III: Practice Insights


Stories as Innovation in English Language Teaching in Uganda

Espen Stranger-Johannessen

Issues That Motivated the Research

In the public debate and research on education in Africa, the paucity of print materials is often cited as one of the major challenges to student achievement. Thus, providing books seems like an obvious solution. Storybooks, compared with textbooks, have the benefits of being cheaper and not being tied to the curriculum or specific grades. As such, they are a good place to start to address the concerns about educational achievement in Africa, especially students’ poor literacy skills in local languages as well as in English.

Several studies have led to furnishing schools with books, either as part of a larger intervention with relatively comprehensive teacher training in particular methodologies (e.g., Sailors et al., 2014), or as more hands-off approaches where books have been donated with little or no guidance on their use (e.g., Pretorius & Machet, 2008). While the former situation leaves little room for the teachers to develop their own ways of using the books and integrating them with their existing practices, the latter type of studies have often focused on the limited use of books and have not reported how teachers actually used them.

This situation calls for research that acknowledges and investigates teachers’ agency, as well as their challenging work conditions, which limit the relevance of what might be described as best practices in developed countries. The study reported here focuses on the ways in which teachers use stories in their lessons, placing teacher agency and their ability to improve teaching at the locus of inquiry. The motivation for the research is not to give a balanced account of all the teachers’ lessons, but rather to highlight some promising aspects of their work that arose from the teaching of stories. When teachers develop methods and approaches themselves, these practices are in keeping with their notions of sound pedagogy and are realistic within the arduous conditions under which they work. Documenting the innovative ways in which teachers use stories can point to improved, context-specific teaching practices and give new direction for further research into this area.

This research came about out of my interest in print materials during my fieldwork in Uganda for my master’s thesis, as well as in the African Storybook Initiative (ASb), which took form around the same time I started my Ph.D. program. The ASb is, in brief, a website (afncanstorybook.org) with children’s stories in English and more than a hundred African languages. I learned about the ASb at a conference in Nairobi in 2013, the year before the website launched, and the opportunity to research print (and digital) materials, specifically stories, was evident. One of the pilot sites, a primary school in Uganda, was invited by the ASb to test the website and have its teachers gain experience in using the stories in their teaching. This school was the host office for a regional educational coordinator, who was my supervisor’s former student. My connections to both the ASb and the main research site were thus established.

Context of the Research

Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa and one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 214 out of 230 countries measured by gross domestic product (GDP) at purchasing power parity per capita (World Bank, n.d.). Reasons for Uganda’s poor performance include the civil war and conflicts that raged in the country after independence. After independence in 1962, the education system in Uganda was considered relatively good (Altinyelken, 2010a), but it was severely damaged by the political chaos and civil war that ravaged the country in the following two decades (Altinyelken, 2010b).

Since its civil war ended in 1986, the Ugandan primary education system has been growing and expanding, but great challenges remain. The state of education is reflected in poor student performance and retention. After the introduction of universal primary education and the elimination of school fees in 1997, enrollment rose dramatically (Grogan, 2009). However, in 2003 only 22% of the cohort that entered the education system in 1997 graduated from Grade 7 (typically age 12-13), which suggests that retention is a bigger challenge than enrollment. This situation is in part an expression of the low quality of education, which has been the focus of government and NGO efforts in recent years (Lucas et al., 2014). Nevertheless, it is estimated that only one in three children who starts primary school continues up to the last grade (Grade 7) in sub-Saharan Africa (UNESCO, 2014).

The language of instruction policy has changed several times, which is both an expression of political instability and of the fact that most Ugandan languages are poorly established as literary languages, making it challenging to use them for instruction. While the British Protectorate government largely promoted regional languages, the first Ugandan government changed to English as the language ofinstruction. Swahili, an important language in several neighboring countries and parts of Uganda, became the second official language in 2005, and it is to some extent taught as a foreign language (Jjingo & Visser, 2017; Ssentanda & Nakayiza, 2017). The current policy stipulates that local languages should be used for teaching in the lower grades in rural areas, whereas English is the language of instruction from Grade 4 (typically ages 9-10) and in urban areas (Meierkord et al., 2016). In practice, however, parents and some teachers often prefer English to be taught from Grade 1 (typically ages 5-6), and teaching in English beginning with this grade is a common practice in spite of the government policy (Ssentanda, 2016).

