Foundational literacy and numeracy: A challenge and prerequisite for future schooling



Altaf Hussain Haji

Education is one of the sectors that play a crucial role in development processes at all levels in terms of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs for education is ‘quality education’ recommended by all member countries of the United Nations during sustainable development conference. Quality education is a human right and a public good. It evolves with time and is subject to social, economic and environmental conditions.

The new National Education Policy envisions an education system to contribute directly to transforming India sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society by providing high-quality education to all and thereby making the nation a global knowledge superpower. The vision of the new policy is now clear: to instil among the learners a deep-rooted pride in being Indian, not only in thought, but also in spirit, intellect, and deeds, as well as to develop knowledge, skills, values, and dispositions that support responsible commitment to human rights, sustainable development and living, and global wellbeing, thereby reflecting a truly global citizen. The policy also envisages that the curriculum and pedagogy of our institutions must develop among the students a deep sense of respect towards the Fundamental Duties and Constitutional values, bonding with one’s country, and conscious awareness of one’s roles and responsibilities in a changing world.

The new educational policy envisages the current system modified with new pedagogical and curriculam restructuring from the ministry level to the grassroots level.  This will be a great step towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Thus, the foundation of literacy and numeracy is an urgent need and prerequisite for sustainability and wellbeing.

There are various urgent and necessary prerequisites for learning at this stage, and the data available show that problems in the education system need attention. Such as universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school, a large number of vacant posts of teachers at a different level, focus on foundational literacy and numeracy, implementation of technology for high-quality education on foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school, capacity building for teachers for improving quality education and many other prerequisites.

As we know that the ability to read and write and perform basic operations with numbers is a necessary foundation and an indispensable prerequisite for all future schooling and lifelong learning. However, various government and non-government surveys indicate that we are currently in a learning crisis. A large proportion of students currently in elementary school, estimated over five crore in number, have not attained foundational literacy and numeracy — the ability to read and comprehend text and carry out additions and subtractions.

Attaining foundational literacy and numeracy for all children shall, thus, become an urgent national mission. Immediate measures need to be taken on many fronts and with clear goals to be attained in the short term including, that every student will attain foundational literacy and numeracy by Grade 3 as per the new system. The highest priority of the education system will be to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school by 2025. The rest of this policy will become relevant for our students only if this most basic learning requirement i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic at the foundational level is first achieved.  Accordingly, all State/UT Governments will have to immediately prepare an implementation plan for attaining universal foundational literacy and numeracy in all primary schools, identifying stage-wise targets and goals to be achieved by 2025, and closely tracking and monitoring the progress of the same through a setup of  National Mission on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy by the Ministry of Education.

The next step, as per the new policy, is teacher vacancies which will be filled at the earliest, in a time-bound manner especially in disadvantaged areas and areas with large pupil-to-teacher ratios or high rates of illiteracy. This is an acute problem at this time as per the unemployment situation of India to get suitable or by choice teacher among the unemployed youth.  In this situation, the new National Education Policy 2020 especially will be given to employing local teachers or those with familiarity with local languages.  Since the indicator of pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) will be ensured at the level of each school for 30 students of one teacher in a class, and in the case of areas having large numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged students will aim for a pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) for 25 students with one teacher.  Further as per the new policy the teachers will be trained, encouraged, and supported with continuous professional development and to impart foundational literacy and numeracy.

There will be also an increased focus on foundational literacy and numeracy and generally, on reading, writing, speaking, counting, arithmetic, and mathematical thinking throughout the preparatory and middle school curriculum, with a robust system of continuous formative/adaptive assessment to track and thereby individualize and ensure each student’s learning with specific hours daily and regular events over the year on activities involving these subjects will be dedicated to encourage and enthuse students. Redesign the teacher education and the early grade curriculum to have a renewed emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy.

A national repository of high-quality resources on foundational literacy and numeracy will be made available on the Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA). Thus, the technological interventions is another step to serve as aids to teachers and to help bridge any language barriers that may exist between teachers and students, will be piloted and implemented.

It was observed that due to the scale of the current learning crisis, all viable methods would be explored to support teachers in the mission of attaining universal foundational literacy and numeracy. Studies around the world show one-on-one peer tutoring to be extremely effective for learning not just for the learner but also for the tutor. Thus, peer tutoring can be taken up as a voluntary and joyful activity for fellow students under the supervision of trained teachers and by taking due care of safety aspects. Additionally, it will also be made far easier for trained volunteers from both the local community and beyond to participate in this large-scale mission. Every literate member of the community could commit to teaching one student/person how to read. It would change the nation’s landscape very quickly. States may consider establishing innovative models to foster such peer-tutoring and volunteer activities, as well as launch other programmes to support learners, in this nationwide mission to promote foundational literacy and numeracy.

Another change in the system will be a policy named National Book Promotion Policy to ensure the availability, accessibility, quality, and readership of books across geographies, languages, levels, and genres.  In this course of action, the study material for school education for students at all levels will be developed, including through high-quality translation (technology-assisted as needed) in all local and Indian languages and will be made available extensively in both school and local public libraries with the aim enjoyable and inspirational books.  The public and school libraries will be significantly expanded to build a culture of reading across the country. Digital libraries will also be established. School libraries will be set up, particularly in villages to serve the community during non-school hours, and book clubs may meet in public/school libraries to further facilitate and promote widespread reading.

At last, I want to say that children are unable to learn optimally when they are undernourished or unwell. Hence, the nutrition and health (including mental health) of children to be addressed, through healthy meals and the introduction of well-trained social workers, counsellors, and community involvement into the schooling system. Furthermore, research shows that the morning hours after a nutritious breakfast can be particularly productive for the study of cognitively more demanding subjects and hence these hours may be leveraged by providing a simple but energizing breakfast in addition to midday meals. All school children shall undergo regular National Education Policy 2020 and health check-ups, especially for complete immunization in schools, and health cards will be issued to monitor the same.

The foundational literacy and numeracy will help to achieve the successes of the targets and achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals for quality education by 2030 as committed by UN member countries in the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly during September 2016 to September 2017.  Let us hope for the successes of SDG  targets of quality education as per new policy education 2020.

Altaf Hussain Haji, ISS, is Deputy Director General National Statistical Office, Shimla. He can be contacted at

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