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Why Only "Ba Ba Black Sheep"?

Gijubhai Badheka, a contemporary of Gandhiji, for 24 years, ran the most creative school for children in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. Everyday, he told children a story - which captivated them and whetted their appetite for more. In the afternoons, the children would enact those stories. Fact remains, programmatic instruction, today, is the antithesis of meaningful language experience for teachers and children, feels Arvind Gupta


Billions of people across the world learn to read, using a diverse array of practices — from the ‘phonetic’ to the ‘whole sentence’ approach. Many children’s first exposure to the English language is through “nonsensical” rhymes like “Ba-Ba Black Sheep” or “Ring a ring a roses” — poems which make little sense to their contexts and whose roots are often macabre. Are there other ways more conducive to get children to read?

Many children experience difficulty with formal reading instruction, based on exercises, material and drills that are to a large extent, nonsensical.The philosophy of this kind of instruction, called ‘programmatic’, is that reading is a set of skills which can be taught and mastered in a pre-determined sequence, provided there are frequent tests. Programmatic instruction is the antithesis of meaningful language experience for teachers and children. It is primarily a method of control.

Frank Smith, in his famous book, ‘Reading’, throws light on the process of reading itself. He proposes the idea of ‘The literacy club’, which children need to join if they are to become successful readers. At the heart of Frank Smith’s analysis is the seemingly simple truth that it is only through reading that children learn to read. He describes the ease with which children become literate when they are personally involved with people actually making use of the signs, labels, lists, newspapers, magazines and books in the world around them.

Making sense

John Holt, the famous American educationist, recalls a very interesting case.The school was meant for Black African children and was situated in a low-income area.The children were not interested in the standard state textbooks. And if the books and their contents did not interest the children, there was no way the teacher could coerce them into reading. Many teachers tried the usual ways and failed, until a young lady teacher changed it all. She was a fresher, just finished her teacher training course and was looking for new innovative ideas to foster reading. It did not take her long to realise that her students were not interested in the dry, state sponsored textbooks. Her class was largely composed of poor Black African students. Most of them had never read or possessed a book; but their lives were full of music. What she did was simple. She wrote the popular numbers and songs the children sang, in big letters on chart sheets and hung them on the classroom wall. As the children already knew the songs by heart, they were soon reading them. For once, the written word made “sense” to them — the scribbling on the charts described their lives, their pains, their aspirations.This interested the children immensely.This was their ‘take-off’ point in reading.

Context & relevance

This brings us to the whole question of context and
relevance. Often the curriculum is so far removed from the lives of the learner that he/she fails to make any sense of it. The plethora of ‘adult education’ material in India is ample testimony to it. It is often totally divorced from the life of the learner and the ‘exploitative’ context of his / her life. No wonder adult education classes never elicited any popular response and died their own death. The whole vocabulary itself is ‘loaded’ against the un-schooled poor. For instance, the first alphabet in Hindi ‘Ka’ for ‘Karz’ (indebtedness), would be more appropriate for the dispossessed, than ‘Ka’ for ‘Kabootar’ (pigeon).

Similarly, ‘Sa’ for ‘Sood’ (interest on borrowing), would be more appropriate for the oppressed, than ‘Sa’ for ‘Saraswati’. Sylvia Ashton Warner in her famous book ‘Spinster’ writes, “What a dangerous activity reading is; teaching is. All this plastering on of foreign stuff! Why plaster on at all when there’s so much inside already? So much locked in? If only I could get it out and use it as working material. And not draw on it either. If I had a light enough touch, it would just come out under its own volcanic power.”

Sylvia was teaching Maori children in New Zealand to read. She stuck ‘labels’ on all familiar objects in the classroom. Small cards with ‘fan’, ‘table, ‘bench’, ‘blackboard’, ‘door’, etc, written on them were stuck at appropriate places. Children would see them often, read them and soon become friends with them. Sylvia encouraged children to recount their stories, tell their experiences, which she wrote down in the children’s own words. And because they were the children’s own stories, they loved reading them and drew pictures to illustrate them. In one semester, this poor village school in New Zealand produced over 60 illustrated stories, each, a record of their experiences, in short, a tapestry of their own lives.

Following a similar method, Paulo Freire began by talking with Brazilian peasants about the conditions and problems of their lives, and showed them how to read and write those words which were most important for them. He found that it took only about 30 hours before the wretchedly poor and demoralised peasants were able to explore reading on their own. In the process, they also traced the roots of their exploitation.

Not the word but the world!

Gijubhai Badheka was a contemporary of Gandhiji. For 24 years, he ran the most creative school for children in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. Everyday, he told children a story — which captivated them and whetted their appetite for more. In the afternoons, the children would enact those stories. Soon, they became so adept with words that there was no need to ‘mug-up’ the dialogues by ‘rote’. If they forgot a few lines, they could ‘invent’ them on the spot. Gijubhai felt it was totally illogical and foolish for every child to have the same, state sponsored textbook.

He said, “What could be more foolish than all the 50 children having the same book.” So, when the new session began, Gijubhai urged the children not to buy ‘textbooks’ but instead, give them the money for buying storybooks. So, in the 1920s’, Gijubhai swept aside textbooks and bought three different storybooks for every child. With this large collection of illustrated storybooks, he started a classroom library.This was a library with the children’s own money — not gifted by UNICEF, Pratham or the World Bank. Instead of three textbooks, children could now read over a hundred colourfully illustrated storybooks. Gijubhai’s progressive vision of education “not the word but the world”, has been replicated by few schools since independence.


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