Bengaluru-based techie Latha Srinivasan was shocked to find that her domestic help’s son—who attended a low-cost private school and had just taken his class 10 board exams—had failed every subject barring Kannada. He had scored just three in English.
Latha recollects: “My maid’s investment in her son’s education had gone waste—he does not know English and has little scope of getting higher education or a good job.”
It was then that Latha identified a glaring omission in the teaching methodology followed in schools across the country. Be it English, Hindi, Kannada, or Marathi, they are all taught as subjects, not languages.
If the medium of instruction is English, at least five subjects are taught in English. Also, professional education—in law, medicine, CA, engineering, CS, banking—is only in English. However, first-generation English learners often lack English skills and lose out on many opportunities.
In an effort to find a solution to the problem, Latha left her job at HCL and founded Chippersage—which means happy teacher—in 2009. Chippersage’s different programmes target children (four–14), adults, and teachers.
Laying the foundation
The lack of adequate teaching materials beyond English textbooks in schools was the first problem to tackle. Chippersage provides material put together by experts, enhancing English fluency via three programmes:
- The English Ever After programme comprises instructor-led, interactive sessions.
- Bodhi Tree is a programme to train educators to teach more effectively.
- Flow of English is an assemblage of digital guides tailored to engage children in the age group of four-14
Chippersage provides educational material including activity sheets, smart tiles with alphabets and sounds, and word wheel, as well as software for training in pronunciation.
Initially bootstrapped, Chippersage became an IIM B incubatee earlier this year. It has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the India Educational Investment Fund. Additionally, Agastya International Foundation, Swades Foundation (in Maharashtra), and Deshpande Foundation in north Karnataka are partnering with Chippersage. Says Latha,
“If we are able to convince the schools about the significance of English, or if they realise that their own teachers will never be able to pull it through themselves, they pay us. For government schools, our investors back us.”
Chippersage is also involved in CSR partnerships, carrying out its programmes in the areas covered by the respective companies. Looking to increase the number of learners from the current 80,000 to 10 lakh, Chippersage is now also piloting in Tamil Nadu.
Chippersage predominantly works with low-cost private schools. According to Latha, while most schools accept that English is a challenge for their students and staff, they consider only lack of speaking and conversation skills, overlooking overall skills like comprehension and real-world application.
“But some schools agree that English language development needs a multi-pronged approach to develop all skills for acquiring fluency in a language—listening, speaking, reading, and writing or LSRW,” she says.
Convincing the school administrators is no easy job, though. Latha recollects an instance: “During a discussion, the principal of a school insisted that most students in his school could read and understand English very well. We suggested he do a ‘dip test'. So five students each from class III, IV, and V were asked to read a lesson from their English textbook (which their teacher had not taught them). Class III and IV students could not even read and the rest read it in an incomprehensible manner. "The principal then agreed that English proficiency was an issue in his school."
In 2009, Chippersage partnered with 30-odd schools. Realising over time that it wasn’t just children who needed English training, Chippersage partnered with Manipal Education for training in English as well as workplace and life skills to prepare adults for interviews and presentations.
Chippersage charges Rs 900 per student for 25-30 sessions in one year. It also conducts summer camps.
Teaching a teacher
For a first-generation learner, the teacher is the first contact point where he/she picks up English. He/she benefits if the teacher is trained in spoken communication, diction, pronunciation, prosody, and vocabulary. Chippersage works with not just English language teachers but all teachers who teach in English i.e. math and science teachers too.
The school pays for the teachers’ training—an average of Rs 1,000 per teacher. The training starts with baseline assessment, wherein teachers are taught where to start and what level the students are at. Then there is a midline assessment once half the portion is done.
In inaccessible areas, Chippersage scouts for graduates for teaching. Selected graduates undergo two weeks' training with Chippersage in Bengaluru. These teachers go back to teach other teachers, and it continues like a chain.
But there are hurdles here too. “Sometimes teachers don’t even encourage students to speak in English. As long as we are there, they are touching base with the language,” says Latha. Chippersage does revision to follow up every two months.
In the past one year, six teachers have been trained from Maharashtra and North Karnataka. Chippersage wants to reach out to 4,000 teachers this year.
Chippersage plans to partner with NGOs next. They are also planning to expand their English Ever After programme through people who are good at English and have the time to start English centres in their homes, especially in apartment complexes. This will be a revenue-sharing model, with Chippersage providing the teaching material.
Chippersage does not have plans to take up regional languages. “We would rather increase our scope to improve proficiency in English for the older age group (18-25) especially for job-oriented courses (like nursing, accountancy, ITI), which will increase their employability,” says Latha.
In eight years, the Chippersage team has gone from four to 54 members. Their annual turnover last year was Rs 1 crore, which they are looking at tripling this year.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) that tests children annually indicates that more than 50 percent of class V children in India cannot read class II textbooks. The global survey of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks India 71 among the 73 participating countries. With basic education still being a struggle for millions, there is a lot more work to be done.