India Interior

English without sighs and tears, but with clicks and signs

Anita Katyal | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on June 16, 2017

I know! Government schools are now able to offer quality English lessons without straining their finances

Digitised textbooks and pictionary come to the rescue of first-generation learners

Twelve-year-old Jyotika Mitra has a dream. She wants to become a doctor when she grows up. But she has a long and tough journey ahead. She is a first-generation learner in her family. She does not have a father and her mother is a nursing attendant who travelled to Kolkata from West Bengal’s hinterland to get her daughter a decent education.

“I decided I wanted to become a doctor after I saw the doctors in my neighbourhood pay no attention to patients,” she explained.

However, she was convinced she could never make it to a medical school because of her inability to speak and read English.

Now, technology has come to the rescue of underprivileged children like Jyotika, whose parents cannot afford to send them to English medium schools. Their task has been made easy by the The RightToRead programme — initiated by EnglishHelper and IL&FS Education and supported by the American India Foundation and USAID — which currently covers 5,000 government and aided schools and benefits one million students across the country.

Aloud and clear

Instead of conventional textbooks, teachers use a sophisticated software to impart English lessons. The text is projected onto a screen and read out aloud in an Indian accent to ensure that the students do not become intimidated. The teacher then mutes the audio — a cue for the students to read it aloud in their turn. When there’s a difficult word, the meaning is explained with the help of a Pictionary. The text is usually read aloud several times to enable the students to learn the correct pronunciation and spelling. The software also has an additional feature explaining the meaning of a word in the student’s mother tongue.

“I can read much better now. My pronunciation has also improved,” remarked Jyotika, while her classmate Sonali Syal, at Kolkata’s Indrani Memorial Girls’ High School, believes she is now better-equipped to pursue a career in IT.

Located in the lower middle-class area of Kankurgachi, the school caters primarily to children of drivers, domestic helps, rickshaw pullers and daily wagers. The girls were understandably self-conscious about speaking in English when they first started classes. But the new technology has proved to be truly empowering. “The girls look forward to their English class now and they are also far more confident,” the school’s principal, Arpita Mondal said.

World-beating skill

A similar sight greets visitors to the Barisha Vivekananda Girls High School in Kolkata’s Thakurpur area. “Their phobia to learn the language has disappeared,” remarked school principal Sanjukta Biswas.

“These lessons are easy to understand and fun to learn,” remarked Std VI student Dola Mukherjee. “If I learn English it will be easy for me to go for higher studies and take up a job.” For Sheetal Gupta, English is a passport to the world at large. “Everybody abroad speaks English... if I learn the language I will be able to travel around the world,” she said.

Sanjay Gupta, CEO of EnglishHelper, said the programme mainly focused on government schools as the level of English proficiency is low in them. He said the initiative was successful because the classes are integrated with the school syllabus and taught by the existing teachers. The schools are also happy to introduce the programme as it is not a strain on their finances. All they need is a laptop, a projector or a television set; and if connectivity is a problem, they can use DVDs for the lessons.

The writer is an independent journalist based in New Delhi

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Published on June 16, 2017
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