Saturday, March 07, 2015

Language Acquisition through Non-cognitive Skills in Karnataka Rural Schools

A Pilot Study by Sikshana Foundation

E S Ramamurthy and K K Subramaniam, Sikshana Foundation
Arjun Shankar, University of Pennsylvania

May 2013


This article is based on a pilot study conducted by the Sikshana Foundation, an education NGO working with primary students of rural government schools in Karnataka, India.  The study was designed to understand the relationship between language acquisition – in this case, Kannada which is the primary language spoken in Karnataka – and non-cognitive skills such as grit and motivation.  The goal of the study was first, to understand how a large group of students can be motivated towards acquiring particular reading skills and second, to assess the improvement in skill acquisition given these parameters.  The defining research questions were: how does one motivate a student to put in the desired effort to learn a skill and how does one ensure he/she maintains motivation until the identified the skill was acquired? An appropriately designed program was first piloted in one school and then “scaled up” in two phases: first, in 43 schools in two different districts in rural Karnataka, Kanakapura and Hoskote, then in 705 schools all over Karnataka state.  Students were immersed in a 30-day continuous skills acquisition course, under similar parameters across the populations.  The results were striking; of over 18000 students from 7th Std who participated, 96% had acquired basic Kannada reading skills within the 30 days, a statistically significant number given that the State average was only 65%.  The article discusses the method by which Sikshana achieved such positive results.


This article is based on a pilot study conducted by the Sikshana Foundation, an education NGO working with primary standard students in rural government schools in Karnataka, India.  The study was designed to understand the relationship between language acquisition – in this case, Kannada which is the primary language spoken in Karnataka – and non-cognitive skills such as grit and motivation.  The goal of the study was first, to understand how a large group of students can be motivated towards acquiring particular reading skills and second, to assess the improvement in skill acquisition given these parameters.
There are a number of important facts regarding primary education in the Public School System in Karnataka state that have contributed to defining the scope of this study. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), provides data on children’s enrollment and basic learning levels; it has been conducted every year since 2005 in all rural districts of India.  In the 2012 ASER report, it was reported that 27.6% % of the students in 7th Standard lack the ability to read in their own language; and 51.7% of them cannot divide a three digit number by a single digit.  These are skills that, going by the Syllabus prescribed for Primary schools in Karnataka, the students should acquire in the normal course by Standards 4/5. The report is a cause for concern in that the problem if not attended to at this stage, may go unaddressed through High School and may eventually become lifetime issues for these students.
Sikshana Foundation witnesses these problems everyday, as it intervenes in over 1200 schools in four States, most of them being in the state of Karnataka.   It seeks to evolve a sustainable and replicable model for an effective and decentralized public school system, in which local stakeholders take responsibility for Sikshana introduced practices over a stipulated period.  Sikshana’s strategy has been three-fold. The first was to motivate and encourage schools to set and work towards well-defined learning level goals in a time sensitive manner. The assistance from Sikshana, in addition to financial / material inputs, was in the form of a Mentor, brought in mostly from within the community or neighborhood.   These mentors identify particular issues that occur at school sites and work with other members of the organization to find appropriate solutions to these context-specific problems.  Second, Sikshana has developed a series of low-cost, high-impact motivational tools to change classroom culture in its schools.  These include “spot prizes” – pencils, erasers, etc. – for positive work within classrooms, along with trips to Delhi for those students who perform best on previously identified goals.  Third, Sikshana measures the impact of their intervention and holds schools accountable to pre-set and 'mutually agreed upon' goals by administering nationally recognized tests both previous to and after interventions.  Thus, Sikshana has devised an approach that recognizes local ground realities while providing a system that can be used across its school sites.
As part of the ongoing, qualitative research that Sikshana Foundation conducts during its site visits – primarily through mentor observation and reportage – two findings were drawn regarding school culture.   First, teachers were well equipped to develop reading comprehension skills in students, both in terms of their qualifications and experience, a fact which complicates much of the literature on teacher inadequacy in the Indian context (Tooley, 2009).  Second, students had the requisite intelligence and ability to learn basic reading skills, a fact supported by the philosophical experiments of Jacques Ranciere in his work The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Ranciere, 1991) and scholars of intelligence, who argue that the brain should be considered a muscle capable of development in the same way as any other muscle in the body (Blackwell, et al., 2007).  However, despite these observations, students had not acquired the basic skills of reading in their native language.  Thus, the result was a paradox in which teaching was taking place, learning was possible, and yet learning was not taking place.
It was within this context that Sikshana decided to conduct a study to develop a system necessary to ensure the acquisition of basic reading skills.  The defining research questions were: how does one motivate a student to put in the desired effort to learn a skill and how does one ensure he/she maintains motivation until the identified the skill was acquired? An appropriately designed program, discussed in detail below, was first piloted in one school and then “scaled up” in two phases: first, in 43 schools in two different districts in rural Karnataka, Kanakapura and Hoskote, then in 705 schools all over Karnataka state.  Students were immersed in a 30-day continuous skills acquisition course, under similar parameters across the populations.  The results were striking; of over 18000 students who participated, 96% had acquired basic Kannada reading skills within the 30 days, an astounding number given that the State average was only 65%.
The rest of this article discusses the method by which students achieved such rapid skill acquisition.  The next two sections of this article will first, articulate the theoretical framework for Sikshana’s intervention and second, will outline Sikshana’s method for intervention and the findings from it.  It will be argued that Sikshana’s successes stem from three connected ideas which they use towards their intervention: first, a theory of motivation; second, a peer-based model of learning; third, a theory of emergent design.  The article will conclude with potential next steps for Sikshana Foundation and the implications for future NGO interventions into rural schooling especially in the context of acquiring essential life skills - such as Reading, Writing, Expression and Basic Numerical Computation.

