3 years ago .
Poor English results attributed to neglect of local languages, not slang
Educational authorities as a first step, should aim at persuading the unwilling public to accept education through the local language


By Godfrey Sentumbwe

The dismal performance in English language in the 2017 UCE exams, according to experts, has been attributed to slang on social media and television (see ‘Poor English results attributed to slang', New Vision, Friday, February 9, 2018).

The experts further contend that because English has almost become the mother tongue in peoples' homes, there is a laissez-faire attitude by pupils to use it correctly in exams.

However, when put under close scrutiny, these arguments do not wholly address the bigger picture of massive failures in English and other subjects across primary, secondary and tertiary levels. These arguments presuppose that the majority of primary and secondary students have access to smartphones, TVs and come from homes where English is used.

While this is true for urban students and those from wealthier homes, many students in Uganda come from poorer rural families where parents hardly communicate in English, lack TV and phones. 

Secondly massive failure in English and other subjects is not a problem affecting Uganda alone, but other African countries with similar educational, economic and socio-cultural characteristics. For example on February 18, 2013, the government of Tanzania announced that 240,903 out of 397,126 students who sat the 2012 National Form 4 (S.4) exams failed. This put the failure rate at 61%, while only 6% received a meaningful pass rate of divisions 1, 2 and 3 combined! Therefore, the deeper cause of massive exam failure for multilingual post-colonial states in Africa lies with the language of education policy particularly the model adopted and its implementation at the basic education level.

Language education policy

Whereas the language of education policy recognises the use of Ugandan languages as medium of learning in primary school, the policy adopts an early-exit model. Here local languages are used up to P.3, thereafter giving way to English. The local languages are merely used to mitigate the nefarious effects of transition from the home to school and not for transferring knowledge acquired through local languages to learn in English, which requires six to eight years of primary according to all available research.

The pedagogical limitation of this model in relation to English language mastery is that by Primary Four, what the child might have acquired is ‘everyday' local language proficiency but not ‘academic' local language proficiency transferrable in learning in English! Because the transition from local language to English medium instruction is done early, children do not acquire literacy mastery in both local language and English. Hence the usual poor national assessments of children's reading results presented annually by organisations such as Uwezo.

This is further compounded by the confusion in understanding the difference between using English to teach academic subjects and English as a subject in the curriculum. This confusion affects the quality and quantity of teaching English and in English, and the nature of the environment in which English learning takes place. When teaching using English, teachers struggle to transfer knowledge to pupils who hardly understand what is being said in English. This takes us to UNESCO's 2016 title of its Policy Paper 24 - ‘If you don't understand, how can you learn'? And by extension we can ask; if you don't understand, how can you perform well in exams?

At the same time, teaching English as a subject in many primary and secondary school classrooms is hampered by absence of teachers with native-speaker or near native-speaker mastery and proficiency in English. Such teachers who are not proficient in English themselves rely more on drilling and memorisation of knowledge so as to maintain an appearance of ‘doing the lesson', while little learning is actually taking place. Hence their students will have difficulty in grammar, spelling, tenses, punctuations and sentence construction as observed by the Uganda National Examinations Board Secretary while releasing UCE examination results early this month.

What should be done?

Educational authorities as a first step, should aim at persuading the unwilling public to accept education through the local language. And the authorities should be supported to do this by stakeholders in the political, business and media. This is because the choices of medium of instruction in multilingual states like Uganda are more informed by political, economic and ideological considerations than strictly educational ones.

Secondly, educational authorities should demonstrate through improved teacher training and resourcing that it is possible for students to acquire a good knowledge of English without using it as the medium of instruction for other subjects as is the current practice.

This may, therefore, call for radical changes in teaching and examination practices. Instead of an early-exit local language model, a late-exit local language model of six to eight years of local language medium instruction should be adopted, in addition to having English language subject specialist teachers in place. In addition, the idea of ‘English-only classrooms' should be replaced with a policy which enables teachers to strategically use all of their linguistic resources, including students' languages for teaching in upper primary and secondary.

This is a component of the flexible multilingual education policy, which recognises the value of English as a national and international lingua franca, but requiring a move away from promoting unattainable purist approaches to teaching and learning English like in the current Ugandan circumstances. This flexibility should also promote the use of local languages in exams.

A 2017 report titled ‘Multilingual classrooms: opportunities and challenges from English medium instruction in low and middle income contexts' cites studies conducted in Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda, which are instructive.

It was found that students who had scored poorly in English reading assessments achieved much higher grades on similar reading tasks in local language. Perhaps Ugandan students would also do much better if teaching and exams were both in English and local languages!

We conclude with a statement from the British Council's 2017 position on English in mother tongue-based multilingual education and a Luganda proverb respectively: ‘Fluency in English is best served through strengthening the teaching of English as a subject. Therefore, the English medium of instruction at primary school level in low- or middle-income countries is not beneficial nor is it a policy or practice we support'. And the Luganda proverb: ‘Olaba Pokino akulembeddemu nga ate obuuza eridda e Buddu?' literally translates as; If you see Pokino (Buddu County chief) leading the way, do you have to ask the route to Buddu?

The writer is the head of programmes at LABE