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Speaking English in the Classroom

Imagine that you could be fired if you were using your native tongue at work.

This is a reality that teachers in Ghana face every day. During one of my first program sessions, a teacher had an engaging conversation with me about teaching English. He made it quite clear what his primary frustration with his job is: he has to use English to teach.

At first glance, it might make sense that in a nation in which English is both the “primary” language and a main subject taught in school, that English would be the chosen language for teaching. However, according to the 2013 Ghanaian National Education Assessment, only 39% of grade six students are proficient in English.

Ghana finds itself in an exoglossic situation: having a non-indigenous language that is used as an official or second language in a particular country or community. English is the only official language of Ghana, a nation in which over eighty languages are spoken.

Most schools – from Primary to Senior High School – have this reminder painted on their walls. This school is in the Ashanti region from the Ejisu-Juaben district.

In Ghana, English is generally not used at home or in the community, so students often have difficulty understanding it in the classroom. And as all subjects are taught in English, this low level of comprehension inhibits overall learning. Further, teachers aren’t teaching in their primary language, so naturally that creates another learning barrier. Not to mention that teachers risk formal penalties if they are caught using a local language when teaching.

This environment of fear that teachers are forced to operate in unfortunately leads to punishment of students who don’t use English, which translates to lack of student engagement and participation. In addition, it likely encourages a feeling in students that their local culture, of which language is a significant part, is unimportant or in some way wrong. This is all exacerbated by the fact that there is not a focus in Ghanaian education on developing oral communication proficiencies, but rather a heavy focus on reading comprehension, spelling, grammar, and writing skills, leading to students’ further lack of confidence in speaking English.

My conversation with the teacher frankly ended up leaving me somewhat questioning the purpose of my being here in Ghana. If the over-emphasis on English in the Ghanaian school system is inhibiting students’ general ability to learn, as he argued, why are we further entrenching the focus on English, rather than local languages? The last thing I want to do is be part of some “white savior complex,” making things worse rather than better.

However, the reality is that as Ghana continues to develop and become more integrated in the globalized world, public proficiency in English will be necessary, just as in any nation. English is used in finance, technology, global and regional institutions, etc. Without English competency, Ghana as a nation cannot hope to thrive in today’s global economy. This may sound somewhat self-serving, as I am a native English speaker, but ignoring the reality that English is a global language won’t help anyone. Second, Ghana is a nation in which over 80 distinct languages are spoken, and in many cases English is the only common language across the different regions.

This is not to say that English is the best language, or even the language that Ghanaian children should be taught in. There is plenty of research out there on how students learn best while being taught in their mother tongue. I realized very shortly after having that conversation with the teacher, during one of my program sessions, that one of the key factors in Exponential Education's success in improving students' proficiency in English and Math is actually the inclusion of local languages in teaching.

We encourage all of the tutors we train to use the local language in program sessions to ensure that the students fully comprehend the lessons. Further, the students are encouraged to verbally engage and participate in the lessons through games or other activities, giving them the space needed to practice speaking English. By positively linking Twi and English in the lessons in this way, and simultaneously providing a safe and fun learning environment, the students feel more comfortable speaking and learning English.

Students in Ghana feel empowered

Students at our Peer-to-Peer tutoring sessions are encouraged to speak Twi, the language they speak at home and with friends. This means they can ask the questions they want to ask so that they understand the material fully.

So, despite this internal moral debate over the primacy of English, ultimately, I’m very happy with and proud of the work that Expo is doing in Ghana. Enabling children to learn in a language they understand has very real and significant impact that we have the fortunate opportunity to be a part of every day.


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