English Language, teaching outcomes and educational reform
South Sudan is the world’s newest country, but it has inherited an education system that is in desperate need of renewal and reform. One aspect of that process of renewal is the adoption of English as the language of instruction for all subjects from grade 4 at primary school. Teachers need good linguistic abilities to understand and deliver the curriculum – but many primary school teachers are untrained or poorly trained and have limited proficiency in English. The consequences are poor educational outcomes characterised by high drop-out rates, high repeat rates and teachers who feel de-motivated and out of their depth. To address these multiple problems, the Ministry of General Education & Instruction working with Windle Trust International with financial support from Unicef and the Global Partnership for Education, took the initiative to develop a comprehensive and nationwide project to improve the language proficiency of all primary school teachers.
In the first half of 2017, nearly 200 primary school teachers were assessed to obtain a general country-wide profile of English language abilities. The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for Young Learners (7-10 years old) was used with the rationale that teachers need to grade their language to the level of their learners and be able to function at that level as a minimum.
Following the assessment phase of the project, 30 teachers and language specialists were trained to prepare and test teacher training materials that were focussed on developing English language abilities but which also were designed to include training in appropriate methodologies for teaching primary aged children.
The design and content of the teaching materials was made more complex because the language of instruction changes from mother tongue, or dominant tongue, in grades 1 to 3 (when English is taught as an additional language) to English as the language of instruction in primary 4 and above. There are 10 modules for Primary 1-3 and 10 modules for Primary 4-8. Each module has 4 workshops, which are divided into language development and teaching methodology. The new teaching materials are a step change from existing materials – they are based on clear evidence about existing language proficiency levels and are designed to build on existing levels of knowledge and understanding as well as to enable the application of teaching methods that are relevant to the context and curriculum.
In the final stage of the project, 4 teacher training venues were selected to pilot the newly written materials, including both in-service and pre-service providers. All 10 modules in both Primary 1-3 and Primary 4-8 were piloted, with post pilot assessments indicating that, after just 20 days training, reading and writing skills of the teachers had improved.
Looking ahead to the future the major challenge is how best to roll out the new teaching materials to all primary school teachers, wherever they are in South Sudan. Given the nature and extent of conflict in the country this will not be easy. The cautious option is to focus on those teachers who register on pre-service or in-service teacher training courses by working with selected Teacher Training Institutes to integrate the new materials into their existing courses. A bolder option, and an option that recognises South Sudan as facing exceptional problems in terms of the quality of teaching and learning and the need for an urgent and nationwide programme of primary school teacher development is to develop a bespoke programme that will roll out the new English language teaching materials to every teacher in the land in the next four years and simultaneously build up a core group of educationalists with specialist skills in language and teaching.