To address the challenge, EnglishHelper (EH), an EdTech company founded by Venkat Srinivasan, a Boston-based social entrepreneur and cognitive scientist, launched the RightToRead programme, using an AI platform ‘ReadToMe’ to facilitate multi-sensory reading and comprehension. “The goal has been to ensure students receive the basic programme free of cost while improving their reading, comprehension and spoken English skills,” says Sanjay Gupta, Global CEO, EnglishHelper. The EdTech has partnered with Intel and Amazon Web Services (AWS), to provide the software to government-run schools and support students in over 25000 schools.
How it works
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The programme integrates with the existing curriculum (wherein the software enables the reading of school textbooks). “Schools with just one PC/ laptop are able to leverage the software by conducting English classes during normal school hours in a designated AV room, Gupta explains. “Teachers can download the ReadToMe Android app on their phones and link their device to a screen to teach the textbook using the software. They can also use platforms like Zoom to deliver the classes virtually using their phones or laptops, he adds.
Post the programme, there seems to have been 20–40% higher improvement in reading and comprehension. “This result is due to the consistent exposure that enables students to learn English phonics and improve word recognition. Additionally, adapting it with the curriculum ensures practical implementation of the prescribed textbooks and eliminates the need for extended classroom sessions,” says Akanksha Bilani, regional Alliance Head – Asia Pacific & Japan at Intel.
Talking about tech-enabled learning solutions, Bilani feels that it can become a great equaliser for underprivileged children where affordable holistic education holds key. “We have already seen organisations develop and deliver learning modules via apps and live classes on popular social media platforms. Effective industry collaboration to accelerate technology innovation across cloud, network and at the edge can pave the way to a more dynamic and accessible learning environment,” she adds.
Meeting the challenge
To address the English language gaps in government-run schools, Learning Matters, another EdTech entity, has come to the fore, using AI and Natural Language Processing. The Bangalore-based EdTech, founded in 2016 by G Ramamoorthy, Gowri Mahesh and Saraswathy Ramamoorthy, uses Tara, an interactive, personalised teacher assistant to make English learning interactive for the students.
“The virtual voice teacher built on AI enhances proficiency in English in a conversational style, says Saraswathy at Learning Matters where a price point of Rs 100 per student per month makes it an economically viable initiative. “In order to access and learn with the virtual teacher, learners need only the Alexa device or smartphone, supporting books (either hard copy or e-book format; for both the teacher and the student programmes) provided by us, and an internet connection. Schools procure an Alexa enabled device of their choice. We supply the books and the access to the virtual voice teacher.Learners follow a prescribed outline of lessons within each course,” Saraswathy adds.
The voice teacher repeats lessons, converses with learners, asks questions, ‘listens’ to answers, provides feedback and corrects grammatical mistakes over and over again, just as a human conversation partner would.“This helps learners learn the language in the natural way but at their pace and with repeated practice to gain proficiency. A non-judgemental learning environment is created for the learners to speak confidently without the fear of being judged,” says Saraswathy. In the longer run, the vision is for Tara to teach a variety of academic subjects.
The programme has five levels that are aligned to CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). “Alignment to CEFR standards means that it is the proficiency level and not the age of the learner that is taken into consideration. The programme duration is about 10 months to complete one learning level at a frequency of 4 hours per week,” Saraswathy informs.
Levels of academic loss
Learning loss and regression in English skills, according to her, is a “mean beast to tackle” and in government schools the problem is more acute. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) demonstrates that grade V students in rural India are unable to comprehend grade II-level text. “The biggest reasons for this are the severe resource constraints and the alarming lack of qualified teachers which lead to low proficiency in English and poor learning outcomes. Over time, the effects get compounded, severely affecting the ability to comprehend texts and exam papers which, in turn, lead to poor grades, dropouts, and unemployability. If proficiency in English can be addressed in both students and teachers simultaneously, then the root causes of this systemic challenge can be effectively addressed,” Saraswathy says.