Monday, February 24, 2014

The one area that needs to be prioritized within the Indian philanthropy universe is 'English'. A number of corporates will put their last rupee on broad-basing educational delivery for the girl child, disabled, rural underprivileged, tribals and street children, but you won't find many corporates focusing single-mindedly on that one skill that could be the biggest destiny transformer with the smallest educational effort — English.

Over the last few decades, a new understanding has emerged: English is more a skill than a language, it is universally Indian in character, a lingua franca that binds businesses across the country. It connects India to the world and is now seen as a social cum professional enabler.

The numbers showcase the importance. Only 4 per cent Indians are fluent in English; those who speak the language fluently earn up to 34 per cent more than those who cannot, according to study conducted by Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy and National Council for Applied Economic Research.

The one contrarian to have made English teaching the thrust of its philanthropic initiative (apart from environment, employability and IT training) is the Pune-based Zensar. The company does not teach a diverse number of subjects of which English is one; it focuses on English alone. The result is a deeper engagement, quicker learning and the aggregation of teaching insights that can be broadly termed as core competence.

However, prepare for some disclaimers: the company's English-teaching programme is just two years old, it is still being described as a 'pilot' and the student coverage is only 48. But some positives are emerging: the company combined classroom with digital training, created a proprietary courseware kit rather than buy off the shelf, dovetailed ongoing teaching with periodic assessment, selected to work with one school instead of being tempted into an aggressive rollout, worked with slum children (Chandannagar) and engaged Zensarian spouses to teach on a paidand-professional basis for four hours a day.

The operative word at Zensar's programme is 'discipline.' Instead of the conventional approach of teaching English two hours a week, it is taught two hours every day , 5 days a week. Instead of teaching English on a 'let us see how it goes' basis, there are lesson plans for each day's syllabus. There are learning objectives linked to each module (speaking, listening, reading, writing and grammar). The result: the progressive transformation of an art into a science.

It would be tempting to assume that Zensar's discipline made the difficult easy. The opposite was true. One, there was a dearth of skilled teachers considering that Zensar selected not to recruit B.Ed professionals but raw resources from Zensar spouses. Two, there was a premium on the ability to not just be able to read but also speak English with clarity in a vernacular-driven society.

Three, proficiency came not from being able to learn in school but from being able to practice at home, which was a challenge for a target group where the language was being taught for the very first time. Four, language absorption proved non-linear, which often frustrated most teachers that either something was wrong with their methodology or with the students - or both. Five, there was the odd parental resistance to send children for two hours every day after they had already spent six hours at school. Six, when you worked with underprivileged students studying English for the first time, the variables affecting courseware effectiveness were more cultural than educational and hence outside the programme's control, which explained why what was intended to be a 12-month programme is still incomplete 24 months from start.

In what is turning out to be a fascinating engagement within this software company's campus, some interesting learnings are beginning to emerge. The magic does not lie in building modules independently from scratch but in being able to engage partners with years of exposure (in this case Sonali Ojha of Dream Catchers, Mumbai). The trick does not lie in teaching and moving on, but in being able to teach-revise-refresh. When it comes to language teaching, the operative factor is patience. Teaching a language is not as much about grammar and semantics as much as it is about confidence and self-esteem. Besides, language teaching has extended beyond conventional rote to a combination of phonics, visual and practice.

And this is what Zensar has pleasantly discovered: children, who were completely unexposed to the language just two years ago, were able to hold a conversation completely in English with foreigners drawn from Zensar's visiting UK customers; children who would be the last to be counted into a neighbourhood initiative are now leading social change. Even as Zensar set out to teach English, the students became computerliterate as a bonus; the parents, invited to sit at workstations with headphones to see the progress of their children, went back convinced that abetter future awaited their families.

Following two years of this laboratory experiment, Zensar finds itself at an interesting point: as the next class enters, the number of students will increase significantly, widening programme influence. Besides, Zensar expects that as word of its programme effectiveness spreads, it will be able to provide its kit to other agencies interested in teaching English within their geographies. Zensar's may be a drop in the ocean but its ripple could be far enduring.

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