Why Can’t Our Kids Pass CSEC English?

(by Dr Joyce Jonas)

Cradling her baby, the young woman in the maternity ward approached the staff nurse newly recruited from a London hospital: “Nurse, de baby get operation.” Somewhat puzzled, the London nurse hastened to reassure her: “No, my dear. Your baby is just fine. He hasn’t had an operation, and he doesn’t need one!”

But the mother insisted, “Yes Nurse. Dis morning de baby get operation. De nex’ nurse tell me fuh tell you!”

Creolese speakers will have no problem in understanding: the mother was reporting that baby’s bowels were in good working order. But for the London nurse, the word “operation” had a totally different connotation–surgery.

Even though we advertise ourselves as being the only English-speaking country on the South American continent, we in fact do not speak English: we speak Creolese. Our Standard West Indian speakers slide relatively easily along the continuum to function in Standard English, but for the majority, Standard English, both spoken and written, is a foreign language.

Each year when the CSEC results are published, concerned parents and educators bemoan our dismal performance in the English exams. The official pass rate is below 50%, and if we take into consideration that hundreds of school leavers or drop-outs simply don’t take the exam, the real percentage is probably below 40%. Where are we going wrong? What can be done? Does it even matter?

Yes, it matters. Tremendously. To function confidently in today’s world, school leavers need the skills outlined in the CSEC English syllabus. They should be equipped to understand the written text, summarise it and extract the salient points, make a formal report in a clear, logical manner, recognise shifts in tone, present their opinion on a topic, bringing suitable arguments to support their case—all the time expressing themselves with grammatical accuracy.

The Literature aspect of the English syllabus takes the student even further—to be able to appreciate and write about literary texts, whether drama, prose or poetry, showing an understanding of the themes and techniques employed by writers. So does it matter that less than half of our children can pass the exam? Surely it does! Surely we would want all of our young people to be empowered and equipped to use language to their advantage! Surely we want all of them to enjoy the works of great writers—from the Caribbean and beyond.

So how can we bring about change? We began with a reminder that our mother tongue is Creolese. Many academics believe that until and unless we take that as our starting point, our expensive remedial programmes and literacy initiatives will yield only minimal results. The challenge, though, is how to upgrade our children’s performance in Standard English AND at the same time build in them an appreciation for and pride in Guyanese Creole. Unless we achieve these twin goals, we are guilty of perpetuating debasing colonial attitudes.

Some linguists insist that our children should be taught the structures of Creolese before they are introduced to Standard English. But, as Hamlet said, “Aye, there’s the rub!” Because we do not have, as yet, a formal analysis of the structure of Creolese— which itself is constantly evolving in response to changes in the world around us.

In and of itself, Creolese is not a problem. But interference from Creolese does contribute to poor mastery of Standard English and poor performance in English exams. Another factor is that neither parents nor teachers give quality time to helping children develop proficiency in reading, comprehension and expression. I am quite sure that a survey of the students who shone like stars in the CSEC exams would reveal that their parents (or grandparents) spent many hours reading to them, listening to them read, explaining and discussing what had been read. The stars, I’m sure, were already competent readers and writers BEFORE they entered the school system.

Education is not just about schooling and lessons; it’s a holistic experience. I heard of a 17 year old student who came to Georgetown from a country school with reading and writing skills that even an eight-year-old might be ashamed of. The student was put through 18 months of remedial work: reading aloud daily, extracting and learning new vocabulary, learning lists of spellings, writing a minimum of 300 words every day. The literature texts were read and discussed together with the instructor, notes taken, and essays written on them at regular intervals. The learning environment was friendly and encouraging, often filled with giggles.

After 18 months that student gained Grade 2 in English A and Grade 1 in English B. The secret? Consistency, interest shown by the adult, encouragement rather than criticism, fun rather than fear, and a fair amount of practice. The student was clearly capable, but equally clearly had been failed by the system.

An individual can, of course, function perfectly well through life knowing only Creolese. But increasingly the world is shrinking, and Creolese speakers are a relatively small community. For better or worse, it is Standard English, not Creolese, that is the vehicle of communication in most formal situations, and certainly so whenever we are interacting with the world outside Guyana.

English A skills are needed to deal with application forms, job interviews, academic textbooks, instructions on how to use your medication or prepare for your colonoscopy. Indeed, almost everything that will enable us to find our way in the modern world requires a working knowledge of Standard English.

In this high-tech age, finding a good job can be very difficult for those who lack good language skills. A young Guyanese businessman, now living overseas, tells me he has interviewed scores of Guyanese applicants responding to advertisements for online work opportunities with his company, but over and over again he has found that the language skills of the would-be staffers are simply not at the required level. Ironically, second-language applicants from places like India and the Philippines can boast of far better language skills than Guyanese applicants (not to mention a far better work ethic!)

Better minds than mine have struggled to solve the problem of poor literacy in Guyana—sadly without much success. But we dare not walk away from the challenge. The success story of that 17 year old can be replicated in each of our school leavers.

If we have the political will. If parents step up to the plate and recognise their responsibilities regarding their children’s education. If teachers are properly trained—not only in content and methodology, but in their attitude and the emotional environment they create. If classes are made smaller and teacher remuneration more encouraging. If resources of television, radio and internet are creatively exploited. If voluntary groups already working on the problem are appropriately supported. If the media are required to improve the quality of printed material they present to the public.





