Reaching Higher with Easy English

Ever so often, Harshini has the Tab on her lap, teaching a small crowd of her peers its workings, its learning strategies. They are transfixed as much by the technology tool as by the English they are assimilating. Harshini is one of Mangala Mary’s two brightest students in her Nali-Kali class of 10 at the Government Lower Primary School, Mylapura, Hoskote block. Her natural flair for English heightened by EASY English to inspire great journeys.



There is little that this class 2 student cannot, for her age and grade, do. Vocabulary? She knows a good collection of words. Pronunciation? “Look,’ ‘six,’ seven,’ ‘come,’ ‘tree’……all in fast, accurate succession. She can pronounce them without lingering or spelling out the letters. Her teacher doesn’t have to prompt her. Comprehension? Harshini knows what those words mean. ‘Roof’ is the only true test in a variegated array of 10 words.

Writing? Not cursive yet, but neat, small blocks on pages unmarred by the eraser. A piece of fairly advanced text copied from Lesson 1, My House, in the textbook does not have a single mistake. “Mummy Tiger lifted her left paw and scratched tiger cub’s furry back.”



Spellings? It is an area where she stands on practically unassailable ground. She plunges straight ahead into the days of the week, spelling even Wednesday and Thursday with no pause to regroup. And months of the year too, February and August included, needing a bit of prodding only at April, that too just to jog along the sequence.

The bar is right up there for Harshini and expectations come crowding, from her teacher, her peers, from herself. This young girl is self-motivated, says Mangala Mary, serious, a slow smile of achievement on her face and an intelligent avidity. Mangala Mary sets a big challenge for her intermittently, and Harshini simply reaches higher.

 

Stars of Easy English: Learning Together

English was once outside the scope of classroom life in Chinnamma’s Nali-Kali* section at the Government Higher Primary School, Kolathur, Hoskote block. The English period went by, 3 to 4 p.m. every day, in dull tedium. The less than 10 children in Nali-Kali – Chinnamma has the 4th grade there as well – did not know a single thing other than the alphabet, she confesses. The class 1 and 2 textbooks open on the floor, most of it going over their heads. It felt weighty and overwhelming. “Very heavy,” as Mangala Mary in another school remarked. Chinnamma was helpless, she says, tied down to matter she could not understand, much less teach.

It was then that EASY English came into class. Chinnamma was open to its methods, its imaginative approach. “It’s a great help to us. In these times you have to know English.” But there was a catch, and that was technology, the new learning matrix in class. Three years away from retirement, she still says, “I don’t want to go into the Internet and all that,” and has used the same basic-edition mobile phone for the last 20 years.



Overcoming resistance was a large part of her conversion story. Today: “I keep the Tab open and the textbook open and integrate. To tell you honestly, I use only the Tab. The same lessons are there in the Tab, and much easier too. I often don’t open the textbook at all.” But Chinnamma continues to be technology-averse. She shuns a smartphone, in fact does not know what it is. Were it not for the inducements of the Tab she would not have crossed her mental barrier.



As for English, she says, “I’m only learning, still.” Chinnamma’s students too, along with her, are learning. “They’re improving slowly.” That is said with deliberate restraint, even a critical tone there. They are moving up, not as much perhaps as in the other schools, but they can answer most of the 23 questions and instructions Chinnamma has framed for them on a chart.

Some examples: “What is your name?’ “What is your father’s name?” What is your mother’s name?” “What is the first sound of your name?” “Which animal gives milk?” “Can you jump?” “Touch the board.” “Show me your nose.” Though whole-sentence answers are not within reach yet, the programme has made English comprehensible. The children understand the questions posed.



Action songs are their forte, a passion. The children know a repertoire of 10 rhymes, the tally way more than they ever knew before. It does not take much to trigger them, they are willing singers and movers. A regaling happens every time the Akshara team visits, and during the English period. The big, semi-dark room reverberates as the children stand in a circle, singing full-throatedly words they can sometimes only barely grasp or pronounce – this little cameo at the centre, and Chinnamma on the perimeter, like a conductor, raising and lowering her arms.

“Come little children……I will teach you A, B, C……”

“Watermelon, papaya, mango, banana……Fruit salad.”

“We go around the mango tree, the mango tree…..”

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* Nali-Kali is a creative learning approach adopted by Government of Karnataka which combines classes 1, 2 and 3 in a single multigrade classroom.

A Motivated Teacher

“I Now Like to Learn English”

Mangala Mary’s English class at the Government Lower Primary School in Mylapura, Hoskote block, is amongst the finest in the programme. The EASY English impact here has been far-reaching. There are many children who are high achievers and a teacher whose motivational energy, once sparked, never fails. “My students are grasping well. They’re learning well because of the programme,” says Mangala Mary.

But more than her 10 students, it is she who has reaped its fruits, she says. “The Tab that Akshara has given us is more helpful to me than to the children, I feel.” Her smile is warm, hospitable. “I learn English from it, from the teacher modules. I now like to learn English. It is very interesting. When I don’t know something, I ask the Akshara team.”


Children learning English in Mangala Mary’s class

This is a sea change for a teacher, who, in 19 years of teaching, had not come anywhere near English. It passed her by, in the streets, in shops, in life’s exchanges. As a government-mandated subject in class, she also had English thrust upon her. She had to teach.

Mangala Mary had not considered herself equal to the challenge. The idea did not capture her only because she was without a captivating, easy enough toolkit. She resisted English like she stonewalled the advent of EASY English a year and a half ago. The Akshara team hesitated to visit her – she was hardly accommodating, the friendly smile missing. English is heavy, she said. The programme is difficult, she concluded, before she had given it a chance.

