Mastery of Language of Instruction and Its Influence on Student Academic Performance: Evidence from Secondary Schools in Tanzania

Paschal Banga Nade


This study focused at determining the relationship between the language of instruction which is English in this case and the student overall subject performance in secondary schools in Tanzania. A cross-section design was employed and data were collected through the National Examination of Tanzania Website. Three secondary schools from three different regions in Tanzania were purposively selected in this study. The findings show that student performance in English language as the language of instruction has an influence on overall subject performance. The students who scored F and E grades in English language, their respective overall subjects GPA fall under Fail and Pass categories. While the student who scored C and above grades, their overall GPA fall under Credit, Merit and Distinction categories. No significant relationship has been found between language of instruction performance and sex of the students. Further recommendation and analysis has been made clear in this document.

Key words: mastery, language of instruction, academic performance


 Learning process is facilitated by using a language that learners understand best as the medium of instruction. Language of instruction is a vehicle through which education is delivered and is an indispensable medium for carrying, or transmitting education from teachers to learners and among learners (Qoro, 2006). Essentially, language mastery / competence is ones’ underlying knowledge of the system of a language – its rules of grammar, its vocabulary, all the pieces of a language and how those pieces fit together ( Bodunde and Akeredolu-Ale, 2010).

 Øzerk (1999) argues that linguistic interaction constitutes a significant part of any learning activity and that the quality of the linguistic interaction in learning activities consequently represents an important factor in the learning effect of school subjects. He points to two important processes involved in teaching and learning, which are referred to as input and intake. He explains that input in this respect refers to the intensity, or frequency of the language of instruction the teacher confronts the student with during a learning period. The process of intake decides how much of the total amount of this the student understands and is able to attain. A precondition in transforming input into intake is understanding. Mlay, (2010) noted that children who had a language background of studying English from kindergarten or class one and a home environment that was supportive which allowed them to practice English with family or with friends, had a positive contribution in helping them learn English language while those who started English later (from class three) and usually spoke Kiswahili or their mother tongue at home or with friends indicated that their poor competence in English was due to the weak foundation from primary school.

Still a number of developing countries, especially in Africa maintained a foreign language as the medium of instruction, particularly in post- primary education (Galabawa and Lwaitama, 2005)  For example, English is the language of instruction in secondary schools in Tanzania as stipulated in the national education policy of 1995 and of course in the proposed new policy of education of 2014 which state that the medium of instruction for secondary education shall continue to be English, except for teaching of approved languages, and Kiswahili shall be a compulsory subject up to ordinary level. The rationale given in the document as to why English is to be used as the medium of instruction at post-primary education is that most instructional media and pedagogical materials are written in the English language and it is assumed that the situation is likely to remain so for a long time in the foreseeable future (Tibategeza, 2010).

Neke, (2003) noted  that the continued use of English language as medium of instruction in post-primary education in Tanzania makes it difficult for students at these levels to understand and internalize scientific and technological principles due to their poor proficiency. Some secondary school teachers teach in Kiswahili to make the subject matter easier instead of English which is officially assigned despite the fact that the examination are set in English (Senkoro, 2005)   Criper and William (1984) studied on the level of English across the education system in Tanzania confirmed that the levels of competence in English were insufficient in most schools for effective learning to take place. This study therefore, needs to establish relationship between Language of instruction and overall subjects’ exam performance.

 Statement of the problem

Recently, Language of instruction competency has been blamed as one among the factors that cause poor student exam performance in Tanzania. For example 2010-2014 National Form Four Examination results evaluation has evidenced that English language as subject was ranked second to Mathematics in terms of failure. The evaluation went further by suggesting language of instruction to be changed to Kiswahili language (Kamugisha and Mateng’e, 2014). Godfrey (2014) noted that the learning process in recent years becomes challenging for most students in secondary school as the majority of them largely lack a basic command of English language. Nevertheless, Qorro (2006) observed that only a handful of students take part in active learning and majority of students simply sit and copy notes that their teachers have written on the blackboard. UDSM Academic Audit report suggested that because of serious communication problems, they have to switch to Kiswahili as language of instruction or officially allow bilingual policy adopted at university of Dar es Salaam. Similarly, Senkoro (2005) evidenced that most students have a problem with the language of instruction; also proficiency in language is low and leaves much to be desired.

