For the Love of Reading

  • Talavara F.A. (right), teacher at a government primary school in Samshi village in Karnataka, used Akshara Foundation's Ganitha Kalika Andolana kit to help his students understand the fundamentals of mathematics. Photograph courtesy Akshara Foundation
  • Akshara's English support programmes are designed to improve and strengthen English language competencies in government primary school children. Photograph courtesy Akshara Foundation

Millennium Alliance awardee Akshara Foundation works to inculcate positive reading habits in school children in Karnataka.

Developing a love of reading in children is vital for their holistic development. Bengaluru-based Akshara Foundation, thus, started a 60-day program in more than 1,600 schools in Karnataka to help children relate to books by initiating a robust program for libraries. A core belief of the program is that the love of reading also comes from access to books and quiet places to read them. 

The program received support from the Karnataka state government to scale up its work, rolling out the School Library Programme as a pilot in both urban and rural schools and ensuring that there was enough language-appropriate print material available. To help extend the reach of its program, Akshara Foundation has created a publicly available how-to guide on its website, so that other organizations could adapt and continue to utilize the successful model.

“Poor reading skills in children of primary schools is reflected in various studies, which show that three out of four children cannot read grade-appropriate Kannada,” says Anu Mathur, who handles strategic partnerships at Akshara Foundation. “This is true of nearly every state in India...Children’s proficiency in the vernacular language and English is very poor.” To help improve matters, “We develop and deploy, to scale, sustainable solutions to improve learning outcomes in the public pre-primary and primary school systems,” she adds. “We enable the system by providing tools, including methodology and processes, for quality education for 4- to 14- year-old children in government schools.” Mathur shares that Akshara Foundation has impacted over three million children since its inception.

The public charitable trust was set up in 2000 as a public-private partnership between the Karnataka government, the corporate sector and the voluntary sector. The foundation’s programs have one essential aim: “The belief that quality education is the undeniable right of every child, and that children should not be deprived of this just because they either do not have access to it or the resources to realize their dreams.”

Akshara Foundation has been working in this direction since its inception, running multiple programs in math, English, preschool and The Classroom Library, which have all been designed to be “comprehensive, scalable, replicable and cost-effective,” says Mathur. “We have been devising solutions to support the state government’s efforts, and our goal is to make our education systems work for every child.” 

For its efforts, Akshara Foundation has won a grant from Millennium Alliance, a consortium of partners including the Government of India, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and others. Millennium Alliance provides funding, capacity building and business development support to Indian social enterprises. The grant from Millennium Alliance will help The Classroom Library program reach around 35,000 children in grades 2 to 7, in about 220 government primary schools, in the Koppal district of Karnataka. The program is a strategic asset in a classroom that supports curriculum and functions as an aid and incentive for learning.

As schools closed earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and are not likely to reopen soon, the foundation adapted quickly. “We have fast-tracked our plans to bring digital learning to children in government schools in the states of Karnataka and Odisha,” says Mathur, adding they have incorporated the following innovations in their flagship math program: 

a. Taking the teacher training program completely digital, leveraging the recently launched government-run education platform, “Diksha.” 

b. Producing a number of videos for teachers and children to teach math to children in grades 1 to 5 for activity-based learning. 

“We are exploring the possibility, with the two state governments, of airing our videos on television,” says Mathur. “We also plan to make our e-content accessible to children through ‘Energized Textbooks’ being distributed by the government to children studying in government schools.”

Another major initiative taking place is the revival of the Classroom Library program in Odisha, where the foundation is currently piloting the project in residential schools for tribal children in two districts. 

This is essential, as the presence of a physical library and physical books—despite the current and necessary reliance on the digital realm—is also essential to student growth and development. Mathur explains that having a dedicated library to foster a love of reading in children is extremely important, and goes on to assert that “a classroom library is the only access to good extracurricular books that children in government schools would have and brings the joy of reading to each child.”

Besides this, Akshara Foundation is working on implementing its math program, Ganitha Kalika Andolana, in grades 1 to 5 in Karnataka, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in about 100,000 primary schools. This project will reach out to nearly five million children annually. Moreover, there are plans to develop an “in-class” math program for grades 6 to 8, create videos for  activity-based math learning for kids and for teacher training, as well as a math learning app, called Building Blocks, for grades 6 to 8. Looking ahead, Mathur says the aim is to replicate the math program in at least five other states over the next five years. 

Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.