Blaming teachers for illiteracy and poor language? No Please, Blame society

With the rather eventful just-ended teachers’ strike and the release of a coinciding report showing that over half the children in our public schools are illiterate , there has been a public outcry and blame on teachers dubbing them lazy and claiming that children cannot read because teachers do not teach them.
Being a high school teacher, reader and writer, I have been following these debates closely and I dare dub them ridiculous.
Truth be told, the critics (well meaning and otherwise) need to know that language skills are ACQUIRED not taught. What do I mean? Experts of linguistics will tell you that it is not possible to teach someone a language. What a language instructor does is teach the basic rules of grammar in the language with a few examples, it is then up to the learner to read material in that said language, answer questions and generally speak and practice until they master the rules of that language and hence the language.
As you may have noticed, the instructor’s role in this case is as limited as a preachers’ role in a wedding ceremony. The preacher only declares the couple ‘husband and wife’ but it is entirely up to the said couple to focus and make their marriage work.
How then, can one expect a teacher to ‘teach’ a child language when the child neither reads books nor speaks the language except during the lesson?
My deep conviction is that eradication of illiteracy and language development in Kenya is not a one man show but a rather whole society issue. Everyone has a role to play and this is how.
Being the major decision maker in the education sector, the government can start by including compulsory story books in the many textbooks they give to schools in the Free Education plan. And not just any texts; well written, interesting graded stories that are likely to inspire children to read some more. Making this a compulsory requirement from class one and even having it examined at the end of the school year could do wonders in boosting the language of a child. The students will reach form four having read at least 12 books which is fair enough considering some students I spoke to recently confessed they only read ‘set books’ and absolutely nothing else.
The government need also start treating language development as a public utility by funding useful TV programs that private investors are unwilling to venture into because of low profitability. The government and not private institutions should be at the fore front of funding programs like ‘the Great Debaters Contest’ that are turning our students into confident and eloquent thinkers and speakers. This will perhaps make future parliamentary proceedings more intellectual and solution-focused and less dramatic and personal as they currently are. Quality local plays can also be aired on TV and radio and I believe they will be useful to the crop of students that do not really enjoy the large percentage of Nigerian movies and local music being aired currently in the spirit of 50% local content.
Needless to say, parents too play a very major role in the language development of their children.
For one, they have a direct influence on whether their children develop interest in reading at an early age or not. A child who watches a parent read is likely to pick up a book themselves and read it.
Whenever I go over to my sisters’, my seven year old nephew cannot let me read in peace unless he too has a book to read. As a rule, I never go over without a children’s’ book for him because he will insist on reading the one I have together with me. Needless to say, the young boy is able to read and speak better than other children of his age.
Another way parents can influence language development is through giving gifts of books for birthdays, Christmas or when rewarding positive behavior. An effective strategy would be to go with the child to the bookstore and let them choose the book s\he wants to read. Another way would be to carefully select a book in the line of interest of the child e.g if she wants to become a nurse or doctor, a childrens’ book of either Florence Nightingale or Ben Carson’s story could be just the right inspiration.
Signing your child up for membership at the local Kenya National library Services available in most parts of the country would encourage the child to visit and hopefully develop a reading culture. Regulating TV hours, buying them newspapers with ‘children’s’ sections’, alternating computer/TV with reading or even buying your child a diary or journal could help the child dialogue with their inner self and develop writing skills.
Schools and Teachers.
Through introduction of compulsory library lessons (and ensuring children read books and not magazines during the lesson), weekly inter-school debates and functional writers and reading clubs, schools are in a very good position to stimulate interest in reading and writing .
Reward systems that include gifts of books in place of money and cups could also be a plus.
A teacher, being well placed to double up as a mentor, can inspire children to read. This could be done through putting up quotes from writers and examples of young writers work at the back of the classroom. This and mentioning a great story every week will get good students looking for the books.
Teachers can encourage students to write a school magazine or even letters to the editor(being student work, they will probably be published) and truth be told, there is no greater encouragement for a writer to keep writing than seeing their name in print.
After all a good teacher inspires a good student to find his own wings in the world.
Media houses/ publishers and Writers
Publishers and writers can organize reading contests and awards, read-a-thons, reading and writing workshops and spelling bees for children. Media houses can help writers and publishers do this by giving them the publicity they badly need. Like a publishing editor friend of mine told me recently ‘CSR is about funding activities that will put you in the limelight, no use putting your money where there is no publicity. Perhaps in their own little way, the media can make publishers stimulate literacy in Kenya.
So it looks like raising a child is after all a communal affair, and the earlier we accept it, the better. As for the teacher critics, please note that kidole kimoja hakiui chawa!
The writer is a teacher, trainer and blogger at twitter: @mwanigaminage


2 thoughts on “Blaming teachers for illiteracy and poor language? No Please, Blame society

  1. The piece was exquisite and still hitting the nail on the head..

  2. sammy says:

    haiyeeeeee am waitiing for my Tsc letter to go back and teach english literature and i now have that quote of a preachers role in mind.
    thanks glo you have inspired me deeply.

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