Theoretical Framework
The Kannada language is a language spoken in India predominantly in the State of Karnataka and is spoken by over 38 million people.   Given this context, teaching and learning in Kannada remains an important feature of primary and secondary education.

The Kannada language has some important features that make it unique in relation to Romanic languages, like English.  The first, and most important is that unlike English, which is an alphabetic language in which the letters of printed words map to the speech sounds, Kannada as an alpha-syllabary language is based on the akshara system, in which each akshara maps to phonology at the level of the syllable.  Again, unlike Indo-European languages which are comprised of 24 to 32 letter units; Kannada is made up of over 474 CV symbols, with further diacritic marks for consonants (Nag and Snowling, 2010).  In a study conducted by Nag and Snowling of the University of York, it was found that learning the Kannada aksharas continued into grade 4 and 5 and that mastery of the akshara script had a strong correlation with reading comprehension i.e. the act of understanding what one is reading (Nag and Snowling, 2011).   Nag found that: “The specific features of the akshara demand cognitive processes that are particular to this orthographic unit, and different from what has been documented with the alphabet. For example, syllable awareness predominates in the early stages of literacy and phoneme awareness seems to be a true consequence of literacy. The orthography-phonology mapping makes unique processing demands and acquisition of akshara knowledge is more drawn out.  (Nag:
One potential implication of Nag’s finding is that sequencing of language learning from syllable awareness to phoneme awareness is a necessary step towards the acquisition of higher level Bloom’s skills such as reading comprehension in languages such as Kannada.  Sikshana’s intervention in schools took this implication seriously and the 30-day intervention was geared towards the mastery of syllables and phonemes, with little attention paid to student’s ability to comprehend beyond basic vocabulary knowledge.  However, as will be discussed in greater detail later, this particular method has been considered a necessary phase I, before a phase II which will deal specifically with higher level comprehension of text. 
Many scholars have argued that the creation of a linearity between phoneme awareness/decoding and higher order comprehension skills such as the ability to summarize texts is not advisable given that research shows budding readers can learn new information as they are developing their reading skills and even skillful readers can develop new strategies to increase comprehension” (The Reading Comprehension Guide).   In other words, decoding and comprehension can be seen as simultaneous skills and should be self-consciously regarded as such when teachers teach in classrooms.
While this may indeed be true, Sikshana’s decision to create their particular model for intervention had another, primary reason: motivation.  Sikshana’s program was designed around the idea that student’s initial successes would beget the motivation necessary to continue along the path towards attaining higher-level reading skills.  In Vygotskyian theory “the zone of proximal development” (ZPD) describes that space between what a learner can do without help and what a learner can do with help.  When students are still in need of assistance for basic decoding, then success is best assured by creating small, achievable objectives that students can build upon over time] The 30-day program was designed primarily with this in mind.  The message was that students could acquire skills in the specified time frame.
