Thursday, December 11, 2014

Write is Right....

As a society ,  we have an amazing aptitude for latching on to new technology, sometimes, albeit thoughtlessly, and almost always , in a hurry. 

When this has something to do with teaching kids in their preschool days, one needs to start asking questions.

Today, I see kids, sitting in strollers, fiddling with cell phones, tapping and sliding fingers, and playing games. Same goes for kids of preschool age, and the parents proudly look on, as the kids activate Apps, plays games and so on.  This translates to cartoons on television at home  , watched regularly at fixed times. Fiddling with knobs and tapping to invoke things is supposed to indicate that the kid is technologically smart.  Preschool days, means sending kids to some kind of coaching classes to prepare them , for, heavens sake, interviews, that will decide their admission status.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University collaborating with the School of Education at UIUC in the US, have just  published  a study , in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly explaining,  why early writing, preceding any formal education, plays an instrumental role in improving a child's literacy level, vocabulary, and fine motor skills.

 Given that today's kids are clobbered with written words, pictures, and stuff flowing endlessly in color, past their field of vision , as they fiddle around with smart phones, tablets, and computers, this research simply confirms what , say, my parents knew. 

Even in our digital age, early parental writing support is key to children's literacy

Twenty years ago, the daughter attended kindergaarten in Germany after spending a year in Junior kindergaarten in Mumbai. We were aghast to learn that children in Germany, by law, were strictly kept away from writing/per se, till they went to first grade at six; and this was because of some muscle development issues in the fingers. (The daughter by then , having attended a year of KG in India, was happily spelling and writing, 3 letter words phonetically).

I just wondered how our parents managed, more than 60 years ago, with no Internet, no rules imposed on education of such young kids, no phones, cell or otherwise, and no television.  Clearly, they were also not privy to papers being published on the subject. 

I remember my school being an English medium school, and the fact that we enjoyed lots of nursery rhymes and lustily sang, accompanied by a wonderful teacher playing the piano, did not stop my folks from doing their bit, to ensure that I learned what they thought was missing.

We had a student from a neighboring  Ved Shala who came by to teach us the various stotras we were supposed to know in Sanskrit, 3 days a week. We also had another teacher who came to train us in writing well; those were days of pencils and slates, ball points were a novelty out of reach and clearly not on the scene, and fountain pens were something you got only in class 8. We used to use a sharpened bamboo reed, called "boru",  dip it in an ink pot, and write the marathi alphabet in large letters in a book, for practice , at home, marvelling at the fine edges it gave to the end of letters.   There were lots of marathi and english children's books in the house, and we would attempt to read these, sometimes challenged and sometimes aided  by folks at home.  I remember learning how cat was pronounced, and then discovering delightedly , that I could spell fat , bat and that. 

There was a daily activity of what is called "Shudhh lekhan". Using a pencil.  We would copy a longish paragraph , in English and Marathi, from somewhere, it could be a magazine, the newspaper, or even a book. The idea was to improve your handwriting, learn certain words in a natural way since they were used often, and also train your finger  musculature .   

By and by , the Vedshala teacher got to a stage where he was teaching us Raamraksha,related to our holy scriptures, a few verses everyday, learned in a augmented manner.   He would tell us the general meaning, and slowly we realized some commonly used features in Sanskrit, without anyone forcing it on us.   The English education was happening side by side with the Marathi.  Both reading and writing.

Having realized how words were spelt, I was fairly fearless about making up my own spellings. Particularly of Marathi words.

My parents were away in the north  due to my father's posting, where my mother had taken time off from our schooling  etc , to help set up a working house .  My aunt and uncle stayed with us, so as to keep all our activities going without a break, as school was still in term.  We were supposed to write letters to our parents like twice a week, describing what we were doing and the general scene.

My mother suddenly got a postcard where it said we had progressed till "EtamRamabalopetamrakshaayaasukrutipathet".      For a long time they tried to figure out what was being said. And then they realized that I was reporting to them, that we had reached the tenth stanza of the Ramaraksha which went as :

एतां रामबलोपेतां रक्षां य: सुकृती पठॆत्‌ ।
                                        स चिरायु: सुखी पुत्री विजयी विनयी भवेत्‌ ॥१०

There was a lot of laughter,  various friends  at the place joining in and exclaiming about the innovative spellings. 

Many years later, some of them visited us when we were much older and recalled this episode.  

Entertainment apart, this was the ethos in which we were taught and educated. Before serious schooling and subjects etc kicked in. I learned to write and understand the nuances of spelling, much before we started getting dictation in school, and I never ever by-hearted or memorized any spellings. To this day. 

My parents didn't know about all the fancy research, they didn't know when you should introduce kids to writing.  We often drew things and wrote things on the Shahbad stone floor tiles at home, sometimes for fun, sometimes for practice. If one of us showed aptitude for performing arts, that too was encouraged. But care was taken to see that whatever literature was around in the house was age appropriate for us.   

I often wonder if we have become a nation of followers.  Some new technology comes, we follow the herd. Something known to us, returns back to us as a western concept, we follow the herd.  An entire generation of my time, now has to deal with the current generation, that has taken avidly to sms lingo which is hemlock for the English language.  People have forgotten the art of writing letters, and putting down points in an organized manner.  Consequently, we have an entire generation , that sometimes, doesn't even bother to read.  Try writing in a complaint, and nine times out of ten, the person responsible for solving your problem has not bothered to read. 

 Then these good folks in Tel Aviv University and Univ of Illinois at Urbana   Champagne  publish their research. It appears in the Internet in a mailing list I subscribe to. Tomorrow it will appear in the Times of India. And everyone will seriously take note of it and start new educational theories. Someone in some ministry will suddenly issue a dictat, and something that we did using common sense and a sense of dedication , will be forced on us as a sudden rule.

Many folks my age, relocated to other countries, and brought up their children there. They probably used the same ideas that their parents did, when bringing them up.

These folks faced a different educational system, than say, my children did.

I wish those guys in Tel Aviv and UIUC had spoken to me. 

Never mind.

I would have told them the secret behind the preponderance of Indians amongst the winners of Spelling Bees in the US.

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