Mon | Mar 30, 2020

Rhonda Williams | Thematic approach needed to teach CSEC English language

Published:Tuesday | February 19, 2019 | 12:22 AM
As much as we fail to admit it, the students who sit CSEC English in this region are really learning English as a second language, even though they are not taught English as a second language.

Last year’s sitting of the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examination for English language recorded a 68 per cent pass (JIS News). Albeit satisfactory, passes in CSEC English language have always remained a long-standing concern. Educators and other stakeholders have been burdened with the task of figuring out the winning formula that would yield results of at least 80 per cent of students passing the exam.

One such ‘winning’ formula that teachers often exhaust is to encourage students to read ‘widely’, as success in the exam is heavily dependent upon knowledge of various topics, ranging from science, culture, economics, governance, and the list goes on. So it was no surprise when I found myself heavily criticising my students for having very little knowledge of just about everything.

In one particular summary writing class, the stimulus for the activity was based on globalisation and transnational crime. The students were given some questions to stimulate their understanding of the extract. When it was time to discuss the responses to the questions, they struggled to respond, almost as if the discussion in the extract was completely lost upon them.

A far-fetched thought then came to me: could it be that they don’t know what globalisation is and therefore they are unable to contextualise the discussion?

I then made a daring move.

I asked, “What is globalisation?”

One student responded with much uncertainty, “The cutting down of trees, Miss?”

That response propelled me to then ask, “What is global warming?”

The responses were disastrous.

After a proper ‘tongue lashing’ on the importance of social and cultural awareness to be successful in the exam, I suspended all summary skills lessons until they each return to the next class with a correct definition of ‘global warming’ and ‘globalisation’ and present one fact they learnt about each topic.

Following that, I used an entire class to teach both topics before I moved on to teaching summary skills.


Then just Friday, a repeat of the situation occurred. This time the topic was ‘border protection and national security’. I had to pause teaching summary skills to teach the role of Customs departments in monitoring the entry of goods received at the ports, as this was crucial to understanding the main points in the extract.

After this experience, I thought to myself again, how could they not know the functions of a Customs department?

Then mid-thought it hit me; perhaps the structure of the exam just does not facilitate our ‘modern’ children and our expectations of them; that is, to have knowledge of a wide range of topics is really unrealistic.

I am, therefore, of the opinion that, since we have conceded that this generation of school-age children learn and process information differently, and teachers are expected to adjust their strategies to meet their learning needs, then it is only fair that the assessment tool is also adjusted to facilitate same.

As much as we fail to admit it, the students who sit CSEC English in this region are really learning English as a second language, even though they are not taught English as a second language (that is another battle to be fought at another time) and, therefore, the examination really needs to focus its assessment on testing the students’ ability to use the English language (written and spoken) rather than the students’ capacity for general knowledge.

In exploring my position, I analysed the structure of the CSEC Spanish examination in comparison to the CSEC English examination: both non-native languages among CARICOM states.

The CSEC Spanish examination adopts a thematic approach for the content used as stimuli to test the language skills to be assessed; each unit to be studied has a different theme. Therefore, neither students nor teachers are overly caught up in deconstructing the stimuli for understanding, but instead, they get to focus on the language skills to be developed for assessment.

Similarly, the City and Guilds English examination has a thematic structure. Each year, a new theme is selected and all stimuli used throughout the course of preparing for the exam are centred on a singular theme.

Examples of themes used by City and Guilds are ‘Employability’, ‘Science and Technology’, ‘Tourism’, ‘Music’, etc. The examination body even goes as far as to provide a vocabulary list of the words students should expect to encounter from the theme during the exam period. Likewise, this exam structure gives students and teachers maximum opportunity to focus on the language skills to be developed for assessment, and students and teachers are not burdened by the pressures of having to navigate through random topic selections that the students may or may not be knowledgeable of and, as a result, robs them of the opportunity to demonstrate their language skills.


While one of the main objectives of the CSEC English language syllabus is to“promote in students a willingness and ability to inform themselves about, and to contribute reasoned opinions on social issues” (CSEC English syllabus 2017), there still needs to be some amount of guidance offered to teachers and students as to what areas students should inform themselves about to demonstrate their language skills.

It is quite counterproductive for teachers to have to teach an entire topic for a singular lesson on a particular language skill and when the objectives of that lesson are met, they have to teach an entire topic all over again to teach a new language skill.

This is so because teachers at the CSEC level use past-paper questions to prepare their students for the exam, and these questions often pull on knowledge from a wide range of topics that oftentimes students are just not knowledgeable of.

Therefore, the teacher is now forced to cram in one lesson, knowledge of the stimulus and development of language skills. This cramming of information in a 50-minute period is ineffective and the student neither really learns about the topic, nor do they fully grasp the language skill.

Consequently, I posit that the CSEC English examination should adopt a similar thematic approach like that of the City and Guilds English examinations and the CSEC Spanish examinations for a more realistic approach to teaching students the various language skills to be assessed in the exam. With the introduction of the School-Based Assessment (SBA) component, students are even given an additional opportunity to “inform themselves about, and to contribute reasoned opinions on social issues”.

Hence, it is perfectly acceptable, and does not compromise the legitimacy of the exam in the least bit if students are aware of the theme and topics they will encounter in the written exam.

As much as we should expect our children to be widely informed on various sociocultural issues, it is really unrealistic to expect that they will have knowledge of everything and, therefore, they should be prepared to discuss any possible topic that will appear on the exam.

A thematic approach, however, would at least ensure that students have comprehensive knowledge of at least one societal topic, and at the same time provide teachers with more opportunity to focus on developing their language skills.

-Rhonda Williams is a teacher of English A, City and Guilds and Communication Studies; English A lecturer/presenter for The Gleaner’s Youthlink CSEC Seminar; BEd, language education, and MA, cultural studies. Email feedback to