English language as medium of instruction is noted as an obstacle in learning for secondary school and higher institutions in Tanzania. Students lack proficiency in expressing themselves and therefore limit their participation in the general learning process especially learner centrered approach of learning. Qorro (2006) further assert that, as a matter of efficiency and efficacy, only the language which teachers and students understand can effectively function as the language of instruction. Only when teachers and students understand the language of instruction are able to discuss, debate, ask and answer questions, ask for clarification and therefore construct and generate knowledge.

Studies have concentrated on identifying those competency based limitations such as grammar, fluency in speaking and the presentations in writings, however, the overall mastery/competency relationship on other subjects measured in terms of exam performance at individual level has not being clearly addressed hence creating a gap for this study.  Thus, the study therefore needs to establish, indeed, if language of instruction mastery have an influence on overall subjects’ exam performance (evaluated in grades and Great Average Point (GPA)).

Bilingual Late-Exit Education Model

Although teacher quality plays a crucial role in facilitating the acquisition of English by students, it is arguable, based on child development research, that the manner in which the language is introduced to students in the earlier years of their development may be the reason of their inability to develop sufficient competencies in the language in later years (Tikolo, 2012). The presumption here is that cognitive development for language is the foundation of language learning, while other factors such as teacher competency facilitate the development of this already developed foundation.

A late-exit transition model involves the delay of transition from mother tongue as a medium of instruction to a different target language to year five to six (Ouane and Glanz, 2011). An efficient late-exit model which maintains the mother tongue beyond year five to six as a subject can lead to additive bilingualism, where effective first and second language pedagogy is used in the classroom along with adequate content area literacy instruction. It is for that reason, Tanzania employs a late-exit transitional bilingual model where mother tongue (Kiswahili) is the instructional language for 8 years and then a switch is made to English. The official language of instruction in Tanzania as articulated in its Education and Training Policy (United Republic of Tanzania, 1995/2014) in pre-primary and throughout primary education is Kiswahili, the local language spoken across the country, while English is to be taught as a compulsory subject. Thereafter, English is to become the medium of instruction from secondary school onward with Kiswahili taught as a compulsory subject.

Student Medium of Instruction Language mastery and overall subjects performance

Aina  et al, (2013) made a correlation between proficiency in English language and academic performance of students in science and technical education, they found that students in technical education performed better than their counterpart in science education; students who passed English language performed better than those who failed both in science and technical education. Similarly, a prediction research done by Kong et al, (2012)   indicated that English language proficiency scores are significantly predictive of academic reading test scores for K–12 EL (America) students. However, the magnitude of the relationship depends on the content alignment between the assessments and characteristics of the populations included in the study

Likewise the study that aimed to measure the relationship between English Language subject performance on the Accessing Communication and Comprehension in English State to State (ACCESS) for English Language Learners (ELLs) and Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) have shown that when student characteristics are held constant, a significant positive, though moderate, relationship exists between Els’ performances on the ACCESS for ELLs and CRCT. Also the findings show that the time spent in English language development programs along with disability status and grade levels explain more variance in CRCT scores than students’ ELP scores and gender (Margaret, 2011).

Regarding the students’ proficiency in secondary school in Tanzania (Gran, 2007) noted that the number which is  getting within reach of being able to read unsimplified text is less than 10%. It is extremely worrying to find that nearly one third of all students are at the picture book level after four years of official English medium education. These results are a clear indication that throughout their secondary school career little or subject information is getting across to about 50% of the pupils in his sample. Only about 10% of Form IVs are at a level where one might expect English medium education to begin. Commenting on the English situation in Tanzania, Rubanza (2002) asserts that students do lose their English skills after completing their studies because the society they work and live in does not demand the use of the English language. This suggests a major effect of poor implementation of the bilingual education in Tanzania.

 Brock-Utne (2005) did a comparative study on the language of instruction in two secondary school classrooms in Tanzania; the two languages were English (Second language) and Kiswahili (first language). As an experiment, the same teacher was teaching the same topic in biology to two different classes of Form I students in a large secondary school. The teacher taught the topics in English to one class and in Kiswahili to another class. In the English class; students were silent, grave and looked afraid, they were trying to guess the answers the teacher wanted. Also miss-pronunciation, miss-spelling, silence/poor cooperation was observed; for instance, Teacher (T): Speak loudly. (It sounded like “lovely”) One of the boys, who had been standing for a long time, tried to read in his book and when the teacher pointed at him. He said: Student (Ss): Bird. (He pronounced it “beerd”) T: Spell it. S: B – I – R – D. The teacher then wrote “bird” on the blackboard and pronounced it “bird”. While in Kiswahili class, students in Kiswahili classroom have demonstrated smiles and much laughter during this lesson and it went quickly (for the teacher, the students and the observers) and students were competing to answer.

