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PRANIL NAIK

India,

With little or no access to quality English education, the rural youth demographic in India is barred from equal opportunities in higher education and professional employment. In the absence of skilled teachers in schools, combined with an English-illiterate environment, rural students are unable to read, write or comprehend basic English, leading to a high drop-out rate from schools and colleges. To unlock opportunities in higher education and employment, Pranil Naik has designed a unique, plug-and-play model which democratises the teaching and learning of English for first generation learners in rural areas.

This profile below was prepared when Pranil Naik was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.

INTRODUCTION

With little or no access to quality English education, the rural youth demographic in India is barred from equal opportunities in higher education and professional employment. In the absence of skilled teachers in schools, combined with an English-illiterate environment, rural students are unable to read, write or comprehend basic English, leading to a high drop-out rate from schools and colleges. To unlock opportunities in higher education and employment, Pranil Naik has designed a unique, plug-and-play model which democratises the teaching and learning of English for first generation learners in rural areas.




THE NEW IDEA

To ensure equal access to English across ages in completely English-illiterate rural environments, Pranil has designed a method that effectively “de-skills” the teaching and learning of the language. The design of the curriculum and delivery is such that eliminates the need for a skilled English teacher (a rarity in rural schools), or even a basic working knowledge of English amongst the student group. Pranil’s unique and contextualized methodology leverages phonetics, mobile recordings and interactive visual aids, to enable rural and semi-urban students to develop core competencies like reading, writing and comprehension within 20 to 24 months (having started from scratch).

To deliver his solution, Pranil has cultivated a network of rural English tutors who run local coaching centres before and after school hours, which not only provide additional livelihood opportunities for local youth (often school drop-outs), but also complement the efforts of in-school lessons because of the rapid improvement in the students’ ability to read and comprehend English. Pranil is now developing English assessment software to test the impact of the tutorial classes and use these granular, customised results to drive better content and delivery methods for his tutors.

By combining low-cost technology like mobile phones with his adaptable pedagogy, and several micro-enterprises in the form of English classes, Pranil is facilitating access to both quality English education and economic opportunity in villages. With the help of CSO partners, Pranil now plans to develop curriculum for Hindi-speaking states, thus scaling his impact to a wider belt of English-illiterate communities. Beginning with rural Maharashtra, Pranil has created a distribution network of six CSOs to spread his curriculum and delivery method to different parts of the country. He is simultaneously petitioned the government to incorporate his methodology of English teaching in trainings for municipal school teachers.




THE PROBLEM

Children in rural India have little to no exposure to English-speaking environments. Unlike cities, their educational institutes, peer groups and entertainment channels don’t employ English as their primary medium of communication. Without the opportunity to hear, speak or practice English in their homes, rural youth have a very weak grasp on the language. The framework for learning proper English does not exist or is constrained by a lack of resources.

With economic and cultural mobility being interlinked with the knowledge of English, the rural poor are thus denied mainstream opportunities of education, employment and social advancement. The lack of English education in rural areas is the most common, non-financial reason for students to drop out of high school. Although regional languages are the medium for primary and secondary education, rural students have no option but to sit for centralised high school math and science examinations in English. Unable to read or comprehend, most students fall through the cracks at this stage. Furthermore, a huge portion of India’s youth is prevented from appearing for entrance exams of professional degrees like medicine and engineering which are conducted in English.

Unlike math or science, conventional English teaching methods require a certain level of expertise and skill in the teacher, as well as a strong foundation in the language. However, in most rural areas across the country, school teachers are either English-illiterate themselves, or lack the ability to simplify English learning for their students. Additionally, the design of the existing curriculum is not contextualised to local infrastructural gaps—the lack of skilled English teachers, a non-speaking English environment and students who are unable to read or comprehend basic English words.  Most teachers merely read out lessons written completely in English and as a result, students derive little value from these classes. Instead of building a strong foundation in the language at an early stage, the students are unable to read or comprehend the “lesson portion”. They inevitably fail when they are faced with the challenge of answering an exam using English.

With a strong focus on speaking to enhance employability, existing infrastructure around English coaching in rural and semi-urban areas caters primarily to adults. On the other hand, school-based interventions involve supplementary classes whereby children are taught through rote learning rhymes and songs without comprehending them. Currently, most English reading and learning programmes employ activity based learning and technology to conduct classes in rural areas. However the limitations on both types of solutions, in addition to the infrastructure cost of the hardware and training, are that they do not simplify delivery enough for the solution to become completely localised.

With English being a critical vehicle of growth and opportunity in India now, there is a need to develop a system of learning that is not dependent on pre-requisite skills, infrastructure, curriculum and environment.




THE STRATEGY

Pranil’s Leap For Word ( the organisation he founded) curriculum and pedagogy is designed to work in completely English-illiterate environments, and thus focuses on a graded learning pattern. While other English learning programmes tie-in reading with comprehension from the start, in the absence of an English-speaking environment, or proficient teachers, there is no infrastructure in rural areas to reinforce comprehension or grammar alongside reading ability. To ensure that this methodology of learning and teaching English is accessible by every lay person, Pranil de-linked reading and comprehension into two different modules, and moves gradually from one to another.

