Opinions Tue, 26 Aug 2014

Improvement in the Teaching of English Language in Schools

- Challenges, Opportunities, and Solutions-Case of Ghana

By Kwesi Atta Sakyi

19th August 2014

I may neither have obtained a degree in the English Language from the university, nor a diploma from a tertiary institution in the venerated subject of English stylistics, unlike Michael Bokor, or so-called narcissist, flamboyant, and superfluous spin-doctor, Dr Kwame Okoampa Ahoofe , or like Dr Akadu Mensima. My critique and mental gyrations may not reach the decibels and sound vibes of the inchoate, pseudo-psychotic polymath, essayist and satirist, Francis Kwarteng, or zealot patriotic obscurantist and rejoinderist, KojoTamakloe, Paa Kwesi Mintah, Marcus Ampadu, C.Y. Andy K, or the retiree and apologist, Clement Sangaparee etc, but suffice it to say that some of us from what is now considered the recent old school from Ghana, had solid grounding in the nitty-gritty, nuances, idiosyncrasies, esoteric ramifications and intricacies of the Queen’s own Language, which has evolved and transmuted from an amalgam and concatenation of empires, civilisations, cultural diffusions and acculturation, linguistic gymnastics and permutations, combinatorial probabilities, intercourse and interface of ideas and exchanges, amidst several civilisations, global cohabitation, and cross-cultural fertilisation of ideas, in a state of cultural anomie, and cosmopolitan transmutation, translation, translocation, and transliteration.

Thanks to the Crusades, the Norman Conquest, Voyages of Discovery, Imperial experimentation and adventurism, colonialism, and commercial elephantiasis, filthy lucretism, among others, the English Language has really moved on.

We are not weaned from the beatification that will be cognisant of being anglophile, for the British are not wont to rush anything, for, slow and steady, matters will come to a head. This is the beautiful nonsense Ghanaians have to contend with while this cumbrous cumulus-nimbus of political disquiet is gathering and threatening on the horizon. Or is it a storm in a teacup? Should having acquired anglicised or Anglo-Saxon tastes, proclivities, tenacious tendencies, and loyal-royal contumacious obduracy and obstinacy, be reckoned a salubrious rather than an obnoxious tenet and trait?

Being adept at English and the art of writing it is akin to what the Yoruba will term Ob3 Nla or Big Soup, whose preparation requires the chef to buy as many assortments of fishes, crayfish, vegetables, beans of different hues, meats, spices, and condiments as much as possible to titillate the palate of connoisseurs and acolytes of African cuisines of delectable taste in their numerous delicatessens, straddling the towns and villages, all the way from Ibadan, through Abeokuta, to Eko or Lagos, or from Oxford Street in Accra, Osu, to Amakom and Kejetia in Kumasi, to Ashanti Mampong, Dormaa Ahenkurow, Bechem, Sunyani, Wenchi, Salaga, Tamale, Bolga and Mamprusi. We may have to avoid Bamboi, Nkoranza, Gonjaland, though the grandstand, for obvious and oblivious reasons of ineptitude, turpitude, and insouciance, which cannot be reckoned to have added anything substantive to the national stature or kitty, other than frivolous kleptomaniac frittering away of cumulative acquisitions from yester-year.

Never before in Ogyakrom’s sagacity and oral tradition did we observe this degree of moral depravity in our body polity, social infra-dig, economic debilitation, bordering on depravity, paucity of ideas, retrogression and amoral politicisation, religious apostasy, you name it. Francis Kwarteng will call it, ‘a nation in comatose’.

The English Language is no more the monopoly of the English or British or any other person than it is the universal language of modern commerce, internet, aviation communication, scientific publications, and language of instruction in schools around the globe. Literally speaking, English has become the de facto lingua franca of the world. Those ghanaweb critics, agnostics and wannabes who always castigate the elevation of finesse in the use of the English Language in Ghana, and on Ghanaian fora such as ghanaweb, had better beware and take note that their patronising of patois, slang, argot, parlance and pidgin, and lower shades of English, puts them in a class of the infra-dig and sans culottes.

They must be cognisant of the fact that the worldwide web is a global resource which is utilised by all, and visited by all and sundry, including researchers and eminent scholars of repute, and as such, we have to don on our best clothes when we go to town, as it were, to project a good image of our national identity. Who knows whether or not members of august bodies such as the Royal Society, British Academy, Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (GAAS), and many more are perusing and digesting this article. Many people, including myself, have raised eyebrows about the lowbrow writings we encounter on this web, which to some of us, is symptomatic of the nadir and decline of educational standards in Ghana since its massification in 1986, with the introduction of the current accursed JSS (JHS) and SSS (SHS) systems.

