Education in an Unfamiliar Language: Impact of Teachers' Limited Language Proficiency on Pedagogy, a Situational Analysis of Upper Primary Schools in Kenya.

Author:McCoy, Bernard

The author is a postgraduate student and former associate lecturer at Charles Sturt University, Australia. His research interest embraces pedagogical renewal and focuses on current educational reform initiatives in East Africa.


This paper reviews empirical studies and current educational reform initiatives underway in Kenya. Articles from other post-colonial African nations will also be examined to provide a deeper insight into the relationship between language proficiency and teaching ability. A sustained focus throughout the research is on the nature of teacher-pupil discourse in regions where English is regarded as a second language and used as the medium of instruction. The journals forming the subject of this review have been sourced from a number of national and international publications in the fields of linguistics, language, and education. The articles represent a geographical spread of developing and developed countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana, South Africa and New Zealand.

A holistic view of the literature has been taken, encompassing theoretical frameworks, research goals and contexts. The articles were accessed through electronic searches and educational databases. Most of the studies are small scale and based on classroom observations, interviews and questionnaires.

Research dealing with the medium of instruction has focused largely on observations of African pupils and their assessment performance (Opoku-Amankwa, 2009; Owu-Ewie & Eshun, 2015; Uwezo, 2016). In many ways, it is far easier to access data from learners as academic results are readily available. Fewer studies have explored how teachers' proficiency of English may impact on pedagogy and language development and this is the central issue within this review. This paper has both a research and teacher development component; if it inspires scholars to adopt an interactive research perspective on the medium of instruction it will have served its purpose. The following critique will draw on comparative studies of classes undertaken in English and mother tongue languages to assess and gauge potential differences in instructional styles. The decision to focus on Kenya was influenced by the author's own observations and continued involvement as an educational consultant for a private peri-urban school on the outskirts of Mombasa.

Language of Instruction Policy

The language through which teaching and learning takes place has always been a contentious issue in multilingual nations because language policies have the capacity to influence practice. Kiswahili is the national language of Kenya and together with English they are the official languages in an ethnically diverse population comprising over 40 mother tongues (Begi, 2014; Masau, 2003; Ogechi, 2009). Education policy recommends that the language of instruction (LOI) from Primary 1-3 should be in the tongue of the catchment area. English and Kiswahili are taught as separate subjects until Primary 4 when English forms the medium of instruction (Nabea, 2009; RoK, 1976). With the exception of Kiswahili, the upper primary curriculum is printed in English. Several studies have found that pupils are not sufficiently prepared for the transition (e.g. Gacheche, 2010; Kembo-Sure & Ogechi, 2016). In an extensive analysis of African language practices, Heugh (2011) concluded that the concept of early-exit mother tongue languages is not based on sound theory or research evidence. Many reasons have been advanced for the shift; including lack of training opportunities and absence of culturally-specific resources in vernacular languages (Begi, 2014; Steiger, 2017).

State of Education

The education system in Kenya has an 8-4-4 structure: 8 years of primary school, 4 years of secondary school and 4 years of tertiary education. The primary curriculum covers a wide range of subjects including English, Kiswahili, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and Religious Education (MoE, 2002). During the Dakar World Education Forum in 2000, Kenya was one of 164 governments that established six key goals aimed at meeting the needs of learners and pledged commitment to achieving education for all citizens by 2015 (RoK/UNESCO, 2012).

The Education for All (EFA) initiative is a global movement of signatory nations and agencies, such as UNESCO and the World Bank, working together to provide quality basic education in developing countries. As the leading agency, UNESCO focuses its activities on policy building, monitoring, advocacy, mobilising funds and capacity development (UNESCO, 2011). Though many critical items were highlighted during the conference in Dakar, the issue of language was not raised in the plenary sessions despite the fact that millions of children enter schools every day without knowing the language of instruction (Dutcher, 2004). The only form of education for these children is in a language they cannot speak and in which teachers have limited proficiency. Ferguson (2013) concluded that the English medium of instruction will not work effectively unless the standard of English for teachers is raised.