  1. charisma

    I totally agree with this article. I believe also that proper training of teachers is lacking in Guyana

  2. caz

    Sorry.. stopped reading when I found spelling error. Which I noticed is very common in news articles from the Caribbean. Shaming me when i have to share. When I high lighted it, an x-editor from a newspaper thought that I was being panikerty.
    Children can’t pass these subjects because they don’t read enough, and they don’t speak it correctly enough, and then they write the same way that they speak with their mates. They want to fit in with their friends but need to realise that writting for exams, and job vacancies is different. A woman said it does not matter, but an article in a British paper explained the fears of employers of school leavers in the U.K. That they were writting in text speak when applying for a job.

    I taught Engish to 2nd form students a couple of years ago in St. Lucia.These teens were were hard work, they kept me on my toes and then some. I gave them home work every single day, did different English parts with them every week. From Vocab, spelling, everything. They were an exception to the rule. Brilliant was not a good enough word to discribe them. The Principal made me double the work that I gave them to do, he did not realise that he needed to take away the other 2 subjects that I was teaching them as it doubled my work load.

    So why are they getting it right and others are not? There were some in the class who were playing catch up at the beginning when I first joined them, but at least they soon became average and better than before, with work and dedication.

    I used to say to them to make books their friends. Make time to read something like 2 pages of any book in the house, the bible, the news paper, even for them to read to a younger sibling to help them. Learn new words, listen to how people pronounce words, ask what words mean, use them too, as much as poss when you learnt the meaning.

    Adults don’t help as they write how they speak bad, I aint doing dat orh is an example. So how are the children going to speak write or spell any better? Adults need to be a better example to them too.
    Just to let you know that many British adults standards of English is atrocious, and that’s British born English as a first language adults, not just their children. So I shake my head.

  3. Renny

    It is with deep emotions i endorse all that has been said in this article by Dr. Jonas. “if English language wasn’t our first language and we had to learn it as a foreign language, it would have been by far the most difficult one of the lot” This statement is one which i hear ever so often while engaged in any discussion about the state of our language. Many hold onto this because, English as it stands being apart of our uniqueness, is difficult to use and even to grasp on many fronts.

    This difficulty however, is as a direct result of all that Dr. Jonas alluded to. The lack of: “Consistency, interest shown by the adult, encouragement rather than criticism, fun rather than fear, and a fair amount of practice.” These attributes must be applied at the very tender age of an individual’s life so as to maximize results. Parents/guardians have the most important role in ensuring that these attributes are applied since the child/children would be around them more times than not.

    In my view, one of the most important aspects of ensuring eloquence, is that of having eloquent socialization. This is not a substitute tool for reading, but it aids in a major way. This also must be done on a constant basis just like the tool of reading.

    In the school system, much is left to be desired of the love and passion that educators have for their job, even while it can be argued that once encouraged with the right incentives, they will perform better. What ever happen to making the little that you make do and allow your passion and love for the profession to prevail. Thank you.

  4. Florencw

    I totally agree with this article. I am one of those people,who are always telling my kids, that Guyana is the only English speaking country the South American Continent, I remembered being in college here in the USA, I had an English exam and a few words that I wrote in my answer was underlined by my professor in red ink. I then Had to correct him by explaining myself. These are the words: cheque = money not check which means, please check if I did this correctly. When I went to school back in the seventy’s The English language was taught by real and more mature professionals. Today, most of the teachers are younger and not really doing this job because it a career, but just a simple job because it gives them a pay cheque at the end of the month.

  5. I don’t know about Caz, but there were two errors I noted, and I found it a bit jarring since this is an article regarding literacy in Guyana. They were:

    Sixth paragraph: “school leavers needs”

    “So how can we bring about change? We BEGAN…”

    Errors aside (It happens to us all, so I hope you didn’t mind the highlight), this is a fantastic article.

  6. Insight

    Thanks for pointing out the the “needs” error, Kadeen. The second is no error, though, it’s referring to the opening of the article which began with a reminder that we in Guyana speak Creolese and not English.

    Thanks for reading!

  7. In that case, it’s misleading because the question leads one to believe that the solution we’re looking for has not yet been found. What is expected to follow are the steps which would lead to finding this solution. A more apt construction would be: “We begin, as I have, with a reminder that our mother tongue is Creolese.”

  8. I fully agree with Dr. Jonas. As a parent, I must say that it’s a lot of hard work to counteract the wrong things my children learn in school. It indeed takes a lot of patience and making the environment fun. I have to constantly work on that. Thanks Dr. Jonas for this timely article.

  9. Kevin

    My biggest problem with language in school was that the books were boring and a lot of the times had little context to Guyanese life until you reach late secondary school and you how the complex themes are transferable to your experience. Never the less, most times I was disengaged. Students in the primary and early secondary need books that are very engaging and makes them want to read. No point in having a serious book with proper english but no one cares to read it.
    Also, its very hard for parents to read to their children, even not considering their illiteracy. Books are expensive and not readily available and their little time available for people to read. I was lucky to have my father pay attention to my schooling but I can look back and see how his time went away as his work changed. I can hardly imagine people going home from tiring, unsatisfying jobs and still have the patience and energy to read for themselves much less someone else.

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