[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 — VII
The major problem with the primer is that it is not designed for children for whom English is a foreign language.
By Dr. Anjum Altaf
There is one strange omission in the primer — nowhere does the entire alphabet appear on one page. Such an alphabet at-a-glance is standard in primers and very useful for students for many sound pedagogical reasons.
The conclusion of the alphabet is followed by reinforcement activities to ‘Practice (Aa-Zz).’ On pages 113 to 116, the capital letters have to be traced and written six times each and the same is repeated for lower-case letters on pages 117 to 120. This is the first time the upper- and lower-case letters are shown separately but without any discussion which must have been left to the discretion of the teacher.
Page 121 shows ‘Sky, Grass and Root Letters’ on a four-line template, distinguishing between those that touch the upper line, are confined to the two middle lines, or touch the lower line.
Page 122 is about ‘Vowels / Consonants.’ The five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) are displayed on one side and the consonants on the other, the latter as pairs, as is the pattern in the primer — Bb, Cc, to Yy, Zz. The teacher’s instruction reads: “Help children to learn vowels by saying it (sic) aloud. Consonants are all the non-vowel sounds.”
The second instruction is the following: “There are five vowels and there is no word without a vowel.” I wish the writers of the primer had not done this to teachers because it is a myth (Look Ma, no vowel!). With Y unambiguously placed in the consonant camp, the rule doesn’t hold — Consider hymn, lynx, myrrh, nymph, pygmy, rhythm, shy/shyly, sync, wry/wryly.
Fortunately, this is not going to hold up the march whose end is now in sight. Pages 123 to 127 are an introduction to “an,” “et,” “in,” “ot,” and “un” words, i.e., words that result from adding certain consonants, guided by pictures, before each of the combinations. The pictures have to be colored and the words copied out. Page 128 is completing words by adding a vowel while page 129 asks to complete a word by writing “the beginning sound.”
Page 130 is ‘Introduction to ‘a’ and ‘an’’ — there are four words / pictures (computer, orange, tree, elephant) before which either an ‘a’ or an ‘an’ is to be added. The teacher’s instruction is to “Help the children to write “a” or “an” in the beginning of the words and color the pictures.” Presumably the rule governing the usage of ‘a’ and ‘an’ would be explained but is left to the discretion of the teacher.
Page 131 introduces ‘Phrases,’ elementary ones like ‘cat on a mat,’ ‘rat in a hat,’ and ‘pin in a bin.’ The teacher explains that “phrase is a group of words which has (sic) some meaning.” After the fairly advanced vocabulary at the beginning of the primer, this is a belated return to much needed basics.
Page 132 is an ‘Introduction of full stop and capital letter.’ The only words on the page are a question (What is your name?) followed by the beginning of an answer (My name is…) which has to be completed. The teacher’s instruction is to “Start the sentence with capital letter and put a full stop at the end. Sentence is a group of words which make complete sense.” We can ignore Lewis Carroll and our own genre of anmal bejor and deprive children of a lot of fun and unafraid experimentation. Note that there has been no introduction yet to the interrogation sign used in the question.
Page 133 is about ‘Adding “s”’ which has to be appended to bug, nut, and ring. The teacher is asked to “Help children add ‘s’ at the end of words and color the pictures.”
Page 134 is titled ‘Sight Words’ which this time provides a list of words that actually qualify as such — of, if, it, etc. Page 135 is an ‘Introduction to “this is”’ to be added at the beginning of incomplete sentences. Page 136 is a similar introduction to “these are.” Pages 137 to 139 introduce the combinations ‘th,’ ‘ch,’ and ‘sh.’ Page 140 is about ‘Action Words’ which are to be made by adding ‘ing’ to various words. Page 141 is about ‘In and Out’ with two pictures — a dog sitting inside and outside a doghouse. The teacher is asked to “Give children the concept of “in” and “out” with real life examples.” Pages 142 and 143 are to ‘Learn and Write’ “ee” and “oo” words.
Page 144 is a ‘Character Sketch’ where children are to answer questions about themselves. Page 145 is titled ‘Creative Writing’ on which children are to write some sentences about themselves. Pages 146 and 147 repeat the same exercise with the subject being ‘My Mother.’ Pages 148 and 149 are ‘Creative Writing’ about ‘My Toy’ and ‘My Friend.’ Page 150 is ‘Creative Writing’ in which a text beginning with “One summer morning I went for a walk and saw…” is to be completed.
