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Inside Public Secondary Schools Series: The English Language Struggle!

In Nigeria, English language still remains the official language and medium of instruction and communication in schools but unfortunately, the fall in the standard of education in Nigeria is also evident in the very poor English language proficiency of students in schools.

Memes of grammar and spelling errors by secondary school and university students abound on social media.  We laugh, joke about it and share these memes on several social media platforms but it is a serious problem that reveals the shambles our educational system is in.  Language is an extremely important tool for interaction and can directly affect an individual’s self-esteem and confidence.  In schools, students with poor English skill shy away from making contributions in class lessons. On a global scale, such students may lack the confidence to compete or communicate with their peers from other parts of the world. Often, such individuals know what to say but they lack the ability to convey their message accurately or assume that they cannot speak well thus they become timid and shy away from making any contributions at all. Speaking well in this sense does not refer to speaking in a “foreign or European accent” as the standard for which the Nigerian accent falls short. I am totally against that kind of mentality and thinking.  Here, I refer to the ability to convey your message in a way that allows the listener or reader to understand the message you are trying to pass across.

In  schools where English language is used as the main medium of communication and assessment, students as well as teachers cannot construct simple English sentences. Last year as a teacher and researcher in a public secondary school, marking the examination papers of the students was a horrific task!!! Less than two percent of the students could spell simple English words and these were senior secondary school students. I complained to a senior teacher about the problem and this was her response, “that is how they are, just pass them as long as you understand the point they are trying to make.”  This is exactly why the standard of our education system has continued to deteriorate compared to the high standard attainable in yesteryears.

Although the following are preliminary suggestions that still require more sophisticated thinking and conceptual development, the suggestions I make do not require vast resources or planning and can be easily integrated into the existing school system. First, teachers cannot give what they do not have thus there needs to be a more rigorous recruitment process and higher entry assessment for English teachers in schools.  It is totally unacceptable for an individual who studied geography or mathematics for instance to be recruited as an English teacher to teach English language to students.

Secondly, because only few  students at the secondary education level have  good English background from their  primary school education, it becomes imperative for basic English lessons on pronunciation,  punctuation, phonetics, diction and spelling to be repeated all over again at secondary school level even up to senior secondary school levels. In the informal curriculum, a student-led English school club with spelling-bee competitions and reading exercises with rewards can be established in all schools with an English teacher in the school as the facilitator. This provides a fun and more relaxed environment where students can improve their English skills and cultivate the habit of reading which is fast eroding.

Further, in the actual process of teaching, teachers should pay close attention to the English language needs of their students. In other words, turn every lesson to an English lesson!  Teachers should be conscious about their grammar and correct students when they speak.  Teachers should not assume that the students know how to spell certain words because most times they don’t! This worked for me when I taught my students. This is particularly relevant in senior secondary classes where teachers dictate notes to students as opposed to writing the lesson notes on the board as is the case in junior classes.  Senior students may find it difficult to admit that they cannot correctly spell certain English words because of the fear of being teased by their peers so write most words on the board.  If you visited a class I taught, you would think it was an English lesson because of all the words written on the board. I was very deliberate about it.

On the supply side, there is also an acute shortage of English language graduates from higher institutions. This is so because English language is not considered a prestigious or marketable field of study in Nigeria thus many parents regard it as a waste of time to study English Language for years in the university and discourage their children from following that path. The result of this is a shortage of  teachers who are actually qualified to teach English language in schools. This puts pressure on schools to accept graduates from any field of study to teach English language.  Thus at the policy level, there needs to be some sort of re-branding and sensitisation about the immense need of qualified English teachers in school and how important this is for  improving the standard of the nation’s education system  as well as an awareness about numerous career paths attainable from studying English Language.  In addition to this as I have written elsewhere, until  the working conditions of teachers are revisited and teachers are paid well and appreciated, students will  not aspire to be teachers and only teach as a last resort. Let’s get this right alongside developing and implementing a relevant education curriculum and Nigeria will be on her way to restoring the lost glory of her education system.