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Why poor performance in English?

By Vision Reporter

Added 23rd January 2009 03:00 AM

As parents countrywide shed tears over massive failures in the 2008 Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE), the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) and primary school teachers are trading blames.

As parents countrywide shed tears over massive failures in the 2008 Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE), the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) and primary school teachers are trading blames.

By Ben Okiror

As parents countrywide shed tears over massive failures in the 2008 Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE), the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) and primary school teachers are trading blames.

The examinations body says pupils perform poorly because many of them dodge school and their teachers, too, abscond from duty too many times.
Teachers, on the other hand, blame UNEB for setting examinations using difficult English that pupils could not understand.

Unlike in the past, UNEB now uses secondary school teachers to set PLE questions. Primary school teachers say their secondary school counterparts do not know how to write the questions in a language simple enough for children. Others complain that examination setters are not trained in setting exams.

However, UNEB insists that the English used would have been simple enough if the pupils were taught English well.

English, the language of instruction and examination in all subjects, was the second worst done subject after Science. Even in 2007, English was the worst done subject.

Most teachers interviewed by Saturday Vision said the way English is taught in many parts of the country is fundamentally wrong.

Schools lack standard readers that can be used for teaching comprehension. Good teachers of English are few. Few schools take English language reading as a priority. Vernacular speaking within the school compound, in and out of class, is rampant.

“During our days, we used to have a national English panel and an international English panel where I was a member. Our job was to review and set the sylabus regularly. If that panel still existed it would have done its job,” says Joseph Magogo, a retired teacher of English.

“We do not know how UNEB trains the examiners. It appears they are trained on the job. Normally they should be called once a year to be trained in setting English language exams.”

Christine Lubega, a Kampala teacher advocates for an overhaul of the whole education system, saying the situation is beyond repair.

“It is a vicious cycle of not knowing; teachers who teach English do not know English and just grope in the dark,” Lubega said.

“Most of them join teaching as a last resort after failing to get good grades.”

Right from nursery school, Lubega says, teachers teach haphazardly, assuming that children know what they are teaching. She says each child should be handled individually according to their pace.

One of the schools where 99% of candidates passed English language is Kampala Model School, Kyebando.

Grace Turyamusiima, the deputy head teacher, says the school’s culture of using English as a language of communication, in and out of class, ensured that the subject was the best done.

Turyamusiima says unlike some schools that punish vernacular speakers, they simply encourage pupils to use English at school, while highlighting its importance. On top of that they encourage pupils to read story books (readers) and newspapers and then ask them questions related to the subject matter.

He also attributes his school’s success to the culture of debates, both within and outside the school. Debating, he says, enhances the pupils’ ability to express themselves.

“The moment they are able to express themselves, English becomes a walk over,” he said.

Turyamussima seems to be vindicated by Barbara Namutosi, a Kampala Parents’ School star performer, who scored aggregate 4 last year. She attributes her accomplishment in English to reading novels and daily homework.
“English is not a subject you can revise,” Namutosi said.

“I loved the subject and paid attention to the class lessons.”

Joseph Magogo, a retired teacher of English language also calls for stocking of school libraries with readers (story books) and dictionaries. This, he says, will motivate pupils to adopt a culture of reading. In addition to that, a set text book (one with a recognised series) should be developed and the setting of examinations based on it.

“In our days, we had the Junior English Composition and Grammar. Trained examiners would set questions from it and put them in a question bank, from where moderators would select,” Magogo said.

He recommends the restoration of a national and international English panel which used to review and set the syllabus with a view of improving it.
“Looking at even O’ level question papers, there are mistakes and yet there should be no mistakes in an English language paper,” Magogo explains.

He advises teachers to hold regular workshops to cover all aspects of English Language teaching. This, he said, will greatly improve the quality of English Language teaching.

He proposes that individual grades rather than the entire certificate should be considered before students are admitted to a teachers’ college.

He suggests that a student who wants to major in English Language should have passed with not less than a credit three in the subject at O’level.
But what is the education ministry doing about this crisis?

The Education Sector Strategic Plan (2004-2015) developed in June 2004 by the Education Planning department, has put in place an education language policy. It says, among other things, that the dominant local language in an area should be used as a medium of instruction up to Primary Four– although it has been modified to cover only Primary One to Primary Three.

The idea of teaching in local languages in lower primary school classes followed studies that proved that learners could master literacy in English more readily if they learnt first how to read and write in their mother tongue.
Turyamusiima says they are already implementing this policy, but English language as a subject is taught in English.

However, Magogo who blames excessive vernacular speaking for the decline in English literacy, recommends the use of local languages only in Primary One and Primary Two as it used to be during colonial days.

The 1989 Kajubi Report and the National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) had confirmed the low levels in acquisition of literacy by primary school goers.

In 2003, NAPE found out that of the Primary Three pupils tested, over 71% were ‘inadequate’ in oral English while over 67% of those in Primary Six were ‘inadequate’ in English reading and writing.

The ministry has called for the revision of the curriculum to give much more time during the school week to literacy and numeracy and for schools to test pupils at least once a year to identify those who are weak in these areas.

In addition, the ministry is to work with schools and local authorities to discourage parents from enrolling five-year-olds, who are not developmentally ready to read and write and who thus waste teachers’ time and efforts.

For Turyamusiima, not only do they have teachers who know basics of teaching English language, but throughout each class they ensure pupils are thoroughly taught.

It is evident that both the education ministry and school authorities have a responsibility to address the situation and if each of them played their part satisfactorily, there would be no need to shift blame.

Why poor performance in English?

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