However, motivation should not be considered a thing or a condition; it is never a permanent state but a processual state, meaning that motivation increases or decreases, giving behaviors its “drive” or “direction” (Reeve, 1992, 3).  Therefore, scholars have addressed two separate issues with regards to motivation: first, why do particular human beings direct their energy towards a specific goal; second, what determines the intensity of their pursuit of said goals.  Gardner provides one matrix by which to understand motivation.  He argues that four elements – two cognitive and two affective – together allow for student motivation: a goal, desire to achieve the goal, positive attitudes, and effort (Gardner, et al., 1985).  As importantly, Gardner’s model accounts for socio-historical context, which plays a key role in shaping these motivational variables. 
As part of Gardner’s model, which has been taken up by a number of researchers since, he defined two types of motivation: integrative and instrumental.  Learners who are integratively motivated generally want to learn a language so that they can better understand people around them.  On the other hand, learners who are instrumentally motivated want to learn a language because of a practical, extrinsic reason; for example, to get a job or get a better grade (Gardner, 1996).  Gardner attempted to test the integrative motivation of students through the Attitudes/Motivation Test Battery.   Using this test, it has been found that integrative motivation is significantly correlated with language acquisition, a finding which greatly informed Sikshana’s intervention (Gardner and McIntyre, 1993; Clement and Gardner, 2001).

In the United States context it has also been found that providing external rewards and developing instrumental forms of motivation actually diminishes the integrative motivation of students (Lepper, Green, and Nisbett, 1973; Reeve, 1992).  In such cases the reward itself becomes the primary reason for action.  As soon as the reward is no longer present, students will no longer seek to learn the particular content material.  MacIntyre (2002) writes that such results occur “with a task that was intrinsically motivating before the reward was offered” (MacIntyre, 2002, 59).  In the case of students in rural schools in Karnataka, because the task at hand was to develop skills in their primary language – Kannada – students already have a high integrative motivation to learn the language. 
However, despite the fact that students had a high level of integrative motivation, they still had not acquired basic skills in Kannada; a fact which seems to contradict Gardner’s findings.  However, recent scholars have addressed this problem by expanding Gardner’s framework, seeking to include other variables to his socio-economical model.  Oxford and Shearin (1994) provide a long list of motivational concepts that assist in language acquisition.  Of these, two directly informed Sikshana’s intervention: first, reinforcement; second, goal-setting.  These factors, it was hypothesized, when emphasized and developed from the beginning of the 30-day intervention would result in significant skill gain in the student population under consideration. 

Sikshana also had one more important theoretical premise for their intervention: the use of a peer-learning model to enhance the teacher-centered learning approach to skill development.  In a study conducted in 129 primary schools in Scotland, led by a team of Durham University and University of Dundee researchers, children aged seven to twelve who received at minimum twenty minutes of peer-tutoring a week had a consistent positive attainment in reading and mathematics (Tymms, et al, 2011).  While teachers remain in classrooms to oversee the sessions, students are empowered in two ways: first, the peer who is ‘teaching’ skills gets valuable reinforcement of skills and develops higher order Bloom skills; second, the student who is learning within this model gets the one-on-one instruction necessary to develop skills which they have not been able to acquire in formal learning situations.

