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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Multilingualism and multiliteracy: raising learning outcomes in challenging contexts in primary schools across India

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Photo: A school in India. Photo credit: Lau Rey/flickr under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

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Principal Investigator: Ianthi Maria Tsimpli. Lead Organisation: University of Cambridge
Co-investigators: Theodoros Marinis; Jeanine Treffers-Daller; Denes Szucs; Suvarna Alladi; Lina Mukhopadhyay
This innovative project examines the causes of low educational outcomes in schools in India where many children fail to achieve basic literacy and numeracy levels, while dropout rates, affecting girls more than boys, are very high. A starting point of this research is that bilingualism and multilingualism have revealed cognitive advantages and good learning skills in children raised in western societies. Multilingualism is the norm in India. However, rather than enjoying cognitive and learning advantages, multilingual Indian children show low levels of basic learning skills including critical thinking and problem-solving. This project is innovative in seeking to disentangle the causes of this paradox. 
The project builds on Tsimpli's large scale (600K) EU-funded THALES bilingualism project which assessed cognitive and language abilities of 700+ children in five different countries, expanding this project into numeracy, critical thinking and problem solving in multilingual children which are key elements in the Indian context. The PI and co-Is have been preparing this application for the last two years in conjunction with the current project partners and consultants in India with 20k. funding from the British Council and 3k funding from the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism at the University of Reading. The PI was invited to take part in a Roundtable discussion on Multilingual Education at the British Council in September 2014 ( applicants discussed key questions from charities and schools and obtained advice from a range of educational and linguistics experts in Delhi and Hyderabad and visited different schools in both cities in 2014-15. 
The key question this project seeks to address is to explore how the complex dynamics of social, economic and geographical contexts affect the delivery of quality multilingual education in India. The growth of literacy and numeracy in children is constrained by complex interactions between elements of the education system, the context in which they are embedded, and the dynamics operating within that system. By conducting research among children living in urban slums in Delhi and Hyderabad as well as in remote rural areas of Bihar where food deprivation, low sanitation, poverty and migration make school attendance and education hard to maintain, the project focuses on structural and language inequalities affecting educational quality in India. Language inequalities arise because a large number of children in India are deprived of receiving mother-tongue support, being instructed only in the regional language and English, often from teachers with poor teaching qualifications and practices or limited knowledge of the language of instruction too. Teaching practices in India are teacher- and textbook-centred with detrimental effects on the development of critical thinking and problem solving abilities. These skills are fundamental in every learning process including numeracy and the understanding of mathematics. The method of this study is highly innovative in a number of ways. A combination of several tasks and questionnaires will address the role of several factors on learning outcomes. Each child's language, literacy and numeracy skills will be evaluated at two time points with a one year interval between them. This design is known to provide reliable findings on the development of learning rather than only on knowledge itself allowing future interventions to build on these findings to ensure improved outcomes. This study will provide policymakers and practitioners with concrete ideas on how to improve learning outcomes in the multilingual education context of India. It will offer a crucial understanding of how these ideas will translate to their specific contexts and institutions in India across regions and states. At the same time, the project will also inform UK stakeholders about educating bilingual children in the UK.
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Who will benefit from this research and how will they benefit?
Five groups of beneficiaries have been identified in India and the UK . 
First of all, policy makers at local, regional and national level will benefit in that they will receive the necessary evidence they need to understand the interaction between challenging circumstances and structural inequalities related to gender, geographical area, gender or socio-economic status, the language of instruction in school, and children's cognitive and metacognitive skills, and how these different factors impact on learning outcomes in literacy and maths. The results of the project will form the basis for formulating and implementing new educational policies based on an in-depth understanding of the contexts in which children in rural and urban slums learn. 
Second, NGOs such as Digantar (, and as well as textbook developers in India such as the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT, in India will benefit from the insights provided by the project in that they will be better equipped to develop the teaching materials children in different contexts need in order to obtain higher levels in literacy and maths. The Communication Trust ( and charities such as Reading Quest (, will benefit from the insights obtained in India because there are over a million children with English as an additional language in the UK who study through the medium of English. The current project will provide crucial evidence regarding the best ways to support multilingual children in schools in the UK. The organisation Bilingualism Matters ( will benefit in that it will receive the research evidence regarding the impact of multilingualism and multiliteracy on language learning and children's cognitive and metacognitive skills, which it needs in order to be able to advise bilingual families and policy makers in the UK and abroad.
Third, teachers and teacher trainers will benefit from the research in that the project will provide key information about the role of critical thinking and problem solving skills in raising learning outcomes in literacy and maths to practitioners and those responsible for teacher training and Continued Professional Development of teachers. The British Council India ( and the Delhi-based Language and Learning Foundation ( will be very important beneficiaries because improving the quality of teachers and teacher training is a vital aspect of their work. 
Fourth, the schools which take part in the study will benefit because they will obtain evidence regarding the effectiveness of their teaching methods for literacy and maths by comparison with those of other schools which have opted for different approaches. 
Fifth, bilingual and multilingual families in rural and urban areas in India will benefit in that they will be able to use the results from the project to make informed choices about the most appropriate school type for their children, because the project will deliver evidence about the advantages of different types of education (English-medium or mothertongue-based education) in terms of learning outcomes, taking into account the different contextual factors mentioned above. Bilingual and multilingual families in the UK will benefit from insights obtained in this project because they too need information about the best ways to support language and literacy development of their children at home and in school. Insights from this project will also be crucial to families in the UK to make informed choices.
Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
Project Status: 
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Fund Start Date: 
May 1st, 2017
Fund End Date: 
April 30th, 2020
Fund Currency Code: 
Fund Value: