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.