To test the correlation between these specific factors and language achievement, Sikshana utilized the ASER standardized achievement test, which they administered to all the students who went through their program. 

Finally, given that context variables will always be different, the means by which students can be motivated will always vary.  The implication is, of course, that no pre-determined model can sufficiently account for context specific variables, and therefore will not beget the results which one desires, motivational or otherwise.   Thus, Sikshana approached their intervention using an emergent design model of research and intervention.  Emergent design is a model developed extensively by Cavallo (2000), which provides a “theoretical framework… for investigating how choice of design methodology contributes to the success or failure of education reforms” (p. 768).  The benefit of this model is its recursive, inductive approach: researchers and practitioners gain insights through ethnographic research in the field, changing the approach to intervention in response to the insights gained.  Again, the approach takes seriously the specifics of a social milieu and works from knowledge gained at the local level to create better intervention strategies.  Christies writes “Underlying [emergent design] research is the notion that group work is a dynamic, iterative process. Goals and tasks transform; understanding and perceptions of a project evolve; and members undergo changes within and outside of the group, causing interactions and outcomes to emerge in ways that are sometimes out of the control of the group…” (p. 271).  Given the nature of this form of engagement, plans must remain flexible and projects must change as the contexts within which they are implemented dictate.  In Sikshana’s case, the nature of their intervention changed as they piloted their language acquisition curriculum; new strategies were employed and assessed, the design itself reflecting the complex nature of the context and student population in question.

The following section outlines the specifics of Sikshana’s intervention and their findings.

Pilot Study Design and Findings  

As mentioned earlier, the concept behind Sikshana’s program was that reading fluency is not something to be learnt; it is a skill, needing practice for mastering.  Moreover, the mastering of such skills was based on motivational factors that included goal setting and reinforcement in a peer-learning environment.

Using an emergent research approach, the organization found that the typical intervention in rural schools for those who did not possess reading skills was to teach them to ‘study’ – in the conventional sense and meaning. Through classroom observations over a five-year period it was determined that, while a teacher in a classroom can impart knowledge, skills also need a significant amount of practice, which was reinforced by the theoretical research discussed above.  However, practice itself is motivationally situated, meaning that students who were not willing to put in the requisite effort would not be able to gain particular skills, such as fluency in reading.

Because it was known that integrative motivation would already be high for those learning their mother tongue, the organization hypothesized that instrumental motivational factors, such as small prizes for success in during classroom sessions, would be sufficient to increase reading acquisition for students.  A pilot program was run during 11-12 in 413 schools with 9730 students with extrinsic rewards as the primary intervention strategy; in spite of a highly focused effort and close follow-up, the year long program could only result in 84.7% of the students acquiring the skill. While this was higher then the 72.4% norm at the National level and 65.8% at the State level, it fell woefully short of the Sikshana’s goal of ‘near total’ acquisition. The term ' Near Total' is meant to convey the goal that every student who, in the normal course could be expected to acquire a skill, should in fact succeed in doing so; a number, which the program established as 95% of the students in the program acquiring all language skills.

In parallel, the Kannada teachers in 10 randomly selected schools were quizzed about the feasibility and the time needed for coaching a typical class of 20 students who had not yet acquired reading skills. The responses were unanimous: nearly every teacher said that they would be able to help develop such skills provided students were under their total control and that this would be their only assignment. The amount of time suggested varied from four to six weeks. A pilot program was run in 40 plus schools with an assigned teacher – brought from outside the school in some cases – to take responsibility for this task. This met with limited success and no correlation could be established between success rate and any particular causative factor.  However, classroom observations conducted by Sikshana field staff showed that wherever the teacher in charge was able to elicit a positive response from (i.e. motivate) the students in his or her charge, students achieved ‘near total’ acquisition.  Since the distinguishing characteristic of such a successful resource person could not be established it made the entire process difficult to define and replicate.

