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Opinion - Poor English results: Has the battle been lost?

2022-03-25  Prof Jairos Kangira

Opinion - Poor English results: Has the battle been lost?

Every year, many students fail to enrol for tertiary programmes of their choices due to the fact that they do not possess the required minimum symbol in English language in their school-leaving certificates, which is usually a C or better, or a D or better, depending on the programmes or institutions. This perennial poor performance of learners in English language at grade 12 has become a grave concern to educators, parents, guardians and stakeholders. 

Equally, the poor English results have had a negative impact on affected students who are forced to repeat the subject, sometimes under difficult conditions. 

The recently released results of the 2021 examinations are testimony that English was the least passed subject, indicating the poor English proficiency in the country, especially in schools in the rural areas and peri-urban areas. This is not to suggest that all is rosy in urban schools – many schools here produce poor English results too. The poor showing of students in English has produced heated debates, which have fuelled the blame game in the nation. 

 One can identify a cocktail of factors that has led to poor English performance by secondary school learners in the national examinations. Generally, what seems to be obvious is that most learners lack the English proficiency required to pass English examinations at grade 11 or 12 level. English is a foreign language to many Namibian learners who learn it as their second language or even third or fourth language. 

Some educators have traced the English proficiency problem in Namibia to formative years at the primary school level arguing that without a firm foundation in English there, it would be a misnomer to expect miracles in English proficiency when learners enter and exist secondary school level. 

The argument is that the use of English in their early years and in their day-to-day life brings English self-confidence and therefore brightens the prospects of passing the language at different levels in the education system. 

It is evident that learners who have been bought up in this environment possess higher reading, writing, listening and speaking skills in English than learners who are introduced to English much later in their lives. A number of studies that corroborate this school of thought have been carried out. In this regard, Putri (2015, p. 2) states that “the English language proficiency involves the ability of the learners which is elaborated into four skills; they are listening, speaking, reading, and writing.”

It is not an exaggeration that some of our learners are introduced to standard English only at secondary school level. At this time, it is obviously too late for learners to grasp all the English structures and skills required to pass their examinations. 

Proponents of indigenous languages would argue that promoting the English language at an early stage in the development of children is improper. They would rather recommend translanguaging in homes and schools. 

According to Canagarajah (2011, p. 401), translanguaging is “the ability of multilingual speakers to shuttle between languages, treating the diverse languages that form their repertoire as an integrated system.” From a linguistic point of view, translanguaging is acceptable since the argument is that learners will be able to use their language repertoires to acquire the target language or languages. This is why some schools offer other languages like French and Portuguese in addition to English, Afrikaans, Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Lozi, Khoekhoegowab, for example.

Turning to the teacher factor, one would argue that most of the strategies teachers are using in teaching English as a second language or foreign language are ineffective. This leads to the question of whether the content and methodologies teachers get during training are adequate or not to address the low English language proficiency in the country. Some scholars have heavily criticised the content that English teachers come out of training with, saying that it is inadequate. The number of English linguistics modules and English literature modules in the teacher training curriculum are so few that they do not prepare teachers adequately to teach English meaningfully. There is no doubt, therefore, that in this case, the low English proficiency becomes a vicious circle. It has also been reported that many English teachers abhor or dislike teaching literature in English mainly because it involves reading many literary texts before teaching. 

What these teachers forget is that English literature may form part of communicative pedagogy in three different ways: providing a context in which to develop students’ reading strategies and knowledge of non-fiction and literary texts; forming the basis for an extensive reading programme with the attendant acquisition of new vocabulary as well as grammatical forms; offering the opportunity to explore cross-cultural values” (Amer, 2012). Some classic books for English literature include: ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens; ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott; ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy; ‘Treasure Island’ by Robert Louis Stevenson; ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding; ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll; ‘To the Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf; ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee; ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen; and ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer. 

Of course, the library list would be incomplete without selected plays written by William Shakespeare such as ‘The Merchant of Venice’; ‘Twelfth Night’; ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Julius Caesar’.

Higher education institutions that train teachers must have a serious and genuine introspection regarding their teacher training curricula which, as I see it, are inadequate to address the poor English proficiency of learners. 

It must start with a solid curriculum model in English in the institutions that arms English teacher trainers with all the major competencies in English that will enable them to build English self-confidence in their learners as they approach national and international English exams. In addition, the ministry and higher education institutions that train teachers must partner and conduct in-service training for English teachers and incentivise that training in order to make it attractive. 

Lessons learnt from the English Language Proficiency Programme a few years ago can inform the in-service programme I am talking about. As I see it, the battle against poor English results in this country has not been lost. 

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2022-03-25  Prof Jairos Kangira

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