Did those who crafted this obtuse rote-learning educational system take into consideration its global competitiveness, its acceptance by stakeholders, its feasibility in terms of resources, and its suitability for our current and future national needs and aspirations? Was there enough critical thinking and exegesis before its wholesale implementation? Were there some selfish interests at stake or were there some arm-twisting by external forces to dilute our previous powerful educational system before the acceptance, adoption and implementation of this current nebulous system in 1986? Was there enough due diligence done before its acceptance? We need to know.

We prided ourselves some time back on having some of the best secondary schools in the colonies, as the British often referred to the then Gold Coast as the ‘model colony’, on account of our excellent educational system, the sterling calibre of our school products, among other traits. Mfantsipim (Kwaa Botwe) is this year celebrating 138 years of its existence since 1876 when it used to be called Richmond College. Achimota came on board in 1924 under the inspiration of Sir Gordon Guggisberg, Dr James Essuman Kwegyir Aggrey, while the Scottish established colleges in Akropong- Akwapim earlier in 1848, a 100 years after that, precisely in 1948, my alma mater, Komenda Teachers’ Training College, was also founded under the direction of the late Reverend Creedy, who was transferred from Wesley Teacher Training College in Kumasi to Komenda. The castle schools in the British castles at Cape Coast and other towns preceded all of them, when the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), later became the English Church Mission (ECM), with its schools led by our own kith and kin, Reverend Philip Quarcoo.

The primus inter pare or pre-eminent position of the English Language stems from the fact that it has been woven from a web and welter of languages too ancient and numerous to count. From Farsi, Norse, Frisian, Latin, Anglo Saxon, Red Indians, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Hindi, Creole, Zulu, Akan, Bantu, Arabic, Italian, Swahili, Malay, Sinhalese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Slav, Hausa, Gaelic, French, Spanish, Afrikaans, German, Greek, Dutch, among a plethora of them, many words have crept into the intricate mosaic and kaleidoscopic tapestry of the English Language, so much so that it can safely be dubbed lingua mundi or Language of the World, as much as saying that the English Language, in sociological speak or terminology, is an anomie, or an erratic in geographical parlance in the realm of glaciation and William Morris Davis’ terminology of theories of planation, peneplain, diastrophism, catastrophism and pedi-planation.

All this can be put down to cultural diffusion, acculturation, cross fertilisation of ideas, colonial adventurism, imperial exploits of Cecil Rhodes, Lord Lugard, Lord Kitchner, D.H. Lawrence of Arabia, explorers and adventurers like Guggisberg, Scott, David Livingstone, Mungo Park, Speke, Clapperton, and adventurism, and commercial intercourse of concourse proportions undertaken in India by the East India Company, United Africa Company in Africa, B.OA.C connecting the colonies, North America, Australia and Africa by people like Walter Raleigh, Rudyard Kipling, Wolff, Lord Cameron, among others.

And a veritable language of the world English Language is. You must be a student of history to comprehend and appreciate the odyssey the language has made in the panoply of time. You may remember the invasion of Britain by seafarers from the Scandinavian countries, the Ostragoths, Visigoths, the Romans led by Julius Caesar from Italy in 55 BC, the Vandals and Vikings, the Germanic tribes and Huns from Asia, the Crusaders from the 10th to 13th century AD, the Frisians from present day Netherlands, the French led by William the Conqueror in 1066 AD, and lately by cross migrants from immigrants from all parts of the world, notably West Indies, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Iranians, Arabs from the Mediterranean littoral, Africans, intra migrants from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, among others.

It is interesting to note that a small island, UK, the size of Ghana, should be at the crossroads and centre of world civilisations, depicted poignantly by the Union Jack which embosses and superimposes the cross of St George of Turkish origin, and the Scottish cross of two diagonals, thus capturing the eight cardinal points of the compass, a remnant and reminder of the Union, and the Cromwellian Act of Settlement in 1707, following the demise of Queen Elisabeth 1, who died childless and willed his cousin James from Scotland to inherit the throne. Under James 1, we had the King James Bible, a translation from extant Greek, Latin, and Hebrew originals by people like Wycliffe, and massified through William Caxton’s technological innovation and invention of the lithography or printing press, while his counterpart, Johan Guttenberg, did the same invention in the Netherlands.

