[Introduction to Series: Dr. Anjum Altaf, former Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS, is writing a page-by-page review of the model textbooks (Pre-I to Grade 5) accompanying the recently implemented Single National Curriculum. These detailed reviews intended to involve parents in the education of their children will appear as a series in Sindh Courier. Parents would benefit by having a copy of the primer under discussion in front of them while reading the review.]
SNC Model Textbooks: Pre-I English Primer — I
The primer is an adaptation, without any contextual reflection, of a primer from an English speaking country — vilayati makhi par desi makhi marna.
By Dr. Anjum Altaf
The first year of school should lay the foundation on which the edifice of a sound education can be raised. I had therefore intended to move on to a page-by-page review of the Pre-I English Primer but it could be concluded on page 1 itself. There is a devastating fundamental flaw in its conception that seems to have escaped the attention of all those who have looked at it to date.
The point I am making is the following: English is a foreign language in Pakistan. Barring a very thin slice of households where English is spoken in the home, the vast majority of children are unfamiliar with the language. There is little doubt that there are many for whom the first exposure to English would be in Pre-I. In order to appreciate this point, imagine the extreme case of a child, call her Y, who has not encountered any English prior to entering Pre-1. It cannot be argued that there are no such children in the country.
On page 1 of the primer are the ‘Greetings’ with which the child would be welcomed: “Good morning, good morning, / good morning dear / welcome to the class, have no fear / be friends and have fun / learn, play and run / good morning, good morning, / good morning dear, / welcome to the class have no fear.
What is Y going to make of this greeting and would she even figure out it is one? Therein lies the conceptual flaw in the primer — it is made for children who are already quite familiar with the language like children in England, for example. This flaw has occurred because the primer is an adaptation, without any contextual reflection, of a primer from an English speaking country — vilayati makhi par desi makhi marna. And this has escaped notice, because most of the people writing about the SNC belong to that tiny minority who speak some English at home which makes the Greetings on page 1 seem quite normal.
There cannot be any disagreement with the fact that at the Pre-I stage in Pakistan, English needs to be taught, if it is taught at all, as a foreign language which calls for a very different approach. Even in England there are certifications in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language because those, like refugees, who start learning the language not knowing it have to be taught quite differently from those that do.
I had hoped that the teacher’s instructions would point a way out of this conundrum but, as usual, the desire for random moralizing overwhelms the authors at the expense of either clarity or infusing any sense of joy in the teaching. Here are the three instructions:
“Greet children warmly. Encourage them to greet their parents, siblings, friends, other family members, elders and each other. Discuss with children how people differently greet each other around the world.”
“Do role play in class by bringing two children in the front to greet each other.”
“Help children to learn greetings at home. Exhibit good manners and attitude.”
Asides from the fact that these lessons have little to do with English, especially on the first day of the course, why do the writers presume that parents have not already taught their children how to greet elders and family members? And, are the children going to be taught to abandon what they know and learn the proper greetings in English? The picture on the page gives a mixed message with the teacher saying “Assalam o Alaikum How are you?” and the children, holding placards with the names of the days of the week in English, answering “Wa Alaikum Assalam I am fine. Thank you.”
The bottom line is that the primer is completely inappropriate for the teaching of English as a foreign language and there is no need to proceed further. However, for the sake of completeness, from this point on I will evaluate its merit for the students in Pre-I who are already familiar with the language.
Page 2 is devoted to drawing things about My Self. The teacher’s instructions are as follows: “Discuss with children to keep themselves tidy and clean. Brush their teeth twice a day, take bath every day and dress neatly. Use appropriate posture while walking, sitting and writing.” And, “Make children look into the mirror and identify self attributes e.g. (sic) hair, eye color, etc.”
Page 3 is titled My Home and shows rooms of an upscale residence. The teacher’s instructions are the following: “Talk about the pictures and discuss with children about different areas of the home and how to keep them clean. Encourage children to help parents at home. Tell a story Goldilocks and Three Bears or any local story.” And, “Let children do role play, e.g. (mother, father, brother, sister, driver and cook.”
Several questions arise at this point: Does the upscale home and the roles of driver and cook suggest some problems with having a single national curriculum? And why this obsession with cleaning everything? Is this habit not taught in the homes? Why not enlist the collaboration of parents to do what they are assumed not to be doing and let school time be devoted to what can really not be taught by parents?
Page 4 is titled My Family and has the following poem: “I am blessed, I am blessed / I have so many people to trust / some families are big and some are small / we have fathers and we have mothers / we love them all / I am blessed, I am blessed / Few have sisters and few have brothers / Few have uncles and few have aunts / I am blessed, I am blessed / I have so many people to trust.”
Is this a good poem? What does “Few have sisters and few have brothers” mean? Is this a literal translation of the Urdu word kuchh? Bad enough as it is, shouldn’t it be “Some have sisters and some have brothers”?
Here are the teacher’s instructions:
“Read the rhyme aloud in class and explain the concept of family. Ask children how many brothers and sisters they have. Explain the relationships (grandmother, uncle, aunts, etc.).” What is the basis for the premise that five-year-olds do not know the concept of family and don’t know that they have been conversing all these years with their grandmother? Would they understand all this better in English?
“Introduce family relationship to children through role play. Celebrate family day/parents day/grandparents day in school.”
“Ask children to prepare their family tree with the help of their parents at home and display it in the classroom.”
Page 5 is titled My School. The images show an immaculate two-story school with a big playground, a library, and a spacious classroom with children sitting around separate tables. The text on the page reads: “Today I am very excited to tell you about my school. My school is big. I have many friends here. We learn to read and write here. My classroom is very colorful. My favorite place is library, where my teacher tells us stories. There are swings in the playground. I enjoy them all.”
Teacher’s instructions: “Discuss the pictures with children and talk about the different areas of the school. Tell children how to keep their school and surroundings clean and how to take care of school belongings.” “Read the text for children.” “Take children for a school visit. Give a paper and encourage them to draw whatever they like about their school.”
We have only reached page 5. There is more in store.
Note: In the village school I visited last week, barely 20 kilometers outside Lahore, only 50 percent of the sanctioned number of teachers were present; there were 90 students in one class; another was being minded by the chowkidar’s daughter with a stick in her hand; two classes were relocated to a mosque because a section of the school roof was in danger of falling; there was knee-deep rain water in the grounds through which children had to wade to go to the bathroom; there was a closed room marked ‘Library’ in which old science equipment was stored. The authors of the primer are cordially invited for a visit before embarking on a revision.
[author title=”Dr. Anjum Altaf ” image=”https://sindhcourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Anjum-Altaf.jpg”]Dr. Anjum Altaf is the former Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. He is the author of Plain Truths About Early Childhood Education: Letters to Parents (available as an e-book from Little Books) and of Critical Reflections on the Single National Curriculum and the Medium of Instruction (forthcoming).[/author]