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English Learning Content that works for the Bottom Billion

( This blog post has been written by Marisa, ELL Content Lead at Zaya Learning Labs )

Talking squirrels. Dancing bears. The video seems to have it all. Yet Karishma, a 7-year old girl with long braids, has started staring into thin air a minute after the video started. The video goes on for another 5 minutes. I ask her if she learnt something. Something about nouns may be? She shakes her head. I sigh. This content isn’t going to work, either.

It’s December 2014, and I have gone through this process so many times at that point. With different forms of content. Too lengthy, too animated, too text-heavy, too in-comprehensive, too unstructured – all adjectives at that point have become an exasperating mantra in the quest for finding the perfect English Language Learner content for our 20,000 low-income school kids. Just to find that there is nothing out there in the Indian market that is perfectly matching their needs.

It was this realisation that led us to design and develop our own content.  Content design for them has to be minimal, focused, spoon-fed in small pieces. Unlike children from high-income families, these kids are not exposed to Disney movies and letter-tracing apps from age three. They get overwhelmed the second you put them in front of a 10-minute animated educational video; their attention span is short. In addition, these kids need first language support; purely English content again leaves them disoriented.

Fast forward to August 2015. Months of research, prototyping, scripting, translating, voice-recording, video-dubbing, curating, are finally having their moment of truth. I walk into the classroom. I ask Karishma whether she knows what the word “which” means. She shakes her head.

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Video demo

I hand her the tablet and start the video. This video has no frills – just a simple black screen as a background. A few images appear, as a voice in Hindi explains the meaning of the concerned word to her and gives her a few English examples with pictures and text. It lasts for 60 seconds.
Her eyes haven’t left the screen for a split second. I ask her what she learnt. She gives me a perfect answer, while she expertly navigates towards the quiz. She scores 9 out of 10. I see her eyes gleam in pride as she flashes a grin at me.

Jubilant hugs. And high fives. We’re headed in the right direction.

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