Lessons in Language Learning Through a Pandemic

“एक पेंडेमिक के दौरान कैसा रहा स्टूडेंट्स के लिए भाषा को सीखना? कुछ सीखें हमारे काम से।” – इस ब्लॉग को हिंदी में पढ़ने के लिए यहाँ क्लिक करें

Context

Consider this: Surekha is a 5-year-old young person in Kindergarten at Apni Shala’s Khoj, an SEL-integrated school initiative. Her parents, who themselves didn’t have access to school, are highly motivated for her to get a good education. COVID-19 hits and the school goes online. While Surekha had access to over 4 hours of the language-learning environment at school, now she has to figure out a new way of learning, that is online, with limited hours of interactions with teachers and her peers and on top of that, the challenges of access continue. 

In their study, Sara A. Charney, Stephen M. Camarata, and Alexander Chern, “Potential Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Communication and Language Skills in students” write, “Social interaction is also essential for language development. Social distancing measures and restrictions on large group gatherings have affected school-age students from having meaningful, in-person interactions with peers. ‘Peer talk’ is a crucial component of pragmatic development; this includes conversational skills such as turn-taking and understanding the implied meaning behind a speaker’s words.” 

This is indeed the access Surekha lost. Her story is a mirror to billions of students who lost access to school-based learning in the last few years. While young people have continued to learn a variety of new things during this time, basic literacy skills have indeed been hit.

For example, when students transitioned from Kindergarten to higher grades, many of them had yet to develop a strong foundation, let’s say, in phonics, so that they could do a blending of words. That required a lot of re-teaching. Another situation for us was, within the classroom, students started moving on a vast spectrum of literacy skills due to the kind of access they had beyond the school. For families who had some ability for additional tuitions, we noticed that students from those families had gained some access to grade-level content. However, others had not. And the classroom required highly differentiated teaching so that all students could learn and grow. 

Khoj is a Social-Emotional-Learning-(SEL)-integrated educational initiative implemented in partnership with Mumbai’s public schooling system and local communities. The education model of Khoj is experiential and multicultural and incorporates diversity and inclusion practices, gender inclusion practices, narrative ideas and practices, and multilingual instruction.

Pre-pandemic, the oldest students at Khoj were in grade one; the director of Khoj, Sangeeta says ‘Through ongoing observation, we have been noticing that we need to develop an interest towards books, not just to read but to start with, do students like looking at books? Do students like holding them? Can we make this experience one that caters to the senses?’ A lot of work had gone into developing skills and practices that aid reading.

Our teacher at Khoj, Vanisha noticed a change brought on by online classes. ‘students  preferred to talk in their home language; the skill of speaking in the English language had reduced a lot; now the students were exposed to only 2 hours of school compared to 4 hours in a physical school.’ A report released by Azim Premji university identified that “92% of students on an average have lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year across all classes. Illustratively, these specific abilities include describing a picture or their experiences orally; reading familiar words; reading with comprehension; writing simple sentences based on a picture.”

Khoj’s response during the online school

In response to the reading and speaking gaps observed, we started an online reading club after our summer break in 2021. The Google Bolo and the Raz Plus apps were introduced to the students; for them to be able to access more reading time.

With support from caregivers and volunteers, Khoj teachers oriented the students with the app; taking them step-by-step – the students were able to download and access their own profile; these apps are meant to be reader-friendly, especially for primary students. When the book is selected and opened by the student – the app reads out the book while highlighting the text; the student can also read while the app listens and corrects if there is an error. Each book ends with new vocabulary the student has come by and has exercises attached which can be done with the help of a caregiver or teacher. The teacher is also able to see if the student has accessed a book ( and how many)  and if they have been able to read it to completion.

Students read text/ stories (assigned by the class teacher from Story Weaver and Raz Plus) in accordance with the level they were comfortable with; this also served as an opportunity to revise and use the vocabulary they learned across the week.  

Saesha Pillai, Curriculum Lead at Khoj, observed what the online experience made possible – “the reading club has provided more Kahani time for the students and they are  able to see the book on their own screen which personalised the experience; now they are more comfortable with each book as they are able to annotate it themselves.”

We had chosen these apps for students as they had proven to be successful in other schools but in implementing them in our context we came across a lot of challenges around access to working devices.

At the end of 2021, we noticed that our students were at a nascent stage when it comes to reading and writing skills. The assessment brought into focus that, across grades, phonics, vocabulary, and speaking skills are skills we need to work on; from being able to comfortably use language they have had to re-learn.

This prompted us to follow the state board’s bridge course for 2 months to address the gaps we see in learning. Our teacher identified that each student needed differential support; Priyanka Shrivastav, a teacher at Khoj, said the online class made it possible to “give differentiated instructions during the time of the bridge course with the help of volunteers in different break out rooms; the rigour of the class was managed that way”. Though most of the bridge course happened online it was constantly impacted by the government’s decision for the schools to go online and offline.

