Raju (name changed), a third year UG student, hails from a poor family in remote Andhra Pradesh. Raju was always a bright kid and his ambition and circumstances had pointed him towards IIT. Eventually, Raju did manage to secure a position in IIT-B, the dream destination for millions like him. But upon reaching here, Raju had another challenge posing in front of him. Raju was schooled in his mother tongue, Telugu, and was least conversant with the language of teaching at IIT, i.e., English. The difficulty of learning a new language seemed enormous to overcome. In addition to the academic burden, he not only had to acclimatise to the hostel environment but also to the English language. Raju did manage to acquaint himself with the English language. But now in his third year, he believes that the language barrier still persists. This keeps him away from good grades, internship opportunities, and a better social life. But, he is not alone.
Every year, a number of students (close to 10% of a batch of 880) admitted to IIT Bombay lack basic English skills needed to understand the topics being taught in lectures and to communicate effectively. This places them at an academic and psychological disadvantage relative to their more fortunate peers, who have a base in English education. More often than not, they also come from economically weak backgrounds. These disadvantages become apparent in the form of multiple backlogs in the first year itself, usually accompanied by a severe lack of confidence throughout their IIT lives. While many students in the past (and present) have managed to pick up the language in their stay, there was always a need for a formal mechanism that could help these students transition from vernacular instruction to that in English.. Various options (English Remedial Programme, Intensive Programme for Entrants etc) have been explored to deal with this issue in the past. But all of them have been found lacking and ultimately unsustainable.
Last year, the Student Mentorship Programme (SMP) observed the growing prevalence of this issue and decided to tackle it. They restructured the English training by introducing a new programme called “Practical English Training” (PET) programme with a radically different approach. The PET programme was a completely student-driven initiative with students being appointed as Teaching Assistants (TAs) to teach English to freshmen. This decision was taken based on feedback gathered from students of PET’s predecessors, which had shown that student teaching assistants were very effective in connecting with the students.
PET programme also differed from earlier attempts at English training in many ways:
1. Focus on instructing students on the practical aspects of English (comprehension, reading, writing, speaking, basic grammar), as opposed to focusing on theory.
2. Instruction via engaging activities in class, as opposed to lectures.
3. Flexible curriculum that could be changed according to the starting level of students, their speed of learning, and their wants and needs.
4. Student tutors who would be able to connect well with freshmen, and eventually would take on a mentor-like role.
The programme was entirely voluntary for students, because of an optimistic belief that the class would be successful if students were enthusiastic to attend and learn, and a failure if they dropped out. Around 80 freshmen enrolled for the programme out of a batch size of 880. Classes were generally held on weekends by 5 TAs. The students showed a positive response to the whole idea of student tutors but attendance did tend to dip towards the end of the programme.
The takeaway from the programme was the effective delivery of content by student tutors. Their clarity and comfort level with freshmen helped keep the class lively and engaging. But at the same time, it was also felt that professional trainers who can design a structured curriculum and engage with students with these specific needs are required. In the long run, sustainability can only be ensured with the help of professional instructors supported by student tutors who can lead a concerted effort to reach out to needy students.
Efforts are on to find a lasting solution for incoming freshmen in the years to come. For next year, there will be a push towards finding professional instructors who can supplement the existing PET and solving remaining administrative issues related to funding and scheduling of classes. But to find a solution for the long term, much more thought needs to be put in structuring the programme. A permanent solution will greatly help Raju and other students like him, whose numbers are growing on campus these days and in the future.