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This aim of the work is to demonstrate the error students often commit in their written compositions in the West African Examinations Council examination (WAEC), which by extension, shows their language inabilities. The work also offers an analysis of these errors in the table showing their scores. It finally explains how it affects their result. Error analysts distinguish between errors, which are systematic, and mistakes, which are not. They often seek to develop a typology of errors. Errors can be classified according to basic type: omissive, additive, substitutive or related to word order. Closely related to this is the classification according to domain, the breadth of context which the analyst must examine, and extent, the breadth of the utterance which must be changed in order to fix the error. Errors may also be classified according to the level of language: phonological errors, vocabulary or lexical errors, syntactic errors, and so on. They may be assessed according to the degree to which they interfere with communication. In the study of error analysis of this kind, the errors identified are dully classified into lexis and structure. It not only purviews all kinds of errors associated with lexis and structure but also stated the kind of errors that often occur more than others. The task, however, is by no means an easy one. This is because very often classes of errors overlap, and occasionally some errors simply do not lend themselves to a clear cut categorization. However, the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) marking guide seems to produce a near-perfect idea model of classification of the tremendous varieties of errors found in students’ compositions. The way in which errors are counted or enumerated affects directly the score frequencies, and statistics of errors, and therefore the results, conclusions, and evaluative power of the results. The data used in the study is adopted from the live examination scripts of the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) of which the researcher is an assistant examiner (marker). They were part of the examination scripts he examined in the 2013 May/June WAEC examinations.
1.1 Background to the Study
In a world where English is employed for both national and international communications, the knowledge of oral and written forms remains a great asset. In addition, the contents and requirements of the NERDC curriculum for English language learning at the senior secondary school level recommend its mastery strongly (Ademola-Adeoye et al v). This stresses the need for the development of a rich vocabulary and acquiring the skills for using the English lexis and structure with the aim of making students become proficient in the language. Edge claims that the problem of correctness in the students’ use of English cannot be ignored ‘because successful results depend on a certain level of accuracy in grammar’ (20). A study by Lehmann showed that secondary school students’ language achievements were unexpectedly low and that the students themselves were not even aware of how poorly they perform (5). He blamed this poor level of performance on their focus on oral communication at the expense of real grammar work and writing. It is the experience of Lehmann, as a teacher of English in a secondary school that there are many students who perform poorly in their examinations in English. This seems to suggest lack of serious attention in the teaching of the core language features of lexis and structure. It is also a common experience to see students who, on one hand seem to know the rules of grammar but sill fail to produce grammatically correct sentences when speaking and on the other, sound unnatural and foreign in their use of English.
Michael Lewis, who might be considered the founder of the ‘Lexical and Structural Approach’, claimed that there is no direct relationship between the knowledge of grammar and writing or speaking (14). In contrast, the knowledge of formulaic language has been shown by research to have a significant bearing on the natural language.
In addition, certain grammar rules are practically impossible to learn. Dave Wills cites the grammar of orientation (which includes the notoriously difficult present perfect tense and the use of certain modal verbs as particularly resistant to learning) (3). To him, the only way to grasp their meaning is through continuous exposure and use.
This is why it is possible to see that most authoritative English grammarians do not claim to provide a comprehensive description of all the grammar, hence the word ‘introduction’ is often used in their titles (for instance, Huddleston and Pullumes A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar and Halliday’s An Introduction to Functional Grammar).
If grammarians and academics of such reputation do not even attempt to address all areas of grammar, how do we expect students who learn the English language in second language situation to know all the details and aspects of grammar especially as the focus is more on the communication skills in lieu of real grammatical studies that have lexis and structure as the core concepts. But in the form of solution, one of the fathers of the Communicative Language Teaching, Henry Widdowson advocated using lexis and structure as the focal and starting point (95).
The concepts ‘lexis’ and ‘structure’ are of importance to language study at every level of educational attainment. They lay a foundation for effective study of the English language, through a down-to-earth and comprehensive analysis (Ibe V). Lexis and structure constitute the building blocks with which we build grammatical structures in order to enhance our linguistic competence in language learning. They include the descriptive statements on the morphological and syntactic structures of a language (Tomori 1). If these descriptive statements are well applied in our use of the language (writing or speech), the target audience or reader will enjoy it with relish.
According to Ibe, a firm grasp of the concepts, will save the user from the often experienced dilemma most students encounter under examination conditions (VI). This could be why Ogunsanwo, et al include the following areas of study into lexis and structure: register, word groupings (synonyms, antonyms, homonyms) grammatical structures, grammatical units, parts of speech, phrases, clauses and sentence structures (IV-VIII).
Some syllabus designers and English language textbook writers share similar views in what constitute lexis and structure in language study. Grant, et al in their Junior English Project for Secondary Schools (New Edition) identify lexis as vocabulary ; structure as sentence structure.
For Oluikpe, et al, lexis and structure are vocabulary building and language structure respectively.
The Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) groups the following topics under lexis: synonym, antonym, homonym, and sentence structure under structure (JAMB Syllabus 289-290). The West African Examinations Council (WAEC) has something similar, which includes: synonym, antonym, idiom, register, homonym, spelling, making of plural, parts of speech, and their classifications, concord, phrasal verb, phrase, clause and sentence (WAEC Syllabus 190-193). If the aforementioned areas are well learnt, knowing full well that they are the most important items on which sentences are formed (Akudolu & Osakwe 1), students will pass their examinations with relative ease. One can infer this because WAEC tests students that enroll for the examination in these stipulated areas. If this is true, a serious attention should therefore, be given to the concepts (lexis and structure) in teaching and learning at the appropriate levels of educational attainment to enable students to sit for such a standard examination with absolute confidence.
Regrettably, these cardinal elements in the teaching and learning of the English language have been grossly misapplied (Yankson XIII-XIV). Owing to the ‘publish or perish’ syndrome that characterises the educational system and the financial dividends it generates, most people dabble in writing without having profound knowledge of the skills (Aka 15). To this end, instead of enhancing knowledge, they have succeeded in spreading ignorance. This is why Oji posits that ‘as everyone knows, the standard of English in Nigeria has fallen rock bottom’ (VI). The main reason for this problem is traceable to the ignorance of lexis and structure.
In the view of Jowitt, a continuous public opinion was mustered to prevail on the West African Examinations Council to reduce the status of the English language as a subject in the Senior School Certificate Examinations and the result is the general complaint that the level of proficiency in the English language within and outside the educational system has been falling, and with it, understandably, the general level of education (VI).
It is hardly necessary to stress the importance of improving the teaching of lexis and structure in schools at the present time. But most of those who are concerned with educational and social problems in Nigeria today would agree that in all the states, a reasonable standard of attainment in a common language such as English is vital, not only in the narrower field of education in school, but also in developing a sense of community of ‘belonging together’ across the states of the federation. This could possibly be why Chinua Achebe asserts:
I am convinced that a major flaw of our political culture is the inefficient and half-baked language in which we conduct our national affairs. The quality of the English language spoken and written in Nigeria has been falling rapidly and will fall more dramatically in the next few years (qtd. in Eyisi Common Errors 1).
At the moment, for practical purposes, in many states of the federation, the most sensible choice of a ‘common language’ is English. It is, therefore, in the interest of the children in school and the country as a whole that we should make every effort to ensure that this ‘common tongue’ is efficiently taught (Boadi, Grieve and Nwankwo 2).
Unfortunately, there is a great deal of evidence to show that the present standard of English (grammar) in our schools is not very high, if one considers examination results. It would seem that the standard is becoming lower rather than improving (Baldeh 34).
In the opinion of Chuta, a majority of candidates lack much of the basic knowledge of the English language grammar (lexis and structure), which are necessary for proper understanding of the language, and confidence in handling the questions (1). Many a time, candidates could offer the correct answers to questions on lexis and structure not because they know the syntactical rules involved, but because they are either used to such expressions or they are good at guess work.
While we would not lay too much stress on examination results as a measure of attainment, very often, they are the only measures we have, and in any case, it would be unwise to ignore them completely. It is disturbing, therefore, to see in examiners’ reports on the performance of candidates in public examinations, constant references to such faults as weak handling of sentence structures, inability to control sentences, errors of agreement, unidiomatic use of prepositions (Boadi, Grieve and Nwankwo 2). This situation is very disturbing.
Lexis and structure have always formed major part of the ‘Use of English’ syllabus and examination, but there is evidence that candidates tend to tackle questions on them mechanically without knowing the rules governing the concepts (Bamgbose I).
Lexis refers to vocabulary or the entire stock of words in a language. (Ibe 327). And knowledge to a wide range of vocabulary enhances considerably one’s ability to communicate one’s ideas and to express oneself clearly.
The West African Examinations Council (WAEC) seeks to test, among other things, the scope of the candidate’s vocabulary and his skills to use appropriate words in a given context. It covers such aspects as the use of terms in various areas of human endeavour (register), synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, homophones, polysemy, and idioms (Ogunsanwo et al 113).
On the other hand, in the study of English grammatical structure, we learn how words combine with other words to form larger units (phrases, clauses, and sentences). We also learn the rules that govern the changes that occur in word forms (Ibe 167). With a good knowledge of the grammatical structure in English, mastery of the language is achieved through:
(i) ability to listen to spoken English and read written English with better comprehension, and
(ii) ability to speak and write better English.
1.2 Statement of the Problem
Over the years, our bookshelves have been consistently stuffed with several books - but not many of these address the problems annually encountered by candidates sitting standard external examinations. To make matters worse for these candidates, most books available only ascribe solutions to past examination questions without explanation concerning the areas the students did not do well.
