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Phonic approach is solution to literacy challenge

Janet Nzisa

Acquisition of literacy skills has for a long time remained a challenge to many primary school learners, particularly in the public schools where early childhood education has often been ignored either by design or capacity challenges. Numerous and frequent researches conducted by experts and other learning stakeholders on the problem show the necessity and rationale of employing a different approach to language teaching.

A recent report released by Uwezo Foundation, a non- governmental organisation, shows that less than 30 per cent of pupils in Kwale county cannot read and write well, a problem attributed to poor foundation in early years of learning— unfortunately, this challenge runs across the country, even in urban settings, especially in the informal settlements where learning and other basic facilities are either missing inadequate.

One of Uwezo’s objectives has been actively engaging other stakeholders; the government, parents and pupil, in a bid to improve literacy and numeracy skills in the county since its inception in 2009.

In another report that buttressed the need to embrace new approaches to teaching language, a World Bank October survey indicates that 45 per cent of learners in public primary schools cannot read the English language, the main mode of instruction and testing in the school system.

This is a damning indictment! It’s quite significant that the problem is vibrant in the public schools, driving a point of concern on whether public school teachers go through a similar training with their counterparts in the private sector.

Though anatomy of education choice justifies the diversity of school choice made by parents for their children, there is no explicit explanation that can vindicate the significant distinction of literacy acquisition between these two groups of learners.

Linguistic challenges such dyslexia, aphasia, and language delay are possible variables, which can obviously not account for 45 per cent of poor literacy skills in the public schools. Issues of demotivated teachers, understaffed schools, unmanageable class population, and inadequate instructional resources are as well possible variants, but still not convincing.

The variability of these two groups of learners has much to do with pedagogical approaches used in the instructional method. As teachers in the public schools remain loyal to Koech’s 1998 Commission of using mother tongue for communication in lower primary level, their counterparts in the private schools go straight to phonic method of language teaching, which equips learners with knowledge on different letter sounds, thus making reading a walk in the park.

This has commendably brought forth a generation that can read simple English words as early as three years, unlike their age mates in the public schools. In the run to be at par with the private schools, both the government and non-governmental organisations have devoted themselves in improving literacy skills specifically in the public primary schools, with Tusome programme domineering.

The programme whose effectiveness is yet to be evaluated has been executed in all public primary schools since 2015, with teachers been taken for short term training on the expected pedagogical approaches.

The most recommended approach is the phonic mode of language teaching (employed in private schools) which requisites learners’ knowledge of different sounds prior introduction of the ideal word reading.

The once adored look-and-say approach might soon be relegated to the dustbin of history as both phonic and eclectic approaches of language teaching take the space. The writer is an English teacher

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