Why the poor show in English at Kenya School Certificate of Education

haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Mar 13 14:14:45 UTC 2006

Forwarded from edling at ccat.sas.upenn.edu

Kenya Times


Why the poor show in English at KCSE


A report in a section of the media last month indicated that only 554 students
scored straight A in English language in the last year’s Kenya School
Certificate of Education [KSCE].

It raised queries why so few students could score an A when the language of
instruction in schools was English, meaning that students were perpetually
exposed to the language whenever they undertook lessons be it in English, or
other subjects.

While the report raised legitimate and real concerns about the dismal
performance of English, it failed to address what I consider to be the factors
that have made it virtually impossible for students to posit impressive
results in the subject.

Language experts argue that mature use of a language (any language) is an
acquired skill. We acquire this skill majorly by listening to competent
speakers of the language; we reinforce that skill by reading books written by
competent writers in that particular language and by imitating or modelling
our speech and writing habits based on the two.

If the foregoing assumption is right or valid, it follows that our students
are being invited to sit for English language in fourth Form without having
been exposed to excellent speakers of the English as a language; they are
sitting for exams without having read great works of literature in English;
nay, they are being examined at fourth Form without having had sufficient
exercise in writing or speaking in English.

In a Presidential Address to the Modern Language Association in the United
States in 1980, Helen Vandler complained that students in that country came
from secondary school having read no works of literature in foreign language
and scarcely any work of literature in their own languages.

Vandler’s complaint equally relate to our own students. Our system of
education does not expose our students to literature of intellectual,
aesthetic and moral vitamins as to ignite the students to think about the
recurring problems and challenges that has perpetually faced man--problems and
issues that are at the core of every communication, every discourse and every
human speech and writing.

We do not have a standing core of books--the novel, poetry, play, and the
essay--that our students could be invited to acquaint themselves with before
they ever sit for the Form Four Examination.

The nearest we have come to this is when the Kenya Institute of Education
prescribe certain limited number of boos for study for purposes of the
Literature Paper which examines not more than three books.

It is left to the particular English language teacher to choose from the wide
array of books to give students as class readers in lower forms.

Extremely very few English language teachers expose form one, twos and threes
to such books as would build the personalities and world views of students.

Indeed, a number of English language teachers are poor role models to the
students. Most do not read; choosing to rely on the texts for abstracting
passages for comprehension questions. And for others who read at all, they
read thrillers and other low brow books that can not energenise his/her mind
to help students develop critical reading skills which are crucial, in my
view, for not only comprehending, but appreciating the issues in the
admittedly excellent excerpts or passages the Kenya National Examination
Council sets for comprehension and summary questions in the subject.

Science teachers and teachers of other subjects do not help either. Most are
grossly poor speakers of the language and do not other so long as the students
can grasp the concepts they are teaching.

The net result of this sloppy attitude to the English language is that many
teachers cannot engage in any serious discourse on current issues using
acknowledged rhetorical techniques. These are the techniques that are crucial
in enabling one to write composition coherently and energetically.

No wonder most compositions (Kompo in their sheng language) are very weak in
grammar, organisation of ideas and originality.

Another very serious issue is that many English language teachers are simply
lazy even when it comes to the teaching of grammar and composition.

Because they do not prepare, because they are not serious, one rushes to the
class armed with a passage which he/she has not read. He/she asks students to
read the passage in turns and they attempt to answer questions together. After
the end of the lesson, the teacher leaves the classroom, satisfied that he has
helped “build the nation!”

I will not be saying anything new when I argue that most students leave
secondary school without having been taught how to write a composition, the
rhetorical strategies open to the composition writer and the different types
of compositions or essays there are in human communication.

All that most teachers do is extract a composition from a past paper, ask the
students to tackle it and hand in the exercise books for marking. Many
teachers stay with the exercise books for almost a term and when they
eventually return them, the pick what they consider the best composition by
one of the students. It is read before the students and after that, they are
asked to write like so and so.

