Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Teaching Patwa can be useful

Published:Friday | September 2, 2016 | 9:00 AM


I am responding to the article Jamaican patwa in education? No thanks by Barbara Blake in The Sunday Gleaner of August 28, 2016. Having taught reading for many years, I have come to the conclusion that more success would be achieved by teaching children in 'patwa', using the phonetic spellings in Cassidy's dictionary than by teaching them in Standard Jamaican English (SJE). When learning to read, it is important that the child understands the purpose of the exercise, i.e., that it is to communicate ideas. The ideas, therefore, should be within his range of comprehension. He is not simply decoding words for the sake of it. Learning to write goes along with learning to read - it should be a source of pride to a child that he can transmit his own ideas to others in writing. He would find this easier in patwa. A 5-year-old patwa-speaking child would not be able to transmit his ideas in SJE when starting school. If he sees no purpose in either reading or writing, he will soon lose interest and motivation. He will be more interested in playing, which will be considered bad behaviour.


Another damaging effect of teaching children to read in SJE is on their self-esteem. Their mother tongue is demoted to a second-class language, and by extension, they become second-class citizens. Many of them come to resent SJE as the language of the upper classes and of former colonial masters. They are not motivated to study it and later perform badly in English exams.

The English language itself is not the easiest to learn to read, even among native speakers. The highest rate of dyslexia is found in English-speaking countries. A child can be taught letters and blend sounds, but applying them has limited success. Why does 'u' sound differently in 'put' and 'cut'? Why are cough, bough, dough, enough and through all pronounced differently when they differ only in their beginning letters? Why is the 'ch' blend pronounced differently in 'chair', 'Charlotte' and 'Christmas'? A teacher has to mix phonics with 'look and say' methods. When I was using this method, a young pupil of mine who was to read "Look at the bird", said "See de bud dey". He had remembered the idea and translated it into patwa.


Studies have shown that children who learn to read in their mother tongue, as in Curacao and Haiti, transfer this skill to reading a second language more easily than if they had been taught to read in the second language. The question then arises as to how soon SJE should be introduced. My suggestion would be in grade two, hopefully by which time most of the children would be reading fluently in patwa. There could be a gradual transition through grades two and three, so that most of grade four material is taught in SJE. However, the results of the study done by Professor Devonish might suggest a later transition. An interesting observation from that study was that boys performed much better when taught in patwa. I don't think that anyone is suggesting that patwa should be the language of teaching at the secondary level and above. However, teaching in patwa in the early grades of primary school could result in a tremendous improvement in the performance in the category of children who are not currently benefiting as they should from their education.

Helen Williams