Story Time from a Computer: Teaching English to Millions Across India with Technology

Khushiya, 13, follows along as a computer program that guides her English lessons narrates a story about a tree and its leaves.
Khushiya, 13, follows along as a computer program that guides her English lessons narrates a story about a tree and its leaves.
Meenakshi Dalal/USAID
A computer program guides English classes across schools in eight Indian states to make teaching and learning the language easier with narration, picture definitions and direct translations.
I was so scared of English when I was in school. There was no individual attention then, or when I started teaching. With the picture dictionary it’s easy to teach.

April 2017—Even in a computer’s voice, the story being recited loudly over the speakers is so engrossing that 13-year-old Khushiya hasn’t bothered to blink in the last 20 seconds. In a classroom at Vejalpur Primary School in the western Indian state of Gujarat, sit about 30 students with their eyes locked on the monitor displaying the text of a story about a tree and its leaves. English is not their first language but as the computer narrates, the children repeat each word with near perfect pronunciation.

This scene is part of a USAID-supported program called Right to Read, which helps more than one million children across eight states in India learn English. The language is used in business, higher education and government, making even the most basic English language skills a pathway to greater social and economic opportunities.  

The English language is already part of the curriculum but English language skills among students and teachers remain low. An affordable computer program that guides teachers and students through each lesson is proving to be a big help in bridging this gap and improving English language instruction in schools.    

The teacher, Neerali Gaur, clicks the mouse twice to pause the narration. “What is a tree?” she asks, checking for her students’ comprehension. Hands shoot up and the children blurt out answers. Gaur nods at them and then clicks on the screen making an illustration of a tree pop up. Once she sees that the children have made the connection between the picture of the tree and how the word “tree” is written in English, she clicks again and the computer narration resumes.

Right to Read is supported by USAID and run by English Helper, a Boston-based startup. The company developed ReadtoMe (RTM), an interactive computer software that helps teach English using story narration, picture definitions and direct translations.

English Helper CEO Sanjay Gupta explains, “We don’t touch the schools’ textbooks. They are already contextualized by grade for the children in that school. We just take the textbook and integrate it into our software. It’s about making [the program] a part of the day-to-day activities at school, but better.”

The school principal, Dipak Pandit, agrees. “The beauty of this project," he says, "is that it goes with the curriculum so teachers aren’t required to do anything extra.” Rather, teachers instruct students using a digitized version of existing English textbooks.

Gaur finds this way of teaching English to be more effective than when she was a student. “I was so scared of English when I was in school," she explains. "There was no individual attention then, or when I started teaching. With the picture dictionary, it’s easy to teach.”

Nitin is 16 and he’s already using the English he’s learned. He serves tea after school at an office nearby and says, “It gives me an understanding that I need for jobs in the future. I even use English at my job sometimes.”  

This program is designed to expand to other schools at a low cost by using the existing computers, textbooks and teachers.

“We wanted to pursue a rapid scale expansion. There are too many young people who need our intervention now. That’s why we use technology, so we can scale it,” says Gupta.

English Helper began its program in 2013 in 100 schools. With USAID’s support, the company expanded its reach to 5,000 schools in India. With increased recognition of the effectiveness of the program, English Helper has now launched the program in another four states and in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Colombia and Sierra Leone.

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Last updated: April 24, 2017

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