“My teacher comes to class, writes something on the board, goes to her office and snacks,” replied Kavita when asked why she couldn’t read despite being in the seventh grade. Several reliable surveys in India have found that two out of three children in class 5 cannot read a class 2 level text. But here’s the crucial point. The national census counts all of them as ‘literate.’ Half the officially ‘literate’ people in India are functionally illiterate and can at best be thought of as weak-literates. India has over 300 million weak-literates, with only basic alphabetic familiarity, in addition to the officially 296 million illiterates, who lack even that.
An inclusive India has a last 600 million mile functional literacy challenge. Almost all state and civil society efforts in literacy target those who are completely illiterate. They succeed at best in transitioning illiterates to weak-literacy but do not effectively address, how the weak-literates will continue progressing to functional literacy.
Same Language Subtitling (SLS)
Same Language Subtitling (SLS) was conceived in 1996 to take on the specific challenge of transitioning 300 million people in India from weak-literacy to functional literacy. It builds on some key observations: i) Indians have a lifelong passion for Bollywood film songs, ii) Bollywood produces a 1000 films or 5000 film songs a year in a variety of languages, iii) 700 million people already watch television where Bollywood content dominates, iv) a child in India spends an average of only 4.4 years in school, and at the low quality of instruction that exists, this is grossly deficient in imparting functional reading skills.
SLS simply suggests subtitling the lyrics of existing film songs and music-videos on TV, in the ‘same’ language as the audio. Hindi songs subtitled in Hindi. Tamil songs subtitled in Tamil, and so on in every language. In other words, Bollywood film songs marry Karaoke to produce mass literacy.
How does SLS work?
The science underlying SLS is strong. Eye-tracking research from around the world has established that SLS causes an automatic and inescapable read-along response. Weak-readers when confronted with SLS, try to read along, and in the process, find their reading skills improving. As viewers like to sing along to songs and are curious to know the song lyrics, reading skills are practiced subconsciously. Typically, a weak-reader faces a high motivational barrier to keep on reading when confronted with standard print. In the context of songs – marked by repetition, lyrics that can be anticipated, and subtitles that are sounded in the audio – the entry barrier to reading practice is significantly lowered.
For the nearly 200 million children in India’s primary schools, the rudimentary alphabetic skills they pick up in school are practiced the same day at home while watching their favourite TV programmes. No extra effort or behavioural change is required. This constant and synchronous reinforcement of reading skills actually makes it difficult for a child to remain functionally illiterate by class 5. One cannot overstate the importance of a timely acquisition of reading skills for in-school learning and self-empowerment beyond school.
Independently collected data have shown that even 30 minutes of weekly SLS exposure over 3-5 years, as part of Bollywood film songs, more than doubles the number of functional readers in primary schools. Of course, SLS would be limited if the only reading it invites is song lyrics. As it turns out, the first thing that youth and adult functional literates tend to pick up in India, are newspapers. To be seen reading a newspaper is infused with positive symbolism and status. Interestingly, newspaper reading among regular SLS-viewers shot up from 34% to 70% in five years. Among those who did not watch SLS regularly, it only went up to 42% in the same period. Furthermore, SLS makes a meaningful contribution to female literacy because Bollywood on TV has a higher female viewership.
Reach and Cost
SLS was first implemented on Gujarat state TV in 1999. That successful pilot led to another ongoing pilot on a nationally telecast Hindi film song programme, 2002-present. Since 2006, SLS has also been piloted on one weekly programme each in 7 other major languages/states, giving regular reading practice to an estimated 150 million weak-readers.
On average, every US $1 spent on SLS in India, delivers 30 minutes of weekly reading practice to 5000 weak-readers, for one year. So why hasn’t SLS scaled up nationally?
Social innovations and policy
When a proven and cost-effective social innovation runs as a pilot project for over a decade, with most of the funding coming from foundations outside the country, it is a commentary on the nation’s slowness to foster positive social change. To put it mildly, the SLS journey can best be characterized as mired in a combination of rejection, resistance, reluctant consideration and delays. Yet, there have always been periodic breakthroughs, thanks to the occasional policy-maker with the openness for innovation, a healthy respect for a scientific approach, and an outlook for national progress. Because of one such policy champion, SLS is finally on the verge of a national scale up on all songs on TV, in all languages. At least one hopes so.
An inclusive India will need to develop more streamlined policy processes to consider and act upon proven social innovations. Policy-makers will have to start by recognising that people in power, including the limited circles around them, do not always have the most powerful ideas. Second, promising solutions are not difficult to find; in fact many are already knocking on policy doors. Third, the nature of innovations is such that many have to be put into play before some will stick. But those that do stick, and scale, will more than make up for the cost of piloting others that did not. Fourth, policy conversations on social innovations should develop a stronger institutional memory such that a new person in power cannot easily dismantle the progress made by predecessors. Finally, scientific merit has to guide the consideration, acceptance and rejection of social innovations, not a powerful individual’s opinion, or worse, whim.
After due diligence of its scientific merit, Bill Clinton called SLS “a small thing that has a staggering impact on people’s lives.” There are many such social innovations with a potentially staggering impact, for policy to chew on. An inclusive India depends on how efficiently policy-makers can chew but a decade or two per innovation is a bit slow for millions of people like Kavita.
Brij Kothari, Director, PlanetRead, India; Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad
Social Entrepreneur of the Year, India, 2009
(Written in December 2010)