When the challenge is teaching teachers English

png 1Sarah Wiles is a communications specialist for Voluntary Services Overseas in Papua New Guinea, where she has been living for the past three years.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is the most linguistically diverse country in the world with over 850 different languages spoken across this remote and rugged terrain. Tok Pisin, an English-based creole, is the most widely spoken language but, when PNG became independent in 1975, English became the official language of state and schooling.  This means that children after elementary age are part of the 40% of the global population that do not have access to education in a language that they speak or understand.  The government’s belief is that it is in the best interest of the child to quickly move away from vernacular language to open up more opportunities for them.

PNG 01 | Teaching phonics, Mapemo, Goroka | Sarah WilesIn PNG from the age of seven, English is the language of instruction with teachers bridging between English and local languages, Tok Ples or Tok Pisin. Having English as the main language of instruction comes with many challenges; the biggest is that many teachers who live in remote communities themselves don’t have a strong grasp of English.  In 2013, Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) and the British Council conducted comprehensive research on elementary teachers in four provinces of PNG that showed 46.7% of teachers had limited proficiency and 40.4% had extremely limited proficiency in English language.  


In a country with very isolated villages that take days to reach, in daily life people don’t hear, read or use English language at all .  Instead they are immersed in a world of Tok Ples and Tok Pisin and English simply has no use.  Some Tok Ples pronunciation creates a barrier when teaching phonics.  In a recent VSO workshop in Wewak, one district elementary teacher trainer explained: “In our own Tok Ples we don’t have some of the sounds in English so when teachers are asked to teach these sounds they have difficulty as they can’t ‘hear’ that sound in their own language.”

Many people who speak Tok Ples have been pronouncing something in a certain way their whole life. With very little preparation or careful training, they’re suddenly expected to grasp a whole new concept of pronunciation. Some sounds in Tok Ples  are written in the same way as in English but are pronounced completely differently causing further confusion.  Another considerable challenge is that in some Tok Ples there are no orthographies, the conventional spelling system of a language, or a list of decoded graphemes, a letter or number that represents a sound, making reading and writing more problematic.

PNG 05 | Language lesson, Buka, Bougainville | Sarah WilesAside from pronunciation, many teachers have had insufficient training and are only just beginning to learn engaging, inclusive strategies that move them away from chalk-and-talk.

Carol Leo, language teacher trainer from Divine Word University St. Benedicts Teacher Training College in Wewak, East Sepik, told us that “For people living in settlements, English isn’t spoken in the house. This means that children find it very difficult to communicate in English.  Tok Pisin itself confuses things as there are so many words that are coined from English.  It is a really big problem with very little being done at national level.  Trainee teachers are struggling to complete full sentences due to poor quality training.  VSO has helped language lecturers with training and new strategies but the challenge is implementing this more widely as this work has just scratched the surface.”

VSO is the world’s leading independent international development organisation that places highly skilled volunteers in developing countries to help fight poverty. In recent years VSO has been involved in national education reforms in PNG. This has included implementing a Language Support Programme, which involves working collaboratively with teacher trainers to redesign the language teacher training modules.  The innovative project supports children’s early language development by creating and recording contextual audio resources.

The audio resource, which was disseminated across all of PNG’s twenty-two provinces, comprised of Tok Ples and Tok Pisin songs in addition to English songs and spoken word urban legends.  This was the first ever, contextual audio resource widely used in PNG classrooms that helped children hear other language, see the words alongside it and to bridge from Tok Pisin to English.  This inclusive material helps to enhance learning and gives students from marginalised backgrounds the chance to learn more effectively.  For in service teachers the project produced micro memory cards that can slot directly into mobile phones, loaded with audio lessons demonstrating the pronunciation of English phonemes to help with pronunciation.  To compliment these resources for the children, open source videos that are free to share and use, have also been made featuring language strategies for trainee teachers helping them to move away from textbooks by giving them visual prompts.

VSO is also working with PNG’s Department of Education to tackle the issue of limited English comprehension among teachers. This work involves supporting the development of a teacher training curriculum that is going to produce teachers that have some capacity to teach English as a language of instruction, as well as preparing them to identify specific teaching strategies that support the young learner’s transition into primary school where every subject is taught in English.

PNG 06 | Language lesson in the library, Enga | Sarah WilesIf teachers are struggling to use English as their first language, how can children be expected to flourish? The government is aware of these challenges but with the recent launch of a standards-based curriculum that reinforces English as the language of instruction, the country is moving further away from the possibility of quality language teaching.  With global education targets that prioritise equality, education for all and lifelong learning, the issue of poor language comprehension is under the spotlight. It is without doubt that there needs to be more emphasis on supporting teachers to improve the overall quality of language teaching in PNG.



  1. The biggest problem of English is the complex orthography. Other creoles like Jamaican and Sierra Leone Krio have been written in consistent spelling. Hopefully Tok Pisin has been written also. (You can read tok pisin = talk pidgin). Students should be initially taught reading in that transparent orthography and change into standard English grammar later.

  2. Yes, i completely agree with you and one faces a lot of problem from pronouncing words to framing sentences and since most teacher aren’t having knowledge themselve i think a solution for this would be to learn English in foreign country and Education First can help you with that as one can learn not only English but also other languages like French, German, Spanish etc.

  3. It is true that English is more or less the lingua franca of many nations today. The solution to the problem of teaching English should be focussed on what the stakeholders expect to do with the knowledge of English. Do they want to be teachers/professionals or want to migrate to developed countries for employment or do they aspire to be tourist guides in their own country etc.. Thus the course and methodologies should vary with the needs of the client. However, if we commence teaching standard English with grammar as the basis it would be well nigh impossible for them to comprehend, understand and be versatile, well-knowing the complications of the language of English, for them to pursue learning taking an interest in the subject.

  4. Very well written Sarah, thank you for sharing your experience and perspective. Teaching English as a second language can definitely be more challenging than people imagine. It is so important to have adequate training and support for teaching for any program to be successful.

Leave a Reply