Extensive reading is one of the key factors in developing reading and language skills (Garan & DeVoogd, 2008), but without proper access to books, reading is severely constrained. The scarcity of reading materials in Ugandan schools has been highlighted by researchers (see, e.g., Dent & Goodman, 2015). Teachers in Uganda often make wall charts and vocabulary cards, and write on the blackboard, but these activities do not adequately compensate for the lack of books.

Several research projects have investigated storybooks in African schools, often as part of an intervention where teachers were trained in a particular way of teaching. In two projects in South Africa, Nassimbeni and Desmond (2011) and Pretorius and Machet (2008) equipped schools with storybooks. Both studies trained teachers in the use of the books and found some positive effects, including improved motivation and literacy-related skills, but that research also noted a lack of use and display of books. In a study from Malawi, Sailors et al. (2014) found that even though teachers were coached in methods such as read-alouds, guided reading, and comprehension strategy teaching, the training did little to change how they taught. Other studies (e.g., Sailors et al., 2010) are a bit more encouraging, but the review of the literature shows that providing books is only part of the solution. Actively using books in teaching and increasing students’ reading inside and outside the classroom is also required, but there is little research on /гон> teachers use stories or books, which is the focus of the study reported in this chapter.

The research took place in northwestern Uganda, close to the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, both of which have experienced conflicts that have led to an influx of refugees cross the Ugandan border. Because of the conflict and poor state of education in their country, some parents from South Sudan send their children to go to school in Uganda, including to the ASb pilot school that was part of this research. These children did not speak Lugbara, the local language, and lived in Uganda without their parents, which is indicative both of the value placed on education in the region as well as the dire conditions in neighboring South Sudan.

The lack of storybooks to support early reading development in African schools is the major driving force of the ASb, which was developed by Saide (formerly SAIDE, the South African Institute for Distance Education) to promote multilingual literacy for young African students (Welch & Glennie, 2016). The

ASb website collects and provides openly licensed digital stories for use in schools and communities in Africa. New stories can be written and uploaded by teachers, parents, librarians, and other community members. When the website was launched in March 2014, schools, libraries, and other institutions had been recruited to serve as pilot sites to try out the website in three countries. The pilot sites received a projector, an internet modem, and a laptop computer to project the stories, as well as a grant for miscellaneous expenses. The pilot site where this study took place used the grant to refurbish a classroom, including installing electrical wiring, a door, windows, and metal bars in the window openings as a security measure. The teachers attended a workshop on how to use the computer and internet, because none of them had ever done this before.

At my suggestion, the school also received five titles in English and four in Lugbara (the local language), printed as simple booklets in a photocopying shop in the capital, Kampala. The school received 50 copies of each title. Two other schools in the area, which were not ASb pilot sites, were given copies of the same books and were included in the research to expand the scope of the study. Data from one of those schools are also reported here, along with data from the pilot site school.

The ASb pilot site is located in central Arua and has 1,700 students and 34 teachers. The courtyard is kept clean by students, and a few trees, patches of grass, and flowerbeds give it an appealing and welcoming appearance. Even though it is bigger, more centrally located, and perhaps even better equipped than most schools in the region, the classrooms are overcrowded (60-90 students), and teachers sometimes go for months without pay. The school charges school fees, which were used to hire two more teachers to reduce the student/teacher ratio. However, during the fieldwork, the children whose parents could not pay the fees were sent home. Education, though greatly appreciated, is not affordable for everyone.

English was a subject in all grades, and the number of 30-minute lessons allotted to this subject increased from five per week in Grade 1 to ten in Grades 2 to 4. Literacy was a separate subject in Grades 1 to 3, with ten 30-minute lessons per week in Grade 1 and twelve lessons in Grades 2 and 3. In spite of the government policy, some teachers taught literacy in English rather than in the local language.

