Mr Colm McGivern: Country Director, British Council
Heads of Education from Provincial Departments of Education
All Education MEC’s
National and Provincial Officials
Representatives from ETDP-SETA, SACE, AMESA, PANSLAB and stakeholders
Esteemed teachers; and
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a very special moment for me to join all of you for the launch of the National Association of English Teachers of South Africa (NAETSA).
The launch of this Association is timely. It’s about professional development and restoring the dignity of the teaching profession. Borrowing from the words of the world renowned former Brazilian Educator, Paulo Frere, we should see the launch of NAETSA as an affirming process that is geared towards providing “spaces” for our teachers to reclaim their “voices”. The launch of NAETSA gives meaning to the concept of developing a “teacher-driven” continuing professional development system throughout our entire schooling system.
Programme Director; we must be cognisant of the fact that professional growth is both a responsibility as well as an entitlement. It is our responsibility as Government to provide all our teachers with opportunities for professional growth. Our teachers are in fact entitled to this as part of their conditions of service. Your role as teachers is to take up these opportunities, own them and shine.
I therefore would like to encourage you as an Association to take up the challenge of providing your members with a community that works hard to develop them professionally to the best of their ability as English Language teachers.
All members - read English Language Teachers - will have an opportunity to network with your peers beyond the borders of South Africa. This National Association will be affiliated to the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) in the UK and reap many benefits such as:
- Linking with teacher associations in other countries,
- Access to funding support through scholarships for deserving teachers to attend annual conferences and other events,
- Regular publications including the IATEFL Voices magazine and many more benefits.
This Association is so vital in that it will deal head-on with some of the biding constraints facing learners in our basic education system. Over the years, the sector has come to be characterized by unsatisfactory learner/teacher performance in reading and pedagogy of reading. Both the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) 2012 Report and the 2013 Ministerial Reading Audit Report confirmed that the teaching of instructional reading in the early grades was a cause for concern across the system.
Let me cite two further research reports that demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that we have a serious challenge on our hands.
According to the research report titled “Identifying Binding Constraints in Education” released in 2016, it argued that our key problem is that of weak teacher content knowledge and pedagogical skills. [Report produced by the Department of Economics, University of Stellenbosch scholars, Servaas Van Der Berg, Nicholas Spaull, Gabrielle Wills, Martin Gustafsson & Janeli Kotzé]. This a real cause for concern.
As the Association of English Language Teachers, you must become combatants in harnessing the full potential of the English Language Teachers, and address the reported weak content knowledge foundations and improve pedagogical skills.
The Second research report titled “Laying Firm Foundations: Getting Reading Right” also released in 2016, indicated that the English oral reading fluency of Grade 5 rural students was very low: 41% of the sample were considered to be non-readers in English, reading at less than 40 words correct per minute (WCPM), i.e. so slowly that they could not understand what they were reading. 11% could not read a single English word from the passage. In aggregate, the South African Grade 5 rural English Second Language students’ ORF scores rank on the same level as the lowest category of Grade 2 English Second Language students in Broward County in Florida, USA. [Thus,] students who cannot communicate meaning orally in English and demonstrate very little understanding of the language.
They are thus functionally illiterate in English. [Report produced by Nicholas Spaull, Servaas van der Berg, Gabrielle Wills, Martin Gustafsson & Janeli Kotzé.]
These are the stubborn realities of the English teaching terrain in our country. Your role in this is to begin a silent revolution. Perhaps, some amongst us would ask why it matters. Why so much emphasis on English?
Programme Director; the English Language has become a global means of communication through means both foul and fair.
The British Council reckons that English is spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people, a quarter of the world’s population. It is taught from primary level up in all China’s schools; it is the working language of the whole European Union (The Guardian newspaper, international edition, Feb, 2018).
It is part of the only six official languages of the United Nations. In addition to being widely spoken, English is by far the most commonly studied foreign language in the world, followed by French at a distant second (Babbel Magazine, Dylan Lyons, Jul 26, 2017).
Today, there are 54 countries in Africa in general according to the United Nations official statistics. And 24 of them are English speaking but more offer the English language at schools.
English as a second language has become the dominant medium of instruction in Southern Africa (see De Klerk, 2002:3 et al).
In today’s world, English has become the “Lingua Franca” replacing French as the language of diplomacy and German in the field of science. It has also become one of the essential languages for global trade (Peter Ball, April 19, 2017, the Heritage Portal).
In our country, English is the second most commonly spoken language outside the household (17, 6%) after isiZulu (24, 7%), with isiXhosa being the third-most common (13, 0%) (Statistics South Africa's 2017, General Household Survey).