The “so and so” student could, in his own way, have developed a strong reading
culture from whence he/she acquired the excellent writing habits which the
teacher is praising. The rest of the students write badly because they have
not been exposed to good writing and because, having not read anything, they
have nothing to write about.

An excellent writer, it has been said, is a good reader moved to write.
Embedded in real good works of art are certain experiences, reflections,
pathos, ironies, wit and tragedies of life which the various authors have
grappled with as individuals or the societies about which they wrote about.

In short, these books communicate certain values, mores, norms and
philosophies of life which the reader acquaints himself with--the themes or
experiences related could make him happy, sad, angry, reflective and

Apart from seeing how words and phrases are managed or collocated to convey an
idea or meaning, the student leans something about life as seen through the
eyes or perspective(s) of other people.

It is the totality or integration of these “eyes” that make the student
complex or potent in his/her personality.Called upon to write a Kompo, (to use
their language), the student or candidate is invited to reveal something about
himself or herself through the composition. It is the complexity or
originality of his/her viewpoint and the perspicuity of his/her writing that
earns marks.

But because many of our students have not read anything, they have virtually
no personality to reveal about themselves on paper.

Because they have not come across any piece of writing addressing difficult
issues of life, they do not understand, let alone appreciate the themes of the
three passages they are called upon to read and answer certain questions

Where do we go from here? I think the onus is on KIE and the ministry of
Education to develop what in my view, should be a list of certain outstanding
books of art or literature which students should ideally have read by the time
he/she sits for KSCE examinations.

The books should by no means be exhaustive or exclusive. They should simply
indicate the kind of literature that is ideal for students preparing
themselves not for exams per see, but for the responsibilities of adulthood
and citizenship.

Indeed, the thoughts, reflections and issues that the books in question tackle
could as well turn out to be the most relevant education to the lives of these
students when they come of age. This is because, modern formal education, and
the modern curriculum designed to make us marketable, do not prepare us for
the paradoxes that confront adults or even teenagers.

Certain African literature scholars have successfully expunged Western
Literature from our curriculum arguing that the books, particularly the
literary canon was a tool of imperialism and/or elitism--which values or
philosophies are inconsistent with modern egalitarian or democratic society.

That is an argument irrelevant to the thrust of this article. However, in
developing the core of books, KIE and the ministry of Education, should keep
at bay people who subscribe to this argument. This is because, there are
certain outstanding books of literature Western civilisation produced that
have the capacity to impart impeccable writing and speaking skills, besides
imparting into our students certain values that I think are crucial in
establishing and sustaining a country’s institutions. And without strong
institutions, society has no capacity to master its social and physical

In her closing address to the Modern Language Association in 1980 we referred
to earlier , Vandler observed:

“We have it in our power, I believe, to reform ourselves, to make it our own
first task, to give, especially to our students, that rich web of
associations, lodged in the tales of majority and minority culture alike, by
which they could begin to understand themselves as individuals and as social

I also feel that we have it in our power to give our students the rich web of
associations embedded in the great literatures of the world--African
literature, oral and written, Western Literature--the legends, myths, fables
and the written literature-- and enable our children “to begin to understand
themselves as individuals and as social beings.

It is in fact this individuality and social beings that any composition
writing process, indeed any expressive art calls forth from a person. To
expect our students to express themselves or see how others express themselves
and the various normative rules of language is like drawing blood out of a

We have denied our students an opportunity to grow by not exposing the culture
of our civilisation as embodied in intellectual literature as opposed to the
popular or pulp literature which, because it doesn’t take any effort to
understand, they readily access and read, alas, at the modelling of our

We need to codify or list a core of books from which schools and English
language teachers could choose from to bring to the attention of students. We
have in the English language hundreds of books that can be chosen from. They
range from the novel, poetry, play, essay, speeches. They could be drawn from
fiction and non-fiction.

We cannot talk about globalisation when we are made to hide in our own cocoon,
courtesy of certain scholars. We cannot talk about globalisation without our
ability to communicate because if we have nothing to communicate or transact
in the global market, in the Information super High way, we shall become
servile consumers of It.

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