Research Question Addressed

The doctoral research that this chapter is based on was primarily a study on teacher identity (Stranger-Johannessen & Norton, 2017, 2019). It argued that teaching resources and prevailing ideologies framed—and to some extent constrained— teachers’ work and their investment in the use of stories (Stranger-Johannessen, 2017a). As a digital initiative, the ASb required the teachers to navigate the internet and operate unfamiliar equipment, which they managed relatively well with the help of more experienced colleagues (Stranger-Johannessen, 2017b). This chapter, however, focuses on teachers’ responses to the introduction of stories through the

ASb in the teaching of English and the practices they developed as a result. The research question I address here is: How do Ugandan primary school teachers respond to the introduction of stories in the teaching of English?

Research Methods

Data Collection Procedures

The fieldwork for this research took place at three schools in the last six months of 2014, but here I only analyze data from teachers at two of the schools. The data consisted of classroom observations of all lessons throughout the fieldwork, interviews with 13 teachers from Grades 1 through 4 and two headteachers, and focus group discussions with the teachers. The interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim (except for two, during which I took extensive notes). Field notes are at the heart of ethnographic research and other field research: “If you are not writing field notes, then you are not conducting field research” (Bailey, 2007, p. 113). I took extensive notes, mainly during classroom observations.

Berg and Lune (2012) offer the simple definition of an interview as “a conversation with a purpose” (p. 105), which covers the essentials, but also omits the immense theoretical and methodological concerns that arise with using interviews as a method. As with most other methodological choices, the type of interviews should be informed by one’s research design, research questions, and other aspects of methodology (Bailey, 2007). Semi-structured interviews are common, perhaps because they offer a balance between carefully worded and thought-through questions, and the ability to probe and ask follow-up questions. I chose this type of interview for this reason.

The combination of observations and interviews served to triangulate the data (Miles et al., 2019) and allowed me to combine my observations and interpretations of lessons with the teachers’ reflections and rationale for how they taught. All but one of the teachers were female, which reflects the tendency for women to teach in primary schools, particularly in the lower grades. Male teachers are more often found in higher grades in Uganda, as was the case at these participating schools.

Data Analysis Procedures

In order to facilitate the data analysis, the interview transcriptions were analyzed using NVivo. Thematic analysis was used to code the interview data. This approach entails a process of reducing and making sense of large amounts of data, as well as assisting the researcher in making sense of what stands out as significant. This approach is not to say that thematic analysis can uncover the truth, but rather it facilitates and provides a justification for an interpretation of the data that is ultimately that of the researcher. The total impression of the research, both through objective data, such as transcribed text, and more subjective impressions such as hunches and assumptions based on prior experiences and reviews of the literature, contributes to the thematic analysis (Miles et al., 2019).

Codes were developed partly as a priori codes based on the conceptual framework (see Stranger-Johannessen, 2017b) and literature review, and partly based on themes that arose from the process of reading through the transcripts with an eye for salient issues, such as “characteristics of a good teacher,” “parents,” and “drama or acting.” This process of combining deductive and inductive approaches to coding is known as retroductive coding (Ragin, 1994), which means that the codebook evolves along with the coding process. The next step of the thematic analysis was making connections between the codes to develop broader categories or themes that were in keeping with the conceptual framework and literature and represented a condensed, meaningful interpretation of the data.

Findings and Discussion

Stories were only used in some lessons, but when they were used the amount of reading that took place usually increased, as virtually all other reading in the classroom was what the teacher had written on the blackboard or on vocabulary flashcards. The teachers at the pilot site mostly projected stories onto a makeshift screen (i.e., a bedsheet) or handed out booklets to the students. The teachers at the non-pilot school included in the study did not have a projector but handed out books. The four lessons described below represent some of the innovative ways in which the teachers incorporated the stories into the curriculum and created lessons around them.

