The last time 38-year-old M. Fathima Hathun attempted an examination, she was 10 years old. When she stepped into an exam room again last month, she remembered how jittery she was as a student. This time, she was tested for her skills in a language that, to her, was familiar yet foreign, intimidating yet important.

From discovering Spiderman comics to helping their children with homework, the five women helpers at Kaligi Ranganathan Montford Matriculation Higher Secondary School, who passed grade I of the Graded Exams in Spoken English (GESE) conducted by Trinity College, London, in the city last month, said that picking up the basics of the language revived their urge to learn.

“Earlier, we used to ask the office staff about which teacher a circular had to be given to. Now, we can read the names ourselves,” says a sprightly P. Sumathi, one of the helpers who studied only up to class V.

It all began with a simple idea — to teach the women to sign their name in English, says Anitha Daniel, headmistress of the school. This was part of their project that got them into the top 20 schools in the Design for Change competition last year. The school, however, decided to take the project a step further.

Not only did the students and the school teach the women to speak, read and write in English, they also trained them to pass the basic oral examination that spanned between five and seven minutes. All of them now want to graduate to the next level.

Nirmala Devi and her two children now spend an hour every Sunday evening learning new words and quizzing each other. She too, dropped out of school when she was in class VI. K. Neelavathi says that she is now confident about not just responding but initiating a simple conversation in English.

“When they told us about the idea, we were both shy and scared. But, now we are glad that we went ahead with it,” says B. Sulochana, an office assistant at the school. The women, who all dropped out of school, said they have become inquisitive once again. “Whenever I have time, I sit with my children when they are studying,” says Nirmala.

More In: Chennai | News