Language lessons

A breakthrough project in rural Maharashtra is helping teachers come to grips with English — and that’s changing the way the language is taught to and learned by schoolchildren

Nothing about Priyanka Dalvi appears to be out of the ordinary as she greets visitors at a small school in Phulambri town, about 100km from the historical city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra. But Ms Dalvi, a teacher at a government school, is exceptional — and the reason is the fluency she has acquired over recent years in the English language.

Ms Dalvi had a working knowledge of English but she was not comfortable speaking the language or understanding it with ease. That changed after Ms Dalvi joined a programme aimed at enabling schoolteachers in rural Maharashtra to become facile in the language.

Called Tejas (meaning brilliance in Hindi), this collaborative initiative involving the state government, the British Council and the Tata Trusts started in 2016 and it is changing the way English is taught and learned in Maharashtra’s hinterland. Now nearing the end of the pilot-project phase, Tejas has reached some 18,000 teachers thus far.

The upside here has been remarkable and the evidence unfolds when Ms Dalvi begins addressing a group of schoolteachers at the Phulambri function. The room is filled with schoolteachers who have been working in remote villages for long. Ms Dalvi speaks in English and the audience’s admiration for her becomes obvious.

It is rare to encounter a person with Ms Dalvi’s command of English in the settings of a rural school. It is not so rare in Aurangabad district, where Ms Dalvi and her schoolteacher colleagues have emerged as torchbearers in an effort directed at dismantling the hurdles English presents to those doing the teaching, as well as those looking to learn.

One of the earliest participants in Tejas and now a trainer herself, Ms Dalvi conducts her session almost entirely in English. Some of the teachers struggle to grasp what she is saying but Ms Dalvi goes the extra mile in ridding her adult wards of their discomfort. They, in turn, listen carefully to what she has to convey.

Getting their kids to be fluent in, or at least know, English is a commonplace aspiration for parents in India. More often than not, this is an aspiration too for those in the country’s rural regions, where the majority of schools are state-run and the primary mode of communication is the local language. The intent behind Tejas has been to change that equation.

How ‘gilaas’ becomes ‘glass’

Teachers with their study material at the government school in Phulambri

Those who know the language well don’t think much about the knowing but English can be a tricky customer, to say the least, for people lacking the means to make it their own. This is especially true for those who have to ‘learn’ the language, as opposed to people who ‘pick it up’ in an English-rich environment.

English as a second language is not an easy beast to tame, even with a proper education on your side (evidence of this abounds in the poor usage of it all around us, whether in written word or spoken blather). The difficulty is compounded in India’s rural schools by a variety of factors, and this is where Tejas is trying to make a difference.

“I could not speak English fluently earlier, particularly in public,” says Apeksha Tai, a schoolteacher who has been part of the Tejas programme for about two years. “But now I’ve become more confident and that has helped my students learn the language better. My class II kids used to say ‘gilaas’; now they have got around to pronouncing it as ‘glass’.”

Ganesh Gore, a teacher in a village school with just 16 students, faced similar problems before he found a friend in Tejas. “I’ve been teaching near Phulambri for the last six months and, initially, I had a lot of trouble getting my students to improve their English,” he says. “Tejas has made things easier and I have been able to do my job. I talk to my students about simple stuff and I connect them to the language through everyday words.”

The programme has been rolled out in nine districts of Maharashtra and its key objective is to bring about a systemic transformation in the quality of teaching English. The sessions conducted by Ms Dalvi and others plug into this objective and the results have been encouraging.

Confidence booster

“These sessions have increased my confidence and improved my English,” says Srikant Patil, a schoolteacher participant who has attended six of them. “I learned English in school but most of the learning came through writing, not conversing. The Tejas programme is changing that for me.”

Individual stories emerging from the Tejas classroom provide further encouragement. One of the schoolteachers who have benefitted from the project — she hails from isolated Gadchiroli — has been nominated by the British Council to attend an international conference in English.

Helen Silvester from the British Council points out that it is the winning formula of teacher engagement and learning communities that is responsible for the programme’s success. “The challenge for teachers globally is the distance between them and the education, initiative and practise involved,” she says. “What we are seeing here in Maharashtra is quite impressive and all indications are that Tejas is working well.”

Tejas works well because it takes in schoolteachers as well as students. “Many schoolchildren in India are good with English grammar but are reluctant to speak the language — and spoken English is the key,” adds Ms Silvester.

What started off in a small way in Maharashtra is now sparking interest in other Indian states and abroad, too. Gujarat is set to unveil something similar and so could Madhya Pradesh and several more states. The programme has also found takers in Romania, Nepal and Egypt.

In Maharashtra itself, the programme is poised to cover all 36 districts of the state. The goal is to train 48,000 teachers in about five years and, eventually, scale the number up to 100,000 teachers. The target is certainly achievable and one reason is that the initiative eliminates a big deficiency of the traditional train-the-trainer model, where trainers and teachers tend to lose contact, leading to poor outcomes. Tejas has been able to overcome this in a novel way.

Under the programme, the teachers form ‘face-to-face groups’ and digital communities so that they can practise their newfound skills. “Our teachers get a total of 19 days of training over a three-year period and they get to meet one another every month,” says Ujwal Karwande, HOD English department, Maharashtra Academic Authority, a government body that aims to update and improve the quality of primary education in the state. “We have 750 ‘teacher activity groups’ (TAGs) and we will have 600 more of these once we scale up.”

English has its day

Among the techniques pursued under Tejas are the engagement of participants in games, having discussions in English, and observing one day in the week as ‘English day’ (where teachers and students follow an only-English rule in class). Additionally, there are speakers to deliver guest lectures and clubs to promote the language.

The Maharashtra government is enthused enough by the success of Tejas to extend the programme’s ambit to include private schools. Also on the agenda is a proposal to revitalise the government’s State Institute of English at Aurangabad so that it is equipped to support English training initiatives.

Be it starting early, as with schoolchildren, or catching up later than never, in relation to schoolteachers, Tejas is ploughing a crucial furrow in its bid to make English an ally in the early-education ecosystem rather than an unfamiliar creature forced upon everyone involved. The endeavour could not have happened sooner.

Students being helped with lessons at the government school in Phulambri