Promoting a Culture of Reading in Kenya

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Oct 8 18:50:15 UTC 2008

Promoting a Culture of Reading in Kenya
Written by Konrad Glogowski

Tue, Oct 7, 2008
Featured Entry, TWB, Teacher PD

I returned from Kenya over a month ago and am still reflecting on the
conversations that I had there with teachers, students,
administrators, and officials at the Kenya Institute of Education.
There's so much to think about and digest. The one thing, however,
that I have been thinking about ever since I came back is the lack of
reading culture in Kenyan schools. One of the main things that all
English teachers we worked with wanted to learn from our workshops was
how to encourage reading in their classrooms. You may think that this
problem is not unique to Kenya, that in many classrooms in wealthy
developed nations students are also often uninterested in reading. I
agree. As an English teacher in Canada I often struggled with this
challenge in my classroom. However, in Kenya, this problem is
compounded by some deep-rooted issues that have been part of the
education system since Kenya gained independence in 1963.

First, almost all the students and teachers we came into contact with
in the rural schools we visited speak English as their second or even
third language. Yet, when teachers speak of encouraging a culture of
reading, they invariably mean the culture of reading in English. In
other words, they want to encourage a culture of reading in a language
that students use very rarely outside the classroom. Second, the
Kenyan system of education is dominated by exams which play a crucial
role in deciding the students' future. Results obtained on these exams
determine whether or not the student can move on to the next grade, to
high school, or to post-secondary education. If the results are not
high enough, the student is almost always left without options.

English as a Second/Third Language

Kiswahili and English are both taught in Kenyan schools. Kiswahili is
the language of instruction in grades 1 through 3, while English is
taught as a subject. In grade 4, English replaces Kiswahili as the
language of instruction and Kiswahili is taught as a subject until
grade 12. The language policy is bilingual, but from what we've
observed some Kenyans are monolingual, some bilingual, and some
multilingual. In other words, most of the children we observed and
most of the teachers we worked with speak three languages: they speak
their mother tongue (Kikuyu in the region we visited), Kiswahili, and
also English. English is not the language you hear on the street in
small towns and villages in rural Kenya. It is rarely used by the
students outside of class time.

What this means in the classroom is that the mother tongue or
Kiswahili are used quite often. Occasionally, even the teacher uses
the mother tongue or Kiswahili to explain challenging concepts
(personal observation; Muthwii, 2004). Also, when students converse
with each other, both in class and outside instructional times, they
very rarely use English. I observed this phenomenon in every
elementary and secondary school we visited.

English is therefore seen in very pragmatic terms. It is used to
obtain an education and write exams. As a result, students do not use
colloquial English, and it could even be argued that in a country
where English is often a third language, there are limited
opportunities for them to do so. As Commeyras and Inyega argue, "their
instruction in English typically lacks meaningful interactive use in
meaningful contexts" (2007). English is not the language of social
interaction. Code-switching is very common in instructional contexts.
The use of Kiswahili or mother tongue among students outside of class
is the norm. Voluntary reading in English is therefore rare because
English is perceived as a tool used only to pass exams and secure
employment (Commeyras & Inyega, 2007).


This lack of interest in English is greatly exacerbated by the fact
that, in Kenya, students write exams at the end of every grade. They
must pass that final exam to proceed to the next grade. They also
write a cumulative exam at the end of elementary school (grade 8).
Known as the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), this exam
determines whether or not the child will go on to secondary school and
also the kind of secondary school he or she will attend. Then, at the
end of high school, students write another exam, known as the Kenya
Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). This exam determines
whether or not the student can be considered for admission to a
post-secondary institution.

If a child fails either one of the exams, her educational
opportunities end. She will not proceed to high school or
post-secondary education. She cannot try again. Her entire life
depends on two hours at the end of grade eight or grade twelve.

Needless to say, reading and the use of English are associated with
formal schooling. One uses the language to prepare for and pass exams.
Reading and writing in English are perceived as skills that students
need to develop to function successfully in school, not something that
a student perceives as valuable (or even usable) outside the classroom
in her community and in social contexts.

So What?

Imagine trying to build a culture of reading in English in a classroom
where the students see English only as a means to an end. It's a
language they do not use in their daily lives outside of school. In
fact, students in rural communities do not have many opportunities to
practice the language in interactive and meaningful social contexts.
This lack of what Commeyras and Inyega call "enabling environment"
(2007) certainly contributes to the students' perception that English
is a tool one must master only in order to study and pass exams. It is
not personally meaningful at all. English is predominantly the
language of academic contexts.

One could argue that reading in English could help the students
increase their chances of performing well on their exams.
Unfortunately, the exams consist of fill in the blanks questions, and
some multiple choice and short answer questions. They certainly do not
require too much critical thinking. Rote memorization is quite

Can Anything Be Done?

