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It’s a jungle. Teaching English to students in rural schools

St John Bosco Secondary School students  Dagua
St John Bosco Secondary School students at Dagua listen to presentations on Independence Day 2018 (Raymond Sigimet)


DAGUA - In my first year of teaching at a rural high school, I set a narrative writing task for students to complete and hand over for marking.

Without much thought about the task and looking forward to reading the students work, I got the shock of my life as I began to read the first paper. It was an unexpected moment and caught me off guard and unprepared.

It was like I was reading a mishmash of English words or something similar to the English language.

I checked the second paper in the pile, the third and the fourth and my spirit and self-esteem took a nose dive and crashed.

Every piece of writing had English words (some incorrectly spelt) but I quickly got lost in the structure and semantics.

At my second posting, I had a similar experience. Most of the students were from a rural feeder primary school and surrounding villages. My experience by then was that, of a class of 40 or 50 students, there would be less than five who had a suitable command of English, especially in writing.

Last year, at a large rural secondary school, I had a conversation with a senior colleague with over 30 years teaching experience at rural and urban schools. We discussed the problem areas of teaching and learning, as well as our students’ difficulties in grasping English and associated language skills.

Our conversation led to us talking about the importance of a reading culture and how, unlike their urban equivalents, the majority of rural students are not exposed to the English language.

We were also puzzled (I am still) why authorities and school administrations put lower emphasis on libraries and purchasing books to encourage a reading culture among students.

During this discussion my senior colleague made a comment that put into perspective the difference in English competency and comprehension for students in rural and urban schools.

“You can be a super English teacher in a town school,” he said, “but you’ll just be an ordinary English teacher in a rural school.”

The remark illustrated the hard reality that English teachers battle each week in rural PNG high schools as they seek to teach the simple English structure and skills that rural students need to progress to senior high schools and eventually colleges and universities.

Because of the low comprehension of English, teachers become stressed, then complacent, and eventually put little effort into finding appropriate solutions.

Some years back during a provincial teacher in-service gathering, the discussion turned to problem areas in English teaching and those present stated that they found it difficult to counter the poor quality of English in the classroom, especially in students’ writing.

One senior teacher said she didn’t teach English anymore because the students’ presentation and comprehension of English was so poor it made teaching stressful and depressing. Quite simply, some teachers just could not cope with the sheer scope of language incomprehension and the time it would take to turn that around.

In rural schools, if English teachers cannot capture and maintain the interest of students in grammar or literature, they might as well start talking to the blackboard.

Students quickly lose interest and the atmosphere seems hostile, as if walking alone in a cemetery amongst headstones that have faces.

Reading and correcting students’ writing is like trying to hack your way through a thick jungle with a pair of scissors. Sometimes, you feel like giving up because, each time you cut and clear a section of the path, another obstacle appears.

It can be very dispiriting to plough through a jumble of English words that do not make sense.

Furthermore, some textbooks use complex English which again disadvantages rural students because they cannot make sense of what they are tasked to do.

Sometimes it seems most rural students are not interested to learn English because their low comprehension level does not give them a base to work from.

So, yes, English is a difficult subject to teach in rural schools. But teachers should not be disheartened. English is a practical subject and teachers should think outside the box instead of sticking to the text book.

Teachers can get students to participate in practical activities like oral presentations, debates, poetry recitals and question and answer sessions. Translating English to Tok Pisin and vice versa (to stimulate thoughts and create mental imagery) can be promoted to create rapport with students.

Teachers can organise students to participate in educational events like the National Book Week and others listed on the national education calendar.

By doing these things and exposing rural students to the wonderful, practical and creative world of the English language, the teacher should be able to break the learning barrier that is holding down most of our rural kids.

We need them to appreciate English, to learn it and so progress their education and their country.


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Charly Wiliamse

Well said!

Jordan Dean

Many of the students in rural schools have never used a computer, watched television or seen an aeroplane. They need exposure to the outside world.

Some years back, the EQTV project was rolled out by the Department of Education. This was a great initiate to improve the learning capacity for the students. I hope the project is still funded.

Baka Bina

Raymond -

1.The SRA KIT is your best non person English language teacher. It can be introduced, used and be applied in both primary and high schools and at what ever grade.

2. Encouraging a child to read is a chore that teachers find too difficult because a) they themselves don't like or find the time to read and b) they do not have the English proficiency to read and encourage students to read and c) there is not enough reading materials (not necessary books only) that is available and that it is interesting to read.

3. We all agree that the curricula has shifted from the three 'r's (Reading, wRiting and aRithmatics)to something dumber. We need to get back to the basics. When the three 'r's were in PNG schools in tumbuna times, even the bush kanaka's could speak good fluent but passable English. Ask the same of any current bush kanakas, they just get tongue tied and utter gibberish pinglish or nothing at all.

4. An English only school will be a very big improvement and will be a necessary evil in today's liberalism in school. that is what all the ACE schools are teaching and encouraging so the town schools and students continue to excel the rural schools will continue to be bush kanakas and produce much worse off bush-kanaka bush-kanakas.

