Teaching in English from Standard 1: Please reconsider!

The Minister of Education, Dr Lucius  Kanyumba, made the announcement last month that Standard 1 learners are to be taught in English from the new school year in all subjects except for Chicheŵa. This cannot go unchallenged and, although some articles have been published criticising the decision, more must be done to highlight the folly of such an action.

The on-line responses in the days following the announcement show that most people have greeted this positively. What could be better to improve English than to begin education in that language? It would seem obvious that being taught entirely in English from the start of schooling will lead to a better command of that language for those working through the primary school and into secondary school.

However, the research based on education systems across Africa and from other areas of the world paints a different picture. The success of education is much lower if delivered in an unfamiliar language, as opposed to the mother tongue, for the first years of schooling. This has been recognised since at least the early years of the twentieth century yet it is still not generally understood.teach-english-in-africa-tanzania

A comparison of educational models helps show how different inputs of language affect the achievement of learners. While many other similar studies could be quoted, the following comes from the work of Dr Kathleen Heugh published in ‘Optimising Learning and Education in Africa’, and Professor Eddie Williams’ research paper ‘Investigating bilingual literacy: evidence from Malaŵi and Zambia’. Both are available on the internet.

In the following, mother tongue refers to the language of the home that a child is brought up with and understands before entering school. The unfamiliar language refers to a language, in this case English, that a child has not encountered to any extent prior to entering education.

Where learners are taught entirely in an unfamiliar language, the average achievement in that language is very low by the end of secondary school. No country in the world has been able to make this work but this, a model known to fail the vast majority, is what is intended for Malaŵi in September.

Those educated for two to three years in their mother language before switching to the unfamiliar language achieve a little better at the end of secondary. It is only when learners experience teaching for four or more years in their mother tongue that average achievement could be regarded as reasonable. This is the educational model that Malaŵi follows at present.

The best outcomes in the unfamiliar language arise from models where the mother tongue is used for five to six years followed by both mother tongue and the unfamiliar language being used for teaching in the seventh and subsequent years. Alternatively, the mother tongue is used throughout primary education with the unfamiliar language taught as a subject from an early age. In these two cases, a good average achievement can be expected.

Under optimal conditions, i.e. in well-resourced schools with well-trained teachers, it takes 6-8 years to learn an unfamiliar language sufficiently well to use it as a language of instruction, i.e. the language used for teaching other subjects. Studies in numerous African countries, where Arabic, English, French, Portuguese or Spanish is the language of instruction, all show this to be the case. Malaŵi, despite this, intends to use English, a language completely alien to most, from the outset!

In Malaŵi, where the conditions, regrettably, are not optimal, outcomes will not be as good as those given above and more time will be required to acquire the standard of English for it to be successfully used as the medium of instruction. In short, without at least six years of instruction in their mother tongue, the majority of learners will fail.

A study comparing Zambia and Malaŵi in the 1990s usefully illustrates the consequences of introducing an unfamiliar language too early. In Zambia, certainly at that time, the education system mirrored that proposed for Malaŵi in September, i.e. the medium of instruction was English from the start of schooling for learners. In Malaŵi, at the time and as at present, education was in Chicheŵa until Standard 4 after which English was introduced. Those who were so welcoming of the change in Malaŵi’s education system for September would expect the Zambian learners’ English to be far ahead of that in Malaŵi.

It will come as a surprise, then, that the ability to understand written text in English was no better in Zambia than in Malaŵi in Standard 5 despite Zambian learners having had four more years of English education. The level of understanding was such that very few of the learners were able to successfully use their reading skills to learn other subjects. Malaŵi can look forward to this disastrous situation.

Teaching in a new language ignores the fact that learners arrive at school with good verbal skills in their mother tongue. This can be built upon to develop the necessary literacy skills that are so vital for their ability to access and make progress with the varied subjects of the curriculum. Instead, under the new policy, learners are to be immersed in an unknown language and expected to cope with new, complex concepts in a wide range of subjects.

There is a major challenge to introduce English from Standard 1 for September; programmes, resources and the training of teachers need to be in place. This notwithstanding, the outcome of this policy, even if adequately resourced, is not going to be a body of youngsters capable of conversing and writing fluently in English in a few years’ time. They will not be able to read appropriate texts with understanding. Quite the reverse: fewer learners will succeed each year than do at present and more will drop out. Further, the standard of reading in Chicheŵa will deteriorate but this loss will not be compensated by improved ability in English.

Despite what many believe, there is no evidence from all the studies carried out around the world that education in a language unfamiliar to the population has achieved better outcomes than using mother tongue languages. Other than where it is spoken as a mother tongue, teaching in English has not been shown to increase the opportunities for the vast majority of citizens. Further, the belief that teaching and promoting English to the exclusion of mother tongues will enhance the development of a country is not supported by reality. It is when mother tongue languages are promoted that the majority can contribute to a country’s development.

The educational system in place at present is a reasonable one though not ideal. A preferable change to that intended would be to extend the use of Chicheŵa or, as appropriate, other mother tongues as the medium of instruction to the whole of primary education rather than using English from Standard 5. This, with English taught as a subject, will achieve more successful learners in all subjects, including English.

It seems that most believe that starting English in Standard 1 will be good for the country. Looking at the research, though, makes it difficult to understand how this policy came about; it is clearly not based on any reliable evidence. Hopefully, the explanation given here, based on reliable academic research, will have convinced those who support it to change their minds. For the good of the children and for the good of Malaŵi, those who have the power change this policy must reconsider it.

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