The patron saints are St George of England, St Andrew of Scotland, St Patrick of Ireland, and St David of Wales.

Growing up and schooling in the 50s, 60s, and 70s in Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast, we were in a complete world of our own with no major scientific breakthroughs in ICT, so we had to make do with what was on offer then as we were subject to learning through the medium of books, radio, still pictures, and the black and white cinema and TV. Corporal punishment was administered liberally in schools to ensure that we got stuck to our books and imbibed discipline in a regimental way.

We went through school, and school went through us. We were made to memorise many facts ad nausea, and remember them for exams. I do not remember the amount of idioms, words, figures of speech, proverbs and volumes of exercises I did in school in those days. We hear that even in the time we were growing up in the 50s and 60s, it was far better than the earlier school days of our predecessors who were say 10 or 20 years ahead of us in the 40s and 50s. Quintessential colonial education of drills in the 3Rs of Arithmetic, Reading and Writing was the order of the day.

A heavy regime of acquiescence and obedience was imposed top down. The labour market demand then was for tally clerks and accounts clerks needed in the ports, civil service, colonial army of the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF), colonial commercial outfits such as A.G. Leventis, U.A.C, SCOA, CFAO, PZ, in the police force, Native Authority, schools and clinics, among others.

Excelling in Communication Skills in English puts one a shoulder above others at the workplace. During my school days in the 50s and 60s, we had drills in Dictation, Essay or Composition writing, picture reading and composition, Grammar and Comprehension, Summary writing, among others.

We were taught parts of speech and we knew our onions when it came to the proper use of conjunctions, punctuations, prepositions, idioms and figures of speech, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, pronouns and nouns, phonetics and phonology. Our constant companions and bedfellows were the Students’ Companion, First Aid in English, Common Mistakes in English by Fitikides, dictionaries of the Oxford type by A.S. Hornby, Fowler’s books on Grammar, Rulka’s Objective Tests Series in English, Mathematics, History and Geography, Readers Digest Red and Blue book reader series, Ballantyne’s Fundamental English Series, Stannard Allen’s Living English Structure, and the inimitable Practical English Course Book series by Ogundipe and Tregido, written by Mrs Ogundipe from Nigeria, and Mr Tregido from Ghana, both of whom held MA degrees from Oxford University.

Then there was the English Comprehension and Grammar by Eckersley and Eckersley, among others. Our indefatigable and illustrious teachers took us through our paces in précis and parsing or syntax. I remember while at the teacher training college, I bought many books on English, including one by C.F. Lamb titled, English Précis for the Certificate, and it was such a daunting tome to read as the passages selected were very challenging for a non-first native speaker of the Language.

Those were the days bookshops throughout Ghana were well stocked with books on many disciplines, and they sold many quality books. We frequented the Presbyterian and Methodist Bookshops near ECG offices in Accra central. As bibliophiles, we took delight visiting them to see new books on display, especially the African Writers’ Series published by Heinemann Publishing. We really spent a fortune acquiring books for our self-improvement. We had the reading culture highly instilled and ingrained in us. These days, our students do not love reading, as they are stuck to their cell phones, Nintendo consoles, laptops, music i-Pods, and many other distractive and destructive gadgets.

I cringe these days when I mark assignments and coursework for my undergraduate and graduate students. In my day, most of them would not have been accepted for these degree programmes on the basis of their weak communication skills in English. English is a vehicle for communicating our ideas in any discipline and it needs not be underrated. Kwame Nkrumah’s Free Education policy in 1963 introduced free supply of books to all schools throughout Ghana. That saved me from dropping out of middle school in form two or standard 5, as my parents could not have afforded buying me the books then. It was a stitch in time at the nick of time.

That year, we had many supplementary readers in English and some limp-back exercise books, coloured pencils, and an assortment of stationery. I was privileged to have been the cupboard monitor in charge of issuing out books to my classmates, as the cupboard was under lock and key. I took advantage to lend myself many books which I took home to read and dutifully returned them, because after reading a book, I have no use keeping it. We had abridged versions of novels by Shakespeare, Emile Bronte, Charles Dickens, Arabian Nights, Daniel Defoe, Enid Blyton, Sheila Stuart, and of course, our Fante Fie na Skuul Readers by J.A. Annobil, and the Fante Grammar of Function or Mfantse Nkasafuwa Dwumadzi by C.F.C Grant, Nana Bosompo, Prama, and the Nkwantabisa Weekly newspaper. We also read magazines such as the Drum, Challenge, among others

