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Ghana’s teachers need permission and support to incorporate local languages into EMI teaching

11 December 2017

By Kimberly Safford

In Ghana, I saw the challenges to teaching and learning in a multilingual, post-colonial nation that’s trying to equip its young people with skills for a global economy.

There are so many competing pressures. Everyone knows in Ghana that if you want to pass examinations to enter secondary school, to thrive in business, to join the civil service or to work in the media, as a teacher or in any profession, you must have good English. Yet your mother tongue remains important. It’s your heritage, your culture. People in Ghana, the first African nation to gain independence from Britain, don’t want to disinherit their children.

Then there’s the research evidence. It clearly demonstrates that people learn best in their first language. Studying in an unfamiliar language is slower and more difficult. This poses a particular challenge in Ghana where large numbers of children at the end of Grade 6, even after three years of learning through English, still have poor knowledge of the language.

The most recent National Education Assessment in Ghana indicated that primary school students were challenged by both English and mathematics, with no more than 37% of students achieving the appropriate proficiency levels for their level of schooling. Maths performance was even lower than for English, as poor literacy skills prevent students from fully understanding the questions.

Given all these pressures – common to many countries – it was instructive to talk to teachers and education officials and to sit in Ghanaian classrooms, observing how English as the medium of instruction (EMI) works in such a context. Current practice reflects the pressures I’ve outlined:  Ghana’s language policy in schools has changed several times over the years, fluctuating between being English only to using local languages at different educational levels. Ghana has more than 60 languages:  11 are officially recognised as languages of mother tongue education to be used through third grade, after which EMI takes over and a local language is taught as a subject.

Study design

We observed EMI teaching in four government schools. Two were in the capital Accra, where children come from highly diverse language backgrounds. The other two were in the city’s rural outskirts where more culturally homogenous communities mainly speak one language. The children, in grades 4, 5 and 6, were typically aged between 8 and 12. All were required by government policy to be taught through English. This followed earlier education in their mother tongue and a period of transition during grades one to three, when English medium teaching was gradually increased in preparation for grade 4.

Key findings

Two findings stood out from observing these classes. First, teachers in all four schools rarely used any language other than English. Indeed, they seemed to interpret the EMI policy as actively prohibiting the use of local languages. Second, teachers almost universally adopted a lecture method where students’ verbal participation was limited to a couple of words of brief, well-rehearsed, drilled answers.

Research tells us that this combination - an unfamiliar language plus didactic transmission teaching - makes it hard for children to understand lessons and for teachers to know what children really do understand. It’s a perfect storm for the underachievement that’s well-documented among Ghanaian children by the end of primary school.

A solution would seem to be some flexibility around the use of local languages to support EMI and in encouraging more active teaching and learning methods. Our fieldwork identified considerable openness in Ghana to a more flexible approach. We also found considerable barriers to adopting such flexibility.

Openness to change in Ghana

First, let’s look at the openness to change. We could not fault the commitment of all in these Ghanaian classrooms to improving achievement. The teachers were dedicated, purposeful, energetic professionals. The children were hardworking and ready to learn.

Both teachers and local education officials also openly acknowledged problems with the current approach. Teachers felt that teaching in English was slower than in local languages. They recognised that the children learned faster in their own languages and that lots had trouble speaking English and in doing higher level thinking in English. Teachers felt constrained by what they perceived to be the language policy. These sentiments were echoed by local education officials.

Barriers to greater language flexibility

However, the barriers to change were threefold: the teachers’ understanding of effective practice in EMI teaching; their capacities to harness local languages in the classroom; their understanding of what EMI policy permits and disallows.

The teachers had their students’ best interests at heart – they wanted the students to maximise their understanding of English, because it’s a vital skill for life in Ghana. So they were trying to provide an ‘immersive’ experience by excluding other languages from the classroom. They saw the presence of local languages in the classroom as interfering with the learning of English. Yet, in fact, research evidence shows that the use of local languages within an EMI context can enhance the learning both of English and other subjects.

We could also see other problems getting in the way of a more flexible approach. There were different barriers in the two urban, multilingual schools, compared with the two more rural, linguistically homogenous schools. In the multilingual schools, students had so many different home languages that it was often easier for teachers just to stick to English. Indeed, we found that mother tongue education in these schools, though required up to grade 4, was sometimes ignored at the lower levels in favour of English because of the children’s linguistic diversity.

Teachers faced a different issue in the more linguistically homogenous semi-rural Accra schools. The students mainly spoke one language, but most of the teachers came from elsewhere and spoke a different local language. Once again, the use of mother tongue education was difficult to honour at lower levels and would be challenging to incorporate into the EMI context for older children.

These barriers, relating to teacher recruitment and staff deployment, as well as teaching and language skills, were everywhere compounded by the third issue –  teachers’ understanding of EMI policy. We found that, although teachers recognised the problems of excluding local languages when teaching through English, they felt constrained by policy from operating in any other way. Teachers, who are often isolated from best practice, would need education ministers, district officials and head teachers to state clearly that using other languages to support EMI is an effective and permitted teaching strategy.

Possible ways forward

Our observations suggest how to change practice in small but highly effective ways in the Ghanaian EMI context. Teachers might, for example, encourage children to discuss a problem in pairs in their local language and then present their work in English. Where teachers share the children’s mother tongue, it might involve a teacher setting aside English for a while to make sure that children understand well. Teaching might also improve if teachers could use their own mother tongue in the classroom: research from elsewhere indicates that their teaching becomes more interactive and flexible.

Teachers would benefit from exemplars and modelling of more flexible approaches to language as a support for EMI teaching. They need permission from those in authority to vary their language practice in the classroom. Our observations suggest that it may be possible, with a few extra resources, to move to a more flexible system where local languages support EMI teaching rather than being excluded from it.

Kimberly Safford is a Senior Lecturer in Primary Education Studies and International Teacher Development at The Open University. She has supported teacher development in primary education in Malawi, Sierra Leone and India, as well as in the UK. She conducted this study’s fieldwork in Ghana with Fritz Makafui Tugli. A copy of the report can be found here

This is the third in a series of six blogs by the research team. To read more in the series:

How can children in low- and middle-income contexts learn more easily when English is the medium of instruction? 

Great opportunities to support EMI with multilingual practices by Dr Elizabeth J. Erling, formerly Senior Lecturer in English Language Teaching and International Teacher Education at The Open University, is now Professor of ELT Research and Methodology at the University of Graz.

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