The Role of Informal Spaces on Children’s Literacy Practices and Learning Outcomes – An Introduction

During the COVID-19 lockdown in India, along with schools and other educational institutions, public libraries too remained shut. While the impact of school closure due to COVID-19 on literacy and learning outcomes of school going children in India has already been taken up across multiple studies by researchers, educators and various government and non-government organizations, the effect that the closure of informal /out-of-school public libraries has had on children and adolescents’ literacy skills and social learning and identity has not yet been paid attention to in research – something that is not surprising given that education research and policy has historically focussed more on formal skill based literacy / learning outcomes. Informal education practitioners, however, noticed the wide ranging impact that the closure of informal spaces like libraries and other youth / children focussed centers had on their community members: from a sense of loss of community and sense of belonging to the loss of access to information, academic support and digital resources. Once the libraries opened, librarians noticed loss in reading fluency, change in book borrowing pattern, and engagement with the library / library community – alerting them to the need to understand library practices and programs and the impact of these on not only on members’ literacy skills and practices but also on their identities and sense of self…what were the library engagement practices that seem to be important?

This summer, with the support of a grant from CASI, I worked closely with a large public library based out of Delhi and their network of Free Libraries across South Asia to delve into these questions raised by library practitioners themselves and to look more broadly at the role of informal spaces in young people’s lives.

My Research Interest in the Role of the Informal?

The informal is an integral part of young people’s context just as school / school based practices find their way into informal spaces. I have spent over a decade working in informal education with out-of-school communities, public libraries and museums. It was this work in an intergenerational community set outside-the-school, and often with non-school based practitioners, that led me to research and study the unique contribution of informal spaces in young people’s literate lives. I research youth literacy practices and participation on digital media networks through ethnographic and multimodal methods. Over the last 5 years, I have worked on a longitudinal research study that looks at motivations guiding youth authoring and sharing on transnational media networks, and digitally mediated sites itself as a tool of surveillance (Forthcoming Garg & Korwa, 2022). My work focuses on youth led collaborative spaces and the role of informal education/spaces in student learning and literacy practices. . 

Working with The Community Library Project  

Sunday Afternoon Assembly at TCLP, August 2022

The Community Library Project (TCLP) based out of New Delhi has a membership of over 4000 children and 75% of their membership is reserved for public school students (and they recently crossed the 2,00,000 mark for number of books issued!).

During COVID-19, the library went through different iterations of access for its members – from being completely closed to providing limited access to library for book borrowing and to pivoting to digital media for read-alouds. The access to books and the limited programming was however not the same for all members – some had to go back to their villages, not all had mobile phones, some members received material from their schools, and some received nothing at all. TCLP has built meaningful relationships with local communities. However, these community-based interactions were lost for most part during lockdown. Further, in an assessment of Literacy skills (mostly reading) of its members conducted just before the lockdown and 19 months post the lockdown, a sharp decline in reading fluency was noticed. A preliminary analysis of this data shows a correlation between not just access to books but access to library-based literacy practices (coming to choose a book, listening to others read, reading in community, reading to others, responding to literature, being in an intergenerational community) to student-members’ literacy and social skills. 

I spent 6-weeks at The Community Library Project (TCLP), New Delhi in summer’ 22 working closely with library practitioners, volunteers, and young members to understand what library as a space and community meant to them, how members engaged with the library, and identifying the library-based practices that seem to be important for children and adolescents learning and literacy, pays attention to meaning making and the sociocultural, economic, and political contexts.

This blog post is an introduction to my area and context of research interest. In the subsequent blog posts, I will share what the TCLP community has to say about the role of the library in their lives, informal spaces and collaboration, and the process of researching with community partners.

Reference

Garg, B. & Korwa. S.* Local’ Youth Writers in a ‘Global’ Networked Literacies Ecology (forthcoming, 2022). Young Adult digital production on platforms: Engaging YouTube to tell our stories. In J. J. Coleman, A. A. Griffin, & E. E. Thomas (Eds.), Restorying Young Adult Literature in a Digital Age. National Council of Teachers of English. [*youth co-authors]

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About Rabani Garg

I am a Ph.D. student in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education division at the Graduate school of Education, University of Pennsylvania. I research youth literacy practices and participation on digital media networks through ethnographic and multimodal methods. Over the last 5 years, I have worked on a longitudinal research study that looks at motivations guiding youth authoring and sharing on transnational media networks, and digitally mediated sites itself as a tool of surveillance. My work focuses on youth led collaborative spaces and the role of informal education/spaces in student learning and literacy practices.