Students learn to write in grades 1 and 2, and are experiencing the transition from being taught from print and cursive writing, based on British influences, to print-only instruction, as a consequence of new educational reforms.
The Union and state governments are concurrently responsible for education in India. At the national level, school education is overseen by the Department of School Education and Literacy, under the Ministry of Education. Within this department, the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) publishes national curricula and frameworks, as well as low-cost textbooks. States, which can have their own education boards, implement national-level guidelines as they see fit.
School education is divided into the following stages: Foundational, comprising preschool (3–6 years old) and primary covering grades 1 and 2 (6–8 years old); Preparatory that includes grades 3–5 (8–11 years old); Middle covering grades 6–8 (11–14 years old); and Secondary comprising grades 9–12 (14–18 years old).
Free and compulsory education is a fundamental right of children aged 6–14. Majority of the schools in the country are run or aided by national, state or local government bodies, though private schools also exist. Private schools can be affiliated to the national or any state or private boards or international certification programmes, affording them great degree of pedagogic freedom. They are also more likely to depend on books produced by private publishers, which are numerous in India.
Curriculum for schools is currently undergoing an overhaul with the latest National Education Policy published in 2020, and the National Curriculum Framework for School Education in 2023, both by the NCERT. The policy’s adoption across Indian states is ongoing. Updated textbooks are also in the process of being developed, and as of mid-2023, new textbooks for only grades 1–2 have been made available.
The last national census recorded over 1300 mother tongues in India, of which over 120 have more than 10,000 speakers. Hindi is the mother tongue of over half a billion people, followed by Bengali, Marathi and Telugu. In contrast, the same number stands at just over two and a half million for English. There is no national language in India, but Hindi and English serve as official languages of the country. Additionally, the Constitution recognises 22 regional languages (including Hindi), and all states and union territories have their own official languages.
According to the National Curriculum Framework, students must be taught three languages, starting with their home tongue, and English can be among the languages they learn (though not as mother tongue). Students must become independent readers and writers of the first language they are introduced to by grade 3 (8 years old), the second one by grade 6 (11 years old) and for the third by grade 9 (14 years old). In addition, NCERT’s curriculum for English, published in 2006, stated that students should learn how to write in Grades 1 and 2, but did not specify any methods or models for teaching handwriting.
The new NCERT textbooks for English are titled Mridang. The book for grade 1 teaches students print-style letterforms. No cursive writing instruction appears in this or the grade 2 textbook, which is a departure from how handwriting was taught in the previous NCERT publications for the same age group.
It should be noted, however, that at least one state education board, that of Maharashtra, clarified in 2017 that cursive writing is not compulsory for secondary level students, and interviews with teachers have suggested that cursive writing was not being emphasised in classrooms even before the new policies were introduced.
Emerging from British colonial influence
India inherited the use of English in classrooms from the British colonial education system. The English Education Act of 1835 redirected funds that had been provisioned starting 1813 for improvement of literature in the country to imparting Western education and teaching English literature. Even though the study of Indian languages was encouraged alongside English in 1854, the stature of English in education was cemented. In the last decade and a half, less than 15% of the population identify as English speakers, but it is estimated that a quarter of the students study in English-medium schools.
The historical influence of models developed in Britain is also unmistakable in handwriting instruction in India. NCERT’s previous English textbook series, called Marigold, focused on cursive writing in grade 2 (7–8 years old) and showed samples in a style similar to one developed by Irish-born British diplomat, Vere Foster, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Further, handwriting textbooks produced by a major private publisher directly attribute the samples in their volumes to Foster’s model.
Despite not being a penmanship expert himself, Foster dedicated himself to the creation of a method that would help his impoverished Irish compatriots learn handwriting more easily. Incorporating feedback from high-ranking government officials, who criticised the prevalent Copperplate style’s dramatic stroke contrast, he conceived a simpler form of cursive writing that featured a gentle slope and did away with thick and thin strokes, reducing them to a monoline.
This model featured in copybooks that were published from 1865 onwards, and were vetted by educationists. The style came to known as the Vere Foster Civil Service Hand from the 1870s. Foster’s copybooks became extremely popular in Britain, and continued to be used for another century.
Besides English, the Latin script is also used to write other languages in India, such as Konkani, Khasi and Mizo, among others. Mizo is one of the official languages of the state of Mizoram and textbooks to teach it are published by the Mizo State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT). These books follow the same progression as Marigold: students learn print style letters in grade 1 and cursive writing in grade 2. Once again, the cursive style is modelled on Vere Foster Civil Service Hand.