Giving the gift of language

Giving the gift of language
SmartReading is a reading programme started by the NGO SmartLife in line with the 2016 UAE Government initiative of the Year of Reading.

English language classes for blue-collar workers help students gain confidence and fight their fears

By Deepa Narwani

Published: Mon 31 Jul 2017, 12:07 PM

Nepalese national Uma Bhusal is a worker in Dubai currently enrolled in a programme called SmartReading, where she is learning how to speak English. "I did not know how to form sentences when I moved to Dubai. But since I started my classes I have become more confident and comfortable in dealing with people," she tells Khaleej Times excitedly.
SmartReading is a reading programme started by the NGO SmartLife in line with the 2016 UAE Government initiative of the Year of Reading. It helps blue-collar workers read English and helps them improve their communication skills. The programme runs across four centres and 13 classrooms, in all labour camps across Sonapur, Al Quoz, and others. 
Manjula Ramakrishnan, spokeswoman for SmartLife, says: "We have a dedicated team of 30 teachers giving individual attention to each student. The more diffident and unsure they are, the more personalised attention they get from the teachers. The last module started in February and ended in June, and had 135 students, both men and women, from various labour camps and companies." 
At the end of each successful programme, the students are given a certificate during the graduation ceremony. The classes are held every Friday for two hours. One hour is dedicated to teaching students how to read English. The students are divided into Junior and Senior category and English passages, short motivational stories, inspiring tales and the like are prepared for them, depending on their level of English. For the spoken English component, a subject/theme is chosen each week for the juniors that is closely linked with their daily lives and can resonate well with them.
"A few examples of such themes include travel, families, food, healthy living, and sports. The seniors too have their own exercises with regard to speaking on certain subjects, conversing with each other, group activities, role play and similar that help them hone their conversational skills," Ramakrishnan adds.
In order to motivate students and send across the message that the programme is not about 'all work and no play', the NGO organises picnics for them, takes them to their annual entertainment event SmartIdol, and distributes goody bags, in order to make the programme wholesome.
She highlights that the feedback for the classes has been hugely satisfying. "The aim of SmartReading is not just for the feel-good factor, but to ensure our efforts get translated into tangible results. Workers who walk in shy, scared to attempt few words in English, soon gain the confidence to speak in front of a class and to their teachers in English."
SmartReading's next intake will start on September 8. Screening of new students will take place on August 25 and September 1. Blue-collar workers can register directly with them by calling any of the SmartLife volunteers or they can approach them through their management and attend a screening. 
Just last month, it was also announced that companies in the UAE would have to allocate funds and be involved in social responsibility initiatives by the end of 2017. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is one of the pillars of the 2017 Year of Giving and the aim is to create workplaces that take up philanthropy as part of its core values.
But some companies have already established such empowering practices. One initiative that has been transforming blue-collar lives is the Danube Welfare Centre, which was launched in 2012, when Rizwan Sajan, Founder and Chairman of Danube Group, discovered that many of the company's blue-collar employees struggled to understand and speak English.
Sana Sajan, Director of Danube Welfare Centre, shares: "One particular incident was at the annual cricket match for the employees, where he asked an office boy to maintain the scoreboard, but he refused because he didn't know English.
"Post the incident, a survey was conducted internally to check how many were willing to study English and due to overwhelming responses, the Danube Welfare Centre was set up to teach them English, presentation skills as well as basic computers. The vision is to educate more workers, who can have a chance to better themselves, and in turn earn more money."
To date, the centre has educated over 10,000 students but at present at the JAFZA South accommodation they have enrolled over 1,100 students. Here students go through a three-month English course followed by a short grooming course and a two-month computer course.
"The feedback has been fantastic with almost 200 students being registered every day. Many of the students have been speaking with their colleagues at different camps urging us to open a new centre," she adds.
Ramakrishnan concludes by saying, "Even in the last module, we had several companies that sent their workers to attend this course. When the corporate management too steps in to enrol their employees with us, it makes the programme that much easier, knowing that they too are keeping an eye on attendance, performance, etc. Our SmartReading students can stay with the programme for as long as they want, moving from junior to senior to advanced categories. There is no end to learning after all. We mentor them, we teach them; we are their friends and support system."

Voices of the community 

I have had a very good experience and I want to continue to learn more. I knew Basic English, so was a part of the intermediate class and I have seen improvement in the way I express myself." - Sartaj Ahmed

I studied only till the sixth standard and did not know how to communicate in English. But here they taught us right from the beginning, the ABCs, and I have gained great knowledge. I am keen to learn more." - Ram Kishan

I didn't have much knowledge of how to talk in English and these classes have helped me feel more proud everyday. I want to thank my teachers who are very patient with us." - Sarabjit

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