The latest reports released by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) have shown that six out of every eight candidates fail the examination hence missing the opportunity to make credit passes in their results, year-in, year out, some having to retake the examination for upward of four years or more. Candidates could not have been passing with approaches that only suggest the answers without stating the reason behind such answers.
And from what is experienced during coordination, (WAEC and NECO pre-marking exercises), not as many as 25% of the candidates get all the answers right. This could be why Chuta comments:
The issue of why many secondary school students and private candidates perform badly in the English language examinations has so for defied solutions….Many experts in the field agreed that poor foundation (neglect of grammar) in the subject has something to do with it. Where there was a bad beginning and equally inadequate final “brushing up” the result has always been catastrophic (1).
This is similar to the Chief Examiners’ Reports of the West African Examination Council for May/June, 2005:
…Some of the candidates who had some material could not organize the material properly. Candidates’ expressions were generally poor and their range of vocabulary so limited. Grammatical errors such as: spelling and punctuation errors, the misuse of pronouns were common features in the candidates’ essays… (6).
Sequel to all these, the following different categories of errors were detected and they formed the nucleus of the problem; they include:
- concord errors (subject and verb agreement).
- spelling errors.
- the wrong word order.
- treating idiomatic expressions in the denotative sense of the words that constitute them.
- problems of collocations (word association).
- inability to understand synonyms and antonyms.
- wrong use of countable and uncountable nouns.
- the use of wrong prepositions.
- association of wrong meanings to phrasal verbs.
- problems associated with homophones and homonyms.
- ability to use idioms and understand their different senses.
As stated earlier, these formed the problems this research examined and they are chosen after taking into account students’ scripts in both essay and objective questions. The errors frequently revolved around the aforementioned areas.
Even though the students’ approach to these problems is discouraging, some of them feel that since the questions on lexis and structure are of minute segments, especially in the objective questions, there is no need to bother so much in mastering the subtleties of their handling. But examiners insist that questions can make a great difference between one grade of pass and the other (Ibe VII).
It is legitimate to speak of errors as variants where they are due to wrong learning, and are generally regarded by educated people as errors (Jowitt 59). Most times, errors are corrected through a comparison with the standard forms and usage, and the motive for such correction comes from a variety of psychological sources among which is the fear of poor performance in examinations. But in recent times, error analysis has been an important development in English teaching and learning in order to aid students/candidates to resolve their doubt and that is the focus of this work. Some general work may have been done in the area of lexis and structure but not much has been done in examining the problems in these areas in such a public examination like the West African Examinations Council (WAEC). And that is the main concern this study has achieved.
1.3 Purpose of Study
Students perform very poorly in the English language examination as a result of their ignorance and inadequate background in the study of lexis and structure of the English language. This is perhaps because of simple discouragement from the technical ways in which the concepts are presented by writers. And this is the common reason we hear from most students. Many of them claimed to read regularly but such efforts usually end in fruitless result.
Another possible reason is that teachers may have abandoned the teaching of these important areas of the target language (English) (Ibe). Many graduates with excellent degrees, do not believe that grammar, punctuation, spelling and syntax do matter.
Therefore, this study focuses on those areas that constitute problems for students in their examinations in lexis and structure, in a non-technical way and present a step by step approach in solving them though the recommendations. The researcher has embarked on a task that provided the candidates with necessary things that are required of them to know. The error types are presented in a table in their various groups for quick and easy identification. This will perhaps reinstate the lost interest and enthusiasm on the students and teachers respectively.
1.4 Significance of the Study
The researcher undertook this study with the confidence that it will render worthwhile assistance to students, English language teachers and curriculum planners.
The findings of this study will provide students preparing for WASSCE and UTME examinations, with thorough understanding the issues involved in the study of English lexis and structure. It will inform them more fully the areas in English that are associated with lexis and structure.
Since whenever language learning is mentioned, teaching is also implicated, the findings of the study will also be beneficial to English language teachers. It will provide the basis for improved teaching of English lexis and structure and expose the recurrent errors students make. This I hope will make teachers adjust in order to cover the necessary grounds.
Curriculum planners are not left out, information provided in the findings of this study may be utilized in order to know the intellectual need of students in the area of lexis and structure as well as their errors. They may be built into syllabuses to ensure that the set objectives are achieved.
1.5 Scope and Delimination of the Study
This research dwelt on error analysis of lexis and structure, which are the essential ingredients for the mastery of the English language. They (lexis and structure), according to Metcalfe and Astle, are: ‘The framework on which ideas are hung….
Messages may be too easily understood if we get the fundamentals wrong’
Lexis and structure are the pillars on which a good knowledge of the grammar of the English language stands. They assist the learner to learn other facets of English as well as other subjects written in English (Okoye and Umeasiegbu 3). Whereas words (lexis) are the building blocks, grammar (structure) most importantly conveys the thought.
The research is limited to these essentials of English grammar, which are identified as lexis and structure and the concomitant students’ errors in them.
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