Our old educational system which has been wrongfully criticised in some quarters by those who know little about it, label it as rote-learning, yet it produced world class academics such as the Abbiw Jacksons, Prof Andah, Prof Kwesi Dickson, Prof Kwamina Dickson, Prof Acheampong, Prof B.A. Dadson, Prof Yanney Ewusi (all from my hometown, Winneba), Dr Evans Anfom, Prof Kofi Nti, Prof R.P.Baffour, Prof Francis Kofi Allotey, Prof Acquaye, Prof Konotey Ahulu, Prof F.T. Sai, Prof Goerge Benneh, Prof N.A. Addo, Prof Kwesi Gaisie, Prof Amonoo Neizer, Prof A.A. Kwapong, Prof D.A. Bekoe, Prof Addai Mensah, Prof Tackie, Prof Benning, Prof Nabilla, Dr Robert Gardner, Dr Kofi Annan, Ken Dadzie, Kofi Drah, Prof Mawusi Dake, Prof Orleans Pobee, Prof Easmon, Prof Baeta, Prof Kofi Asare Opoku, Prof Chinebuah, among others.

The current educational system in Ghana is a hybrid and advanced variant of rote-learning, as I had first-hand knowledge of this when my daughter was recently preparing to write her BECE. My wife, who heads a JHS, informed me that students are not allowed to think for themselves but have to produce stock answers in the exam, according to some pre-determined answers. I was stunned and whined that then we are producing robots and zombies in Ghana and not critical thinkers.

In Ghana, it is sad that the tribes from the Volta Region and Northern and Upper West, and Upper East do speak English fluently, while the Akans, mostly Ashantis, tend to delight in speaking their language as if the whole world should understand it and owed them a living. This strong attachment to the local language then becomes a stumbling block to the learning of English, what is generally termed by linguists and experts as language interference.. They even pronounce English words with typical Ashanti accent e.g. One as Whine or wine, Machine as Maheene or Maheel, Chair as Chwair, Champion as Chompia, etc

There are many schools of thought among Ghanaians in Ghana and abroad that, not being able to speak and write English fluently, is no big deal because even the Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and others learn and think in their own languages. But these people have made efforts to ensure that all their people learn and understand English so as to be part of the global village. We in Ghana do not have our own alphabets or writing or lithography and calligraphy. We have borrowed heavily from other orthographical systems. Besides, we were colonised by the British for 119 years. If we will do well globally and compete well, we need to be adept at the English Language. There is no argument about that. Even America which was colonised by the British, have not jettisoned the English Language. It is rather a unifying factor just as it is and should be for Ghana.

What went wrong with our current educational system which is churning out semi-literates and half-baked students? Our students now cannot properly speak or write English and yet they claim they have passed through the four walls of a college. We are now a laughing stock in international fora for the poor levels exhibited in our educational system. Yet in the past, we produced quality students in Ghana, some of whom have made us proud by plying their trade in the Diaspora. Some of these eminent scholars are advising foreign governments on how to improve their educational systems.

Some of these scholars are capable of producing excellent English Language textbooks for use in our schools in Ghana. The problem with our politicians and bureaucrats is that they entice these experts to come to Ghana but they are not sincere about it, because most often when they do heed the call, they find to their utter horror and consternation that they are frustrated and treated to sour looks, so much so that they either go back to where they came from, or they stay and remain passive. Ghanaians outside Ghana sometimes are not so welcome in their own country.

I remember in the 60s and 70s, there were Everyday English broadcasts on GBC TV and radio which was very useful in teaching the basics of the English Language, and I benefitted immensely from them. The programme exposed listeners to a myriad of avenues to improve their oral and written English. It is a pity that Ghanaians are very shy in speaking English in public, and when they do, it is a welter of haltering and staccato crucifixion of the English Language. Many people make horrible and horrendous grammatical errors, with poor pronunciation.

I suggest that we re-introduce the TV and radio series, and launch a national campaign to improve reading culture and reinvigorate the collapsing Ghana Library Board. A nation that pays scant attention to its Library system behaves like Muhammed Ibn Ass who in historical time was said to have sacked Alexandria in Egypt, and had burnt the ancient collections in the hold of the great library there.

