At this Tamil-medium elementary school in Nellikuppam, Kancheepuram district run by the Tamil Nadu government, teacher S M Iyyappan considers English a foreign language. So much so that he teaches it in such a way that students learn to speak it like how the British and the Americans do. What they learn here is not a language that they take for granted as Indian but English as it is spoken by native speakers of the language.
Students learning not to roll their R’s has been a big draw at this school. Its strength has quickly doubled to 146, owing to Iyyappan. Some 20 students from a nearby private school have shifted this year.
Iyyappan’s beginnings were rather humble. Born in a Dalit family at Vandavasi in Tiruvannamalai, his parents were farm labourers who couldn’t read and write. His sisters didn’t complete their schooling. His younger brother has studied up to Class 10. To pay for Iyyappan’s Class 10, his parents sold off their 20 cents of land.
Growing up, he had much trouble learning and speaking English. In 1991, he joined as middle school teacher at Pinnanthangal village in Vellore district. “In the beginning, my students didn’t quite understand what I was teaching. When I joined Pennadagaram village school in 1993, I underwent an English Language Training Course (ELTC) for 13 days. That is where I learned the phonetic aspects of speaking English. I got confidence that just by looking at the word, I would be able to determine how exactly it should be spoken. Then I started applying the methods to myself. I learned to speak the words as they should be spoken and started to teach the same to students,” he says.
Iyyappan says it took years for him to perfect the phonetic method of teaching English and he has been teaching that to his students.
Iyyappan believes that the students should learn their native language Tamil properly before they can learn English. He has come up with a scheme through which students are able to master even unfamiliar words by learning to speak them properly. He says it takes only 30 days for them to gain good reading skills.
Iyyappan has taken his methods to various schools across districts including nearby ones in Tiruvannamalai. He has helped to train some 20,000 teachers in the state on phonetic teaching. Asked by the state government, he has come up with training manuals.
Primary school classrooms in the state are familiar with his instructional videos. The posters he has designed adorn the walls of some 2,000 schools.
Along with the way this 48-year-old teacher has completed BA in history and MA and MPhil in English. He has conducted English teaching programmes on Pothigai TV channel of Doordarshan.
Iyyappan has been feted with several awards including the 2013-14 state best teacher award.