Similarly, in a   study which instituted treatment as a variety of language of instruction (Kiswahili or English) among secondary form II pupils in four selected schools. Teaching content was selected from the national secondary school syllabus in Biology and Geography. It was found that, the average test scores administered at the end of the teaching period were generally higher in the Kiswahili treatment than those obtained in the English treatment (Galabawa Waitama, 2005).Likewise Kinyanduka and Kiwara (2013) found that 69.5% of students could not understand when taught in English language through classes. Also 78.9% of teachers said that English language was a setback to a student academic achievement. Surprisingly, 64.5% of teachers, 53% of parents and 78.1% of student respondents preferred teachers to use English as a language of teaching and evaluation. In the meantime, 71.4% of students felt that it was better for teachers to use both Swahili and English during classes. This study recommends the use of both, English and Swahili in teaching and evaluation.

 Also Peterson (2006) noted positive perception to Kiswahili by students as they expressed that they understand the courses which are given in Kiswahili a lot better than the courses offered in English as it equip them with the availability of terminology/vocabularies, and it is the language they use outside the classroom, and encounter everywhere as part of their daily lives, like at the market, at home, in churches and mosques and school. He further asserts that when English is used as the medium of instruction, on the other hand, students expressed that they learn very little. The main reasons for these difficulties as perceived by the students included problems with understanding the English language structure, for example the difference between writing and pronunciation, and that some of the books provided in English employ complicated language.

Mlay, (2010) assert that one of the reasons why students in secondary schools face so much difficulty using English is their reluctance in the language. She further noted that students are unwilling to actively participate in class discussions because teachers would criticize them or other students laugh at them because of their lack of ability to express themselves in English. However, students who have had early exposure to English from the beginning of primary school are able to cope using English as a medium of instruction in secondary school and their performance tends to be better off in comprehension tests conducted unlike those who started learning English from class three and thus have less exposure in the language.

Vuzo, (2002) pointed out that students can fail to answer well questions simply because they fail to understand the question, not because they do not know the answer. Language can affect a learner’s ability to interpret instructions and questions. It can also lead to failure to express their ideas appropriately. His overall findings from this study indicated that there were differences in teaching and learning when the different MOI were used. Student –teacher interaction in Kiswahili MOI was high on average as the majority of students actively gave answers and quite a number asked questions. In English MOI lessons it was minimal as most students were silent, not asking questions or giving any responses.

 Sex relation to Medium of Instruction Language Competency

Razmjoo and Movahed (2009) descriptive statistics analysis show that females outperformed males in language proficiency, but their independent sample t-test revealed that the difference is not significant. On the same vein, Hassani (2005)   made clear that there was no significant interaction among motivation, gender, and level of English proficiency. Also Sabatin (2013) found no statistically significant differences in performance in reading comprehension between male and female subjects who have cultural background knowledge and those who do not have any knowledge. Mohammadi (2007) investigated if the Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety (FLCA) and Foreign Language Reading Anxiety (FLRA) among Iranian EFL learners correlate and can predict each other and the findings showed that both age and gender affect the FLCA and FLRA. In another study girls showed no advantage in general intelligence, but performed significantly better on all subjects except Physics (Deary et al, 2006).

In contrary, Dayıolu and Türüt-Aık (2004) noted that smaller number of female students manages to enter the university and when they do so, they enter with lower scores. However, once they are admitted to the university, they excel in their studies and outperform their male counterparts. Wilberg and Lynn (1999 ) found that female student tend to have better language abilities including essay writing skills, vocabulary and word fluency which contribute to better course work. Younger, Warrington and Williams (1999) focus on the gender gap in English secondary schools and their analysis was based on the performance of boys and girls in GCSE examinations in the UK and girls were found to get better grades than boys. Their findings was explained by boys’ disregard for authority, academic work and formal achievement, differences in students’ attitudes to work and their goals and aspirations and girls’ increased maturity and more effective learning strategies.

Education, Audio-visual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) report (2010) showed that recent international assessment studies agree that girls tend to have a higher reading achievement than boys. For instance, among students in the fourth year of schooling girls had significantly higher reading achievement than boys in all countries in Europe except two countries, Spain and Luxembourg, where average achievement was equivalent between the sexes. Also further interesting gender differences regarding reading domains or reading purposes show that Girls have a significantly higher average achievement in literary reading in all European countries (EACEA, 2010). Superior average performance in language by girls at all three ages in reading, writing and talking, with a few specific tasks where boys are superior has been noted. However, overall reading comprehension was differentially easier for the female group than the matched group of males, and males tended to perform better on antonyms and analogies than their female counterparts with equal ability (Song, 2014).