One of the most successful interventions introduced by the Kenyan government as a result of the agreed EFA goals relates to the abolishment of primary school fees; this action accelerated student enrolment and led to an improvement of access, equity, and overall efficiency of the education sector (Orodho, 2014). Nevertheless, the ever-growing attendance rates have not been matched with a corresponding improvement in the quality of education. A recent assessment found that a significant proportion of Standard 3 learners cannot read a single word (English/Kiswahili) or identify numbers correctly and even more disconcerting is that the national mean score for Standard 8 pupils in the final primary school examination remains less than 50 percent (RoK/UNESCO, 2012; Uwezo, 2016). It must be borne in mind that these children are simultaneously learning English as well as learning in English. The centrality of the teacher in the learning process is widely acknowledged and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has noted that teacher training programmes "are viewed as being largely unfit for purpose and in need of radical reform" (MoE; 2012:22). Teacher quality has the capacity to narrow achievement gaps and studies offer compelling evidence that teacher preparation has a great impact on scholastic performance (Liston, Borko & Whitcomb, 2008; Rice, 2010; Wasanga, Ogle & Wamabua, 2012).

Pedagogical Reform Agenda

Kenya has embarked on an ambitious program of educational reform. The national objectives for 2013-2018 set out to shape the education system by making teachers more responsive to the needs of learners though a deep understanding of innovative 21st century pedagogical approaches (MoEST, 2014). From a pedagogical perspective, Kenya, along with several other East African nations, has agreed to implement learner-centred teaching and learning in primary education (EAC, 2014). In the midst of this reform, education boards have also been vested with the responsibility of promoting the two official languages in and out of school, as provided for in the constitution (MoE/MoHEST, 2012). According to Bunyi (2013) there has been a shift away from teacher-led instruction ever since the Ominde Commission in 1963; however, recent evidence shows that classroom discourse continues to be dominated by teacher-talk and choral responses (Abd-Kadir & Hardman, 2007; Dubeck, Jukes & Okello, 2011; Kembo-Sure & Ogechi, 2016; Majanga, Nasongo & Sylvia, 2010).

The new goals of primary education in the above framework also include developing the ability for critical thinking and logical judgement. The focus on intellectual functions which go beyond memorisation and recall of facts represents a desire to anchor learning in higher order cognitive processes that make education purposeful and of strong economic value. This view is enshrined in a number of policy documents, including Kenya Vision 2030 (MoEST, 2014; RoK, 2007).

A key challenge for the government, therefore, is to prepare a nation of teachers to effectively deliver pedagogies that are learner orientated. Schweisfurth (2011) examined the literature on the implementation of 72 learner-centred programmes in scores of developing countries and found that such initiatives are marked with failure. The problems identified within these articles range from overly complex reform agendas to training inadequacies and limited resources. The issue of competency in the LOI was not addressed per se and this may reflect the dearth of research in this field. It should be acknowledged that one of the main differences between traditional and innovative methods of teaching lies in the ability of educators to encourage communication so that learners are actively engaged in the negotiation and construction of meaning. Vygotsky (1978) concluded that language facilitates cognitive development and the organisation of inner thoughts; enabling learners to move into the zone of proximal development. This is particularly important in learner-centred education because it involves the generation of knowledge through the development of cognitive skills (APA, 1997). Consequently, in classroom interactions, teachers must have considerable proficiency in the LOI in order to stimulate and extend the thinking of learners during individual, group or whole class verbal exchanges. Modern approaches to language teaching also advocate communicative exchanges that focus attention on the dialogic process, leading participants to an understanding of each other's views (Anton, 1999).

In light of Kenya's plan to reform education, an international non-profit consortium is in the process of assessing the implementation of 8 non-state learner-centred programmes for primary and secondary school teachers in urban, peri-urban and rural regions of Kenya (Jordon...

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