My daughter came from a bush kanaka home to speaking a nearly a fairly good English. She has walked off her teaching job four weeks ago when she was told by staff at her level 10 school that she spoke English that nobody understood. She was teaching senior grades at a top level school.

Something is amiss here. If senior students cannot understand her science lessons, heaven help us how students can read maths problems or string an English narrative.

The school took a part in keeping the level of English at a bare minimum by imposing that teachers deliver at the students level. This school also has a tendency to fill in students who had gone out and had long breaks between schools and were more prone to speaking pidgin and their comprehension skills were less than the average student in the class.

School authorities are complicit in keeping the level of English Speak and comprehension at primary school level. this rural secondary school is interested in the Tuition Free Fund (TFF) grant (the amount of money the school gets in TFF is based on the enrollment and it matters not if the students are school ready.

Each head represents a figure and so long as the school is getting the rant, English proficiency is immaterial and beware the teacher that dares to improve on English speaker-ship.

Raymond, teachers need to be innovative but we ask off them a lot. Teachers need to try exploring the SRA KIT.

For me coming from a rural school, this boxes were my second, third, fourth and fifth English Teachers and it is my strong believe they gave me a good command and good proficiency in the use of and of writing English.

Garry Roche

Students who graduated from the early primary (community) schools in the Mt. Hagen area, in the sixties and seventies, had quite a good grasp of English.

This was at a time when there would have been little or no English spoken in their home communities, the language there was mainly Melpa and some Pidgin.

There was a strong emphasis on English being the language of the school and there was an insistence that students use English during their school hours.

I remember young community school children being proud of their ability to converse in English. Perhaps this insistence on using English even in the playground was an important factor.

It is also true that back then there were some Australians teaching in the primary schools also and this may have helped , but there were also many PNG teachers.

So, the capability to learn is there. Perhaps nowadays the day-to-day conversation of the students is all in Pidgin and the students get little time to practice English.

The introduction of the Outcome Based Education may also have caused a deterioration in standards of English. The earlier emphasis on the three r’s (reading, writing, arithmetic) and on Basic Skills, gave an importance to fluency in English that seems to have been overlooked later on.

Raymond – I notice the location is Dagua. The very first teacher in the Catholic Mission in Mt. Hagen back in 1934 and following, was a Mr. Peter Karagu, from the Dagua-Wokenara area.

At that time the medium of teaching was Pidgin. He personally told me that teaching in Rebiamul was very difficult at the beginning as the students knew only the Melpa (Hagen language).

Later some of the Horaki family from the same Dagua-Wokenara area were also involved in Education in WHP.

Andy McNabb

Raymond, a fine piece, but I would be ditching English. The Chinese have penetrated PNG so deeply, such that Chinese would be the language of survival.

For example, "I will have number 14 with blackbean sauce" becomes: 我将用带有黑豆酱的b 14 (Wǒ jiāng yòng dài yǒu hēidòu jiàng de b 14).

And "Are you going to pay me for my days work ?" becomes: 你打算为我的日常工作付钱吗? (Nǐ dǎsuàn wèi wǒ de rìcháng gōngzuò fù qián ma?).

The Chinese are buying prime Australian agricultural land and public assets such as wharves and gas distribution networks, all with the assistance of governments of all shades.

We have already been through one (attempted) invasion at Kokoda in 1945.

But there is more than one way to skin a cat, and we have just seen our last Australian made passenger vehicle roll off the production line a couple of months ago.

But good luck with your endeavours with your students.

Barbara Short

Thank you, Raymond, for this very informative essay on the standard of English amongst the rural students of PNG today.

When I was teaching at a Secondary Modern high school, called Walford,in 1965-66 in London, you might find it hard to believe that I was given a class who could not write in English.

Being a relief/supply teacher, I found this a great challenge and for one long winter worked really hard at trying to raise their ability levels in English.

The students really appreciated my efforts and their parents too.
I remember after a Parent/Teacher night I had to just sleep the next day as I was completely worn out.

I know you will keep working at this problem in PNG schools today and you will be helped by people like Carol Abiri who is working on her PhD down here on how to teach children to read.

Some teachers of indigenous children in Australia have discovered the way to get children reading is by giving them books in their own languages, telling their traditional stories. While teaching English in PNG schools I remember getting them to write their own traditional stories and we would print them into a small booklette for them to read.

I was also involved with teaching PNG students public speaking in English and once again we asked them to tell us their traditional stories in English.

I can see you know all the tricks and hopefully the schools will be given more money to buy books. But now, books are quite often no longer used with "everything being on-line".

There is surely a great opportunity for PNG writers to write stories in English which are suitable for these high school students. Maybe try to get the newspaper companies, e.g. The National and The Post Courier, to be willing to produce a regular children's page where their stories could be printed. These pages could also run serialised versions of the famous PNG books of the past.

Robin Lillicrapp

Well said! Your opening remarks about "marking," indicate an objective pursuit of a standard of excellence.

Attaining to that standard, in theory, would enable the untangling of incomprehension to produce a level of understanding and fluency that over time produces an impetus toward learning that lasts a lifetime.

Thankfully, the PNG Attitude family is supportive and encouraging of Papua New Guineans acquiring improved norms of literacy and numeracy.

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