Is Nigeria Reading?


Background to this note:

Nigeria recently made history by launching one of the world’s largest poverty elimination campaigns aimed at achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Known as the Conditional Grants Scheme (CGS) and with $1 billion per year, the program reaches out to nearly 25 million people in 113 Local Government Areas with the specific objectives of 1) investing in the MDGs at the sub-national level and promoting local ownership and sustainability 2) empowering State and Local Governments to carry out their constitutional responsibilities and 3) leveraging public sector organizational and expenditure reform, along with national planning to improve service delivery.

The MDG for education ensures that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. To meet these goals, the Nigerian government is collaborating with The Earth Institute to develop a web-based real-time, performance/project tracking system to aid in informed decision-making at the local level. As a part of the tool, we want to include reading outcomes to assess education quality. Since I had worked with Pratham in India previously for 4 years, the first outcome based tool that came to my mind was the ASER literacy and numeracy tool.

Nigeria is not secluded from this global trend of focusing on student learning outcomes. The Nigerian National Policy on Education (2004) states that one of the goals of the primary education is to “inculcate permanent literacy and numeracy, and the ability to communicate effectively”. Federal Ministry of Education (FME) Roadmap (March 2009) also mentions that “a standardized assessment system that annually monitors and reports academic achievement in the core subjects” as one of its priorities. Nigeria started to monitor student learning in 1996. Monitoring of Learning Achievement (MLA) was initiated first for fourth graders.  Results from this MLA exercise showed low achievement in the three key areas of literacy, numeracy and life-skills.  MLA was initially planned to be conducted periodically, but this plan did not materialize because of the high cost of administering it. Recent MLA in 2003 indicated a low level of achievement on an average at the national level. However, the MLA assessment is compiled at the State level and reports are not available at the Local Government Levels. Therefore for any Local Government Education Authority (essentially a District Education Office equivalent in India) learning results are not available.

I used the ASER test to make learning results visible in the community and to the Local Government Education Authorities in Nigeria. It was also a demonstration to show the ease of assessing learning levels rather than using complicated tests, the results of which remain unknown to the people who matter the most- the community and the local government authorities.  There are still logistical issues that need to be addressed in terms of large resources required for assessing learning levels in a country as large as like Nigeria. But Nigeria is not alone in this stride; countries like India, Kenya, and Tanzania have already shown the way forward.
Recently I was in the Ikara Local Government Area (LGA) in Kaduna State in Nigeria. Yusuf Ibrahim, an  Education Facilitator of the Millennium Villages Project and I were on a mission today! We wanted to know how many children in a nearby village can read and understand a simple text in English. According to the Nigerian Education Policy, primary grades (PRY) 1 to 3 are taught in the local language, but for higher grades PRY4 to PRY6 the medium of instruction is English. Therefore Grades 4 to 6 should be fluent in understanding English. What is expected out of a fourth grader? Here is a text that a fourth grader is expected to read:
“The boys crawled from chamber to chamber. Some of them were very large. In one  very large chamber, the guide lighted his torch and 
Andthe boys were able to read the names on the walls. These were names of people who visited the cave before and the dates of their 
visits. The boys were very happy to write their own names. One boy saw some footprints on the floor of the chamber and asked whether
dogs lived there. The guide explained that wild animals lived in some parts of the cave. The boys became afraid at once and could hear no 
more. Some were already crying. So, the teacher told the guide to take them out of the cave. They all crawled out one after the other.
When they all came out safely, they became happy at once again.”

NOTE: The font size and the line spacing is as it appears in the textbook.
Source: “Better English for Primary Schools” Based on the Modular System. PRY 4. 2010 Edition.

Yusuf and I asked some children to read the following text. We had a sample of similar texts with us.  Please note the difference in the difficulty level between the two passages and the font size used. Our passage is much simpler than what a fourth grader is expected to know based on the sample text in the prescribed textbook.

Story Level

Last night thieves came to our home. They had come to steal our cows. The dogs saw the thieves. They chased the thieves. The dogs caught the thieves. My father took them to the chief. The chief called the police. The police took the thieves away. The police thanked the chief.
What had the thieves come to do?
Why did the police thank the chief?

 Source: UWEZO (see
Note: Font size and spacing between lines and letters as given in the original text

Yusuf and I sat on a bench near the primary school. The school was closed due to summer vacation. We saw some children in the school’s play ground and called for them. We started asking for their ages and the grades in which they were studying in. This was to ensure that we ask only fourth graders and higher to read the text. Soon the group of kids became larger and larger with some parents coming over to pleasantly greet Yusuf. While I was mainly ignored by most people! People looked puzzled with the sheet of paper and children looked amuzed. We encouraged some children to read what was written in the paper. Other children pushed and prompted and giggled and murmured the text into their neighbour’s ears. While Yusuf and I were saying “I am sure you can read this. Take your time”. 

Ah! Finally a girl came forward to read. Others prompted “you must take her to the side and let her read” , “she is shy”, “she doesn’t know how to read”.  This reading actvity had become the center of attraction of the village. Soon mothers came over and again looked at me puzzled and greeted Yusuf. Reading in the community? But offcourse no one had asked children to read in the community before.Unfortunately, literacy and numeracy is only confined to schools. Parents almost never visit the schools and therefore are not aware of what their children are learning in the schools. A mother observing the entire activity asked me to “check” if her son could read or not. If medical doctors can have health camps in the community by settting up a table with their instruments, why cant we set up a “reading table” in the community and test children’s reading abilities?
So far so good! Everyone looked engaged and enthusiastic. But what was the result of the reading “check”? Yusuf and I were able to reach out to 11 children of grade four and over.  Here are the results of the reading test.
Level of Reading
Total number of children
Could read a “story” and were able to answer questions on it
Could read a simple paragraph
Could only read words
Could only read letters
Total Number of Children tested

The reading results showed that out of the 11 children tested, none were able to read the simple “story” level text.  9 out of the 11 children (81%) were able to read only letters and words. And only 2 out of the 11 children were able to read a simple paragraph. Yusuf and I looked at the compiled results and started to think why this would be the case. We came up with many possible reasons, “poor quality education in schools”, “teachers are not motivated to teach”, “teacher shortage”, “children don’t go to the school regularly” etc. We had no straight answers. But one thing was clearafter this reading actvity in the community, parents need to involved in knowing their children’s reading levels. Parents are clearly left in the dark about their child’s learning levels. Discussing these learning levels in PTAs, SMBCs and also with the Education Secretary of the LGA along with Head Masters and Teachers is bound to create some accountability in improving basic literacy rates in the community. These tests developed by ASER and UWEZO provide the information we need about basic literacy. It is upto us to use these results and plan education interventions accordingly.Simple literacy tests like these are thermometers that help us to measure the literacy rates and at the same time mobilize the community around the issue. Its high time we discuss literacy in the community!