Open letter to teachers on their role in English failure

Most students misuse tenses, spellings and subject-verb agreement. Teachers should take full responsibility for their poor grades in KCSE

In Summary

• Are setting of questions, marking schemes, grading system, learners’ ability at fault?

• Sometimes, yes, but teachers never self-appraise and admit to own shortcomings

Education CS George Magoha on an inspection tour at St. Georges Secondary School as candidates sit their 6th exam on March 30, 2021
Education CS George Magoha on an inspection tour at St. Georges Secondary School as candidates sit their 6th exam on March 30, 2021

I have a bone to pick with my colleagues who teach English and literature in high school. Why are we so obsessed with grades?

I know the grades in English as a subject in the recently released KCSE examination were far from stellar, and that is if you particularly base success solely on the grades.

A scrutiny of the objectives to be attained at the end of the four-year course reveals that the attainment of the so-called quality grades is not among the fruits our efforts as teachers should bear. However, since KCSE examination is one of the most significant influencers of the future of a child's life in Kenya, we cannot entirely downplay the importance of the grades.

However, the conversation should not be about how many good grades you get. The students sit the same exams but they have different abilities, they attend different cadres of schools, with different facilities and resources, they hail from different backgrounds and sit the exam under different sets of conditions. Let us talk about how we can help these learners acquire effective reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.

The language teacher should advance this conversation objectively. Ranting and yowling on social media only makes us powerless. Obsession over grades has led to preposterous suggestions, such as adjustment of the grading system, which would lead to the realisation of better grades in English.

What's more ridiculous? Some of us are crying over our beer because History and CRE teachers reap hefty fringe benefits after attaining good grades. This selfishness would make Narcissus jealous. If you are here mainly for the money, you are in the wrong profession. If you want to make money, own a business or buy investments. Quit formal employment.

Every time the results are released, and especially when they fall short of our expectations, we tend to quickly point fingers at others. We rarely ever take responsibility or incur blame. We always find fault with the setting of the questions, the marking and moderation of marking schemes, the grading system, the learners’ ability, among other issues that we apparently cannot control. In all fairness, some of the concerns we raise are genuine. However, we never stop to consider that we sometimes punch below our weight.


There are some essentials that we do not do optimally and if we did them, they would influence the grades for the better. These are things that are within our control.

Robin Sharma, in his excellent self-help book, The 5 AM Club, states that, “Nothing works for those who don’t do the work.” One of the five rules for results he offers is, “Excuses breed no genius.” Therefore, maybe it is time we, the professional implementers of the curriculum, stopped the interminable blame game and instead shifted our focus to self-appraisal. What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong?

Let us do some soul-searching. Which type of teacher am I? Do I prepare or customise my own schemes of work fervidly or do I simply get some from friends on WhatsApp groups when the deadline to submit professional documents is fast approaching and the supervisor is breathing down my neck?

Do I have a syllabus and do I use it in the preparation and delivery of content? Does my department have clear, practical teaching and testing policies? Do we set and moderate formative assessment tests, quizzes and marking schemes or do we simply lift them in part or whole from social media and websites without considering what we have taught within the period we intend to assess? Do I love my students like my own children or do I refer to the learners with difficulties contemptuously as “Third World” students? There are many more questions to ponder, but allow me to stop there.

Admittedly, most of us do not carry out our tasks effectively in spite of being competent and even gifted, in some cases. I suggest that we do the following things consciously to optimise learning outcomes.

Prepare for each lesson adequately. Have the requisite, well-developed professional documents. Use learner-centred teaching approaches, such as pairing, group work and peer teaching, to encourage active, interactive learner participation.

Use a range of instructional materials in developing lessons. Integrate ICT in teaching and learning. Use creativity to simplify some concepts. Check the learners’ work regularly and encourage feedback after lessons and assessments.

These may seem obvious and routine, but they may go a long way in improving the results we get at the end of the summative assessment. I know there are many other factors that can influence the final grade a learner attains, but brooding over things we cannot change is pointless.


English is unlike any other subject. Students with a poor foundation in English language are bound to struggle and, therefore, require special attention and effort. It is unfair to compare the performance in English to subjects like agriculture, CRE and mathematics. The concepts in the latter subjects have barely changed over the years, whereas language is dynamic. To pass English exams, students must study language religiously, and this must go way beyond passively attending numbing classroom lectures.

The truth of the matter is most students do not study English like they do other subjects. They have poor reading habits. They do not read enough literature on a variety of subjects. As a result, most of them misuse simple grammatical concepts like tenses, spellings and subject-verb agreement.

Languages are learned in context yet our learners never practise writing or speech in English. Needless to say, their ability to communicate in English is thus seriously hampered. I asked students on one of my literature Facebook groups why they think English is poorly performed. Most of them cited poor attitude and inadequate personal study time dedicated to English, and, for that matter, Kiswahili.

This issue is less complicated than it seems but there is no silver bullet. Students who read English literature passionately pass with flying colours. Allow me to congratulate teachers who have fervently and patiently guided learners and helped them develop a positive attitude towards the subject.

I wind up by quoting Sharma once again: “Dedication and discipline beats brilliance and giftedness any day of the week. And A-Players don’t get lucky. They make lucky.”

In summary, let us take full responsibility. It is difficult to see the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye when you have a plank in your own. We are working hard, without doubt. However, we are going nowhere fast. We are pushing a wall. Let us walk around it.

We should change our mindset and approach as teachers before we address challenges with the curriculum and exams. Let us explore creative ways to pique the learners' interest in English. They must read devotedly every day. Teachers are great people in a great position to change lives and transform the world. The buck stops with us.

Wafula Wekati is an English/literature teacher St Theresa’s Girls Kimilili in Bungoma county. He also writes educational articles on English literature on wekati.blogspot.com and more on KCSE English paper one oral skills on darasabora.blogspot.com. Email: [email protected]

Edited by T Jalio

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