Early Literacy and Multilingual Education in South Asia


Early Literacy And Multilingual Education In South Asia was published in March 2019 by the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA). It was written by Dhir Jhingran, an expert in language and learning, with the guidance of Urmila Sarkar, regional education adviser and Sanaullah Panezai, education specialist at UNICEF ROSA. 

The observations in the study are based on secondary literature concerning literacy and education in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It provides guidance towards building policies and strategies which could improve early language learning, literacy and multilingual education across various regions with different sociolinguistic backgrounds in south Asian countries.

Highlighting the benefits of introducing children’s first language as the mode of instruction in schools, the study states that children are likely to understand subjects better if taught through the medium of their first language than through a second or unfamiliar one. It also emphasises the importance of early literacy development among children and the need for multilingual education programmes that make education accessible for all children. 

This 120-page report is divided into six chapters: Understanding early language and literacy (Chapter 1); Learning outcomes and factors for low achievement (Chapter 2); Language and language-in-education situations (Chapter 3); Typology of school-level sociolinguistic situations and language-in-education approaches (Chapter 4); Mother-tongue-based multilingual programmes: Case studies from India and Nepal (Chapter 5); Recommendations for children’s language and literacy learning in primary grades (Chapter 6).


  1. Research indicates that children who have weak foundations of language and literacy at the end of Grade 3 are more prone to poor academic performance and low self-esteem even years into the future. They are also more likely to drop out of school.

  2. Citing research from 2005, the study states that children who are taught in a language unfamiliar to them encounter a ‘double learning disadvantage’. Although children might gain fluency of conversation in a second language within 2-3 years, they require 5-7 years of formal instruction to be able to use that language for academic purposes.

  3. The 2004 report titled Expanding Educational Opportunity in Linguistically Diverse Societies estimates that 221 million primary school aged children in developing countries from minority linguistic and ethnic communities lacked access to education in a known language.

  4. Only four per cent of the rural population of Jharkhand speaks Hindi whereas 96 per cent uses a tribal or regional language, notes the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2016. Nonetheless, the medium of instruction used in Jharkhand primary schools is still Hindi. Furthermore, the Hindi learning levels in the state were some of the lowest in the country for Grades 3 and 5.

  5. The ASER report which reached 589 rural districts also notes that only around a quarter of the Grade 3 students in an average rural school had the desirable levels of reading abilities. However, there was large differences in results across states – 45 per cent of students in Himachal Pradesh had reading skills matching their grade levels compared to 7.2 per cent students in Uttar Pradesh.

  6. A survey of research on education in South Asia showed that a considerable percentage of students are unable to read with ease and full comprehension even after completing Grade 5. Additionally, literacy levels change significantly depending on social groups, regions and income levels.

  7. The 2014 report Student Learning in South Asia, based on limited comparisons, suggests that students in some South Asian countries show very low performance in reading and mathematics compared to students from other countries. It also adds that the learning outcomes, especially in India, show a great amount of inequality.

  8. Schools in Jammu and Kashmir use English as the medium of instruction although students speak other languages including Kashmiri, Dogri and Ladakhi at home, the study states. As a result, Jammu and Kashmir is placed among the bottom five states in the country for language achievement among Grade 3 students.

  9. The study cites research from 2010 to note a significant drop in the performance of children reading Urdu in Pakistan where only 6.8 per cent of the population has Urdu as their first language. It adds that children who spoke in Pashto at home had the lowest test scores in Urdu as well as other subjects, according to data from the country’s National Education Assessment System.

  10. English is introduced in pre-primary grades as a medium of instruction only in Bhutan and Maldives. In other South Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka it is introduced later either as a subject or medium of instruction.

  11. A study on ‘Education for Tribal Children’ was conducted in the mid-1990s which found that two major factors were responsible for lower learning outcomes among tribal children. These were: non-tribal teachers in tribal areas who regarded the tribal languages and cultures as being inferior and that students did not understand the medium of instruction.

    Focus and Factoids by Viral Jain.


Dhir Jhingran


United Nations Children’s Fund Regional Office for South Asia, Kathmandu


Dec, 2020