English lessons for Jamaica

British Council project to help local educators, students

BY NADINE WILSON Observer staff reporter

Monday, March 24, 2014    

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THE British Council of Jamaica will, in a matter of weeks, roll out an international programme to help local educators better prepare students to speak and use the English Language effectively as it has now been determined that Jamaica is not quite an English-speaking country.

In fact, Jamaica is the only so-called English-speaking nation in the world to benefit from the programme and only one of two countries in the Caribbean, the other being Cuba, whose official language is Spanish.

The programme, which is dubbed "Teaching teachers to teach English", will see the British Council of Jamaica partnering with the Ministry of Education to improve English-speaking skills in schools. The programme has already been introduced in more than 100 countries spanning six continents.

Project manager at the British Council, Morland Wilson, said the idea to launch the programme in Jamaica came about as a result of a discussion between Jamaica's Education Minister Ronald Thwaites and regional director for the council, Christopher Wade, at which time the minister expressed concerns about challenges with teaching English in local schools. Consequently, three language consultants were brought to the island last month to do an assessment of the situation and a report is currently being done to see how to address the existing challenges and to formalise the implementation of the project.

"One of the challenges they found was that for English to work effectively and for kids to learn English, they have to be immersed," said Wilson.

"In some schools, everyone speaks to each other in standard English, while in the schools that we have the challenge, the teachers don't speak in English, they actually speak in the local language, which poses a problem. Generally speaking, when the kids go home, their parents speak to them in Jamaican patois and they communicate 90 per cent of their life in Jamaican patois, so when they are in the school environment, they should have had a sterile environment in terms of learning English or speaking it properly.

"The challenge is that they don't speak it as much in school, so they don't understand it and the only exposure they have, is during the half-an-hour session they have or the one-hour session that they encounter when it is formally taught," he said.

Wilson asserted that while Jamaica is considered an English-speaking country, the current struggle with the language suggests otherwise.

"We really are not an English-speaking country and that came out of the study as well and that is well recognised by the ministry and I think most of the entities operating within the education circles have all agreed that that this is the case," he noted.

The education miniser, meanwhile, admitted that he is concerned about the inability of some students to pass English Language in regional examinations such as the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC). Jamaica's pass rate for the 2013 sitting was 52 per cent.

"A number of the grade 11 students do not, in fact, sit the CSEC English, because they are not considered ready and that's where the problem is," he told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.

"It is a deficit that is there and it causes a great deal of challenges when people want to go on for tertiary education or for further studies or for employment. Competences in the English Language is not negotiable; we must all have that competency and the schools must be prepared," he said.

The minister said efforts are being made to equip teachers with English skills. The ministry, with the support of the United States Agency for International Development, for example, has dispatched more than 120 literacy coaches in some primary schools to help improve literacy, with the hope that these students will have a better grasp of the language before they move on to secondary schools.

"The other issue is that teachers must not be certified as competent to teach in any subject unless they have the requisite standard of English. You can't teach what you don't know," Thwaites said.

Meanwhile, two more language specialists from the British Council are expected to visit Jamaica next month to assist with the implementation of the language intervention programme. While the council will be providing course material, it is the education ministry that will decide which schools will benefit.





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