While I agree that it is challenging to encourage students to use
English outside of school where they seem perfectly happy
communicating in their mother tongue or Kiswahili, it is imperative
that the use of English in school change from purely formal and
transactional to more expressive, interactive, and socially
meaningful. One of the main barriers that has traditionally made this
shift impossible is that teaching in Kenya is very teacher-centred. In
addition, instruction in an English classroom is often limited to
cloze tests, reading comprehension exercises, and short answer
questions. Students are generally not given opportunities to express
their opinions or engage in class discussions or debates. Chalk and
talk dominates classroom interactions.

But, how do we encourage teachers in Kenya to adopt a more
student-centred approach? How can we support them in this shift to a
more participatory environment?

I think that the small, gradual steps - the approach we used this past
summer - are necessary to help teachers move out of their current
comfort zone and test themselves using a different teaching
methodology. According to Commeyras and Inyega (2007), two
research-based Kenyan documents (MOEST, 2001; Willis, 1988) suggest
that teachers can promote greater interest in reading by reading aloud
to their students. Furthermore, talking with students about the texts
as preparation for independent reading can also be very effective
(Willis, 1988). Of course, the challenge here is that this approach
requires that the teachers themselves be committed and enthusiastic
readers willing to share their personal stories and reactions with
their students. I believe that the students need to see in their
teachers a high level of authentic engagement with a text in order to
be encouraged by this approach. Teachers need to learn how to
communicate their passion for reading and they need support in
learning how to initiate and sustain meaningful conversations about
texts in their classrooms. This is not an easy task for a teacher who
is used to lecturing and who every day walks into a classroom where
the students have been conditioned to sit quietly and listen.

I learned this past summer that creating a participatory environment
in Kenya involves two steps:

1. Helping the teacher understand the value of the Socratic method and
student voice in the classroom

2. Helping the teacher convey that value to students who have spent
years in a teacher-centred system that rewards those who are quiet and
equate learning with rote memorization.

The teachers who attended the TWB-Canada workshops in Kenya were very
open to new ideas and most were very enthusiastic about creating a
more student-centred environment in their classrooms. I look forward
to meeting many of them again next summer and I plan to continue to
work on encouraging independent reading and an open, participatory
classroom culture.

Access to Reading Materials

The importance of independent reading has been addressed by the Kenyan
Ministry of Education (MOEST, 2001). The ministry even listed a number
of suggestions to encourage reading in Kenyan classrooms:

MOEST (2001) provides a variety of ways for encouraging students to
read, including setting aside time each week to be used for reading in
class; specifying the amount of reading to be done out of class and
keeping a record to track the reading that the pupil has done; asking
students to give oral reports of what they are reading; using resource
persons to read to the pupils, modeling how they want the pupils to
read; and rewarding effort made to read (Commeyras & Inyega, 2007).

The one barrier that still needs to be addressed, however, is the
question of access. When we discuss independent reading in North
America,  or in any developed nation, we don't spend too much time
thinking about access to appropriate materials. We take for granted
that students have access to libraries, either in their schools or in
the community. We know that their parents can also purchase books or
magazines. Access to reading material is not an issue.

In Kenya, things are very different. Efforts to encourage independent
reading will be pointless if the students have no access to reading
materials. While some schools we visited in rural Kenya had small
libraries or book collections, most did not have any reading material
except textbooks. Consequently, another goal for our next project in
Kenya is to help improve access to reading materials by fundraising
for paperbacks or magazine subscriptions that can be purchased locally
to eliminate shipping costs.

In short, as I begin to prepare for next year's Teachers Without
Borders workshops in Kenya, I think about how we can best assist
Kenyan teachers in creating an environment in their classrooms where
the students will be given opportunities to share their views,
participate in debates, and use English in an expressive, creative
way, not merely as a tool to help them fill in the blanks on a test.
The teachers I met in Kenya were very open to making the kind of shift
in their pedagogy that is required to ensure that their students have
opportunities to move away from the formal and transactional uses of
English and towards a more expressive and personal voice. At the same
time, I realize that access to paperbacks and magazines will be
crucial and I hope that, as a team, Teachers Without Borders - Canada
will be able to raise enough funds to bring more books to Kenyan

If you think you might be able to help, please let me know.


Commeyras, M. & Inyega, H. (2007). An integrative review of teaching
reading in Kenyan primary schools. Reading Research Quarterly, 42(2),

Ministry of Education Science and Technology. (2001). Teaching and
learning English in the primary classroom: English module. Nairobi:
Jomo Kenyatta Foundation.

Muthwii, M. (2004). Language of instruction: A qualitative analysis of
the perception of parents, pupils, and teachers among the Kalenjin in
Kenya. Language, Culture, and Curriculum, 17, 15-32.

Willis, B.J. (1988). Aspects of the acquisition of orality and
literacy in Kenyan primary school children (Kiswahili). Dissertation
Abstracts International, 50, 433. (UMI No. 8908590).
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