Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Post by Bert Witkamp
Version 14 October 2014, edited 8 March 2015.

Education in Zambia 3Teaching in the vernacular is compulsory in Zambian public primary schools as of the 2014 school year for grades 1 to 4. English is be the language of instruction there onwards. Some notes about the pluses and minuses of this attempt at indigenization.

At the time when teaching in the local language at Zambian public primary schools grades 1 to 4 was made obligatory I published a post titled TEACHING IN THE VERNACULAR: PROBLEM OR SOLUTION?
( In the article I highlighted some of the positive and negative issues concerning teaching in the vernacular. Today teaching in the vernacular has been practiced for over a year. The national media, predictably, have highlighted the blessings the new regulation has brought, but is it really all roses and sunshine?

First, let us reiterate that English language deficiency under the old system was the single largest cause of poor performance for children that come from homes where English is not, rarely or poorly spoken. Most parents and guardians of children attending a public primary school  in Zambia are deficient in English; they pass their deficiency on to school going children that are in their care and the schools have not been able to make up for this shortcoming in grades 1 and 2. Consequently these pupils had a learning handicap as of grade two when English was introduced as the language of instruction alongside the prevailing vernacular language.  As of grade three English was to be the only language of instruction though in practice many teachers continued the use of both English and the local language in the higher grades.

The fundamental English deficiency problem was in a way perpetuated and institutionalized by schools that adopted excessively low passing thresholds. Pupils that should redo a class are promoted to the next class and their language deficiency with it. The learning career of most of these pupils therefore ended at grade seven or nine at best as they failed to satisfactorily perform at the exams presented to them in English.

That, however, is not the whole story. There are other major contributing factors to poor learning performance at public primary schools. The schools did not have (free) extra tuition facilities as part of the regular school programme; pupils requiring special education because of physical handicaps and/or psychological problems are kept at the regular school; classes  were/are excessively large with 60 pupils or more in one class not being an exception; teachers are overburdened by having to teach such large classes, or double classes, or simply have no genuine interest in teaching; parents are not supporting their children in their learning and the schools operate short teaching schedules. Pupils in fact are only taught ½ day or even less - no wonder primary school takes seven grades to complete. Most class rooms are used daily for several classes. This list of negative factors impacting on learning performance easily can be expanded but the current list is long enough as it is.

Clearly, a good many pupils have benefited from the new system as the English language handicap no longer is a factor in grades 1 to 4. There are, however, a number of buts. Such as:
  • Not all pupils at a given school speak the same vernacular language.
  • Teachers may not be sufficiently conversant with the vernacular language in use at the school where they have been stationed.
  • The choice of vernacular language is restricted to the official Zambian vernacular languages (e.i., of the Nyanja, Bemba, Luvale, Kaonde, Lozi and Tonga peoples); other languages are not taught. Example: chiTonga is an official language and hence a language of instruction. Ila, lenge and soli speakers are not taught in their languages. In other words, the official vernacular languages have taken over the privileged position the English language once had.
  • What to do with English words that have no corresponding term in the vernacular? This applies to a great many terms and concepts found in grade 2 to 4 primary school text books. This is a major issue when text books in any of the chosen vernacular languages are not available.
  • A vernacular language may vary considerably within the area where it is used; e.g., Gwembe chiTonga is different from Plateau chiTonga and both Gwembe and Plateau chiTonga have dialectical varieties of their own. It often is difficult or impossible to come up with what is supposed to be the Standard Vernacular Language.
In addition the proper use of a vernacular language in education is problematic as to date primary schools do not or may not have primary school text books (for pupils and teachers) for these languages. Note that even if these books are produced teachers and schools may not have them; a situation which unfortunately is quite common. This omission introduces a significant idiosyncratic element in the manner of education; leaving it up to the individual teacher to cope with the problems of teaching in the vernacular.

It is, at least on paper, possible to address some of the present flaws of the new system: text books can be produced in the vernacular* (mind you, this is not easy for reasons mentioned above, and also costs money); teachers can be posted to schools where a vernacular language is used in which the teacher is competent; it may be possible to formulate Standard Vernacular Languages where that now not is the case or allow accepted variation.

Adopting a vernacular language as language of instruction does not solve any of the other factors negatively impacting on the learning performance of the public primary school pupil: lack of facilities for underprivileged/handicapped children, overpopulated classrooms, overburdened or disinterested teachers, parental apathy, lack of teaching aids, poor standards generally and especially concerning promotion to the next grade, and teaching schedules that as a rule are at least 6 hours/week shorter than those of private schools. Improved public primary school performance can only be achieved if these issues are addressed, and these issues are not addressed merely by adopting a vernacular language as language of instruction.**

Teaching in the vernacular helps many pupils of public primary school to grasp the subjects taught and enhances their participation in the learning situation - if they happen to be a speaker of one of the official vernacular languages taught at the school they happen to attend. Teaching in the vernacular does justice to historical origins and contemporary cultural heritage. That is all very well but does not explain why learning English, the national no. 1 official language, has been scrapped from the grade 1 to 4 syllabus. Pupils now start learning English in grade 5 and have to master English sufficiently well to pass grade 7 exams in order to continue education to grade 9 and hopefully beyond. Furthermore, the better the exam result, the better the school that the child can access.

Late learning of English, predictably, creates another stumbling block for many pupils and therefore contravenes the intention of the recent primary school reforms. English should be taught as of grade 1. Perhaps by turning the learning day of a primary school pupil into a full day rather than the present half a day. As it stands public primary schools pupils with few exceptions shall continue to be the suppliers of cheap labour; of maids, gardeners, security guards, general workers, cleaners, farm hands and so on. And such future prospect for these pupils highlights the more fundamental issue of the capacity of public primary schools to make good the learning disadvantages their pupils have that issue from the environment in which they are born and raisedan issue which this educational reform is supposed to address.

The reality to date is otherwise. One consequence is the widening gap between private and public primary schools. A small municipality like Choma to date has seven private primary schools, all save one located in the “better” neighbourhoods. Parents that can afford it, mostly belonging to the strongly expanding middle class, send their children to private schools. Those who can’t send their offspring and other dependents to the public schools. Hence we now have a bifurcation in the educational system that reflects a socio-economic bifurcation in society; crudely put between the haves and the have-nots; a division that is increasingly supported and created by the very educational system itself.

*   Text books for pupils in the vernacular and for teachers in English have now been produced (July 2015). The first impression is that grade 1 subjects ordinatily should be taught at pre-school level. The books, as usual in education, are very well produced.** It should be appreciated in all fairness that government over the past years has made substantial efforts to improve the situation at public primary schools. A lot of schools have been build, expanded or renovated. The conditions of service for teachers ensures them a very decent income and no longer should be used as an excuse for poor teaching performance. Teachers, moreover, have access to a great many educational services - long distance learning in particular -  to upgrade their skills and qualifications. Teachers now need to have a diploma rather than a certificate - another step forward. And, last but not least, the current primary school text books, all in English, are of good quality.

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