Story as Drama

Music, oral storytelling, dance, and drama are often associated with African culture. Although drama in a narrow Aristotelian sense may not have existed in pre-colonial Africa (for a discussion on this topic, see Losambe & Sarinjeive, 2001), various forms of recitals and storytelling have clearly been part of African culture, and not least education, for a long time. Modem schooling has entailed a shift away from this oral tradition in favor of rote learning and vocabulary at the expense of creative production and comprehension in English language learning, as well as in education in general. Written stories represent a way of bridging the cultural divide between oral storytelling culture and text-based learning, but making this connection still requires a fair amount of effort on the part of the teacher.

The Grade 4 teacher, Santurumino (all names are real, in accordance with the teachers’ stated preference), used the story Akatope (Kariuki, 2014) as the basis for a play that the students created and performed. The story is about a childless old woman who makes a girl out of clay. The girl, Akatope, starts to dissolve when she is caught in the rain. Before the villagers can offer an orphan girl as replacement, Akatope returns. The story is short with no direct speech, so the students had to write the dialogue needed to turn it into a play, as the teacher explained:

I didn’t write the dialogue. And I just made them to use the right words, the exact words of Akatope. The right words, not of Akatope, but the right words in the story. They had to use their creativity, and they used their imagination, that the Akatope used with their own words. “I am Akatope, these are the words of Akatope in the story.” “I am the mother; this is the word of the mother of Akatope in the story.” So they have to use those words. Use those words only to act the drama. The original words from myself reading it.

(Santurumino, Interview, 26 November 2014)

The students enjoyed the play and spoke and joked about it afterwards, clearly engaged in this kind of activity that differed notably from the lecture-style instruction that dominated lessons. Santurumino had taught the same story in the conventional way of reading it with the whole class first, so this dramatization was an expansion of the topic, and a way of giving more emphasis to written and spoken language production. Although the story itself contains fairly conventional gender roles, the fact that the protagonist was a girl meant that a female student got to play the part of Akatope. The play became a way for the children to assume an identity different from that of passively listening and providing answers to closed questions, and Santurumino pointed out the broad purpose of turning the story into a school drama: “I just felt these children could understand better by acting, so I felt also to have confidence in these children. These children, I wanted to see how they can express themselves” (Santurumino, Interview, 6 August 2014).

Story as Scaffolding for Vocabulary and Writing

Using tangibles, such as plants, toys, paper cuttings, and clay objects was a way in which teachers made their lessons more stimulating and provided scaffolding. An example of such use of tangibles is Jemily’s teaching of the story Akatope (Kariuki, 2014) in Grade 3, where she combined clay models, gestures, and imitations with the teaching of a story in a way that scaffolded vocabulary learning and the writing exercise that followed the reading of the story:

The teacher Jemily hands out the Akatope booklets and asks the students to tell her what they see at the cover page. The students say they see a girl who is dancing. Jemily talks about what makes a person happy (as an explanation to why a person dances) and asks a lot of questions. She says the girl is Black, and that since Africans are Black, this is a book for Africans. She shows a clay model of a head and asks about eyes, ears, etcetera, and explains that it is possible to make a doll out of clay soil. She invites a student to stand up and represent “a real human being,” a phrase from the story. The teacher demonstrates “elderly woman” by hunching and pretending to walk with a stick, to the students’ roaring laughter. She proceeds with such demonstrations of key vocabulary, including antonyms. In the end the students write a sort of cloze exercise based on the story. After the lesson Jemily comes to me and says the story matches the theme, “Things we make.”

(Field notes, 7 November 2014)

Some aspects of this class were quite typical, such as the rereading of the story and questions and answers. But the lesson was notably varied, humorous, and connected with the curricular topic (“Things we make”) and the final written activity provided more scaffolding than most other written exercises. While the clay head and imitations enriched the story, the lesson was centered on the story, which provided the context for the words and sentences and made them meaningful and engaging. In contrast, conventional lessons often used random sentences and words without context.

