Why English is a problem in schools


At the dawn of independence in 1990 the new Government of Namibia adopted English as the medium of instruction in schools and medium of communication in public offices, and rightly so. As we might all be aware, before that, the majority of the Namibian population used Afrikaans both as the medium of instruction in schools and official language in public offices, except for the former Caprivi Region (now Zambezi) and much later the former Ovamboland (now the regions of Oshikoto, Omusati, Oshana and Ohangwena).

The emphasis during that period, at least in the former Caprivi Region, where I grew up and did my primary and secondary education, was on written as opposed to spoken or communicative English and this brings me to the purpose of this article.

Right from the primary phase, as early as Standard 1 (now Grade 3) learners were taught the rules of grammar, for example, where to use (and not to use) the articles the, an and a, for example, a banana, not an banana, an orange not a orange, when to use a capital letter, and so forth. By the time learners reached Standard 4 (now Grade 6) they could almost literally recite the parts of speech, that is, verbs, nouns, pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives and how to use them (correctly) in sentences. By the end of primary education, learners knew when to add an s (and when not to) to the verb, for example, animals eat grass, not animals eats grass, Simasiku helps his father to repair their car, not Simasiku help his father to repair their car.  

In Form 1 (now Grade 8), learners were now steadily introduced to literature as part of the English grammar. Even then the emphasis was still on written rather than spoken English. Learners were taught how to answer questions from a text to test their understanding of English and their ability to write and communicate comprehensively in the Queen’s language (with minor grammatical errors). By the time learners were in Form 2 (now Grade 9) they already knew the difference between apostrophe s and s apostrophe, for example, the girls’ hostel as opposed to Nangolo’s book. By the time learners reached Form 3 (now Grade 10) they already knew when to use, for example, due to as opposed to owing to, when and while, has and have, and the justification thereof, when to use together with, and the correct modal/auxiliary verb i.e. is or are. For example, John, together with his friends (is/are) guilt of stealing mangoes from the school orchard; my trousers (is/are) torn/my pair of trousers (is/are torn). This orientation, I am convinced, is the reason, among others, people who grew up and attended their education in the former Caprivi Region, prior to independence, had an upper hand over other Namibians in terms of the command of English. (I do not know whether this is still the case today). When someone would make a grammatical error, whether spoken or written, it was not difficult for learners to ‘pick’ such a grammatical flaw.

The narrative above illustrates the extent to which the school curriculum then heavily emphasized written than spoken English. Of course, learners were asked to tell a story in English during examinations as oral assessment, which constituted less than 20 percent of whole English paper.

After the attainment of independence, there was a paradigm shift in the manner English, as the official language, would be taught in schools because of the new philosophical school of thought that came along with the independence. Those charged with education strongly felt that there was a compelling need to change from putting more emphasis on written to spoken English. There are reasons for that, I believe, but what I do not know though, is how convincing these reasons are, at least from a practical point of view. Today our learners countrywide (can) speak English comfortably and fluently, though they come from different language backgrounds.  Today the older generation cannot dare to contest for a vacancy with the born-frees and expect to get the post if fluency in English is anything to go by in an interview. The panel is immediately impressed or rather carried away, (if not very careful) by just how the first question is answered: “Tell us about yourself”, because of the command of English of the young people, coated with an American accent – thanks to the paradigm shift. However, you do not need to have majored in English to pick out several grammatical flaws in the conversation.

A few weeks ago teachers from southern Africa converged at Swakopmund to discuss whether or not the knowledge of English a learner possesses is a measure of her/his intelligence. There were those who opined that indeed the mastery of English is a yardstick to determine the brainpower of an individual. Equally, others felt the command of English is not in any way a determinant of one’s intelligence. They argued that there are learners who obtained A, B and C grades (in Mathematics, Physical Science, and Biology) in Grade 12 (with English as the medium of instruction) but failed English with E, F or ungraded, (as a subject). They argue that they see no logic why such a learner should not be allowed to go to university and do a BSc degree.

Contrary to this notion Costello (2008) contends that lowering the “floor” for academic achievement at a particular grade level leads to the lowering of the “ceiling” as well, while a raised floor leads to a raised ceiling. He argues that by promoting the unqualified, schools are adjusting their curriculum and assessment to the needs and standards of the learners when in fact, learners should be adapting to school standards. The function of the school, he argues, is to lead learners, not to follow them. I subscribe to this philosophical view.

One of the consequences of that paradigm shift (i.e. from written to spoken/communicative English) is, in my view, the problem we are faced with today, i.e. failing English to a point where learners cannot be allowed to study at institutions of higher learning in the country and elsewhere. For a substantial number of learners who passed Grade 12 last year and even the previous years (but did not meet the university entry requirements), the reason can largely be ascribed to the failing of English. As a matter of fact, I know of many such learners who obtained 35 to 40 points in Grade 12 final examinations who are at home not by choice or lack of funds but because they failed English.

At the national level, only 48 percent of those who set for the National Senior Secondary Certificate (NSSC) final examinations last year qualified for university admission. These consistently low pass rates in Grade 12 have serious implications on university enrolment. Unless something is done, we can rest assured the trend will continue, so will the blame game. Teachers, more than anybody else, will, unfortunately, bear the brunt of criticism for the situation – from learners, parents, the education authorities and everyone who has a stake in education.

I learnt that when the Grade 12 results were released in December last year, school managers (Principals and Heads of Department) countrywide, were summoned in Windhoek (early January this year) by the Minister of Education, Arts and Culture to explain why learners failed so badly. I want to argue that the problem is bigger than the way schools are managed or mismanaged. Unless and until something radical is done to the education system, I can guarantee that such meetings will be called every January, until it unconsciously becomes a tradition of the Ministry of Education, but with no tangible results. In the end, teachers will have no answers to the question of why learners fail so dismally year in year out, and out of desperation, will answer like Adam when God asked the question: “Where art thou”? (Genesis 3 vs 9 & 10). The question was a geographical one, but instead, Adam gives a sociological answer, “I hid myself”.

The solution to the problem is not that easy but I submit, we go back to the basics. Let the school curriculum put more emphasis on written English. Let learners learn the rules of grammar so that a solid foundation is laid, unlike today, that foundation is shaky. I know there are people who will be uncomfortable with this shift on account of the philosophical viewpoint they hold. They might argue that if we are to go that route apparently we will be undoing the gains of the current approach.  Personally, I do not think so.

In addition to the proposal above and in view of the curriculum review process underway, I suggest that the (education) system should, by now, prepare teachers who will handle the new Grades 11 and 12 curriculum, come 2020. Having a B.Ed degree is, in my view, not enough to comfortably handle a new curriculum. In some parts of Africa, Cameroon, to be specific, teachers who teach Grades 11 and 12 are required, as a matter of policy, to have an additional professional/academic qualification to teach specifically Grades 11 and 12. They go to university for a year or 2 (after graduating with a B.Ed degree) just to learn how to handle the senior secondary curriculum and exit with a certificate or a diploma. During that period they are ‘grilled’ on how to teach that curriculum. We should not leave that to chance as these teachers are charged with a heavy responsibility of preparing learners for tertiary education. I submit that we, as a country, adopt and then adapt that system.

* Bollen M. Chataa is a lecturer at the University of Namibia’s Katima Mulilo Campus. He writes in his personal capacity and the views do not reflect those of the university.


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