The discussions are broken into three major parts: an overview of the key components of formal education, the issues with syllabus content and the issues with examination. The essay is meant to help make the English language syllabus of SHS more relevant to the learner and the society.
It is also meant to suggest a positive reshape of the examination system. The arguments are directly on Ghana especially the issues with syllabus content. However the essay in general will still have impact on the whole West Africa.
OVERVIEW OF SOME COMPONENTS OF FORMAL EDUCATION
Many would have their definitions for learning, a reason why there is no attempt to define it in this essay. However one common thing that all will agree on is that whatever knowledge that is acquired is meant to be useful to the learner and society at large. To satisfy this idea of usefulness, setting out the content to be learned should be a careful, timely and purposeful selection of things that will be relevant (practicable) to the learner as well as equip him/her to be useful or more useful to society. In formal education the set out of the content that is to be learnt is the syllabus and every subject has its syllabus.
The act of assisting a learner to acquire what is in the syllabus (set out of content) is called teaching (teaching may include other things besides this role but they are not a concern in this essay). An examination such as West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) which is conducted by the West African Examination Council (WAEC) is a system of measurement, evaluation and assessment of the progress of a learner against what is in the syllabus. Below are two facts regarding the relationship between syllabus (content) and examination which are relevant to the essay;
1. When the content is relevant, examination is able to test the learner on skills that are relevant to society
2. Examination based on its test outline can suggest a hierarchy to the teacher and the learner on which areas are much relevant (frequently practice)
It is then possible to say that, there is a bidirectional relationship between the content and the examination. It is based on this bidirectional relationship that issues are raised concerning the content on English language composition at the SHS level and also the English test outline of the WASSCE.
ISSUES WITH SYLLABUS CONTENT
English composition at the SHS level still includes informal letter writing, which should not be the case. Above it is stated that in setting out content, the content should be selected carefully, timely and purposefully. Informal letter writing in contemporary times can no longer be seen as timely and purposeful. The reason is simple and best understood when compared with the situation of the formal letter. Both formal information and informal information can be passed on through ICT media such as WhassApp, phone calls, facebook, skype etc.
However formal information may still be put in letter form (formal letter) for records sake; however, informal information will not be put in a letter form (informal letter) and this is because there is no need to put it on record and more to the point they are based on personal issues basically. In short informal letters are replaced by ICT media whilst formal letters are only been complemented by ICT media. Resultantly formal letter writing is still purposeful whilst informal letter writing is no longer purposeful nor timely.
If informal letters were yet written, my argument will remain that they be removed. Whoever’s idea resulted in the format of an informal letter, successfully imposed a format on informal letter writing. Come to think of it proposing a format for something is meant to enhance uniformity. With formal letters there is that need for uniformity because they are institutional. However informal letters are personal and not institutional, why the need to consciously design a format for writings on personal matters that are discussed in an informal mode? An inductive study of informal letters may reveal some trends in which case it is even still unnecessary to make these trends established rules. The reason is that in the real world if such rules are broken no one loses anything.
If one chooses not to give a writer’s address it remains an issue between he/she and his/her recipient and as long as they are alright with that the address rule in the syllabus is flawed. So the question is why at all outline a format for an informal letter if that format can be disregarded in the real world of writing? Compare the situation to this scenario: the context of making a formal speech and the context of making an informal speech.
In the context of making a formal speech it sounds appropriate to consciously design a format so for example we have a format for debate that everyone should follow; however, in the context of making an informal speech it sounds ridiculous to consciously design a format, you will laugh if someone attempts proposing a format that everyone should follow in chatting with a friend. Overall it thus means that there are no definite rules in writing informal letters. The format of an informal letter depends on the personal relationship between the writer and the recipient. In the wake of this the best thing is to ensure that the learner is able to write well in terms of sentence structure, spelling and idea and leave the informal letter writing for the learner to choose what suits him/her and the recipient.
Enough have been said on what is there that is not supposed to be there. Now I turn to what is not there that is supposed to be there; Curriculum Vitae popularly known as CV. SHS students should learn how to compose a CV. This is relevant to them in the real world of writing. Students will need it for jobs and promotions. Some may argue that it will be good CV writing is made part of a tertiary course in Communication Skills. I will not find it favourable in my opinion because not all students will make it to the tertiary level. Those who fail to get to tertiary institutions will still need the skills in writing a CV because they still stand a chance of employment.
ISSUES WITH THE EXAMINATION
It is trusted that if informal letter writing is taken out and CV writing put in place the examination (WASSCE) would make the necessary adjustment because examinations measure, evaluate and assess the learner against the content in the syllabus.
Then what else could be my issue with the examination. My issue is that the examination is failing to identify a hierarchy of relevance in the various areas as far as composition is concerned in SHS level English. Simply put it is not placing the necessary emphasis on more relevant areas. Relevance (practicability) is a measure of how the content in the syllabus is been practiced in the outside world. Thus frequently practised ones are more relevant and the examination should reflect this. For example writing a formal letter and a CV is more relevant than writing a story that ends in a particular saying. The question is why then put them in one section for the learner to decide which of them to answer?
In the real world 99% times a person will need to write a formal letter and/or a CV to progress in life after school, a person may never write a story, an article, a debate etc. till he/she dies. Conclusively, in the real world formal letter writing and CV writing are compulsory for progress. It thus follows that in the examination formal letter writing and CV writing be put into a compulsory section to ensure that the teacher and the learner have time for them so that they are well equipped.
Will that mean that the other forms of essays should be taken out? NO! because they are also relevant but just that they are not as relevant as the formal letter and the CV. What then should be done? The answer to this question is that WAEC should stop exaggerating. WAEC expects the learner to write an estimated 450 words in a formal letter.
In the real world most formal letters are short and directly on point. The exceptionally long formal letters mostly come from high ranking offices where there are affiliate secretariats to systematically work on it. If a reduction is done in the number of words in the writing of a formal letter, it will not be too much to still add a section of the other essays where the learner selects what to write on, such a section can maintain the estimated 450 words.
If the WAEC should agree to reduce the estimated number of words for formal letters they will face an instant problem, and the problem is the topics around which formal letter writing is coined. Currently formal letter writing is coined around social studies topics such as effects of bush fires; what should be done to reduce school drop outs etc. I think such matters should be left for article writing (where article writing will be in the section where the student chooses what to write). If they are to keep to social studies topics for formal letter writing it will be difficult to reduce the estimated number of words from the current 450 words.
The solution hence is that they change the topics around which formal letter writings are coined such that they focus on seeking jobs, notification of an important detail, an official complaint, the progress of a project, seeking a contract etc. it is also true that these topics suggested for formal letter writing are those that will reflect in formal letters of most school leavers.
The English language syllabus of the SHS should leave out informal letter writing and instead bring on board CV writing. WAEC should also restructure the examination such that formal letter writing and CV writing are compulsory. To do this the fact that WAEC serves different countries within the sub region may seems a hindrance but that should not be. For example some countries may have CV writing in their syllabus whilst others will not, in such a case how can CV writing be made compulsory in a paper that is for all these countries with different syllabus in the sub-region? The resolution is that a compulsory section can be created for selected countries such that only students from those countries tackle that section.
This solution is not farfetched because a similar thing has succeeded with the WASSCE Core Mathematics paper. More to the point, when it comes to the test outline, I would like to believe that WAEC, by now, have a system of satisfying subject syllabus differences among the countries they serve to prevent countries from pulling out in the future.
By: Bernard Ngmenniabangne Bilikpe
(MPhil Applied Linguistics)