‘Problem of Low Literacy is Huge, Can’t be Left to Govt Alone’

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A recent literacy intervention programme by Rotary District 9110, in conjunction with Flipbook Foundation for Literacy Advancement pulled about 100 junior secondary school students of Government College, Victoria Island, Lagos through a literacy improvement programme. In this interview, Mrs. Belinda Nzeribe the founder of the foundation speaks with Ferdinand Ekechukwu about the empowerment programme

What is this programme all about?

This is a reading and writing improvement programme for junior secondary school students. We organised this one in Government College, Victoria Island. We tried as much as we could to see if we could impact the students to improve their reading and writing levels in class. A lot of them came into them school without knowing how to read and write so they were not learning in class. We found out that the problem was actually from the primary. But these ones are here now and Rotary was gracious enough to want to fund the programme. So they sponsored this literacy intervention in this particular school; they bought the books and every other material we used. And they are the ones that are gifting the children, rewarding them and providing the textbooks and every reward they are getting here today. We started by having extra classes for this children during school hours sometimes and after school hours. We started from the basics. Some could not even do two letter words. So we started from the basics. We taught them sounds; how to associate sounds with letters and from associating sounds with letters, we started blending words together and from there on they started reading basic texts like story books and now some of them are even as good as reading their class level texts.

How did you arrive at the 100 junior school students picked for this programme?

We picked from across all the junior students of the school anyone of them that needed the programme whether it was reading (couldn’t read) or was writing incoherently. First of all we did a baseline assessment test. So we discovered some could read but they were bad at writing. Some couldn’t just read and write at all. From the assessment we picked the 100 that we put into the programme. At the end of the day we had like 52; half the number that are finishing off with us today.

What was the duration of this programme?

The programme was for four months. We started in October and ended in January.

In the course of the programme what special skills set did you apply to make them catch up in the process because these are students who have come all through primary school up to this level before being discovered that they are challenged literacy wise?

You have got to want to do the grunt work. I call it doing the grunt work sitting down with the child. First of all if the student sees you sitting down with them you are no longer a teacher, you are a friend. And then we had to do a lot of motivation. There’s a session we just devoted to motivating the students; talking to them and finding out who they are, where they are from, what’s their challenge, why are they not reading now, why is it that they are not coming for classes. We got a lot of bad stories. Some of them said they are coming from abusive homes. Some of them do not even find the time to read at all. They have parents that are not even interested. Some of them don’t live with their parents. We got to know that some started primary school when they were 13 years old. The background if they are willing to tell you their story they trust you enough to want to come to class and sit down and learn. So when they tell you their story you will have that story at the back of your mind when you are dealing with them. You will know that it’s not the child’s fault. He’s probably had a very bad foundation so but he is willing to trust you with his story. So get that story in your head; appreciate the story and respect him as a human being and then you can get his confidence to learn. And then again you have to have a lot of patience. Some of them have reading challenges; they see the words they can’t identify them. If we had the skills set I’m sure we would have progressed faster. But we wish our government would provide more teachers that could help these children better.

The programme took various phases I understand. Take us through the phases

We started with sounds. The best way to get a child to read is to teach them the sounds of the words first of all (that’s the vowels). So if you keep teaching them the sounds to take time to learn the sounds. After teaching them sounds you teach them how to blend the sounds to form words and then pronounce them. That is the basics. Most schools now teach sounds so children are reading faster. And after the sounds we moved on to helping them break big words into syllables. And then we started the basics. We read with pre-school and then we moved on to level books; level one books, level two books, until we graduated into the level six books and then the class texts.

The teachers talked about taking the students in group, is that part of the phases?

Yes, everybody is not at the same level so you have some that are reading below pre-school that means the child is not even reading at kindergarten level. Those ones had a different tutor. So we separated them. We made sure we reduced the ratio of the students to the teacher. In the school classrooms they are like 30-40 students to one teacher. But in the extra literacy sessions we reduced them to like five students (at most 10) to a tutor. So you have a one to one contact with the students. For the ones that could read better, maybe they are reading at level two, that is like primary two or primary three but they are in JS1 or JS2, they had other tutors. And then if you just had a writing problem you had another tutor that could handle that. So we graded them into different tutors to help their levels.

Take us through the challenges you encountered in the course of the programme

Poverty/hunger is a major problem with low literate students from low income homes. You know you want to teach a student or a child to read and you can see from his face that he’s hungry. He hasn’t had, maybe breakfast. His parents probably didn’t give him any lunch money so you are battling with the hunger and you are battling with the brain being fatigued. He’s had a long day he doesn’t want to learn anymore you know. But a little snack or a little refreshment even a small drink could revive him and he learns. So those were the challenges.

The programme was taken to students from the junior classes. Could there have been any reason it wasn’t taken further to the senior secondary school classes?

Yes. It’s easier to teach a younger person to learn how to read. This is the key stage. If we miss out on this why abandon the younger ones and go for the older ones who are almost ready to write WAEC?

But don’t be surprised there could be some at the senior school level. Don’t you think you have missed some of those other ones at the senior level who are also victims of this educational problem from catching into the programme?

The truth of the matter is that even in the senior secondary classes you have low literate students who just passed from class to class. We cannot meet everybody’s needs and that’s the truth. We have to start where we can make the most impact. So a child who is 17 years old and in SS3 would probably leave school very soon so you shouldn’t be teaching that child ‘i.t it’ at that stage you know. You should go and look for the one that is just getting into school that still has a few more years to go so that you can help him to prepare for the higher classes. So we started where we knew we needed the most and where we would make the most impact.

Could it be, again on the other hand, that if the programme was sponsored extensively it would have cached into the senior secondary level?

Well funding is everything. If you want to do this work and really impact more we would need more tutors. Like I said you need to reduce the ratio of students to teacher to be able to get their attention and impact more so you are focused on each individual child. You would need to pay part time tutoring fees. Even if you are basing it on just volunteering you wouldn’t achieve much. I mean some Rotarians volunteered but they came in like once in one month or twice in one month. If we were waiting for that, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve a lot of things. With funding we would be able to reach more classes as well. The primary schools are actually where the problems start from. If we could tackle low literacy in primary school, a child should be reading at primary three. If we could tackle it there, if we could get better teachers into the primary schools, if we could get them trained and retrain them, the output from primary schools would be much better. So you can stop the low literacy before it gets into the secondary school if you get the primary school right. The problem is so huge that you can’t leave it for only government.

Is there any chance of taking the programme further in the sense of continuing it?

Rotary has signified interest in continuing. The school old boys too have signified interest in doing a lot more terms with the students. So we would be here for some time in addition to the time we already spent.