The first step in the curriculum focuses on improving reading ability by deconstructing words using phonetics, and associating sound with spelling. By doing so the delivery mechanism ensures that instead of learning independent words, students master the underlying methodology behind reading, and thus are capable of reading any text. Based on the government school English curriculum, Pranil and his team have created a vocabulary of about 1000 words to be taught across grades. By demonstrating how these words are broken down into syllables, and their corresponding sound, the curriculum unlocks a replicable strategy to begin reading any word. The classes first focus on teaching three-letter words, and gradually raise difficulty levels through subsequent modules. Students are required to master each level before moving onto the next, and ultimately be eligible for learning comprehension and grammar in the 7th or 8th month. Through a combination of audio recordings (where meaning of words is explained a regional language), memory card games and classroom instruction in comprehending passages in their books, these children are able to raise their proficiency levels within 24 months.

The modules are structured to provide value at every level. Pranil believes that even mastering reading will help rural students follow their regular school lessons better. To spread his reach to more rural and semi-urban areas, Pranil saw the opportunity in establishing a local network of tutors, who conduct their own LFW English coaching classes in their villages. Comprised of local school drop-outs or ex-government school teachers, Pranil leverages the same curriculum to make these tutors “English ready”. The idea behind employing tutors to run rural coaching centres is not to create skilled English teachers, but capable facilitators, who can deliver the curriculum in a structured manner. A test is administered at the end of the two-week training to ascertain which tutors are prepared to open their own tuition centres. Tutors hold regular before or after school classes in their villages. Initially employed by LFW, tutors can now sustain themselves from the fee-based structures of these classes, and the volume of students helps them offset the low fees (INR 1 to 2 to extend access to the poorest sections in their villages). In order to access older children who are sent away to study in state-sponsored boarding schools, LFW tutors also conduct “vacation” classes, which helps students who are lagging behind to quickly raise their learning levels.

In addition to low-cost innovation like loading the curriculum onto a basic memory card (to be used alongside the workbook in class), Pranil also employs several teaching aids in classes to facilitate learning. For instance, a “dictionary wall” in each LFW class where students records words they don’t understand, helps train them to use an English dictionary as part of their basic learning. Through an annual competition called the Word Power Championship open to all school students in the district, Pranil has gamified learning, and the winnings are utilised to cover a tutorss cost in case his/her clients cannot afford the coaching fee. By creating a link between economic incentives, quality learning and competition, Pranil’s model benefits each stakeholder (tutors, students, parents) associated with it.

The popularity of the school reading programme has resulted in a substantial improvement in the living conditions of these tutors, as well as elicited interest from the local zila parishad schools, who are now allowing LFW classes to be held in school premises. LFW has trained about 5000 children and close to 30 tutors in Mumbai and Dhule district in Maharashtra.

In addition to curriculum, Pranil has simultaneously developed a English assessment software to record the improvement in learning levels. Currently in its beta-phase, this software breaks down test result for each student at each level, thus indicating gaps in learning or flaws in curriculum/delivery. While existing assessment platforms, like ASER, can record how many students in grade five are unable to read English, they cannot provide information on how to improve the current syllabus or teaching infrastructure to better their proficiency levels.

In collaboration with six CSOs, Pranil now plans to take the LFW model beyond Dhule in Maharashtra to other districts. He has simultaneously piloted a teacher training module for municipal school teachers in Mumbai, and petitioned the government to include this as part of regular trainings. While the curriculum is open source, Pranil is creating a retail model around the assessment software to be sold as an integral part of the toolkit. By doing so, Pranil wants to ensure that the toolkit by design stays dynamic and adaptable to the context where the classes are being held.




THE PERSON

Pranil was born and raised in a humble Maharashtrian home in suburban Mumbai. Financially stretched, his father worked two jobs to sustain the family and his mother, a trained nurse, ran a crèche in their colony. Pranil and his brother realised the importance of education early on as means to improve their living conditions, and Pranil grew up to be an all-rounder in school. His mother’s altruistic ways of providing free medical services to people in their community also influenced his values of giving back to society.

While in engineering college, Pranil began helping his younger cousins prepare for their Mathematics and English examinations.  As general secretary of the student body in college, Pranil also initiated the practice of contributing funds to different causes from the money raised during college fests.  It was during this period that he developed a keen understanding of teamwork and leadership, and channelled his energy into supporting an orphanage in Mumbai.

Pranil continued to volunteer at the orphanage and night schools even as he began his career with Oracle. His initial brush with teaching enabled him, along with a group of friends, to start LFW in 2006 as a remedial English class for night college students. With the aim to improve their English reading skills and employability, Pranil and his team appointed BPO coaches to teach these youths. However Pranil quickly realised that the larger gap lay in the students’ fundamental knowledge of English and spent time individually with each student to identify their particular problems. Having recorded their speeches, Pranil persevered through hours of tape recordings to understand on what to focus the next class on.

Having learnt through trial and error, Pranil first launched the school reading programme in Mumbai and Shirpur in 2007, which went through several iterations based on the feedback from its roll-out. At every step, Pranil’s assumptions were challenged by the realities of the non-English speaking world, which enabled him to innovate in real time and incorporate the changes in his model. Through this dynamic system of work, Pranil developed a curriculum and methodology that works despite the infrastructural and resource constraints in remote areas. Through several iterations of his model, Pranil gathered the support of rural educational institutions and leveraged the help of his personal and professional mentors in Mumbai to establish the crucial need for his solution. Convinced of his potential social impact, Pranil’s support network is now helping him fundraise to scale the programme.

Pranil is passionate about providing equal English learning opportunities to every individual. To do this, he has overcome significant personal challenges and taken sabbaticals from his regular career to ensure that LFW grows as a sustainable, scalable and socially impactful model. Recently married, Pranil supports his young family by teaching management at St. Xaviers College in Mumbai.




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