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Making fun of English
How Karadi Path is making it easier for students to learn the English language in classrooms through action, emotion and drama

Kripa Mahalingam

"Schools should create an environment where kids are able to pick up a language as intuitively as their mother tongue and not learn it as a subject" — CP Viswanath, co-founder, Karadi Path Education

It’s noon in Velachery, a suburb in south Chennai. The otherwise silent std. III class at Bala Saravana Vidyalaya Matriculation School, suddenly comes to life as the students start singing their favourite rhymes, including one on mangoes, flowers and monkeys. It’s not the usual recess break that has got the kids excited, but the fact that they are now going to be taught their English lessons, albeit with a difference. Making language fun for students to learn is a unique pedagogy offered by the Chennai-based Karadi Path Education Company. S Mangayarkarasi, the principal of the school, is very happy that she chose to go with Karadi three years ago. “Most of my students don’t have an English-speaking home environment. After participating in the Karadi Path programme, there has been a substantial improvement in such kids and they are much more confident when they speak in English now,” she says. 

Karadi Path is the brainchild of CP Viswanath, who firmly believes that language can never be successfully taught in a classroom. “It is the environment we are in that helps us pick up languages. Schools should create such an environment, where kids can pick up a language the same way they learn their mother tongue and not approach it as a subject,” says the 52-year-old. Karadi Path is an offshoot of Karadi Tales, which was founded in 1996 and published children’s books. It was sold in 2008 to ACK Media, which owns children’s comic book titles Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle. ACK Media became a subsidiary of Future Ventures in 2011 after the entity increased its stake from 26% to 56%. A year later, when venture capital fund Aavishkaar picked up a substantial stake in Karadi Path Education, it was spun off into a new entity, with Viswanath at the helm.

Interestingly, the idea to launch Karadi Tales, represented by the quintessential story-telling bear, came about when Viswanath and his wife returned from the US in 1994 and couldn’t find good books that their five-year-old could read. “Indian books had a linear way of storytelling, focusing on the moral of the story. They did not get into details about characters and other nuances were missing,” he says. So, along with his wife Shobha, Viswanath started to develop and sell audiobooks. “Audiobooks are a powerful tool for language development. They offer a bridge between visual communication and the written word,” he says.

The idea of Karadi Path struck the couple in 2000, when a clutch of NGOs in Dharavi, Mumbai and Kuppam in Andhra Pradesh, who were using Karadi Tales invited them to see how the kids were taking to the stories, making classes participative. “In Dharavi, I saw kids talking in three languages but English was still a challenge for them. Language learning is easier outside the classroom,” he says.

The company decided to explore why English language learning is difficult but picking up the mother tongue or languages spoken at home are much easier. It took the couple 10 years to develop a methodology, which deconstructed how the mother tongue is learned and reconstructed from that a process for intuitive and experimental language learning in classrooms. “We must look at learning languages in a participative manner and not in a classroom. Language cannot be learned through instruction, word meanings and grammar. Unfortunately, that is the core of English instruction in schools,” says Viswanath. “Language learning must be 100% derivative; you grasp it from experiences and exposure in conversations. I may give you a lot of opportunities to guess what I am saying but never tell you what I am saying. Mothers use facial and voice expressions and hand gestures to communicate with a child,” he adds.

Walking the talk

Karadi Path offers three modules for students, depending on their skill levels. Magic English is a one-year English language programme for kids from std. II and above. Each session consists of three parts — action, music and story path — using actions, songs and stories to impart language skills over 84 sessions. The programme construct varies across international schools, English medium semi-urban schools and a government schools and depending up on the age group. Power English is a four-year programme from LKG to std. II, which develops and accelerates English proficiency over 72 sessions a year. Apart from these modules, the company trains teachers on delivering the material effectively. For Magic English, in the first year a school with 120 students in std. II pays ₹60,000 and renewals are done around ₹20,000-₹25,000 for each of the following years. The contract includes course material, training and CDs. “The training includes three parts: a well-mapped process connecting the learning tools; CDs and books and experiential activities for intuitive learning; and implementation through the teacher who is continuously supported by Karadi Path,” explains Viswanath. The average cost per child works out to around ₹400 for Magic English and ₹950 a year for Power English. In the three academic years since 2010, revenues have grown from ₹13 lakh to ₹2.5 crore in 2014. In the first six months of FY15, revenues for Karadi Path stood at ₹2.9 crore.

Around 420 schools across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa are using Karadi Path and the company is looking to increase its coverage to around 1,000 schools by the end of next year. And there is enough proof that it helps students get over the language barrier. Isha Outreach, the social development wing of Isha Foundation, used Karadi Path in their 31 adopted schools across Coimbatore, Salem and Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu and found that the reading and comprehension ability of the around 5,400 students was twice as good after 48 Karadi Path Magic English sessions. The Goa government implemented the Karadi Path Magic English programme in 100 schools and found that comprehension and reading ability among 5,000 students improved by more than 50% and speech was three times better. 

 The learning curve 

In 2012, Karadi Path received its first round of funding of ₹8 crore from social venture fund Aavishkaar. It is in the process of raising its second round of funding, around ₹18 crore, by the end of the year to expand operations.

“Karadi Path meets the aspirational need for English education across India. Thanks to its product price, Karadi Path is able to reach children in smaller schools and at lower income levels,” says Ajay Maniar, principal, Aavishkaar. He believes there is a global need for the product. “The aspirational reasons for learning English are similar across countries and with some customisation, the product can definitely be launched overseas,” he says. 

In India, apart from schools, the company is also running a pilot programme — Magic English, an adult learner programme focused on comprehension and communication — in two colleges in Tamil Nadu and hopes to be available in 20-25 colleges by the end of next year. Since English is the medium of instruction for most educational institutes, a majority of students struggle to cope at college level, especially if they come from a vernacular medium. Even in English-medium schools, children have little exposure beyond what is taught to them in school, since back at home, most of their parents don’t speak in English. “We have created an artificial infrastructure, where all the higher education courses and the communication at workplaces is completely in English. There is a lack of empathy for students who come from a vernacular background,” says Viswanath. 

The company is working on a B2C or franchisee model, for which it is creating micro tutors. The Magic English Micro Tutor network was conceptualised keeping in mind rural schools that cannot afford English learning. The low-cost model encourages educated youth in remote villages to become entrepreneurs by becoming a micro tutor.

The pilot centre running in Theni (Tamil Nadu) has 14 micro tutors who have to make an initial investment of ₹20,000 for the learning kits and training. To get tutored, customers pay ₹150 for a child below 14 years and ₹300 for an adult for one level. The idea is to empower rural populations with better English learning at an affordable cost, besides allowing youth an opportunity to earn a decent income.

The company is studying the programme delivery process to see how it reduces costs. Once this model is finalised, Karadi will launch it as a full-fledged product in the next 12 months.  

Effective as the programme has been, there has been resistance at times from language teachers against changing the way they teach, but Viswanath says the results of the programme will speak for itself.

“We are trying to tell the world that the way they have been teaching English for years is all wrong. Changing the education system appears to be challenge but we are confident that the results will prove our methodology effective,” he says. Karadi’s investors, too, sound optimistic. “We believe in what he [Viswanath] is doing and are willing to play for the long haul,” adds Maniar. As for Viswanath, he believes Karadi Path will help students across various social backgrounds overcome the language barrier and provide them an even playing field and that for him is a bigger win. 

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