25 November 2020
Saathi Volunteers, WhatsApp
“Saathi Enabling Centre, Fergusson College, Pune,
MY ENGLISH BUDDY:
An activity aimed at improving English speaking skills of blind students through student-volunteer interactions.”
And the journey begins…
English has become a part and parcel of this modern and ever-evolving world. An integral part and almost a prerequisite for the advancement of our career, it has become necessary to take the reins of this language.
India is the world’s second-largest English-speaking country. However, the extent to which this tricky language has been taught in the school years doesn’t really cut it for the life ahead. Apart from reading and writing, much of the population faces difficulties articulating their thoughts and expressing them in full sentences. These difficulties aren’t exceptional to blind students either. The learning of Braille itself takes much more time and effort before they can learn a new language as a part of their academics. Thus, to help them, the activity My English Buddy came into existence in Saathi.
What exactly was going to happen? Each blind student was paired with one volunteer. Every week, for 2 hours, on-call discussions and interactions in English would take place, with the liberty to choose topics according to mutual interests.
Volunteers would suggest corrections, explain meanings, pronunciations, and clarify their doubts. Together, they had to recognize the area of improvement and work on them. The activity had one important detail to it: the volunteer shall not be in the role of a teacher but a friendly guide, which helped to create a comfortable bond between our buddies.
This activity spanned over the course of 5 months, involving 15 visually impaired students and 25 volunteers. On average, 25 sessions were conducted between each buddy pair.
Our buddies experimented with many fresh ideas. Some of them being story-telling, story analysis, listening/reading stories, role-playing, interview, using new words/phrases in a sentence, interactive games, tongue twisters, conversing about their daily life, interpretation of songs, debates, podcasts and so much more.
“Every week I would teach her twenty new words. I would also teach her idioms and phrases, give her grammar exercises, and so on. Sometimes we would just discuss songs and movies. A lot of movies! I would also ask her to read a new novel every week, which she did, very sincerely,” said one of the volunteers.
When asked what kind of activities were conducted with a pair of a volunteer and a blind student, the volunteer replied, “the activity which we carried the most is debate or exchanging opinions on a specific topic. Later, we played various word games to improve sentence construction. And after that, we also exchanged a few words and meanings to enrich our vocabulary. I also gave him few tongue twisters to improve pronunciations. We played few riddles as well.”
These exercises helped the blind students with their fluency, grammar, vocabulary, confidence, thought articulation, sentence formation, and spoken English.
It is said that learning is a two-way street, and it was thoroughly proved in this activity. The volunteers were given a chance to develop their explanation and guidance skills. Pairing them with strangers, put their skills and their ability to make someone comfortable enough to accept the imparted knowledge to a thorough test.
Visually impaired students responded very positively to this activity. In their feedback, one of them said, “it was a great learning process for the both of us. It also improved my English skills since I got a buddy with whom I can practice daily. I got to learn a lot more about other fields from my buddy. In the end, it was a great experience.”
“…and helped me be a more understanding, patient, and helpful person,” said another one.
Like any other activity, however, this activity, too, had its own shortcomings. They were contributed mostly because of the situation caused by the pandemic worldwide.
While being strangers was a good thing, it was also a challenging thing as trust and comfort of mind took a while to be established, which would have been fast-tracked if these buddies could meet in person. The online world also proved difficult at times, as the progress and improvement couldn’t be tracked. Delayed assignments and tests were some other hurdles in the process.
Volunteers agreeing with this said, “one of the major hurdles, which I faced, was mostly based on our current situation. There were some activities which I had in mind but, their execution was difficult due to the limited scope of online interactions.”
Another volunteer stated his difficulty: “Sometimes it was difficult to take it regularly because of college assignments and exams. Due to which we had to go on a long break which used to disrupt our regular interactions.”
Progress is impossible without change. The volunteers suggested some changes which Saathi will surely try to incorporate in their upcoming activities. Some of those suggestions were the inclusion of a mass interaction of blind students through debates or speech sessions. That would give them as well as their buddies the extent to which they have improved and need improvement. Widening the scope of communication was another suggestion. Some preferred video calls over audio calls as it would help them understand the level of their partner’s confidence when speaking in English.
On a broader spectrum, this activity has been received wonderfully well. Both the blind students and volunteers have been enjoying the outcome and benefits yielded by this activity. Mixed emotions have also been brewing now that the activity has officially come to an end. Some of the volunteers’ reactions are:
“I was enthusiastic initially but now I am feeling sad because I want to continue this activity.”
“It was an amazing activity. Kudos to Saathi for coming up with such an amazing idea, which is not only helpful but teaches us so many things. Initially, it seemed like I’m the one teaching but ultimately it felt like I learned a lot. Thank you for letting me be a part of this!”
My English Buddy has proven to be a fruitful exercise and has given satisfactory results. With some tweaks here and there, this activity will surely be conducted in the coming years.
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