Kerala's 'Why Johnny Can't Read' moment: Malayalam alphabets head back to schools


American educationist Rudolf Franz Flesch wrote his masterpiece “Why Johnny Can't Read – And What You Can Do About It” in 1955. The book was a case study of how children found it difficult to learn how to read with the education system prevailing in the US at that time. Flesch argued for the use of the traditional phonics method of language learning, instead of the sight-based method, triggering a protracted debate.

Six decades later, Kerala is on the cusp of a similar situation, with experts flagging the education system's failure to teach Malayalam alphabets with clarity.

The government has been forced to address the situation and as a first step, it has promised to bring back Malayalam alphabets to the primary class textbooks from the next academic year.

The alphabets were taken away from the textbooks after a syllabus revision exercise in 2009.

Recently, State Education Minister V Sivankutty promised the reintroduction of alphabets in textbooks.

Sivankutty was responding to Dr N Jayaraj who raised the issue in the House. Jayaraj's intervention followed a campaign initiated by writers and linguistic experts, who flayed the existing approach towards language education in the state.

Malayalam alphabets, which used to be included in the textbooks for primary classes, did a vanishing act as the state witnessed a sea change in the education system, triggered by the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) introduced in the late 1990s, and the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) scheme.

The traditional phonics approach, in which students are taught the letters of the alphabet and their sounds first, was replaced with the 'whole language approach' in the reformed system. While the traditional approach was making children learn the alphabets as the first unit of written language, the other method argues that children learn words as a whole unit. It calls for the abolition of the alphabets-based Phonics approach.

The post-1990s education reforms in Kerala were largely based on the philosophy of 'from ideas to words', not vice versa.

The changes in language education also reflected this concept. Almost three decades after the reforms, it is unclear if the changes achieved the desired results.

However, many, including teachers, argue the reformed language education system has done more harm than good. The minister's promise to bring the Malayalam alphabet back to the textbooks validates such concerns.

Asked about the minister's statement, Mohammad Hanish, principal secretary, General Education Department, said the government's objectives are clear even though the modalities of the reforms have to be officially finalised by the Curriculum Committee, which is to be reconstituted.

“Earlier, the approach was to start from an idea and then go to the alphabets. Now, we are going back to the 'alphabets to idea' approach. That is 'from micro to macro' instead of the 'macro to micro' approach,” the top bureaucrat in the school education department said.

He said the government was planning an overall revision of the curriculum. Asked about the principles to be followed for the revision, he said: “Overall, acquisition of knowledge, as well as assimilation of ideas, have to be improved more. These are a must for the changing times.”

He said the decision to reintroduce alphabets was in response to a series of articles and campaigns for such a cause.

Vattaparambil Peethambaran, a Malayalam grammarian and veteran teacher, who is among the staunch critics of the decision to do away with the alphabets, welcomed the latest government move.

“The reforms that made learning of alphabets unnecessary was flawed. Alphabets are the cornerstone of a language. The argument that a kid should get to the alphabet from ideas was wrong,” he said.

Citing the errors in a literary appreciation piece by a Class 10 student which he evaluated recently, Peethambaran said the failure of the reforms was evident in the reading and writing skills of a large number of students.

Peethambaran was annoyed with the fact that those who decided to exclude Malayalam alphabets from the textbooks had retained the alphabets for other languages.

He had recently written a letter to the education minister about the need to bring back certain elements of the traditional approach towards language learning in the school curriculum.

Social critic and former Malayalam professor M N Karassery is another prominent figure who called for bringing Malayalam alphabets back to textbooks.

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