The initiative provides a scaled solution to address illiteracy among students through AI-based technology
Lack of reading skills and illiteracy are still significant problems across the globe. These are caused by various factors including a shortage of qualified teachers, students representing first-generation literacy with almost no academic support beyond school, and inability to access school due to a variety of reasons. Even with the world boasting of a literacy rate of 85 per cent, there are almost a billion functionally illiterate people. Alarmingly, 150 million children follow the same path every year — a situation that demands urgent attention.
India is home to the largest child population in the world. It faces a huge reading and literacy crisis. Over the last decade, surveys conducted across government schools indicate a consistent and significant gap in the reading ability of students. More than 50 per cent of the nearly 160 million students in India's 1.2 million government schools are unable to read textbooks of lower grades. Reading English is an even bigger challenge with less than 25 per cent of students of grade five being able to recognise even simple English words.
Learning English is often a demanding task – English phonics tend to be arbitrary, a major stumbling block for learners who do not encounter English in their everyday life. Additionally, in many places, there is often a paucity of qualified English teachers. It is estimated that nearly two billion people are learning English globally (The English Effect, 2013, British Council). English is the preferred language in trade and commerce, international relations, higher education and, is the language for a significant portion of the content on the internet. English enables better education and economic opportunities.
Social enterprise EnglishHelper launched RightToRead, a multi-stakeholder initiative that aims to demonstrate the power of technology in solving the literacy crisis. RightToRead leverages ReadToMe® which is a multi-sensory AI technology platform, designed to improve the reading, comprehension and spoken English of students.
The following principles underscore the approach:
Language is best acquired through multi-sensory exposure.
ReadToMe® is 'trained' to read existing school textbooks. Teachers continue to play a pivotal role in class and tech-enabled English classes are held during normal class periods.
ReadToMe® android app empowers students to self-learn outside school, closing the learning loop.
Additionally, the programme is adapted to meet local needs. The features like accents of voice, pronunciation of names and translation into vernacular languages have endeared the programme to teachers and students across geographies.
The deployment of RightToRead is being done through the public-private partnership (PPP) model. The programme is committed to the alliance of multiple stakeholders to achieve large-scale and high impact change. Its partners include The American India Foundation, Shikshadaan, Smile Foundation, Amazon Web Services and Schoolnet India (a for-profit company implementing IT solutions for government schools).
The use of prescribed textbooks during normal English class periods, integrated with the school schedule and the easy-to-use software, is an important factor that minimizes potential change-related resistance. The role of the teacher is undiminished; the teacher continues to lead the class.
In India, where RightToRead has been implemented in over 25,000 schools across 28 states and eight Union Territories, the national curriculum (NCERT) textbooks and the state syllabuses are available for students and teachers to access at schools with the ReadToMe School Edition and on android based devices with ReadToMe Student Edition.
In 2013, EnglishHelper kicked off an initial Proof of Concept in partnership with American India Foundation across 100 government schools in six states in India to demonstrate the impact of the programme. A white paper was published detailing the outcomes of this successful project. Besides consistent improvement in reading proficiency recorded across grades, what was especially encouraging was that the improvements were recorded for the entire cohort.
The next step was to demonstrate the relevance of the programme at scale. In 2015, EnglishHelper partnered with USAID and implemented RightToRead in approximately 5,000 schools, reaching over one million students across eight Indian states. This project was very successful, with independent assessments confirming 20-40 per cent reading gains for students covered under the programme as compared to the counterfactual.
RightToRead is designed to be deployed at scale. The programme can reach thousands of schools dispersed geographically in a few days or weeks. From an initial pilot of 100 schools in India, in just over five years, RightToRead has reached over 25,000 schools. When schools resume post-COVID-19 lockdown, projects will be resumed leading to a programme footprint of 1,00,000 schools within 2021-22.
More than 1,00,000 baseline and end-line tests have been conducted to validate the positive impact of ReadToMe® on students' English reading and comprehension skills. Students undertaking ReadToMe®-enabled classes (treatment group) have consistently demonstrated 20-40 per cent higher improvement in reading and comprehension as compared to students who have not been exposed to the programme (control group).
Sustained exposure to the programme has led to consistently enhanced learning outcomes. More than 50 per cent reading and comprehension gains have been recorded for cohorts exposed to ReadToMe® classes over two academic years.
Students from low-income backgrounds do not receive academic support when away from school. Technology offers a viable self-learning option for them. It is proven that classroom learning supplemented by self-learning yields superior learning outcomes. Technology-enabled self-learning for students closes the learning loop and can create a pathway for lifelong learning for these learners.
EnglishHelper launched ReadToMe Student Edition in 2020. Government school students from across the country are now subscribing to the app because it helps them read and comprehend their English textbooks.
The public education system in India is vast. It needs to be transformed by incentivising private enterprise to participate in a socially responsible way. RightToRead is an initiative, committed to achieving this goal.
RightToRead footprint reaches all 28 Indian states and eight Union Territories. The success of the programme and its benefits is evident from the following:
The government of Maharashtra has approved the implementation of the programme in 65,000 public schools after successful pilots in the state.
The government of Punjab has recently provided approval to implement the programme across all 24,000 government schools in the state.
The government of Himachal Pradesh has requested the deployment of the programme in all ICT schools after an initial pilot in 1300 schools.
In Sri Lanka, the government has approved implementation across all 10,000 schools in the country after observing the impact in a few schools.
Seven governments have procured ReadToMe® (the software) for its deployment in their school networks.
JNV schools – a nationwide chain of schools catering to students from marginalised populations – have requested for its implementation across all schools after an initial 'trial' phase across 15 per cent of JNV schools.
The RightToRead vision includes:
Reaching over 200 million students from low-income segments in the next 3-5 years for enabling their English literacy.
Developing a credible model for the introduction of technology in government schools to solve the literacy challenge (in English and vernacular languages).
Leveraging the government school network to digitally reach underserved students and provide them with relevant, affordable products and services to support their learning objectives.
RightToRead presents a great example of Nexus of Good where good practice has been scaled through a public-private partnership. It has the potential to scale manifold across geographies.
Views expressed are personal