PERSPECTIVE

A new approach to teaching language in Kenya

Mike Kipkorir Bill, Senior Consultant

01 February 2018

Let’s talk about English. English the language of course, you know that’s what I mean, right? If on the other hand I had said let’s talk about the English, you would know that I am referring to the people of England, right? How come you can tell the difference? How does one word ‘the’ make all the difference? What do we call the rule or set of rules in the English language that dictate this difference?

If you are like me, you will look down in embarrassment and simply say that you know this by instinct. Perhaps a certain Mrs. Rose or Mr. Weloba back in my school days might have spent an entire morning or even a year explaining this, but I cannot recall. My apologies to them if they are indeed responsible for what I now think is purely an instinct.

My view whenever someone starts talking English grammar rules.

Photograph from Pexels

Language has a lot of instinct about it. Whenever I speak Kipsigis, my mother tongue, I know the exact words and phrases to use to deliver the sort of joke that will have people laughing for days. I don’t quite know what the various Kipsigis grammar rules are called or how they are categorised, but somehow, I have grown to know how to deliver an effective punchline.

Kenya’s curriculum recommends that the languages English and Kiswahili are taught at all levels of basic education. Sorry, that is actually not true. Kenya’s curriculum, commands that English and Kiswahili are taught at all levels of basic education. To put it in other words, it is mandatory lessons in language for twelve years under the direction of salaried and revered language experts. Teachers is what they are, if you are the type that dislikes dramatic descriptions.

“Sorry, that is actually not true. Kenya’s curriculum, commands that English and Kiswahili are taught at all levels of basic education.”

The twelve years of classes are of course besides all the time that English and Kiswahili are used for everyday communication and interaction; the majority of Kenyans use either of these two languages for at least 50% of their communication. I have just made up that statistic to help you get the point, the use it a lot!

Furthermore, English or Kiswahili is substituting mother tongue in many families. At least 50% of the children that sat the 2017 national exams at both primary and secondary level spoke English or Kiswahili before they could speak their mother tongue. Another spectacularly made up statistic but you get the point, it is a lot!

Consider my shock therefore, when I learnt that 71% of the 2017 class sitting the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) scored a mean grade of D+ and below, and that the languages were one of the worst performed subjects. Yes, I know I have previously lied about my statistics, but this is one is the pure unadorned truth. 71% scoring D+ and below is total failure, it cannot be said any other way.

Me after learning that 71% of students scored D+ an below in the 2017 KCSE exams

Photograph via Pexels

Dr. Laban Ayiro, in a passionate column in the Daily Nation newspaper following the shocking 2017KCSE results, attempted to show how the system of testing, marking among other factors could have been the culprits, but even he concedes that there is a problem with teaching and learning in our schools. Another observer writing for the same paper, Ouma Wanzala, was more forthright – he said students were found to have inadequate language skills.

How can the thing studied and practised the most and for the longest time, be the Achilles’ heel in an education system? To find out, I took time to look at the primary and secondary school English syllabus. I could also have looked into the Kiswahili syllabus but I am a busy man and I can only do so much, it is not that I can’t quite fathom anything in the Kiswahili syllabus.

I found that the English syllabus make perfect sense! The objective of the first three years of primary school (lower primary), is for the learner to acquire sufficient command of vocabulary and language patterns, so as to be able to use English as a medium of instruction in upper primary. By the end of upper primary therefore, the learner should be able to communicate fluently, independently and accurately in everyday life. Secondary school is about helping students to use language as a tool to discover the world and to express themselves.

“To put it in other words, it is mandatory lessons in language for twelve years under the direction of salaried and revered language experts”

So, if the syllabus seems to make perfect sense and students sit through twelve years of language lessons, how come they perform so poorly? And it’s not only about exam performance in English: Job applicants fresh from college, write atrocious application letters and there are millions of experienced professionals speak and write equally appalling English. The problems with language studies in Kenya severe and deep rooted. We need to rethink how we teach English and Kiswahili, else we need to go back to the last known good practices of teaching these languages.

I believe the main problem is the inability of our teachers and authors of English and Kiswahili student books to distinguish the mechanics of the language from the language itself. Language in school is not taught in a natural intuitive way.

I can speak (maybe write) very good Kipsigis without caring to know what a reflexive pronoun means. This is the key; why insist that students remember the definition of grammar rules such as correlative conjunctions rather than have them properly use correlative conjunctions? It is neither necessary nor important to cram grammar rules if one cannot speak or write properly in the language. See! I have just used a correlative conjunction in previous sentence and I bet you didn’t notice. A language user does not have to be a language mechanic in the same way that a car user does not have to be a car mechanic.

Some basic understanding of the mechanics of language is necessary, but I think the focus should be on working with each group of learners in ways suitable to their context and level of language mastery. It should be about what is best for them and not what the curriculum commands. Basics such as the right spelling, punctuation and an ever-growing vocabulary of words is critical for everyone but the mechanics of language such as being able to define an intransitive verb isn’t.

Interest in language dies when it is packaged and taught the way it is done in Kenya. ‘Dies’ in the previous sentence is an intransitive verb!

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