David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
Certain things are unavoidable. So I suppose that this too was inevitable. I was always going to have to return to a subject that is very close to my heart: the new curriculum in Zimbabwe that has earned a variety of not always complimentary epithets for its exponents.
While the new curriculum is an idea whose time has come, it has, nevertheless caused a lot of trepidation among teachers and parents alike. Some use a rather unkind metaphor to describe the venture.
They call it a stone-throw technique according to which before wading a pool you throw in a stone to see what ripples it makes and what it may bring up from the depths.
Trial and error at its worst.
That may well be so, but there are times when one must just plunge in regardless. The converse of that is that debate may go on forever. Put simply, I am of the opinion that we could have had at least a year or two incubation. This would have accorded the process proper time and space to grow and develop. The obvious question to ask here is what it is that has brought about this thinking in me.
The answer to that is simple. The implementation process currently leaves much to be desired. There are several things that could have been done differently and made a difference. Among these is the question of teacher orientation and preparation. A bewildered teacher will sabotage rather than support the process. And writers of the new materials who write without the necessary and appropriate orientation and standardisation cannot possibly come up with usable and accessible text books.
My grandson who is in Grade Three brought home a number of text books for his holiday reading. Among these were heritage and science and technology books. A casual look through the books made me shudder as it became clear to me that the writers of these books had not really thought about suitability in terms of reading age and depth of content.
Accordingly, to expect that the books had been subjected to any readability tests was perhaps too much. These are matters on which progress will be stalled and even destroyed and something has to be done. Some of the publishers seem to be aware of this because the way they have packaged their books suggests that they are expecting to have them reviewed in a matter of time.
We now come to the point where I must give a few clear thoughts and concrete suggestions to take the process forward. It is necessary to think about the skills and competences that a Grade 2 child brings into Grade 3. In terms of the provisions of the country’s Education Act of 1987 as well as in terms of curricular specifications for this level, children whose mother tongue is not English, are supposed to be taught in their mother tongue with English being taught to them as a discipline /subject.
This provision has a few loopholes, of course, but the main one is that some children may have a mother-tongue that is not the one spoken by the majority of children in an area. Such children are unfortunate in the sense that they then undergo tuition in the early years of school in a language that is not their mother tongue.
In the long run though, they do have an advantage in that where most other school-leavers are only bilingual (speak two languages, that is, their home language and English), they generally speak at least three languages.
The situation in which children in the first two years of formal education negotiate meaning across their curriculum means that they are, in fact, beginners in English when they go into Grade 3.
This, coupled with the fact that they are not native speakers of English, creates further difficulties for them. We must say here and now, directly, that these children are in the main speakers of English as Second Language (ESL).
This means that they have the burden of mastering the sound system of English, that is, its phonology as well as its lexis or vocabulary together with negotiating and extracting meanings from the texts that they encounter in their day to day learning. This, of course, is a very severe summary of the problem.
Things like register come into it as well. Children have to learn early on what the difference is between formal English and informal English.
After they gain the mechanical skill of writing, that is, learning how to shape the letters of the alphabet and so on, they soon find that they must confront writing not only as a skill but also as a language in its own right. This is the reason saying that language has four broad areas (Listening and Speaking, and Reading and Writing).
Of these four broad areas, reading is perhaps the most complex and challenging skill. In the long run, no meaningful or independent learning can take place unless reading can be taken for granted. This taking for granted of reading is what reading authorities refer to as automaticity in reading.
In other words there must come a time when readers no longer struggle with the sounds of a language, a time when their reading becomes automatic and they do it practically as second nature to themselves.
When that happens the major concern becomes that of comprehending or understanding what they read. Anybody who has had to grapple with English knows that it is a language with one major rule and that that rule is there are no hard and fast rules.
Let us take the word “sanction” for example. This word can mean to censure, to forbid or to punish. Conversely, the same word means to permit something or allow it to happen. There are many other words for example whose meaning depends on the context of a situation. While you can book your place on a bus, plane, train, hotel or restaurant, the word “book” in the schoolyard will mean something else.
An almost insulting adjective can also be derived from it. To be told you are bookish is certainly not a compliment. If you are bookish you lack creativity and originality and quite often such people are seen as being bombastic prudes who will try and make a point by using language that is not always appropriate.
Throughout the years of my upper primary school and the early years of secondary school it was not uncommon to hear ‘scholarly’ looking pupils telling someone to use his medulla oblongata.
For most people, the more high sounding you were the more erudite you were thought to be. One of my teachers at primary school quite liberally called us unmitigated idiots whenever we struggled with some concept in Arithmetic.
A brother of mine who went to St Augustine’s in Penhalonga spoke of a teacher who would say, “My boy, you are intoxicated by the exuberance of your verbosity’”. This was obviously a response to what he saw as a singular lack of appropriacy.
In other words, people did not always know how to speak in certain situations. Friends chose to notify their friends instead of telling them their juicy pieces of news. I can’t help some chuckling and a bit of nostalgia sometimes when some of our politicians use dictionary language. In a past election a maverick who wanted to try his luck at gaining entry into parliament warned television viewers that there would be pandemonium and hullabaloo if he was not elected. The guy did not even have a party!
The situation I have just described came to mind when I flipped through the pages of the Grade 3 text books that my grandson brought along with him from school. Remember he and others like him are still reading word by word and are as yet not capable of reading by phrasing, that is, reading by grouping words into associated units of meaning, something that makes comprehension quicker and easier. In these books the poor children are made to do quantum leaps as a matter of course. They grapple with difficult concepts in addition to having to decode such words as “hydroelectric power, electricity and diarrhoea”.
The anguish on my grandson’s face was heart-breaking. I also felt for the poor teachers who had to suffer the pain of teaching new things with no preparation whatsoever. The future can only be brighter if the commissioned writers receive orientation and training and the teachers are given the benefit of refresher courses.
If that is not done we shall find, a few years down the line that most of the school books can be done away with. That of course would be a tragic loss after all the pain, agony and effort that has gone into the new curriculum. Without doubt, the text books all need urgent review. David Mungoshi is a writer and social commentator, a retired teacher and editor.