagnostic test for dyslexia in India and for promoting awareness that children everywhere — rich, poor, Marathi or tri-lingual were equally susceptible to the condition. “We need tests within our cultural context,” she adds.
This isn’t the first time tests to detect dyslexia have been developed in India. The National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped, Hyderabad, has previously developed a test for diagnosing learning disabilities among Kannada-speaking children. Government officials say they were keen on DALI because it could potentially be customised for several more languages. “We would like it for other languages too,” says H.B. Singh, a senior official in the Department of Science and Technology which funded the project, “and we could potentially have new testing formats, like online questionnaires, to popularise this.”
A wide-ranging test would also help spot dyslexics early and make intervention more effective. A 1st or 2nd grade child with dyslexia can be taught to remedy their problems and adapt to regular curriculum far easier than a child in the 9th grade, according to Ms. Oberoi.