Leaving textbooks behind, this social enterprise is teaching English by not ‘teaching’ English


Karadi Path Education Company, a Chennai based enterprise, is bringing the power of the mother tongue into classrooms. With non-verbal and contextual cues, music, audio, and visuals, English is now being taught like a language is supposed to—by speaking and not by teaching.

The end goal is for children to not only speak the language but also think in it.

“The story of Karadi Path began in 2000,” says Co-founder C P Viswanath. He and his wife Shobha received a call from an NGO in Dharavi describing how slum children who couldn’t speak a word of English were “suddenly bursting with it.” The NGO had been using Karadi Tales, a children’s interactive audio book that the couple had first introduced 20 years ago, to teach them English.

When Viswanath and Shobha visited the NGO, they found that the children were thoroughly enjoying Karadi Tales because of the music, pictures, and the narrative it presented. The couple made another observation:

Each and every one of these children, who were between four and eight years of age, spoke a minimum of three languages. How does a child acquire languages other than the mother tongue? This was the question that started Karadi Path.

Knowing immediately that this was worth looking into, the couple began designing a curriculum that could bring the natural environment in which a child learns a language into the classroom. Seven years later, Karadi Path Education Company’s methodologies are accepted by over 2,600 schools.

‘We’ve been doing it wrong all this time’

“We learn a language primarily through listening, and by interpreting non-verbal cues and the context. When a child learns language in such an environment, the process is quick, effortless, and joyful,” Viswanath explains.

“But when we teach the meaning of a word, you slow down this process. Of the 10,000–12,000 words you know to be able to speak English fluently, how many of these do you think you learnt from the dictionary and how many did you discover through context?” he questions.

Shobha and Viswanath

Viswanath goes on to explain that a child has to be allowed to discover and predict a language. What then of syntax and grammar? Viswanath acknowledges that this is the most important part of a language as it sets one apart from the other; but he poses yet another valid question—“Did someone teach you the grammar of your native tongue?”

Keeping our native languages as a frame of reference, it becomes clear that our minds learn syntax intuitively. One simply has to be in this ‘environment’ where the language is spoken, so that its meaning can be derived through context and non-verbal cues, and this is the environment Karadi Path has been striving to introduce into classrooms.

Through pattern recognition, imitation, and repetition, children quickly pick up the language.

“Language learning has failed miserably,” Viswanath says, indicating how the organised manner in which schools teach is actually decelerating the process. “A child learns a language for 10 years in school and graduates without being able to put together a sentence, whereas a child who has moved into a new city picks up the language in three months,” he says, indicating the clear difference in approach.

The Karadi way

If one walked into a classroom implementing Karadi Path’s methodologies, they would immediately see how unlike every other classroom it is. For starters, it would be ‘noisy’, because the three basic modules they employ—Power Action, Power Music, and Power story—all involve constant interaction.

Through the Action module, understanding of entire sentences with syntax is achieved. The teacher, who is trained and certified by KEPC in this methodology once a school is on board, utters a ‘command’ through action and the children repeat, understand, and follow it. This way, language is experienced as there is simultaneous listening, seeing, and application.

Activities following the action module where commands are repeated by the children.

The Music module taps into the brain’s ability to recognise patterns and rhythms, helping children tune into the new sounds of a language alien to them. Music also keeps them engaged and makes the experience enjoyable. “It’s easier to sing a Spanish song rather than to learn a Spanish sentence,” says Viswanath, with another apt analogy.

The context for this audio content is kept relevant to the atmosphere the children grow in; instead of using songs like Jack and Jill, children learn English through songs about mangoes or bhel puri. The accent too is neutral—neither foreign nor heavily accented by Indian vernaculars.

The Story module, which involves reading, is the only one with some instruction. “But we’re able to accelerate that as well by using the phonetic and the sight approach,” which involves breaking up of basic words into the phonetics, and slowly transitioning into sight reading through tactile finger writing.

Tactile finger writing.

In a 40-minute session, the children live the language through the three modules. The end goal, as Viswanath explains, is for children to not only speak the language but also think in it.

How far the Karadi will walk

Getting the first 20–50 schools on board was the toughest part, for they had to be told that everything they had done until that point had been in vain. But the numbers slowly grew from 100 to 800 to now close to 3,000 as more and more schools began noticing the efficiency of this methodology.

KEPC works with both private and public schools which, once on board, buy modules and kits ranging from Rs 700 – 1,200. Although prices are modelled per student, the school is their direct customer. In case of public schools, costs are decided per school.

Non-verbal cues are an essential and repetitive factor in Karadi Path's modules.

Viswanath and Shobha are now planning for a whole new ball game— introducing Karadi Path in colleges. “There’s so much data on unemployability of young graduates but no one recognises language as the key reason,” he says. The approach will, of course, be modified to suit the age of college-going students but Viswanath believes this method will be just as effective.

The Karadi Path methodology is currently implemented in 16 states and has reached 6,00,000 students. But “we have a million-plus schools to reach and a long way to go,” Viswanath signs off.


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