 Wilder and Powell, (1989) observed few or no sex differences during the early years, but evidence for a divergence between the sexes starting around age 11. Females scored higher on tasks involving receptive and productive language, fluency, analogies, comprehension of written material, and creative writing. This superiority of females was thought to increase through high school and possibly beyond, and, although the extent of the female advantage tended to vary with the study and the ability under scrutiny, the most commonly cited magnitude was about one fourth of a standard deviation. Although these reviews agree that there are gender differences in verbal ability, they disagree about the kinds of verbal tasks that show such differences and also about the nature of developmental trends in gender differences.

 Study Design

 This study employed a cross-section design. The design was chosen since it allows data to be collected at once from different cases. It therefore fit for this study because the data has been collected from three secondary schools which are located in three different regions at one point in time. The target population was all form four graduates who sat for the National Examination in the year 2014 and one of their compulsory subject being English and that subject is a language of instruction for all other subjects they sat for. Three secondary schools were purposively selected because they share the attributes; one being geographical location as they are all located in urban areas and second, their medium of instruction is English and English is one of the subjects they set for that National Exam.  The selected secondary schools were Rau (Kilimanjaro), City (Dodoma) and Mwembetogwa (Iringa).

The total of 306 students of the three secondary schools who sat for Form Four National Examination in the year 2014 was selected as a sample size.  Primary data was collected through reviewing the Form four National   results.  Both published and unpublished materials including, books, journals, papers, chapters, reports and thesis were reviewed as secondary data to see the scope, nature of the problem and its relationships with other variables and for consistency and validation of the data. The review of the form four results was done by the researcher. The data were obtained from the National examination council of Tanzania websites ( Both objective one and two were analysed descriptively by using Statistical Packages for Social Sciences (SPSS) program. The association/ relationship between sex and English grades scores likewise GPA score versus English grades scores were computed by using Chi-square model and percentages. Its interpretation and relation with other findings are presented in the findings section.

 Findings and Discussion

The review of results show that 10.1% of 306 sample size have exam problems; therefore their results were not disclosed and regarded as missing cases in this findings and the valid cases were 89.9% of the sample size as shown in the table number 1.

The relationship between English subject performance and overall subjects’ performance


The results show that students who scored F grade in English language, their respective GPA largely fall under “fail category”, which is equivalent to 88.3 per cent while it is only 11.7 percent who fall under “pass category” of GPA who scored F grade in English Subject. No any student with F grade in English language fall under credit, merit and distinction category of GPAs.

As grade performance increases the number of student falling under GPA category of fail decreases. For instance the student who scored E their GPA under fail category dropped to 58.2%, and for grade D, it dropped to 4.8%. Unlike decreasing percent for Fail category GPA as grade goes up, the Pass category GPA rises as the grade go higher level; for instance for F grade, percent in pass category was 11.7, for E grades is 41.8% and for D grade is 79.0%. However, starting from C to B+ performance grade in English language, their per cents in Pass category of GPA begin to decline.

It is unfortunate that no student scored A grade in English language for the entire sample size, however, there are two students who scored Distinction category of GPA in overall subjects with their grades in English Language being B and B+ respectively. The following table 4 provides more clarification of these relationships.

Majority of student under study have poorly performed in English language as shown in results. Besides, the correlation performed in assessing the relationship between sex of the student and English language subject performance show no significant relation. In terms of grade category of GPA ranging from pass to distinction; there is mixed variation of results as female performed better in some grades and fail in other grades and similar results was found for male counterpart. This result show improvement for gender balance in Tanzania with the assumption that the factors that affect female students have been worked upon by the government and associated stakeholders

However, significant relationship between English Language performance of the students and the overall student subjects’ performance has been revealed by this study. When student perform better in English language subject, their respective GPA tend to be in the higher category and when student perform poorly in English language and their respective GPA tend to be in lower category especially fail and pass.

The implication of this result is that much of improvement is needed in language of instruction in classrooms so as to achieve better academic results. This means better understanding of overall subject content largely depend on the language that is used for instruction. Alternatively, the government of Tanzania needs to recast its policy for secondary school and higher institution language of instruction by switching to Kiswahili which is the first language to majority of Tanzanians.


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