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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 January, 2004, 15:44 GMT
India tackles adult illiteracy

By Richard Black
BBC Science correspondent in Chandigarh

People browsing at a second hand bookstall in Delhi
India set a target of reducing illiteracy to 5% by 2020
Researchers in India have been giving details of a novel scheme aimed at increasing adult literacy.

It works by teaching people whole words rather than individual letters, and the scientists who developed it say it costs about $2 for each adult.

So far some 40,000 adults have learned to read this way, researchers say.

About 35% of Indians are illiterate, which has a significant impact on the national economy, as well as on the lives of individual people.

The new method has been developed by researchers at the company Tata Consultancy Services.

The results have been presented at the Indian Science Congress in Chandigarh.

Word as image

Conventional literacy programmes which work from the letters of the alphabet upwards can take several years to run and need trained teachers.

Researchers from the Tata Consultancy Services set the goal of teaching people to the level where they could read a newspaper in their own language. They also say the new method is fast and cheap.

"Counting the salary of a supervisor, everything else, the cost of making a person literate is less than 100 Rupees ($2.2)," Dr FC Kohli told the congress.

Dr Kohli said that it took on average 10 weeks before they could read a paper.

The key is that humans are good at recognizing pictures and images, so each word is taught as a picture.

India's literacy targets

Once they have reached this level they start spontaneously to identify and use individual letters.

The programmes run on computer and do not need trained teachers.

Five Indian languages have so far been included, with a further 13 planned, and the software has been given to Indian state governments.

The training package runs on obsolete computers which have been adapted to run local language software. If they go wrong they are thrown away.

"What we recognise, or what we look at, are images. You look at a painting, it's an image, the face is an image.

"So if we can teach them to recognise words in their own language, with these sound 'patterns', then they will be able to recognise the words," said Dr Kohli.

The national government has set a target of reducing illiteracy to 5% by 2020.

It sees India's per capita income lagging behind major competitors such as China, and believes illiteracy is one of the most important reasons why.

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