15 Jun Your Child Deserves Better – A Letter to Parents – X
By Anjum Altaf
In my last letter, I had spelled out the way a child learns his or her first language so well at home before even getting to school. This process needed to be articulated because, while it is so obvious, it does not get the attention it deserves as it takes place on its own without any need for experienced teachers. For the same reason, because it is so successful, it should serve as the model for how new languages should be taught at school.
You would recall that the four essential stages in this learning process are LISTENING, SPEAKING, READING, and WRITING. Equally importantly, they must be IN THAT ORDER. For home languages, this order is imposed by nature — a child does not begin to speak till at least six months of age and is immersed in listening to sounds of the home language till that time. And, it is quite some time before a child can pick up a book to read and finally to reproduce the shapes read on a writing medium.
It should be kept in mind that at this early pre-school stage, children are divided into two broad groups. Children of educated parents, by and large, go through all four stages before entering school (and these stages are often in English for a minority of households that want to give their children a fast start in getting good jobs when they are older). Those of parents not fortunate enough to be educated or without sufficient spare time and resources to devote to their children, complete only the first two stages of LISTENING and SPEAKING.
It is also the case that these two groups generally start their education in different types of schools — the majority of the former go to private schools while the majority of the latter go to public schools. Therefore, it should not be difficult to design different strategies for how the strong foundation in home languages should be strengthened and utilised when a child from either group enters school.
In this letter, however, our interest is in how a new language is to be taught in school. Imagine a child from a village in Mansehra district whose home language is Hindko and the school system does not allow teaching him or her in Hindko but wants to start education in Pashto or Urdu or English or, worst of all, in two or three of them at the same time with some subjects in one language and some in another. This is the case with the new Single National Curriculum in which this Hindko-speaking child would start maths and science in English and everything else in Urdu.
This means that the Hindko-speaking child who can express a lot of ideas in his or her home language would set aside that asset and need to learn both Urdu and English from Class 1.
Think through what happens. Better yet, become a member of the local Parent-Teacher Association and attend a session of Class 1 to see for yourself. Without fail, the child would be handed an alphabet book, shown C-A-T Cat — ‘cat maaney billi,’ and asked to reproduce that in a notebook. Note also, that all this instruction would most likely be taking place in the local language. In case you have forgotten, please watch again the two-minute video I had linked in an earlier letter — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdEYI617uOY.
At the end of the year, both parents and teachers would consider it a great accomplishment that children can WRITE the alphabet from A to Z. But, note that the essential steps of LISTENING and SPEAKING have been completely skipped and even READING has been relegated after or alongside WRITING. This whole sequence is unnatural and completely wrong from the perspective of the science of teaching a language. Ask any qualified educationist. No wonder the child does not learn the language well.
There are two tests of the strong claim I have made. The first is visible for all to see — even after ten years of school, the majority of children, especially from households that were not able to introduce them to reading and writing at home, are unable to write a coherent page in English or even in Urdu. Many students drop out of school because of this flawed mode of teaching that frustrates and humiliates children, especially those whose parents lack resources to help them privately.
The second is a test you can administer yourself. Ask a student in Class 5 (after five years of school education) to narrate what he or she did that day, first in his home language, then in any of the new languages he or she has been learning at school. Note the difference and compare his or her command over the respective languages. Repeat the test with a student of Class 10. Then ask yourself, are you getting value for your money? And, more importantly, why are you subjecting your child to this cognitive disaster while throwing your money down the education drain?
Is there a better way to teach? You know there is because that is how you taught you child the home language that he or she knows so well.
I will have more on how to teach better in the next letter.
Dr. Anjum Altaf
Former Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)