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  • Writer's pictureThings Education

Why are students struggling to read?

...and what we can do about it.

Hello and wish you a very happy new year! Through Things in Education, we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.

In the second edition of Things in Education, we talk about one of the main reasons why reading levels in India are so low and what are small changes that educators or parents can make to help build reading skills in students. We would love to hear from YOU about what struck you or stuck with you, about similar successes and frustrations, and about your feedback and suggestions on our write-ups! Please leave a comment or write to us at

The Reading Crisis: The Missing Puzzle Piece

A Happy Child. This is the first poem of the Grade 1 NCERT textbook, Marigold. It is a simple, happy piece of text that little children should be able to enjoy. Yet, the ASER 2019 findings showed us that only 16% of children in Grade 1 could read a text at this level. This means that in a typical classroom of 50 children that many of us studied in, only 8 children would be able to read this poem. Crucially, the term ‘read’ in this case refers to being able to read the words with some degree of fluency, but may not necessarily refer to understanding or comprehending the text. The reading crisis in our country is very real.

The solutions to this crisis have been widely discussed – more oral language activities, explicit phonics instruction, focus on letter and word recognition, and continuous remediation. All these are non-negotiable. Yet, we have missed out on a crucial piece of the puzzle. To find this missing puzzle piece, we must take a broader perspective on reading.

To do so, let’s take a look at two very distinct examples.

Example 1: In the 1970s, a study was conducted with a group of graduate students in the USA. These students were highly skilled readers of English. In the study, the students were asked to read a text written in English, talking about “an agreement about gifts that a bride's family would give the groom's family.” The students were then asked to share what the passage was about. How do you think they fared? Unsurprisingly, most students got it wrong, saying that the passage was about “an agreement about gifts to be exchanged.” Why is this unsurprising? What was the main cause of the fundamental miscomprehension here?

While you think about that, let’s read another example.

Example 2: The Appalachian Mountains are a range of mountains in north-east USA. An interesting study talks about an urban family in the area. The parents in this family were not literate, and so reading books involved “inventing stories to match the pictures.” As a result, for the children, reading simply meant looking at pictures and creating stories, and they were not aware that the words on the page played any role at all. Another study with a set of different families found that adults simplified stories read aloud to children, by making the plot simpler and using shorter, simpler sentences. How do you think these children fared when they entered formal school? What difficulties do you think they faced?

What is the missing piece of the puzzle?

The issue in the first example is easy enough to figure out. We know that background knowledge and cultural differences are key factors in reading comprehension. Educators must keep this in mind at all times – textbook authors and curriculum designers while writing stories and creating activities, and school leaders and teachers in their everyday conversations with and expectations from students. If a student struggles to understand what exactly Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit wanted to do with the parsley that he was looking for on Mr. McGregor’s farm, it is not because the student isn’t paying attention to refusing to put in effort – it’s because the student has no cultural reference for understanding the word. Sure, we can always give students a simple explanation of the word – but how many of us in India can describe what parsley looks like without a Google search? And so, we have to be planned and intentional while teaching reading. We have to think about what we know and don’t know, what students know and won’t know, and where comprehension will suffer. Otherwise, comprehension will suffer.

The second example, however, goes to the root of this missing puzzle piece – the literacy practices of the home. Background knowledge is just one part of the literacy practices we grow up with. The other, intangible, ingrained practices – how we talk about stories, whether the storyteller asks the child questions about the story, whether children know the function of printed words, and whether stories are read or even shared at all – are the practices that matter the most.

What’s the disconnect? And what’s the solution?

To understand the disconnect, let’s take a look at another example. A 3-year-old child in a high-income family is using an activity book. The mother knows that the child knows the letters of the alphabet but cannot decode and read words. The mother asks the child to read the question on the page. The child says, “What is bunny and fox throwing?”

What is happening here? The child, through practice and repetition, knows the kinds of questions he/she can expect – classificatory questions (What are bunny and fox playing with / throwing?) as opposed to narrative questions (What are bunny and fox doing?). Such are the types of questions that children in early years of school are asked, as well. In short, the child is acquiring a clear understanding of the literacy practices of the school, which in this case are the same as the literacy practices of the home.

The disconnect arises when the two are not the same, like we saw in the example of the families of the Appalachian Mountains. In India, every low- and middle-income family has a variety of literacy practices, right from asking children to simply listen to stories without any conversation to a complete absence of storytelling and other literacy activities.

What educators must keep in mind is that no child enters school with zero literacy skills. Children have extensive vocabularies (in their own language, if not the language of the school) and literacy skills (tied to home literacy practices, if not school literacy practices). The solution lies in understanding how to bridge the gap between the practices of the home and the practices of the school. Before we tag a child as a struggling reader, let’s find out the child’s definition of ‘reading.’


A Happy and Expressive Environment

The home and school environments should encourage the child to read, talk and express herself in a variety of ways. They should have a lot of materials such as books, newspapers, pamphlets, paper, pencils, crayons, and so on. However, what is done with this material matters even more. For example, while playing a game, literacy skills can be built by encouraging the child to write out and explain the rules to the players. Similarly, a child can be asked to write the shopping list and ensure that all items have been purchased, or maintain book lists to help the librarian manage borrowed and returned books.

Storybook reading and storytelling are the most crucial elements of the literacy environment, and having conversations about the story – about new and unfamiliar vocabulary words, about how the characters are similar to and different from us, about how the child feels about the problem in the story – play the biggest role in building vocabulary and reading comprehension skills.

Keeping in mind the importance of conversations, unboxED literacy boxes include a set of conversation cards to go along with each storybook, which parents and teachers can use to discuss new words and dive deeper into the story.


Useful Links

  • Why Reading Programmes Fail: In this short article, literacy expert Ritu Lamba talks about the missing feature that each reading programme needs in order to show real gains in reading.

  • Conversation Prompts While Reading Aloud: This easy-to-read blog by Things Education shares some techniques and prompts to ensure rich conversations while reading stories aloud.


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Edition: 1.2

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