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Why students fail English language

With educationists troubled by the continued poor performance of students in the English language during national examinations, new measures are being explored by the education ministry and others to help improve performance.

During the release of PLE results last month, the executive secretary of the Uganda national examinations board (Uneb), Dan Odongo, said performance was poor in exams which required candidates to apply knowledge in problem-solving situations or express themselves freely.

“Candidates were more comfortable with questions that are direct and based on recall,” Odongo said.

Out of a total of 671,923 candidates who registered for PLE in 2018, performance at distinction level in English improved marginally from 4.5 per cent in 2017 to 6.3 per cent. At credit level, 54.4 per cent were noted in 2017 compared to 62.7 per cent in 2018 while at overall pass level, 85.6 per cent passes were noted in 2017 and 87.7 per cent in 2018.

English teachers and experts told The Observer that while an improvement was noticed in the PLE results, pupils’ achievement is still not encouraging. They blamed the teachers’ failure to appreciate latest teaching trends, parents’ low involvement in their children’s education, inadequate teaching materials and the learners’ negative attitude.

The curriculum specialist for English at the National Curriculum Development Centre, Elly Musana Wairagala, warned that: “Teachers are rushing the curriculum with irrelevant textbooks and don’t give learners time to practice. In primary seven, teachers want to complete the syllabus by June.” “Is this realistic? Why do you want to condense work for three terms into two terms?” he said.

He added that ideally, there should be continuous assessment as a learner progresses but schools stick to monthly, weekly and fortnight tests. Education minister Janet Museveni expressed similar concerns during the PLE results release.

“The teaching [today] appears to be theoretical and emphasises drilling of candidates on how to answer questions without understanding the underlying concepts. So, when a question requires candidates to use those concepts, many are at a loss,” Museveni said.

Robert Mutyaba, a teacher of English at Kampala Quality School, acknowledged that poor teaching methods and failure by teachers to acquaint themselves with Uneb’s latest question techniques is to blame. He said teachers no longer teach the four skills of the language which include; listening, speaking, reading and writing.

“In schools, it’s all about writing which affects output. You find a child in baby class having books; what are they writing instead of reading, listening and speaking the more?” Mutyaba asked.

“At times, baby class teachers punish children for not writing and you wonder what skills they are imparting to learners at such a tender age.” Mutyaba cited a PLE question that required giving one word for the underlined words: The doctor told me to eat mangoes, oranges and pawpaws.

“The right answer was fruit but most teachers argued that it is fruits. Remember, when we are eating, fruit is uncountable but when we are buying in the market, we say fruits because they are countable,” he said.

He said that a similar sentence is well stipulated in the primary three curriculum, but because some teachers prefer street pamphlets to authorised materials, they could have missed the topic of countable and uncountable nouns.


When government introduced the thematic curriculum in 2007, critics warned that it would affect performance in the English language.

The curriculum requires learners to study in mother tongues from primary one to three. But Musana said teachers who are not doing the right thing are using it as a scapegoat.

“It is not true. When learners are in lower primary, they pass the subject but as they progress to upper classes, they fail. Who is not doing the right thing?” he asked.

In a bid to improve comprehension and oral skills, NCDC is revising the Nile English Course textbook to suit the curriculum. The book was first published in 1970 and later reprinted in 1971, 1973, 1982 and 1986.

In 2018, NCDC revised the primary five learner’s book and teacher’s guides that are due for distribution this year while primary six and seven editions will come in subsequent years. For primary four and below, Musana said they will continue to use the existing materials as “we get funding to revise their editions.”

Musana believes the book will help learners and teachers become more fluent in the subject as opposed to cramming.


At secondary level, Uneb also noted lack of skills in speech writing with many candidates finding difficulties in using correct protocol, spellings and tenses.

“Candidates also find difficulty in inferring answers from passages but could answer direct questions. In creative composition writing, there are still very many incidents of candidates reproducing crammed passages irrespective of the question they are answering; and using inappropriate vocabulary,” Odongo said.

The challenge of language deficiency is reflected in performance in other subjects where chief examiners continue to report problems of question interpretation, misunderstanding key words and generally poor language expression.

Angela Kyagaba, a senior English curriculum specialist (secondary) at NCDC, said with the ongoing government-inspired preference for sciences, some students don’t appreciate that good scientists must be able to write, communicate, and access information using English.

“In senior one and two, English classes are full but at senior three they [students] don’t attend the lessons. Even if you get distinctions in other subjects and fail English and Mathematics, you automatically go to another division,” Kyagaba said.

She attributed failure in speech writing to social media and SMS because teachers do not guide students on acceptable formal and informal language.


The commissioner Teacher Instructor Education and Training, Dr Jane Egau, observed that teachers are also still struggling with teaching comprehension.

“As a ministry, we have put so much emphasis on early grade reading yet comprehension is another skill lacking in our teachers. The good thing is that we know where the problem lies now and we should be able to address it,” Egau said.

Effective this year, the ministry is emphasising continuous professional development for teachers. Willy Ssekagya Kasirye, a senior tutor of English language, said teachers in service need retooling.

“Can you imagine we used to admit students with passes in English and Maths. What do you expect them to be teaching in schools? [Two years ago], the policy changed to credits and we have better students in colleges that will translate into good English teachers,” he said.



+1 #1 frogmanx 2019-03-01 16:05
Uganda English has become very poor over the years. A primary student from back in the day was very eloquent by primary 7, nowadays you have university students who can't express themselves.

Maybe our teachers have become lazy? Maybe the teachers aren't qualified anymore?
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+1 #2 Sabiti 2019-03-01 18:54
Indeed, the gaps in our spoken English are astonishing!

Just pick any newspaper in Uganda and you will be shocked by the amount of errors contained therein.

During our time (in the good old days), we used to have inter-school debates. We also used to have heated debates during sports, called "challenging", with students from the opposing school.

I am not sure if these debates still happen in our primary and secondary schools. The problem may not necessarily be the English. Our style of writing and speaking English has changed and this has largely been influenced by social media.

We shorten words so we can write them quickly e.g. "hi" meaning "hello", "dia" meaning "dear". We even make sentences such as "I am good" to mean "I am alright"; "me thinks...." to mean "I think" etc.

We shouldn't expect children to do well in class when we speak rubbish into their ears everyday!
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0 #3 Akot 2019-03-02 21:39
Sabiti, thanks.

Every parent in Uganda MUST know it's English that will give every child chance!

DRCongo, Rwanda have put Enjglish up on school programme! French increased English lesson hours, EU helps students perfection in UK-USA...!

Ugandans must know the English language, just like them UNITING to take back their country, is priority, if they want a future for their children & be part of today world in which English is business, tourism, thus development!

If European Union needs English, why would Uganda not do so?
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0 #4 Akot 2019-03-02 21:47

You know, during out school days, we were not allowed to speak vernacular but just English at school!

But then, Uganda was part of the rest of the world of course & students were so proud to speak good English!

Can you believe, we used to write English in shorthand then translate it in real worlds for every one to read!

When will Ugandans throw Museveni out to get chance to reorganise themselves & start building the country, knowing without English, there is no what they will make it?

The African Union uses English too, right?
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