In recent years, the government of Pakistan has introduced some promising policies and has also increased efforts for improvement at all levels of education. Emphasis is particularly being placed on increasing the enrolment and retention rates in primary and secondary schools. However, there are still a multitude of problems that plague the country’s education sector. Of these the ones that characterize the education portfolio of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa include, students are lagging behind significantly in all instructional languages – English, Urdu and Pashto. What is especially alarming being that the situation in Peshawar, the provincial capital, when compared with the other districts in the province, is abysmal. Recent district directory report of ASER indicates that Peshawar stands at the second lowest position among the other districts of the province. In terms of reading skills of children of class 7, it stands at the third lowest position, whereas when it comes to class 8 it stands at the last.
According to Assessment, Survey, Evaluation and Research (ASER) Pakistan national report 2016, learning levels of children in class 5 have deteriorated as 55% class 5 children could not read a class 2 story in Urdu compared to 53% in 2015. It says gender gap in learning continues as boys outperform girls in literacy and numeracy skills. 46% of boys and 36% of girls could read at least sentences in Urdu. Similarly 44.9% students of Class 3 can read Urdu sentence and 45% a story in different rural areas of the province.
In the province, children studying in state run schools, particularly the girls remain one of the most disadvantaged student groups due to the prevailing poverty, lack of qualified teachers and gender appropriate school facilities, reliance on girls’ labour for household chores and the ongoing security and protection issues. Even though, the sitting government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has made education one of its top most priorities, by putting in record amount of budget and the results are far from encouraging but still there is a lot to do to enhance the quality of learning in schools.
In order to contribute towards the improved learning outcomes and present a model to government for future initiatives, Peace Education And Development foundation (PEAD) launched a 10 month long project focusing on Government Girls Middle and High Schools in Peshawar. The decision to focus on Peshawar stems not only from the above given statistics but also from the fact that the organization has both on ground presence as well as established linkages with concerned stakeholders thereat. Whereas, for selection of project schools reliance has been placed on the District Education Office. To achieve the envisaged goals, PEAD adopted multi-pronged approach, comprising of measures, aimed at improving reading skills of adolescent girls in middle standards; engaging textbooks writers and publishers for developing lessons in topics covering health and hygiene, civic education, life skills and gender equality and equity, informing and sensitizing the public in general, with the objective of improving their knowledge, attitudes and consequently behaviour towards importance of reading, in particular for adolescent girls.
The project titled as “Learn to Read Peshawar” was initiated in 10 schools of Peshawar, with the financial assistance from Small Grants and Ambassador’s Fund Program (SGAFP) under USAID and NRSP. The initiative has so far been successful to achieve the intended goals, through envisaged and interrelated activities. The project helped improve the quality of the teaching and assessment of reading skills by focusing on capacity building of teachers, setting up reading corners along with provision of the reading material and conducting interactive reading sessions to enhance the reading skills i.e. pronunciation, fluency and comprehension of the students.
The initiative also got success to sensitize the respective communities as well about the importance of reading through an awareness raising campaign. This was primarily done through the parent teacher council meetings and intra-school and inter-school declamation contests. The project contributed to ensure sustainability through its much needed efforts by engaging the textbook writers and publishers to develop Urdu lessons for students of Class 6-8 with the aim of inclusion of these lessons in Urdu curriculum taught in these classes in public schools.
The core activities project LTR include setting up reading corners/mini libraries in 10 government girls schools to provide reading environment to students, capacity building of 20 Urdu language teachers on the updated teaching and learning techniques to conduct reading classes for girls enrolled in class 6-8 of project schools, capacity building of textbook writers and lobbying with relevant government departments for inclusion of developed lessons in Urdu textbooks. .
Under the initiative a total of 1200 girl students along with 20 teachers from the project schools got benefited by attending a total of 480 reading classes and capacity building sessions. Similarly 15 textbook writers specialized in writing lessons for Urdu textbooks and also they developed a total of 15 lessons class 6-8 while standard reading corners with all the needed books were also established by the organization.
The overall objective of the initiative was to help create enabling environment for improving Urdu reading skills of children and adolescent girls in state run schools of Peshawar. Learning to read is a sequential process; each new skill builds on the mastery of previously learned skills. Early on, for example, children learn to break down words into their most basic sounds in a process called decoding. Later, they begin to comprehend the meaning of words, sentences and ultimately, entire passages of text. Therefore special reading classes, intra and inter schools declamation contests and other capacity building sessions were conducted under the project to contribute towards enhancing the much needed reading skills of the students like fluency, pronunciation, pitch of sound and expression.
While talking about the project activities the principal of Government Girls High School Nahqi, Peshawar Ms. Ferasat Hadi said “our teachers learned about the effective reading skills and were enabled to utilize the learned knowledge for improving the schooling and leaning environment. There was no concept of library in our school, prior to the project but thanks to the team of PEAD, who not only established a reading corner, a mini library but also provided the needed books to our school. She said speaking and reading in Urdu and other non-native languages has remained a major impediment for most of the people, especially for students of the province due to various factors. In my opinion children should not be confined to syllabus only rather they should be encouraged to read general knowledge books as well. The organization provided books to our school, having interesting stories and thought provoking messages, in which children are taking keen interest. This is indeed an encouraging step towards betterment of the education system.
The headmistress of Government Girls High School Pakha Ghulam Peshawar Faiqa Nasim said that the project was aimed to educate the students for a democratic, tolerant and progressive Pakistan by promoting values of democracy, responsible citizenship and social cohesion. The positive and much needed activities under the project helped the students learn about reading skills and also it provided a platform, where the students are exhibiting their hidden talents. Learn to Read project motivated the students to study books at the newly established library and helped them overcome their reading mistakes, which is highly commendable indeed. This will leave positive impact on their minds and the society will move ahead towards a bright future, she added. The parents of the students also insisted to continually engage their children in such a productive activity.
Another school teacher of the same institution Ms. Nazish Sadique said that initially students were reluctant to read before other students however this project encouraged them a lot. Now every student wishes to read in the morning assembly, which is a positive sign. This developed their skill of reading and enhanced their confidence level as well.
Expressing their views about the program, students of seventh class Huria, Sadaf, Nihal and other said they learned a lot from the activities. There were weaknesses in their pronunciation and reading etc. but due to the specialised reading classes and training, they have now able to overcome their weaknesses. Taking part in declamation contests was a new and exciting activity for us and this gave us lot of encouragement to do something for the nation. They said without library a school is incomplete, therefore such reading corners and libraries should be established in all the schools, they demanded.