With this the Pre-I English primer draws to a close — the inside and outside of the back cover are the same as for the Mathematics primer. I have spent much more time on it than called for but there was need to respond to the accusation that people were commenting without reading and I wanted to leave a record with irrefutable proof that I had read every page and every word more than once.
The major problem with the primer is that it is not designed for children for whom English is a foreign language. Rather, it is designed for those who have had stories and nursery rhymes in the language read to them at home and have spent time watching programs like Sesame Street. Thus it is inappropriate for the majority of Pre-I students in Pakistan. It cannot be revised; it has to be revamped with the input of specialists in the teaching of English as a foreign language.
Notwithstanding the above, the primer is pedagogically poor for all children. It is as if the writers have taken a vow that they will not allow even the semblance of joy to relieve the primer of its overriding aims of raising good samaritans imbued with the milk of human kindness, knowing all the rules of good etiquette, fully equipped to keep themselves and their environment clean, and knowing the health benefits of all the fruits and vegetables in the world. These are all very laudable aims but by the end of the year the children are unlikely to know much English, the teaching of which comes across as only a vehicle for the other more privileged objectives.
The writers do not display much sense of the cognitive abilities of five-year-olds — some material is way below their ability and some far above it. The writers also do not reveal a sense of balance between what children learn best at home and what ought to be the focus in schools — parents have been completely marginalized instead of being enlisted as partners.
There is a distinct absence of focus in the teaching — the class discussions jump randomly from one topic and activity to something completely unrelated. This could well be a new technique in teaching five-year-olds but nothing related to the innovation has been disseminated or shared with parents.
The less said about the verses the better. They should be submitted for the Ig-Nobel prize in early childhood education.
The primer reaffirms the problems with the desire to have a single model textbook for everyone in the country. It would only succeed in alienating or losing large numbers who are not part of the neat lives and environments depicted in the images in the primer and those who would just not recognize their worlds in it.
Whatever is being taught is being taught poorly — ““a” letter, “a” letter, ant, ant, ant / “a” letter, “a” letter, let’s all chant” carried all the way to Zz would no doubt turn all the children into excellent chanters (shades of the madrassah!) but they are unlikely to get a hang of English. All this notwithstanding, the really HUGE issue has found no mention. Almost 90 percent of Pre-I children are being made to learn not one but two foreign languages, English and Urdu, in the first year of school while dumping the one resource and tool for learning they bring with them — the vocabulary and grammatical knowledge of their home language. This is unprecedented and probably not attempted anywhere else in the world. Is there any study that shows the cognitive impacts of such an incredible experiment? I will have more to say about this at the conclusion of the review of the Pre-I Urdu Primer. Here, I will only mention that Canadian governments that forced Indigenous Peoples to discard their languages in favor of English have since apologized for these acts of linguistic imperialism because it has been affirmed repeatedly that language is the site of self-identity.
It was an ethical imperative to field test this primer on a limited scale before implementing it across the board in such unseemly haste. Only those whose own children will not be subjected to it can be responsible for such a grave injustice.
It is really hard to imagine a worse textbook being designed at a time when recourse to the best research and resources is so freely accessible. The entire process of procurement and approval needs to be subjected to the regimen of accountability. The implementation of the primer should be suspended till the accountability report is made public. The children of no country deserve to be treated in this manner.
Note: Two items appeared in Dawn on October 3, 2021. The first (p.4) was about a higher secondary school in Attock city which has just one teacher for 12 classes. This reiterates my earlier observation of staff shortages in a village school and should serve as reality check for all the brave talk surrounding the Single National Curriculum and the Model Textbooks.
The second (p.13) was the much expected, low-key, announcement that “The government has removed the condition of no objection certificate (NOC) for supplementary reading material under the Single National Curriculum. The ministry of federal education and professional training issued a notification stating, “The Single National Curriculum prescribes minimum standards to be followed and does not limit any textbook to the prescribed Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) only. Hence, publishers may add and schools may teach additional subjects or material as per their requirements after necessary approval.””
So, after the threatening ‘or-else’ warning to Aitchison College to subscribe in toto to the SNC, we have weaseled quietly back to the status quo ante — resourceful schools and affluent students will be able to afford better books while public and low-fee private schools will be left saddled with sub-par SNC model texts. If only minimum learning standards and student learning outcomes had to be mandated, what was all the song and dance about the model textbooks that were rushed through at breakneck speed by 400 superstars? Was this all one huge boondoggle?
Eliot’s The Hollow Men needs to be read in full to absorb the meaning of what has transpired.
Click here for Part-I , Part-II, Part-III, Part-IV, Part-V, Part-VI, Part-VII, Part-VIII, Part-IX, Part-X