Learning to read in another language is tough

LET’S SOUND THEM OUT … a teacher in front of a class teaching english vocabulary.
… how Namibian teachers can help pupils

In a classroom in Namibia’s northern Oshikoto region, a teacher has written English vocabulary words on the chalkboard. She asks her pupils to read them aloud. When they stumble with pronunciation, she corrects them. She also helps the youngsters to sound out the words.

At another school nearby, an English teacher is showing her class cartoon strips on her cellphone to help them create mental images while reading – an approach that’s proven to enhance comprehension.

These teachers were part of a study we conducted to understand the unique knowledge and skills that Namibian teachers have developed to teach English reading comprehension to Grade 7s (who are on average 12 years old) in a diverse linguistic context. The pupils’ home languages were primarily Oshiwambo, Oshindonga, Afrikaans and Otjiherero.

We aimed to shed light on what approaches the teachers used in their classrooms. We also wanted to explore the broader implications for Namibia’s education landscape.

We found that Namibian teachers had the skills to equip pupils with the tools to become literate and fluent in English. In some situations, the teachers tried to adapt their instruction to better reflect pupils’ daily experiences and cultures. But this adaptation happened on the spur of the moment rather than being central to planned lessons.

We argue that using culturally appropriate, relevant examples should be a deliberate daily practice. For example, teachers could select a text or passage or story that incorporates traditions, folklore or contemporary situations relevant to the pupils.

This would increase engagement. It would also allow pupils to connect more deeply with the material, fostering better comprehension by being familiar and relatable. It’s an approach that has been repeatedly proven to boost reading comprehension.

Recent studies show that Namibian children have low proficiency in English. Literacy is a fundamental skill for personal development and societal progress.

Different cultural contexts

The mismatch between imported educational approaches and the realities faced by English language pupils in the global south has been identified as contributing to the struggles encountered in reading comprehension.

In Namibia, English (although it is the country’s official language) is spoken by only 3,4% of the population as a first language or mother tongue. There are 13 recognised languages in Namibia; Oshiwambo is the most prevalent first language, including in the Oshikoto region.

Since 2009, the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture has administered the National Standardised Achievement Test for grades 5 and 7. This covers English, mathematics, natural science and health education. It gauges pupils’ English comprehension competency and overall performance in these subjects. The results are worrying.

In 2015, the results showed that 87% of Grade 7 pupils scored below basic proficiency in English. The Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality also found that the country did not exhibit significant improvements in reading and mathematical literacy between 2005 and 2010. Its reading proficiency score in 2010 was 496,9 compared to a mean score of 511,8 for all 15 participating countries.

Our study

The study involved five experienced Grade 7 English teachers. All had taught the subject for five years or longer. The teachers were each affiliated with one of four combined schools in the northern Oshikoto region of Namibia, and one primary school in Windhoek, the capital city.

All are state schools and pupils are not required to pay fees.

Through stimulated recall interviews and classroom observations, we gained an understanding of the teaching practices used.

Stimulated recall interviews are a way of talking with people about their past experiences or actions. It’s like watching a replay of something you did and then being asked questions about what you were thinking or feeling at the time. It helps to better understand why people make certain choices or decisions.

We also conducted classroom observations, quietly sitting in to watch what teachers and pupils were doing. We examined the pupils’ comprehension by observing how actively they participated in question and answer sessions, collaborative activities and retelling and summary tasks.

The findings reveal that teachers continue to use teaching and learning practices acquired during their initial teacher education.

These included previewing, reading aloud, fluency training and vocabulary development.

Previewing happens when teachers ask pupils to take a quick look over the title, headings and pictures to get an idea of what the reading is about. It helps the pupils understand what to expect and makes reading a lot easier because they already have some clues about what is coming up.

Reading aloud helps pupils hear the words and understand them better. It is a fun way to enjoy a test or share something interesting with others. Fluency training involves practising reading smoothly and easily. And vocabulary development is learning to read words smoothly without stumbling or pausing too much.

The teachers’ practices were pedagogically sound. But that doesn’t guarantee improved reading comprehension for pupils without sensitivity to the lived experiences and the imagined future of the learners. The teachers did not often adapt their practices to suit their specific cultural and linguistic contexts. Most of the reading material used didn’t contain examples pupils could relate to from their own daily lives. In the few instances where there was a link to a pupil’s background, it was made on the spur of the moment, in response to the way a lesson was progressing or stalling.

Teacher training

We concluded that much more intentional use of relevant material is needed to integrate pupils’ prior knowledge of the world into their reading comprehension.

For this to happen initial teacher education programmes need to be enhanced to ensure that teachers are equipped with skills to adapt pedagogical practices to diverse cultural and linguistic contexts.

Many teacher education institutions prepare educators as if they will be teaching in well-resourced urban schools, assuming pupils are eager to learn, and the school community supports enhanced reading. The reality is quite different: teachers deal with crowded classrooms and don’t get much support from schools to meet learning goals.

To enhance reading comprehension in primary schools within diverse cultural and linguistic contexts, teachers can begin by selecting reading material and resources that reflect the cultural diversity of their pupils, making the content more relatable. – The Conversation

  • * Marta Alumbungu is a PhD student at Stellenbosch University.
  • * Nhlanhla Mpofu is the chair for curriculum studies at Stellenbosch University.

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