ELL Content- A puzzle with 10,000 pieces

Comprehensive e-learning content for children is a mission impossible to find in India. Most of it is highly unstructured and has more holes than Swiss cheese. It either doesn’t cover all relevant skill areas, or doesn’t interweave and connect these skill areas well, or it straight out ignores some key concepts. Yet effective learning can only take place when the child is exposed to content that challenges it in all key skill areas, and systematically circles it through these different skills, rather than limiting its focus just on one area.

Sadly, India’s much revered school books aren’t much better in the case of English Language instruction. Look into any government-mandated textbooks, and you’ll be shocked. On one page of a Grade 2 English book you have a text that is Kindergarten level, on the next page a text that is practically Shakespearean English. Likewise, the books tend to somewhat randomly jumble grammar, listening, speaking and writing exercises without connecting them or matching their difficulty level.

Having faced the challenges that incomplete content creates in the classroom – namely a teacher having to address the different points of confusion of 60 kids at once – we decided to design our content in a truly “gap-less” way. The aim was that there should be no doubt in the child’s mind that can’t be addressed by the content itself. After all, given the low income context we are working in, there was no reason to assume that there would be an educated teacher or parent readily available to step in and address the child’s concerns.ed-new

As a result, our learning progression is designed in a way that every single word – or grammatical structure – that you might come across in a reading comprehension exercise will have been taught to you in some earlier lesson. And if you’ve forgotten any of those words, the adaptive algorithm sends you back to the module that specifically teaches you that word.

To ensure that the child really is guaranteed to receive the exact content it needs, we had to design content that would work with adaptive algorithms and machine learning – algorithms that basically make sure that each child receives content that matches the proficiency level of the child and gives remedial content for the exact areas in which the child is struggling. This meant that we need content that was highly granular; for example, a vocabulary module rarely teaches you more than 4 words. This flexible, highly modular and Lego-like structure would enable maximum personalization.

But there were few reference points in developing this structure. The Indian NCERT provided a rough outline of learning standards, the US Common Core a slightly more detailed one, but beyond that, we had to conceptualise everything from scratch. We found ourselves in front of a huge puzzle of grammar, vocabulary, listening and reading skills, that somehow had to be deconstructed and then recombined in a beautiful, gap-less flow. If you’ve ever tried to complete a puzzle with more than 10,000 pieces, you’ll understand roughly how we felt.

Months of research went into developing the structure. After all, no one had done anything like this before – this was new territory. Consultations with multiple ELL experts from different schools, countless hours spent comparing different learning resources, a plethora of user testing sessions and never-ending game of regrouping and re-positioning modules, we finally found the Holy Grail: a gap-less learning progression.

The ultimate goal of each learning unit is to be able to read and listen to a text of a certain grammatical and vocabulary difficulty. The learning path is hence structured along an increasing difficulty of grammar and vocabulary, which are then in intervals tested in the form of levelled reading comprehension and listening comprehension modules which use those grammar structures and vocabulary. Vocabulary is grouped into themes, and expands just like the natural world of the child does – from the home to school to the neighbourhood and eventually the world.

In combination with our adaptive algorithm and machine learning, this becomes a powerful learning tool, as comprehensive and supportive as nothing else out there. We will of course continuously add more content – primarily reading and listening comprehension modules, and eventually speaking and writing modules – but the vocabulary and grammar structure that is in place is rock solid. It’s like we have a good foundation for a cake already, but we’re adding more layers to it – who would say no to more chocolate sauce after all?

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