Then the training workshops started, and change began, gradually in the beginning, and soon with mounting momentum. First came the ability to comprehend, to appreciate the surge of English around her at the training venues, then came the tangible self-esteem recovery. Her attitude became aspirational. “English is an international language. All of us must know how to use it,” she says. Communication is still some rocky distance away. “But I’m able to teach better than before.” Confident assertions are now a part of her personality. “I understand the English on television news. I watch BBC sometimes. But I can’t speak all that well,” she says dejectedly.

Motivation Defines Her
Her gaps in capacity are keeping her motivated. Not that enthusiasm was ever a shortfall. Mangala Mary has an abundance of it, and as if to prove it, she takes the class 2 English textbook and reads. It is a fluent accomplishment. “I understand it,” she says. She picks up a chart from the wall on A House that she has made as an experiment in designing English teaching-learning materials (TLMs) that give complementary support to the lessons. Marked on it and highlighted in colour are parts of the house like roof, doors and windows.

Mangala Mary in her classroom

“I have made charts on the Alphabet and Healthy Food. The Alphabet, I did myself. For Healthy Food, I made a coloured photocopy from the Tab.” Another chart on the drawing board is: Is Cleanliness Next to Godliness. A pencil sketch of the idea is roughly in place. The team tells Mangala Mary to put the ‘Is’ after ‘Cleanliness’ and make a statement of it rather than have it hang as a question. She welcomes the feedback.

The Demand Side is Active
English has an appeal for parents in this mostly low-income community of 592 people . That it is now taught with seriousness, with technology-supported learning resources, is a source of satisfaction to them. They keep the demand side active and Mangala Mary feels energised by the persuasive pressure. Already a committed teacher, it strengthens her resolve to deliver on their English goals.

Try, Try, Try My Best

Akshara Foundation’s Easy English programme puts Jayalakshmi in total command.

Jayalakshmi belongs to a small, elite league of government school teachers who know English, her passionate urge for it pushing her to greater ascendancies. Her spoken English is smart, stylish, free-flowing, of current coinage. “Come, you want to talk to me?” she asks mildly, but with total command as she pulls out chairs. “Now tell me,” she says, settling down.

Jayalakshmi is the Headmistress and teacher of a Nali-Kali class of 11 at the Government Kannada Lower Primary School in Gonakanahalli, Hoskote block. The school has 18 children, classes 1-5.



As one of its foremost teachers and strongest supporters, she holds high the torch of EASY English, Akshara Foundations‘ Digitized English Programme. In a writing assignment for the programme’s training workshop (6-12-2016), she writes, “EASY English. It is a very effective programme from Akshara Foundation. It is very helpful to all government teachers, especially those who are interested to learn and teach English.

From the beginning, I attended all the 10 training workshops. I learnt small and big letters, English grammar………how to make sentences, how to teach English with the Tab for the children.

The children in our school are enjoying English a lot. It is successful and practical. So once again, I would like to say thanks to Akshara Foundation. We are grateful for the EASY English programme.”

The only spelling mistake in the two-page essay is when Jayalakshmi writes ‘greatful’ for ‘grateful.’ Only two or three places where a word connector is missing, like ‘those,’ ‘a,’ or ‘the,’ or a preposition misjudged, a couple of instances of wrong usage, and just once where a sentence is stranded. Her work shows organised thought, and comments and ideas are couched in separate paragraphs.

“I couldn’t even write one page before EASY English started,” Jaylakshmi says. “Now give me a subject and I can write three or four pages. I write about any topic given at the training. Ask the Resource Person,” she says, signalling to the Akshara team member. From a teacher who completed her B.Ed in English this year, it is not something anybody is disputing. “Not enough. No,” she protests in severe self-disapproval. “I have a lot of work left to do.”

Jayalakshmi’s search for English is assiduous. It began in 2010, a few years before EASY English, when her eldest son, now in engineering, teased her repeatedly, “You can’t even speak English.” Stung, Jayalakshmi enrolled in a two-month spoken English class. The learning there had its limitations, till she became one of the teacher beneficiaries in Akshara’s English programme. Now she is simply in a class of her own.

“I read India Today, The Times of India, comics. I watch English news on my mobile,” she says, tapping her elegant smartphone. That, for a confident, self-assured lady, is the only piece of technology she deals with. “I’m on WhatsApp and Facebook. Mostly I read other people’s posts on FB. I don’t like posting much – it’s like saying everything to everyone. When I get a difficult word, I go to Google.” These are some of the engines that power Jayalakshmi’s English growth.

Few government school teachers in the programme muster the courage yet to declare, as she does, “English is easy to understand.”

“They’re Improving…..” Jayalakshmi’s students have an expert touch with the Tab that is far ahead of what the team finds in many classrooms. When visitors enter class, they speak only in English. “They’re improving day by day,” says Jayalakshmi. “They’re completely engaged with the technology of the Tab.”

The Drive that Keeps her Going: Jayalakshmi needs neither prodding nor pushing, her answers tumble out before the questions are put. “You tell me,” she says, sitting forward. “How do I improve my English? I want to learn more English, have more fluency.” Her drive keeps her on her feet. At 48, she has her journey mapped and it is strewn with self-affirmative milestones. “I want to do my MEd* in English. After my 60th year, I’ll do my PhD**. Now I’m busy, busy, always busy.”

Today’s chock-full calendar of activity is: doing as much as she can to advance her grasp. “Try, try, try my best. I want to teach my students more English.”

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* Master’s in Education.
** Doctor of Philosophy.