It was at this stage that the two critical questions, which underlay the current study, emerged: how does one motivate a student to put in the desired effort to learn a skill and how does one ensure he/she maintains motivation until the identified skill has been acquired?

Given that teachers still claimed that students could develop their reading skills if that was the only objective in a given time frame, Sikshana decided to pilot a new phase in which roughly 30 hours of reading was spread over a month under controlled circumstances.

The contours of the program evolved along the following lines.  Prior to the commencement, students who had not acquired basic reading skills in the Kannada language were identified in each school.  These students were given an extensive briefing with the following message:

Not being able to read own language at this stage is unacceptable
This is perhaps the last chance for them to acquire this skill before they move on to High School, since there will be no more interventions of this type.
If and when they commit themselves for a period of 30 days, there is a high probability that they could acquire this vital life skill - something that they have been unable to get so far in spite of spending years. Data from the previous pilot was shown to reinforce this point.

The practice sessions were to take place in the school premises - during working hours wherever feasible. They would be of one-hour duration, six days a week for five weeks; no break was permitted, nor was there to be any change in the timing for the session.  The continuous learning space without break was to ensure that students would be able to recall a missing element before their memory of the previous episode had lapsed (Cole, et al., 2013).

In these sessions, learning was enabled from a peer rather than from a ‘teacher’.  The learner student was paired with another who had the acquired the specific skill during the session. Both were given identical reading material of appropriate level. The learner was asked to try reading the text. Whenever he might come to a stop, the mentor student was required to read out the word loudly. This intervention would only happen after the learner had made an effort to read and within 2/3 seconds of delay even if the learner had not understood the word. This was designed to ensure the learner was not frustrated by persistent failures while maintaining a steady pace of reading. The entire process involved three steps: a first attempt to read, listening to the correct word from the partner in case of failure and reading it correctly afterwards while observing it ‘visually’.  The learner would begin to associate the word and the sound and if the practice sessions were frequent enough, difficult words would recur to an extent that they could register permanently. A Facilitator oversaw oversee the process to ensure that the procedures were adequately followed. However, he/she was not expected to intervene in the process in the role of a teacher.

The anticipated success of the venture was built on the above process. However It was hypothesized that the factor that would play a much larger and more effective role in learning gains was the macro-message built in at the beginning of the intervention i.e. the reinforcement of perseverance, determination and grit required to acquire a skill or knowledge (Cole, et al., 2013). Once a student agreed to work within a strict regimen as described above, he/ she was already pre-disposed towards success.

To put the above to test, a Pilot was run in a school at Hosadurga with 13 students. These were students who besides having huge skill gaps also tended to skip classes frequently and were not known, based on teacher feedback, to evince great interest in learning. After the briefing prescribed above, a camp was run from 31st Aug to 5th Oct; this period incidentally included three major festival holidays. It ran with total attendance on all weekdays without a break; the students seemed to be showing an unprecedented enthusiasm and a sense of pride in their progressively increasing level of competence. At the end of the period, 10 of them passed the standard test for Level 2 reading; two acquired it after an extension of the program by two more weeks. The success rate was indeed a significant improvement on our past experiences.
A second phase of the program was initiated during October in two clusters: 28 schools with 283 kids in Kanakapura and 15 schools with 223 kids in Hoskote. Again the schedule coincided with the mid-term holidays and three major festivals of the season. Notwithstanding this, the attendance in both centers was near total. Results from this phase show that the improvement gained in a month far outpaces that obtained in earlier efforts. During this trial in 11-12,  a total of 3789 students studying in 7th Std in 136 schools in Kanakapura and Hoskote were taken up for remedial action using conventional techniques. The attrition rate of students lacking skill during the year came to about 8% per month over the period. Under the current pilot program in the same two blocks, the reduction obtained during the stipulated 30 days amounted to 65%, an eight-fold increase in attrition rate.

