Brij Kothari is Professor of Communication at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and the Founder of PlanetRead.
In India, the formal sector accounts for only 6% of the total labor force of nearly 500 million. This means that the bulk of labor participation is in the informal sector, trapped in a vicious cycle of low skills, low wages, and low productivity. If these individuals are to have a fair chance at not only upping their job skills, perhaps through vocational training, but also leveraging these gains on social and emerging technological fronts to escape their cycle of poverty, they must have basic functional literacy (not just nominal "literacy"). However, the vast majority of these individuals do not. The encouraging news is that there are numerous efforts under way to dramatically turn this situation around — including a successful program of using subtitles for Bollywood movies (see "Better Late than Never" in Education and Skills 2.0: New Targets and Innovative Approaches, 2014).
Photo credit: Still from Jodhaa Akbar with Same Language Subtitling, Copyright Disney UTV.
Note: Subtitle in image reads "In the folds of these moments."
How Literate is Literate?
Although independent India's literacy rate rose from 18% in the first national census (1951) to 74% in the most recent round (2011), an astonishing 50-60% of the so-called "literates" cannot read the day's newspaper headline, or a Grade 2 level text, in their own language. That is not to say that they are fully illiterate either, because most of them can identify at least a few letters and are, therefore, best thought of as, "early-literate" but functionally illiterate. How high is functional illiteracy? Based on my research (with Tathagata Bandyopadhyay; see Can India's 'literates' read?, 2011) and ASER's findings year after year about the poor state of reading achievement in Grade 5, I estimate that around 400 million "literate" Indians are actually functionally illiterate. This is in addition to the 273 million who are officially illiterate.
India's "ability to read a newspaper headline rate," if there were such a measure, would hover in the 30-37% range. No government would like its galloping literacy rate to be punctured with a statement like this. But if a government does not acknowledge the reality of its nation's literacy quality, it is unlikely to do much about it. A big problem is that the literacy rate in many countries, like India, is simply measured by asking individuals to self-report for all household members if they are "literate" or "illiterate." Even a slight variation on the question, like "Can you read a newspaper?" would give an accurate measure of functional literacy. We have found that people's response to this question is highly correlated to tests that measure an ability to read any simple text functionally. People report accurately because the question is specific and, in their perception, easily subject to verification. One could even replace "newspaper" with "bus board" or "letter" as proxies for functional literacy.
While governments do focus on the challenge of getting illiterates off the starting block, they are swift to label this achievement as "literacy" because all the incentives revolve around getting the literacy rate up. From the government's perspective, the functional literacy rate is best left unmeasured lest the problem surface officially. The state, therefore, gets off the hook of having to also plan for the more arduous and longer transition of early-literates to functional literacy.
Improving Literacy, Bollywood-style
How does one transition 400 million early-literates in India to functional literacy? The essence of a solution lies in creating conditions that allow for at least a few minutes of easy reading engagement, every day and throughout life. This is possible if reading itself becomes an integral part of something people do every day, like, watching television. In India, 750 million people watch, on average, two hours of TV every day. Bollywood-style films and film-based content is a dominant genre in a large number of Indian languages. What if we subtitled the lyrics of all existing film songs on TV — in the same language? Word for word, what you hear is what you read. This was a question we first posed in 1996, calling our approach "Same Language Subtitling" (SLS). It causes automatic and inescapable reading engagement among early-readers (and readers alike) whenever they happen to watch film songs with SLS. Anyone with some letter familiarity cannot but try to read along, as confirmed by a body of eye-tracking research. Viewers like to read along to songs for its Karaoke-like experience and to know the song lyrics.
Since 2006, SLS has been implemented on 10 weekly half-hour song-based TV programs, in as many languages, currently delivering reading practice to 200 million weak-reading TV viewers in India. As we have slowly scaled up, we have done rigorous testing to ensure that SLS is working, and we now have strong evidence that it is a proven solution on the scale that is required. The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) and the Nielsen-ORG Center for Social Research studied the effects of SLS in 3,179 households during 2002-2007, demonstrating that exposure to 30 minutes of SLS per week increased the functional literacy rate from 25% to 56% among students with at least five years of schooling (see PlanetRead for the latest studies). Plus, the cost is minuscule. For example, with a viewership of 20 million, one U.S. dollar can give 30 minutes of daily reading practice for about 1,000 people per year.
IIM-A and PlanetRead are now on course to deliver regular reading practice to all the 750 million TV viewers in India at present, and growing rapidly. More than half the viewers are also weak-readers. The goal is to implement SLS on all songs on TV in India, in all languages, through national policy. The strategy is to scale up in India first and let that speak as a model for expansion to other countries, especially in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, on popularly watched song-based programming, in the local language. The latest update in this narrative is that the Broadcasting Corporation of India (Prasar Bharati), the national TV network (Doordarshan), and the Planning Commission have supported, in principle, the scaling up of SLS nationally.
In India and many other countries, the problem of low quality of literacy is real, if under-researched, and seldom acknowledged officially. Yet we feel strongly that the SLS solution is proven and cost-effective. So what is holding back broadcast policy in India and other low literacy nations from considering SLS seriously? What is holding back private networks with a genuine interest in doing "well" (ratings do go up) by doing "good?" These questions are not easily answered. But at its core, policy-making generally lacks the risk-taking ability required to advance social innovation in a time-bound manner. On the other hand, private networks may need to do much more to bring — what might sometimes be a peripheral interest in doing good — to a place where doing well and doing good are inseparable.