Story as Bridge to Life Experiences

The stories served to connect the lesson in the classroom to the students’ experiences outside, as the stories held familiar themes, characters, and narratives with which the students would be familiar. The oral storytelling tradition meant that the students knew the genre of stories, which often included a moral lesson (Eisemon et al., 1986). One such story was One Hot Saturday Afternoon (Thabane, 2014), in which children go for a swim in the river, only to realize that cows ate their clothes and they had to walk home in their underwear. Judith, the Grade 1 teacher, expanded on the story by talking to the students about the risk of bathing in rivers and engaged in an open-ended whole-class conversation about this and other dangers. They also discussed what they saw in the illustrations, and the students thoroughly enjoyed the illustration of the three children in their underwear. The story provided context and vocabulary for addressing risks in daily life and made it easier for the students and teacher to move beyond the closed questions and choral responses that usually dominated the student—teacher interactions.

Story as Change Agent

Another example of opening a conversation and bridging the content of a lesson and the outside world was the teacher Monica’s use of the story Andiswa Soccer Star (Daniels, 2014) to address stereotypical views of gender roles among her Grade 3 students. In this story, the girl Andiswa wants to play football, but the coach tells her football is for boys and netball is for girls. Later, Andiswa attends a match as a spectator, and when one of the players is sick, the coach lets Andiswa play on the team. She scores, and her team wins the game.

Monica taught physical education as well as literacy, and as she showed the front cover, with Andiswa looking at the football field, she asked her students which lesson this was. The students guessed almost all other subjects, but not physical education, as they apparently did not think reading had anything to do with that subject. The story was in English, but she switched between English and Lugbara in her questions to the students. She chose the story because the very same gender stereotypes that the story is about were present at her school. Even in her physical education lessons, boys would not pass the ball to the girls, effectively excluding them from the game. Before the lesson she asked the students if they thought girls could play football, and they said “no.” After the lesson she asked again, and they said “yes.” In the interview, Monica was animated as she explained:

Yes, it really helped me. It changed the attitudes of boys, where they could think that a girl is not supposed to play football. But this time when I go for my physical education lesson, when I prepare a lesson about football, they don’t now complain, they don’t kick the ball away from the girls. They just play together like that. This time they have started attitude change instead. It helped me a lot.

(Monica, Interview, 27 November 2014)

The story not only helped Monica change the attitudes of the boys, as she put it, but it also repositioned her as a teacher who could address the challenge of gender stereotypes and discrimination. The story resonated with the students and reflected their world, while at the same time challenging it. For Monica, the story gave her not just a pretext for raising this issue, but also the authority by virtue of the story as a moral guide. Without the story, Monica might not even have raised her concerns with the students, and if she had it would probably have had much less effect. It is not known whether boys now include girls when they play football, but the story, and the conversation around it, was still an important step in questioning the traditional gender norms.

Implications for Policy, Practice, and Future Research

There is considerable interest in providing storybooks to African schools, and literacy programs and school libraries are bringing books to an increasing number of students. Teachers who have little or no prior experience with using storybooks might need some basic support to get started, but extensive training programs are expensive, and they run the risk of imposing outside methods and perspectives. This research has demonstrated some of the ways in which the teachers connected the new practice of teaching using ASb stories with their conventional teaching methods and views of teaching English as well as other subjects. Although these new practices were not very prevalent, their presence suggests that these are practices that the teachers developed themselves, and as such can be further developed and enhanced with time and support.

The scarcity of books and other reading materials in most of Africa means that what students read is largely what they can access through school. The six months of observations in this research showed that what reading the students did in school was severely limited, and mostly consisted of the words and phrases the teacher wrote on the blackboard, even in upper primary classes. By reading stories, students can increase the overall amount of reading they do, as well as enjoy and leant from the content of the reading materials. If they are allowed to take books home, the opportunity to read will increase, and reading time will not be in conflict with teaching time. The overcrowded curriculum—often mentioned as a challenge to reading stories—should be revised to pay more attention to reading.

This research has shown how teachers—in spite of the lack of resources and other challenges—exercised their agency to use stories as more than mere tools for language and literacy development in a narrow sense. Apart from the evident benefits of reading stories, their use expanded the prevalent chalk-and-talk practices to much richer and more varied ways of teaching, including scaffolding learning, engaging students through drama, drawing on their life experiences, and addressing social issues. These lessons are inspirations for policy and practice and point toward research that further investigates how teachers in under-resourced contexts can use stories to improve and expand students’ learning of English as well as other subjects.


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