Namibia's flawed language policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Jan 27 14:57:27 UTC 2007

Does No One Notice?

The Namibian (Windhoek)  COLUMN January 26, 2007 Posted to the web January
26, 2007

By Brian Harlech-Jones Windhoek

THE Namibian of January 19 2007 published an article by Andrew Clegg
titled 'Nothing Short Of Radical Reform Will Solve the Educational
Problem'. His premises and arguments, which are insightful and reflect his
years of professional experience, have prompted me to look at the
education crisis from a slightly different perspective. My presentation
should be viewed in the light of the fact that analyses and critiques of a
complex social project such as a national educational system are always as
multi-faceted as the phenomenon itself. To illustrate the extent of the
crisis, Clegg notes that, 'probably as many as 40 per cent [of school
children], so we hear, reach the end of grade 7 effectively illiterate and
innumerate.' Although this is alarming, the situation might be even worse!
In a publication that is well known in educational circles, the second
report of the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring
Educational Quality (2005: unpaged), comparing 15 African countries and
analysing data gathered in 2000 for grade six students, reported that, in
reading, Namibian learners scored relatively poorly and half a standard
deviation below the SACMEQ average In 1995, 23 per cent of learners
reached the minimum level and 8 per cent the desirable level of reading

In 2000, these figures had declined and 17 per cent reached the minimum
level and only 7 per cent the desirable level. Because reading ability
affects every aspect of learning, it is not surprising to find that other
subjects are also affected: In mathematics, learners at Levels 1 and 2
could not be said to be numerate. Nearly 77 per cent of learners
nationally were in these two categories. In Caprivi, Kavango, Ohangwena,
Omaheke, Omusati, Oshikoto and Oshana, the number of learners who could
not be said to be numerate ranged from 80 to 90 per cent.

This is a very serious problem. (same page) Whatever the actual parameters
of the problem are, just about everyone agrees that it is runs deep and
has severe consequences. That, of course, is why the authorities have
embarked on a huge initiative like ETSIP. Why are so many school children
illiterate and innumerate, and why does the problem seem to get worse with
every year that passes? Clegg's analysis suggests that one of the main
reasons is that the curriculum remains much the same as in the
pre-Independence period, when, in his words, it was 'tailor-made to
generate failure'. He suggests that it should be drastically reformed to
be more flexible and differentiated, and proposes 'curricula which operate
simultaneously at different levels in a particular grade.' Although this
is ideal - in fact, it is the way that teachers really should treat the
children in their care - I think that it might be too ambitious for
Namibia at this time.

I say this because I think that a significant number of teachers in
Namibia are not learning-centred. (Note: I said learning-centred, not
learner-centred!) If this is the case, then no amount of curriculum reform
is going to make a meaningful difference. To explain why I say that there
is a dearth of learning-centredness, let us look at what seems to be
happening to a lot of children in a lot of schools. Clegg estimates that
'probably as many as 40 per cent [of school children] ... reach the end of
grade 7 effectively illiterate and innumerate.' Although the figure could
be higher, let us accept 40 per cent as a working figure.

If 40 per cent of a grade one class of, say, 40 children are illiterate
and innumerate at the end of their first year, that means that 16 children
are in that condition. If they are still illiterate and innumerate by the
end of grade 7, then those 16 children have passed through about ten
teachers' hands along the way. If this has happened in, say, 100 schools,
then 1 600 illiterate and innumerate children have passed through the
hands of 1 000 teachers for about 900 hours per child per year, or about 6
300 hours per child from Grade 1 to Grade 7. If this has been going on
for, say, ten years (actually, for even longer)  in even more schools,
then ... well, I am sure that you get the picture! This raises another
question:  Why are so many children allowed to go on and on, illiterate
and innumerate as they are, hour after hour and year after year? Does no
one notice or does no one care? I think that the answer is that no one
notices because, in the case of literacy, a lot of teachers do not know
how to teach reading and writing and/or do not actually know what good
reading is.

I will not comment about numeracy because I have not had much to do with
it. However, there is a strong relationship between numeracy and literacy,
with the result that children with poor literacy are likely to have poor
numeracy as well. While I was doing research for my PhD during the
mid-1980s, I visited about 50 primary schools in central Namibia to
interview teachers. At about 30 of these schools, I observed reading
classes in the lower grades and saw that most of the teachers were not
actually teaching reading. Instead, they used the classes for vocabulary
and grammar lessons, for discoursing about the general subject of the
story, or for listening comprehension. Sometimes the teacher read from the
book and the children chorused after him or her.

When active 'reading' did take place, it took the form of children taking
turns to stand up and read a few lines aloud, usually in broken and
halting fashion. I even come across the apocryphal situation during a
'reading' lesson of children chorus-repeating after the teacher while some
books were upside-down on the desks. Reading tests took the form of
children standing at the teacher's table one by one, reading aloud. The
children usually finger-pointed their way along the text and awkwardly
sounded out individual phonemes or syllables in ways that did not resemble
meaningful language. The schools that I visited were randomly selected and
therefore it was likely that they reflected a representative cross-section
of practices.

In fact, this was confirmed by people who knew the field much better than
I did. After Independence, I was the first chairperson of the English
language subject committee for the Ministry of Education. At almost every
meeting - they were held on a quarterly basis - I asked what was being
done to establish an effective reading programme. I never got a
satisfactory answer. Later, I was a member of the broad committee that
established the Basic Education Teaching Diploma (BETD), which became the
central plank of reform in teacher training. As chairperson of the
committee that designed the English syllabus for the BETD, I thought that
it was unfortunate that syllabus components on phonics and reading methods
were mostly disallowed, on the grounds that the BETD should include a lot
of didactics and less content.

In short, in the years after Independence, longer-serving teachers did not
have remedial programmes to improve their ability to teach reading, while
newer teachers - the products of the BETD - were not in a better position
than their older peers. Clegg refers to the fact that reading and writing
skills seem to be 'particularly bad in places where English has been the
teaching language from grade 1'. This is not surprising, in view of
Namibia's flawed language policy for education. However, significant as it
is, language will be a contributing factor and not a root cause. In
summary, my analysis is that a lot of teachers neither know how to teach
reading, nor know what good reading is.

Whatever the reason, why has so much time, money and effort been put into
such a vital national project as education without addressing the basics
of all basics, namely the '3 Rs'? As Clegg says, 'Reading, writing and
arithmetic are the basic skills that children have to pick up in the first
three years. If they have not mastered them by then, they get no further
opportunity in the curriculum.' Exactly! So why have these skills been so
thoroughly ignored? I do not know. It puzzles me a lot. So, necessary as
it is, I do not think that curriculum reform in itself will be effective,
unless it is accompanied by a comprehensive programme of teacher
re-education in teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. How this should
be done, and how teachers and their professional organisations be
consulted so that they support the initiative, is a vital question that
should be addressed separately.

Finally, I would like to refer to Clegg's observation that the
apartheid-era educational system was 'tailor-made to create failure for
the under-resourced majority and success for the privileged minority'.
Although that was the past - a past that is not a memory for the current
school-goers - it is worth asking whether it holds lessons for the
present. How should we regard the current system, in which large numbers
of children are effectively illiterate and innumerate in grades 6 and 7 -
a situation that seems to be worsening year by year? Does it all happen by
chance, or is this system also tailor-made for something? * Dr Brian
Harlech-Jones was a professor and dean of faculty at the University of
Namibia and at the Aga Khan University, Pakistan.


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