In our schooling system, the English language is a leading language of learning and teaching (LOLT). There are approximately 23 719 public schools in South Africa. According to the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools, FEDSAS, of these, only 2 484 schools use Afrikaans as language of instruction, either in single, dual or parallel medium (News24, 2018-01-18). Therefore, the development of the English language teaching proficiency is a silver bullet for raising standards of teaching and learning in general.
We must focus all our attention in the Foundation Phase because that’s where learning takes root.
According to Nicholas Spaull, et al, “Little learning can take place later if a child has not yet acquired the ability to read for meaning in the language of learning and teaching by Grade 4. The development of this skill is heavily influenced by classroom practices: the so-called instructional core. It is also influenced by a child’s familiarity with the language of learning and teaching, which is typically English from Grade 4 onwards.”
Due to these factors, it’s necessary for the South African teachers to master the Queen’s language as it were.
Scholars agree that it is generally accepted that teachers of the English language play a leading role in providing learners with the knowledge, skills and understanding they need to read, write, speak and listen effectively (Arkoudis, 2003:162).
As some of you may know, researchers have already mapped the nexus between education and the English language. In the context of our education system, English has become a window to the rapid progress in all spheres of life. In this way English is the only language, which prevents our isolation from the world.
As I said earlier, English is by and large the medium of instruction in the majority of our schools.
Therefore, English teachers are like trained guide dogs leading our learners into the light rays of the summer sun.
Programme Director, there is some intrinsic value in understanding the nuances of a language in general and English Language in particular. Let me make an example widely used by English scholars:
“When we read a sentence whose subject and verb don't agree, we don't reject it as meaningless and useless. We may shake our heads and sigh a little, but we know what the poor fellow meant, and we go on. When a computer "reads" a "sentence" with an equivalent error, it simply spits it out and refuses to work. That's how we can tell which are the machines and which are the people; the people will swallow anything.”
In your present occupation as English language teachers your job is to make learners learn not to swallow everything indiscriminately. You’re in a unique position to make learners learn to examine, order, classify, define, and distinguish.
The key to their learning outcomes – is that they must know how to spell correctly, know the meaning of each word and its importance in the overall paragraph.
If you succeed in this basic, but yet foundational task, learners will learn to write proper English sentences. There is nothing as irritating as a badly written text where you can’t decipher any meaning.
This irritation at badly written text prompted one of the eminent scholars, author and former professor of English/Classics, Richard Mitchell to liken bad writing to a crime. He said:
“Bad writing is like any other form of crime; most of it is unimaginative and tiresomely predictable.”
There is also a causal link between understanding the nuances of the English language and overall purpose of basic education which is to teach us to think. Professor Mitchell summed it up beautifully:
“If education fails to teach thinking, it fails in everything and everybody talks nonsense.”
Programme Director; allow me to make a big ask – as you teach the English Language to your learners remember something arcane yet foundational – teach them how to read. When we teach reading, it’s important to realise that children in the Foundation Phase are “learning to read” while from Grade 4 onwards they are meant to be using the reading skill to acquire new information, in other words “reading to learn”. The unfortunate reality is that if children cannot read for meaning they will perpetually remain behind as they move into higher grades.
It is a well-known fact that millions of our learners do not have access to a wide range of relevant and suitable reading materials.
We have communities without libraries, schools without storybooks, homes without books and parents without the skill to read to their children. The overall empirical evidence is clear: the richer the learning environment in schools, the better children learn. Where schools have a library or book collection, an Internet connection or a teacher’ resources centre, learners do better. Of course, such resources will assist children’s learning only if they are properly used, but they cannot be used if they are absent.
Today‘s world is more complicated; requiring more than just basic literacy to enter the work force, the current jobs require innovative thinking, detailed comprehension, and superior communication. But, before our children can even fill out an application form, earn the required tertiary qualification, or even walk into a job interview; they have to be able to pick up a book, read it, and understand it. Nothing is more basic; no ability more fundamental than reading.
Reading as we have come to know is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible. Reading for meaning and pleasure is arguably the most important skill children learn in primary school. In a knowledge economy where this kind of learning is necessary for survival, how can we send our children out into the world if they are only reading at the Grade 4 level?
In my view, this is the fundamental role of this Association to make our children fall in love with the written word. In this regard, I cordially invite you to work closely with the recently launched National Reading Coalition.
In conclusion, we would like to thank the British Council for partnering with us in this endeavour since the collaboration agreement started in February 2012. Your immense contribution in the professional development of our teachers has provided them with the necessary skills to deliver the curriculum much more effectively. The launch and utilization of NAETSA by our English language teachers will undoubtedly go a long way towards ensuring sustainability of the wonderful work we do in the area of basic education.
I thank you.
Ke A Leboga!