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Research report

Language, literacy and learning in Tanzanian secondary schools

Laela Adamson

This report is by our third Tim Morris Award winner, Laela Adamson, investigating the teaching of English in Tanzanian secondary schools.

The report explores the use of English in Tanzanian secondary schools after seven years of primary schooling during which teachers and students use Kiswahili, the national language. Fieldwork was conducted in two secondary schools in the Morogoro region of Tanzania using an ethnographic approach.

The report defines six factors that influence students’ ability to learn English and to learn using English as the medium of instruction:

  1. The lack of an environment that supports language learning: a common complaint was that the prevalence of Kiswahili in all areas of students’ lives meant that they were not provided with opportunities to practise English. Some teachers also indicated it was simply unrealistic for English to be used at all times because students wouldn’t understand.
  2. Low student confidence and fear of making mistakes: students were found to have low confidence in responding to teachers in English, with students indicating they did not want to be laughed at for providing an incorrect response.
  3. Peer relationships and support: students proficient in English often felt singled out in class and isolated from other peer groups. Student researchers felt this was due to a tension between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ attitudes.  
  4. Parental resources and students’ language foundation: those with greater financial resources and longer personal experiences of education are better placed to support their children in the acquisition of English. These parents can provide the opportunity for children to attend private English-medium primary schools, pay for private tutoring and books, in addition to speak English themselves.
  5. Government policy and resource provision:
  6. Out-of-school challenges that affect learning

Ultimately, this report supports those who call for a shift to use Kiswahili as the language of instruction throughout the education system, alongside good quality English language teaching. It recommends that the Tanzanian government:

  • should not delay changes in line with the 2014 Education Policy that declares a greater role for Kiswahili in teaching and learning
  • should lead a public discussion about the role of languages in the education system and the nation. This should include sharing research about the value of using Kiswahili as a language of instruction and the possibilities for learning English as a subject.