Stop English from obstructing Ghanaian children learning

Prince Armah, PhD.


An online report published on regarding the language policy for Mauritius education system has reinvigorated the need to stop language from obstructing children learning in Ghana (see “Mauritius: Complex education; speak Creole, read English and learn in French”, 01/09/2015). In this article, I attempt to highlight some of the implementation setbacks to the current language policy for schools, specific to the mathematics curriculum.

Although Ghana has not yet developed any national language apart from English, the official medium of instruction in the primary school, particularly the lower ages, is the children’s first language (i.e. mother tongue). Given that there are no readily available words in most Ghanaian languages for many mathematical terms and symbols, teachers have been advised to blend the English and local languages when teaching, consistent with what pertains in other countries (such as South Africa and India).

In this situation, they can use a language that will facilitate the development and acquisition of mathematical concepts and subsequently exposed children to the mathematical ideas fully in English at later years. Consistent with this assumption, the upper primary curriculum makes specific recommendations that encourage children to express and articulate their explanations, thinking and reasoning in English so that their mathematical communication skills may be developed and strengthened.

However, in practice, many public or private schools in Ghana exclusively use English languages for teaching, including at early grades due to a number of impeding factors to implementation fidelity (the degree to which a policy is delivered as planned). Given the great multiplicity of Ghanaian languages, the most obvious of these factors is how to provide for a class of children with diverse home languages as is increasingly the case in both urban and rural school settings.

Most children, from birth, often speak one or more of the 78 or so local languages at home, their community, and even at the playground, with limited exposure to English until they enter school. Yet, once at school they are expected not only to understand what their teachers are teaching them in a language that they do not understand, but perhaps more importantly learn to read and write in this language including learning mathematics. The consequence is that they will learn to copy and often memories the words and numbers, but won’t understand them and can’t apply them meaningfully. Under such circumstances, many children might usually drop out of school entirely, while others might even fail their examinations and/or spend years repeating classes. This has a huge implication for developing the critical mass of young people with the requisite attitudes and skills to contribute to national development.

Indeed there are situations in which the mother tongue of a child is different from the local language being used as the medium of instruction in the school. This can be quite complex and challenging for classroom teachers particularly during instructional sessions. It would appear that children transferred from one local area to another might have to learn different Ghanaian languages at different times in their schooling, which seem very unsustainable in the long-term. The same can be said of teachers too, each time they are transferred to other locations, they must endeavour to understand the local language in the area to be able to implement the local language policy to the latter.

This has the tendency of breeding teachers who have limited ability to communicate in the local language of their posted schools, undermining the developmental rationale of the language policy. For instance, evidence from a limited literacy intervention programme in Ghana (such as the National Literacy Acceleration Program) suggests that there are unacceptably high percentages of teachers in lower primary classrooms who are unable to read or write the local language to be used for instruction in the schools, whether in public or private schools. This therefore calls for a coordinated literacy intervention programme to help teachers overcome these instructional impediments. In my own PhD thesis, I found this language problem as a big deal for teacher’s instructional decisions particularly in relation to adopting learner-centred teaching approaches.

A large body of studies have suggested that such, inappropriate use of school language works against efforts to strengthen the quality of education, thereby wasting limited resources. However, in light of the fact that there are major ethnic and politics differences associated with each of the local languages written and spoken in Ghana, it might not be advisable to recommend an adoption of one national local language as a medium of instruction in schools. The fundamental issue that need to drive this language policy discussion must emphasize the need for flexibility in the choice of language for instruction to ensure that either language (Ghanaian language or English) does not obstruct children from learning mathematics.


Dr. Prince Armah is the founder and Executive Director of VIAM Africa.

Read More

Re: Over 300,000 Day Students to benefit from free SHS policy

Prince Armah, PhD.


The Ghana Education Service (GES) has revealed that only about 60 percent of students who write the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) make it into Senior High Schools (SHS). Beyond that, figures from WAEC suggest that over 1.6 million students have failed the BECE over the past decade. So where are those who the system ‘failed?’ In addressing this problem of access to secondary education, the Government has introduced a progressively Free SHS Policy starting this 2015/2016 academic year. According to the Government, “the need to make SHS progressively free was to help vulnerable groups by removing financial barriers and improving access to SHS and addressing inequalities in opportunities to transition from JHS to SHS” (Daily Graphic, 28/08/2014).

As I have mentioned in earlier publications, the solution to access to secondary education does not lie in paying fees of day students or boarders as the government proposes. Instead of paying the fees of 313,000 senior high school (SHS) day students under the so-called progressively free SHS policy, invest the earmarked budget of GHC 42.7million in the provision of the teaching and learning resources/items that goes into the price build of school fees.
The schools are charging parents levies that the state ought to bear. By this approach you will address inequity issues that the current policy imposes in respect of providing support for only day students. If more parents decide in 2016/2017 academic year to withdraw their children from the boarding houses to qualify for this intervention, what happens? How would the government fund that?

In the medium to long term, the government (the current or any future one) should endeavour to scrap the BECE in favour of a 6- years secondary education (S1-S6).

At the end of S3, students choose which subjects they wish to specialise from S4-S6. At this point, they could write WEAC accredited exams to guide student placement. In other words, merge JHS and SHS as the objective of the JHS concept has even failed. All we need to do is to look for a cluster of JHS around a particular SHS and merge them under one management and administration, which could improve efficiency in the education service delivery.
Free SHS is not the panacea to an improved access to and quality of secondary education. Having read the government’s Secondary Education Improvement Programme (SEIP) policy document, I remain convinced that the underlying problems of secondary education are not being addressed properly and our nemesis is far from over.

It is the life and health of our future as a nation state we talking about here!


Dr. Prince Armah is the founder and Executive Director of VIAM Africa.

Read More