In the early 60s at the Winneba Middle Boys’ School in Winneba, we used to borrow books from Sufflet House where the Ghana Library Board operated from. Even at the school, we had a central library located in the headteacher’s office from where the eight classes in two streams would go to borrow library books. I was privileged to be the office boy in my last two years, and I took advantage of that to read most of the books held in cupboards there. Our headteacher then was my father’s cousin, an old school disciplinarian from the pioneers of Achimota Teacher Training College, one Mr J.F. Acquaye, who used to reside at Agona Swedru and come to school commuting every day from Swedru to Winneba.

I was in Accra last year in December when I happened to pass by the old Parliament building. I went behind it and saw the dilapidated nature of the Accra Library and I was shocked beyond measure. Is that how we treat national monuments, treasures and heritages? Has anyone been to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, or the Library of Congress in Washington DC, or the Smithsonian? Are we a nation of savages and uncaring scions of Muhammed Ibn Ass, the pillager and barbarian who sacked the ancient Alexandrian Library which housed ancient tomes of Ptolemy, Euclid, Pythagoras, Anaximander, Thales of Miletus, Imhotep, Ikhnaton, and other learned people at the time? Perhaps he was the forerunner of Boko Haram.

My headteacher, Mr J.F.Acquaye, was a burly tall and fair-coloured guy, a six footer plus. It was said of him that he was a champion athlete in his youthful days at college as he did the field events of high jump, pole vault, discuss, javelin, shot-put and track event of 400 metres. He loved teaching music and he taught us many old songs. But school was hell in terms of law and order, as there was the liberal use of corporal punishment.

Master Acquaye did not let lie low, excellence in academics, sports, cultural shows, crafts, among other aspects of school life. I was on two occasions the recipient of overall best student in English and academics, and I received Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a book prize. I also received a colourful English textbook for being overall best student in my class in the final year, though Mathematics was won by a guy who left for Accra Academy and later become a great medical doctor. He has for many years been resident and practising in the USA. Another guy was the runner-up in my class called Tommy Steele (nickname), and he also became a great medical doctor and excelled at St. Johns College in Takoradi, but unfortunately, he is late as he passed on last year. The classmates greats at the time were Tommy Thompson, K.K. Mills Robertson, Amoasi, Anthony Howard, Albert Justice Ghartey, K.B. Ghartey, Ekow Gharban, among others.

Many forumers on ghanaweb have made heavy weather of the poor standard of writing exhibited by some contributors which border on semi-literacy in our Ghanaian schools and colleges. These critics blame the lacklustre teachers, poor supervision, harsh economic circumstances, and the third generation factor of being technophiles, thus SMS language has become the norm. Pidgin English has become the easier option for many who do not make the effort to read or learn the subtleties and intricacies of the English Language. Their bad habit is from the secondary schools and they even carry it with them when they join the civil service or work in the private sector.

I recently completed writing a module on Communication Skills in English for my employers in Zambia, for the instruction of Pre-degree students who will have to do some bridging courses before they embark on the actual undergraduate degree programmes.

It is really a compendium as it contains some substantial parts on grammar, essay writing, comprehension and summary, report writing, oral communication, note-taking and learning skills, public speaking and presentations, Figures of speech, idioms, hyperboles, among other aspects. I think the module can be modified for use by our SHS or tertiary institutions in Ghana. Here, I will like to appeal to my colleagues in the Diaspora to consider writing books in English for the benefit of our young ones in Ghana who need to benefit from our experience. We have many challenges as a nation but then we cannot afford the luxury of playing Tartuffe with our foundational existence, being education. Our challenges should rather spur us on to achieve greater heights.


• We should seek assistance from British Council to train more English teachers under DFID aegis

• We should encourage formation of debating clubs, spelling bee competitions, essay competitions in JHS and SHS schools across the country

• We should revive the Ghana Library Board and fund them adequately

• We should encourage reading culture by making English Literature compulsory in all schools, from the primary school level

• We should form reading clubs in our localities

• We should encourage teachers of English to go for refresher training regularly, and to become innovative in teaching English

• We should form Night Schools and strengthen Adult Education

• Teachers and scholars should be given incentives to produce suitable readers for schools

• Our students should be encouraged to sit external exams in English such as Cambridge IGSCE, IELTS, TOEFEL, EDEXCEL, SAT, GMAT, among others to gain international acceptance and get enough exposure

• Emphasise teaching of phonetics, synonyms, homophones, and oral presentations

• Examine students in oral presentations

• The Ministry of Education to partner with the corporate world to put up awards for students who excel in English exams

Email: kwesiattasakyi449@gmail.com
Columnist: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta