Uttar Kafrul, Mirpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh
A story for UNICEF's Schools For Asia education fundraising initiative
When Shushmita Rani entered class two earlier this year, she could list all of the 51 letters that make up the Bangla alphabet, but could not recognize any of them individually when her teacher pointed them out to her.
To help Shushmita and the other children in the class who were struggling with the same problem, their Bangla teacher, Ayesha Parveen, made a board game. Each day she spent some time with the group playing it during class. In the game the students would roll a dice and wherever it fell on the board, they had to name the letter and the sound it makes. “After practicing this for a few months, they started to recognize the letters,” Ayesha says. “And now Shushmita can recognize all of them and read without my help.”
Shushmita is one of the lucky ones. In many, if not most, schools in Bangladesh her teacher would never have even recognized the problem, leaving Shushmita to struggle on with limited success and putting her at risk of joining the nearly 20 per cent of children in Bangladesh who drop out before completing primary school.
When it comes to universal primary education, Bangladesh has made great strides in ensuring equity and access. However, the quality of teaching and learning is still an issue. In most primary schools teachers are expected to manage classrooms with large numbers of students. And most students are in school for only about three hours each day, meaning contact time with the teacher is limited: each subject is taught for just 35 or 40 minutes a day. Over time, these issues make teaching and learning challenging, which takes an ever-greater toll on the students, particularly those like Shushmita who start with a weak foundation.
A 2014 study presents a clear picture of what this means for students as they progress through primary education. Focusing on student performance in two key subject areas, Bangla and mathematics, it found that in Bangla 25 per cent of students in class three do not perform at grade level. By class five, that number had risen to 75 per cent. The picture is even worse for mathematics, where 43 per cent of class three students do not perform at grade level. By class five that number again rises to 75 per cent.
A new UNICEF pilot intervention called Each Child Learns (ECL), is working to address these challenges. Introduced in 2011 in just 36 classrooms in Bangladesh, it is currently being used by more than 7,500 specially trained teachers in almost 1000 schools across the country — including Shushmita’s. And while the approach currently covers just Bangla and mathematics, it will soon be expanded to cover two other core subjects, English and Environmental Studies.
The ECL approach recognizes the limitations faced by most schools in Bangladesh and restructures classroom activities and interactions to maximize learning time also training teachers in ways to tailor their lessons to the needs of differentiated groups of students using active, participatory and child-centered learning strategies.
Central to the approach are methods by which to ensure the continuous assessment of each student’s performance. “One of the key problems of the traditional education system is that it is not possible for the teacher to understand the level of each student – which students are lagging behind and which are progressing,” says Ayesha. “With ECL we can know the level of an individual student and we can teach them accordingly.” And it doesn’t require a lot of time. In Bangla class, Ayesha spends several minutes a day moving around the class and listening to a different set of students read for one minute each. In this way, every student has the opportunity to read to her twice a week. Another short block of each class time is spent circulating to another set of students, taking a few minutes to evaluate the creative writing and homework assignments in their notebooks.
Based on her assessments, Ayesha places the students into groups: “Every student in the class falls into one of three groups,” she explains. “Those who can read well, those can read partially by sounding out the words and those who do not know the letters.” Ayesha calls these the ‘green’, ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ groups. “Every day I sit and work with two of these groups,” says Ayesha. “For example, I work extensively with the red group and by using letter cards, I teach them the letters.” In the meantime, she keeps the rest of the groups busy with various creative activities and assignments. “In this way,” she says, “even though we have a lot of students, we can provide them with a quality education.”
The other thing Ayesha feels sets ECL apart from traditional teaching methods is that it encourages children to learn with joy. “Using traditional teaching methods we couldn’t give students such a joyful atmosphere,” she says. “ECL is making students want to go to school because they get to learn through playing and doing various activities and creative work. And thanks to ECL, students like Sushmita can now read books without help from the teacher. This too makes them more interested in coming to school.”
Shushmita’s school day is over by 10:30 am and she is home before 11. There isn’t much to do in the single room she shares with her parents, her grandmother and her older brother and sister. And in crowded Dhaka, there few places to play outside that are safe for a young girl. After she has a bath, Shushmita does the mid-day puja with her family, has lunch and then has a sleep. Afterwards, it is time to get back to her studies. With so little time in class, tutoring is a fact of life for most students in Bangladesh. But it costs money, and business is slow at Shushmita’s father’s barbershop these days. Fortunately, Shushmita’s older sister can help. They work together for a while before she leaves for work. When they finish, there is still time to watch some TV and play a game with a friend before eating dinner and getting her school things ready for the morning.
Shushmita can’t wait for tomorrow to come. “I love school because I get to play and I get to learn,” she says. “I learn about animals and numbers and spelling. We draw and we learn with small wood planks, bottle caps, sticks and seeds. We also learn with board games, and rhymes and books.”
Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, Shushmita doesn’t hesitate: “As I grow older I will continue studying. I will study a lot. Then I will become a teacher and teach other children like me.”
 Source: Bangladesh Primary Education Annual Sector Performance Report, 2014