The program was subsequently extended to cover all 7th Std students in Sikshana schools during the current academic year ‘12-13. However due to logistic constraints, data under controlled conditions could be obtained only from 705 schools in Karnataka. The program, which came to an end in March ’13, yielded the following results in these schools.

Kannada Reading
North Block
South Block
Total - Sikshana
State Average

National Average


During the course of implementing the process, there were still a number of students who were not able to acquire the requisite language skills.  There seemed to be two reasons for this: first, some students simply needed more time. For those who fell in this category, the program was extended by 15 days. The results seen above were inclusive of this process modification. Second, students’ initial learning levels had a significant effect on their progress.  The process worked well with those kids who had some skill in reading simple words but lacked the ability to read a given text fluently. For those who did not possess even this minimal skill the process was found to be inadequate.

Since the basic hypotheses seemed to hold valid, Sikshana came up with a second step within the scope of this process to assist those students who were unable to decode basic words. Appropriate reading materials were developed specifically addressing the needs of these students, with complex alphabets and simple words for use in an identically formatted program.  Such students were made to go through these preparatory sessions for a period of 30 days before submitting themselves to the former program. Pilots ran during this period showed that, segregation of the participating students from the beginning of the program, based on their initial skill level not only improved the pass rates in the first attempt, but also contributed to a near total skill acquisition rate - as defined elsewhere in this article - at the end of the two step process.

Follow-up and Conclusions

Sikshana’s pilot study seems to hold quite a bit of promise for those interested in developing basic reading skills in students who have previously been unable to acquire such basic skills in alpha-syllabary languages such as Kannada.  Their approach, which places motivational techniques at the center, introducing goal setting, reinforcement, and peer-learning at an early stage while maintaining achievable learning goals, may provide a framework for efficient and effective school intervention.  To validate the study further, Sikshana will have a second round of assessments to be conducted by independent researchers.  This will obviously reinforce the program’s legitimacy.

Given the results from Sikshana’s first phase of programming, there are two avenues that emerge as potential next steps in this particular intervention.  First, as discussed earlier, Sikshana’s intervention focused solely on basic reading skills like decoding and vocabulary understanding, higher order Bloom’s skills linked to reading comprehension were not included given the particular questions and agendas of the 30-day trial.  However, given that basic reading skills cannot be the end of any effective intervention, Sikshana plans to unveil a 30-day plan to develop reading comprehension skills in the same student population which had gone through their phase one programming.  Preliminarily, Sikshana plans to utilize a scaffolded curriculum in which students will develop their ability to summarize, critically question, apply new knowledge, and synthesize lessons learned from multiple textual sources.  The methodology will be based on constructivist theory, providing students the opportunity to observe, reflect, and utilize insights from their own experience to access texts at a higher Bloom’s level.  However, like phase one, the program will be largely emergent in design, allowing new insights to guide the program as it develops.

Second, Sikshana’s insights into reading development may also be applied to other skill areas, including arithmetic. The ability to read may be tied to the ability to do arithmetic when the problem lies in reading fluency. In theory, reading and arithmetic are separate skills.  In practice, however, they are linked by the motivational structures that shape how students interact with new material. In preliminary research, students have expressed that they were frustrated by not being able to complete reading paragraphs and this frustration seemed to affect their acquisition of arithmetic skills as well. With the acquisition of fluency in reading from the peer sessions, they seem to be increasingly motivated to practice other skills, such as arithmetic skills and acquire them too.  Early quantitative studies also seem to bear this fact out, as students who went through the program also saw increased passing percentages on the ASER arithmetic assessment, with an acquisition percentage of 92%.  More research will need to be conducted on the relation between reading and arithmetic skill acquisition as well as into the method by which a similar phase one program can be created geared towards the latter.


The Authors acknowledge with thanks the support given by the Department of Primary Education of the Government of Karnataka and their staff; also the teachers in the Sikshana schools without whose co-operation this study would not have been possible. Thanks is also due to the numerous field staff who participated in this pioneering venture under most challenging circumstances.


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