Continuity of initiatives during school reopening

By the end of January 2022, we started our offline classes with the students according to the government norms; this brought on a lot of anxiety as our assessments again revealed that our students struggle a lot with reading and speaking skills. We focused our energies on making classes print-rich; our timetables had specific slots for reading and writing practice

Just to give a picture of what students are expected to learn; the following are the reading and speaking skills grade 3 need to master in their second semester (over a period of 2 months). Comprehension skills – should be able to read/know100 new words, comprehend questions, and simple sentences. To be able to deliver dialogue, to be able to understand instructional sentences, to be able to differentiate between fiction and nonfiction writing, and to be able to identify the rhyme scheme of a poem. This is apart from the writing skills. 

Our days began with check-in activities; thrice a week we did read-alouds, sight word reading routines, home tasks, topic-specific English conversations, picture/observation talk, verbs, opposites (audiovisual and actions), question words (especially to support speaking skills), we practised switching from words to sentences, practice worksheets every day. We had weekly formative assessments to gauge students’ learning and plan forward. After assessments, we came together as a team to set up realistic learning goals for the students to achieve in the remaining 2.5 months.

We saw the impact; it reflected in our weekly assessments that students were able to follow the concepts introduced though struggled to express them comfortably in English (the medium of instruction in school), the students started using the words they learned, and we saw that when they read a new book they are able to recognize words, we noticed them using the words in peer conversation. We attribute this to being able to practise the skills consistently, using differential instructions, and recognising and planning for auditory/visual learners.

Influence on students’ vocabulary due to online access

While there’s much discourse around what did students lose, and that is indeed critical, we also recognise that there was a new type of access emerging for some students. Our KG to Grade 2 students were able to engage with words such as video, breakout room, mute/unmute, etc. Their new social reality offered them words that would otherwise be mostly limited to a certain section of society. Many students were able to support their parents with this new vocabulary to enable their access to tech. This was possible because at Khoj, through various initiatives and donation drives, Khoj could run a Resource Center where students with limited access to tech at home, could still attend their online classes. Across the globe tech inequity is well documented.

On a lighter note, when students came back in in-person, one of the days, when a Grade 2 student sitting in the front was sharing their answer in a lower voice, a student from the back shouted, “o didi, usko unmute karne bolo na. Kuchh sunai nahi de raha. (O Didi, Ask her to unmute please, I am not able to hear anything!”)” 

Closing

With concerted efforts of students, teachers, caregivers, social workers, helpers, and other stakeholders, we notice that teams generate some exciting new responses in face-changing scenarios. 

What also happened was as soon as the schools reopened, the team conducted an assessment and that demotivated and made us all very nervous. For the next few weeks, we went into reactive teaching where a part of our timetable got filled with Literacy and numeracy. With additional pressures from the board to cover huge portions, we went into aggressive teaching. After almost four weeks, one of our colleagues brought to our attention, “our students have undergone a huge transition. Have we stopped to check in on how they are doing with this non-stop rush of academic skills acquisition?” 

That really hit our teachers. We stopped and started reflecting in supervision meetings, monthly teachers’ huddles and informal discussions among teachers on how well-being can be centred along with rigour in a meaningful way. We realised that we were forgetting that students have come to school after 20 months; a huge shift in the student’s life. 

We asked Khoj teachers what’s been their reflections. Vanisha says “I paused to reflect on the grade one curriculum to see what skills students actually need to learn and realised that I had initially pushed them too much; our classes only addressed grade one objectives since.”

Priyanka says “I initially planned only for the group which already had a command on skills required for grade 2 and once I reflected I shifted to planning for the  learning group which needed more support and was able to give them individual attention.” Kavya adds, “In my practice, I started planning for smaller chunks of content and stayed consistent for a defined period of time, developed supportive assessments with visual and other aids, and built second learning experiences for our students.”

We recognize that for teachers who so deeply care for students’ learning and growth, it’s possible to enter a panic mode as we see what students have missed on academic skills as they return to school. And it’s critical to build support systems for educators so that they can make ongoing and realistic assessments of what’s possible for young people and what’s needed as we continue to build back our schools.

Authors

Kavya is a primary school teacher at Khoj. She holds a Master’s in Education from Azim Premji University; she is an educator interested in SEL and experiential and alternative pedagogies. She has spent time working with rural and marginalized communities in India. She has a special love for cooking and birding. She also enjoys a bit of travel and adventure! She aims to bring about fun and meaningful educational experiences for children.

Rohit, through his work and education, has come to believe that schools are places for an enriching socio-cultural dialogue that can empower or subvert its pupils, depending upon how the school is imagined, designed and brought into action. Rohit holds an M.A. in Education from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and a Masters in Software Systems from the Somaiya Institute of Management Studies and Research, Mumbai, India. However, he thinks his most important learning comes from having worked with students and educators at The Akanksha Foundation, American School of Bombay, and Apni Shala Foundation. Currently, Rohit is working as the CEO at Apni Shala and works as a consulting staff at Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) project by Wellesley Center for Women, Wellesley College, USA where he co-facilitates diversity workshops for educators.

References

  1. Learning in the times of COVID-19: struggles, innovations and the road ahead – TheLeaflet
  2. SCHOOL report
  3. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/returning-to-school-1
  4. LIVES UPENDED (UNICEF report)
  5. Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2020 Wave 1
  6. KarnatakaRURAL (ASER)
  7. Impact of Covid-19 on the literacy rate
  8. Potential Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Communication and Language Skills of Children
  9. Supporting the Continuation of Teaching and Learning
  10. Loss of Learning – Azim premji University

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