The MES Report on English and the need to develop the Culture of Reading
The medium of instruction should not be the issue. The issue facing educators is the quality of instruction being given in English
— Satish Kumar Mahadeo
“The best way to improve your knowledge of a foreign language is to go and live among its speakers. The next best way is to read extensively in it.”
— Nuttall, 1996
The falling standard of English in schools must not be dismissed as a minor problem, although it was to be expected in view of the democratisation of our educational system during the past three decades or so. When analyzing the performance of students who do not live up to the desirable learning competencies, we must take into account the fact that the expansion of our education has meant more and more Mauritian children learning English, hence , if any ‘decline’ exists in standards of English, it is qualitative, not quantitative.
In most Anglophone African countries, there have been constant complaints about the ‘standard of English’ since independence. Older civil servants and teachers particularly can be heard to observe that in their school days primary school leavers were able to read and write with reasonable fluency, but nowadays English has gone badly downhill. To make matters worse, as English is the general medium of instruction a drop in the pupils’ competence in English may seriously affect their performance in other subjects. A section of the media here have blindly followed the tradition of complaint about the “declining” standards of English in Mauritius, which is not substantiated by the MES statistics or the report itself that begins by focusing on the “slight and gradual progress noted over the previous examination sessions”. The alarmist tone adopted by the media is not justified and seems to be in tune with their obsession with pushing Kreol as a medium of instruction for all children.
Instead, the report confirms the perception that learning languages has always been regarded as the female domain. It says that “girls are still significantly outperforming boys”. In many societies, not merely western but also Asian communities, there is a prevailing stereotypical conception that girls tend to be good at languages and arts whereas boys, Mathematics and Science. Female superiority is reflected in most of the studies in the field, especially in terms of language course enrolment, language teaching profession, language proficiency and achievement.
As for the areas of difficulty highlighted in the report, my recommendation is that an Extensive Reading Scheme be implemented in Primary (and also Secondary) schools. The Extensive Reading Scheme aims at inculcating a reading culture, nurturing independent readers, deriving pleasure from reading and exposing students to vocabulary and structures of English.
Currently, we must recognize that there is a decline in interest in reading among children and young people worldwide. Even in the United States, reports have shown a decline in the amount of reading by children over the school years. This may cause a negative influence on students’ reading of academic materials and, in turn, affect the general teaching effectiveness of reading. What actually goes wrong is worth educators’ attention while the factors influencing students’ reading and the reading context in Mauritian classrooms may be to blame.
The provision of daily silent reading time is found to be the most effective strategy in promoting reading in school. So students’ reading habits and the general reading atmosphere in school need to be enhanced. The benefits of reading, especially extensive reading, are widely recognized and well documented. It is an important source of input for language acquisition. Extensive reading, which is self-directed and independent reading, is valued as students learn to construct knowledge, share experiences, ideas and feelings, develop new insights and perspectives through reading.
Extensive reading refers to the reading of longer texts, like books as opposed to the studying of shorter texts, such as passages, in detail. In extensive reading, the reader’s focus is on the meaning or context of the texts rather than on the language. Thus, it is the quick reading of a large quantity of books and other materials for real-world purposes such as pleasure and information. “The best way to improve your knowledge of a foreign language is to go and live among its speakers. The next best way is to read extensively in it” (Nuttall 1996). In addition to enhancing knowledge of the language, extensive reading can help learners attain fluency of the language.
Krashen’s (a world-renowned applied linguist) Input Hypothesis states that to acquire a target language, exposure to a large amount of L2 input which is meaningful, interesting and relevant in a tension-free environment is the pre-requisite. One possibility for creating such an environment is extensive reading as it can provide students with access to a large quantity of written materials in the second language. He further maintains that the comprehensible input gained in reading may contribute to a general language competence.
Teacher Training is absolutely vital in order to identify the motivational factors which can affect students’ reading and their general use of reading strategies in English lessons. Teachers must be taught how to give explicit instruction to students about reading a text. Simply carrying out question-and-answer sessions does not facilitate meaningful and critical interaction between a text and the readers. Teachers need to teach students how to use reading comprehension strategies in order to conduct their lessons. They must identify what kinds of reading strategies and motivation are more effective for learners with different reading competence. Skilled readers are clear about what they are reading and they probably know why they are reading, and have a set of strategies for handling problems and for monitoring their textual understanding. Good readers would also change their reading styles to fit the task of either reading for details or for the general impression.
What we can conclude is that the medium of instruction should not be the issue. The issue facing educators is the quality of instruction being given in English.
Satish Kumar Mahadeo