Monday, August 18, 2008

Teaching English and Literacy Skills to Rising Star Outreach Students in India

I wrote a newsletter article for Rising Star Outreach about the English program that I worked on establishing earlier this summer for children who come from the leprosy colonies in India, and I thought I would share it. (To read the article online, click here.)
(See my other posts about teaching English and literacy skills in India: English and Literacy Teaching in India and Why the English Language? Why Literacy? Why India?)
Improve English and Literacy at RSO
“If you’ve come to help me, you can go home again. But if my problems become a matter of your own survival, then perhaps we can work together.”

This quote, attributed to an Australian aborigine, illustrates the approach volunteers, staff, and donors at Rising Star Outreach (RSO) take when volunteering their time, energy, and resources to improve English and literacy for students at the Peery School for Rising Stars.

One of the missions of Rising Star Outreach is to help individuals reach their full potential. A factor that greatly contributes to this objective is providing an opportunity for education that includes English and literacy training. Literacy in English unlocks doors of opportunity that individuals would not otherwise have the keys to unlock. For this purpose, children of the leprosy colonies are taught English literacy at the Peery School for Rising Stars. Amy Antonelli, Executive Director of RSO, states that the Peery School for Rising Stars has “the mission of teaching the children from the leprosy colonies how to break out of the generational cycle of begging and untouchability. The single greatest factor in determining their ability to do this will be their grasp of English…In the new India, the multi-national corporations are uninterested in a person's caste or social standing. They want competent workers. There is a saying in India now that ‘education is the new caste.’ And the greatest indicator of a good education is how well a person speaks English.” To this end, RSO has developed a focus on teaching students, teachers, and staff English and literacy skills.

To fulfill the objective of improving students’ level of English and literacy, summer volunteers are working with RSO students one-on-one to teach them English and literacy strategies. Volunteers are employing the Discover Intensive Phonics for Yourself method published by Reading Horizons to improve students’ English pronunciation, literacy, and vocabulary skills. Before arriving in India, volunteers completed a four-hour Online Workshop to learn the basic methodology. (See They also attended an in-person or online training to discuss the application of this method in context of working with students at the Peery School.

This methodology was selected to fulfill the students’ needs because students have opportunities to improve their pronunciation, increase their vocabulary, and learn strategies for decoding and spelling. In addition, this systematic method is easy to learn and easy to teach, it provides multi-sensory involvement, and a newly-arriving volunteer can pick up where a recently-departed volunteer left off. Also, an important consideration for adopting this method is that the strategies taught develop skills for life-long learning. This method is being used by RSO for the first time this summer and has thus far proven to be very effective. Both the students and volunteers have responded very well to using this method to teach English.

Not only is there a focus on improving the students’ English at RSO, but also the teachers’ English. For this purpose, a teachers’ English class is being offered after school five days a week. The teachers learn pronunciation, grammar, writing, culture, and learning strategies in context of real-life speaking tasks that they encounter outside the classroom. The teachers are very eager to learn English, and they are excellent at applying their learned skills to their interactions outside the classroom. The intention of helping teachers improve their English is to empower them with the confidence and skills necessary to be more effective models of English for their students in the classroom. Until the teachers are able to provide this effective English language modeling, the role of proficient English-speaking volunteers is crucial in assisting in the development of RSO students’ English.

There is also a vision to teach English and literacy to staff members at RSO who do not have the skills to communicate in English. Staff members include housemothers, cleaning staff, nurses, drivers, and office staff who all contribute to RSO operations in India. English and literacy training would provide opportunities to learn relevant English vocabulary and phrases that would assist them in their efforts to communicate with native English speakers who volunteer at RSO, as well as enable them to provide the RSO students with whom they often interact with even more exposure to English, which will ultimately improve students’ English.

Efforts to improve English and literacy skills for students, teachers, and staff members contribute to the RSO objective of helping individuals reach their potential. An atmosphere of eager-to-learn students and teachers, combined with the composite efforts of energetic volunteers, dedicated staff and teacher-trainers, and effective methodology that fills unmet needs, creates an effective environment for “work[ing] together” to improve English and literacy skills.

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