The recent controversy about the Ministry of Education’s plans for dealing with those
children who have ‘failed’ the Grade 4 Literacy Test has, quite rightly, stirred up a great
deal of controversy. Literacy cannot be considered while ignoring the language issue in
Jamaica. Literacy is about representing speech in writing. If you don’t speak a language,
it is almost impossible to use that language in writing with the levels of creativity and
skill which we expect of literate people in the modern world. What language do the
children who supposedly failed the Grade 4 Literacy Test speak and use in the course
of their regular everyday activities? English? Not likely. The language they use is
Patwa, Creole, the Jamaican language. It has its own rules, system of pronunciation and
distinctive vocabulary. It is not English. And their ability to read and write English
is being compared to children at the equivalent stage in the education system of which
countries? Countries such as Britain and the USA where the majority of such children
are native speakers of English? This clearly does not make sense.
In Finland, children are taught to read and write in Finnish. Their standards for judging
whether their children succeed or fail in literacy is their level of competence in reading
and writing Finnish. In Iceland, an island nation with a population of a mere 250,000
people and one of the highest levels of literacy in Europe, literacy standards are measured
based on the ability of children to read and write in Icelandic. The pattern is followed
the world over, literacy in Japanese for the children of Japan, in French for the children
of France, in Bahasa Indonesia for the children of Indonesia, in Arabic for the children
of Saudi Arabia. But, strangely, not in Jamaica. Children in Jamaica have their levels
of literacy judged in a foreign language, English. They are required to write a language
they do not speak. This is akin to asking the children of Iceland to learn to read and write
in French and the children of France to read and write in Icelandic. Children who are
required to do this are bound to perform poorly.
It is against this background that we need to understand the wailing and gnashing of teeth
over those children who fail to pass the Grade Four Literacy Test in Jamaica. Even for
the ones who pass, they are, in general, performing at way below the level of full and
complete mastery. Why? Jamaican children are no more dunce nor stupid than children
in countries where literacy rates for school children are way higher. Isn’t the answer
obvious? Comparing the ability of Jamaican children to read and write English to the
ability of children in Britain, the USA or New Zealand to do the same, is like comparing
apples and oranges. The majority of people on those countries are native speakers of
English. They use English at home, in the streets, on the playground and in school.
In Jamaica, it is the Jamaican language that performs that role. The only place these
children might have any exposure in a consistent manner is in the classroom.
The so-called failed Grade Four Literacy Test candidates have not failed at all. They,
along with most Jamaican children, have been asked to do what no child in any normal
country, with a logical and rational language and literacy policy, is ever asked to do.
That is to learn to read and write in a foreign language at a level equivalent to that of
children who are learning to read and write that language as a native language.
The Ministry of Education wants 100% passes in the Grade 4 literacy test by 2015? This
can be achieved. High levels of literacy can be achieved if children are taught to read and
write in the language that they do speak, Jamaican. English can and must be taught as a
second language and literacy taught in that language as well. However, the standards for
literacy in English will have to be judged by comparison with other children elsewhere
who are learning English as a second language. The literacy skills of Jamaican children
would have to be compared to the literacy skills of other children around the world, be
they Chinese, Japanese, Dutch or French, who are learning English as a second or foreign
language. The Grade Four ‘failures’ have not failed. It is the system that has failed them.
And why? Because of a prejudice on the part of the ‘haves’ that the ‘have nots’ are not
just without money, property or status, but without a language as well. The ‘have nots’
do have a language, the Jamaican language. They can be taught to read and write in it
up to the very highest levels and standards possible in the world. This literacy can be a
platform for acquiring high levels of competence and literacy in English, and eventually
Spanish, Chinese and Hausa. Any other course of action will lead to the Ministry of
Education and the education system continuing to fail the children of Jamaica.