English education is a dream for a majority of Indians! They believe an English education would open the world up for their children and lead to a better quality of life for generations to come. If there is a want cutting across class and caste in India, it is the aspiration for a sound English education.
When my parents moved to Chennai in the sixties, the singular goal they had was to give me the opportunity to study in an English medium school. A product of a government school in Kerala, my father had no exposure to English. As he started his career in distant Kolkata, he felt he was at a loss. If he had known English, his life would have been very different from his peers. His career would have taken another path. He taught himself English by reading ‘The Hindu’ newspaper every day. He listened to news on the radio and TV, avidly followed sports channels to improve his listening skills and practised his English with his English-educated daughters.
As I navigated my way through university experience and jobs, I was ever grateful for the English education I received; always recognizing it as a privilege. However, memories remained of bright students and rank holders who studied in Tamil medium schools in our neighbourhood who were left behind. While I worked on literacy and education projects around the country for many years, none touched the government school system or language learning.
Then, in 2012, a chance visit to an Udayan Care centre (a non-profit organisation) in Gurugram. Children from low-income families who were learning spoken English using computer software. This encounter brought me face to face once again with the ‘English’ dream. I was provided an opportunity to work for the company, EnglishHelper, that provided the English learning solution. I was excited to join them on a transformational journey.
The company launched RightToRead, a unique initiative that took AI-based technology-enabled English reading to 100 government schools in 6 states in 2013. The need was clear. The fear was whether or not the teachers would accept and use a technology solution. To our surprise, it was a resounding success and early studies reflected an improvement in students’ English scores. In 2014, the initiative reached 350 schools. In 2015, the first big break came with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) provided support for the expansion of RightToRead in 8 states: touching 5000 schools and 1 million students. Today, RightToRead is EnglishHelper’s flagship program; fulfilling the need for a scalable, affordable English language solution to economically disadvantaged students in government schools in India and countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The goal is to reach 20 million students in 2020!
Journeying on – today is 5th September – Teacher’s day in India. The team and I will visit Garulia, a municipality in West Bengal, to implement our reading and comprehension solution in the Garulia Mills High School. We aim to help empower and enable teachers and students. Students who attend the school come from low-income backgrounds and are all first-generation learners. The medium of education is Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu; English is taught as a second language. According to the 2011 census, there are 25 schools and 5 nonformal education centres in Garulia. There is a public library and 3 reading rooms. Everywhere we visited, the principals of schools expressed the need for English and a solution like ReadToMe. They had the computer infrastructure but no means to access the solution. The implementation of ReadToMe in the Garulia Mills High School may well be the start of another transformational journey for the municipality and its citizens!
The school lies in the vicinity of the large Jute Mills in Shyamnagar- on the banks of the Hooghly river. When operational, the jute mills drew in a large labor force from the neighbouring states of Bihar and Orissa, and eastern Uttar Pradesh. This would frequently create an overwhelming majority of the population living in small towns and bastis dotting the mill area.
The mills have closed down. Today, a sizeable portion of youth in this area are seeking employment in foreign and Indian multinational companies that are opening their offices in the Salt Lake and Rajarhat area of Kolkata. The teachers and principals of schools are keen to provide them quality education. Learning English will help them in their search for a brighter future. A future that is economically empowering. There is now a narrative of success for them to follow: young boys who grew up in the Jute mills, accessed English education in Kolkata and went on to occupy positions of power in the highest echelons of the corporate world and are now giving back manifold.
— Priya Viswanath
This is a personal note by Priya Viswanath, Senior Vice President of EnglishHelper. This post was written in celebration of Teachers’ Day in India and International Teachers’ Month.
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