Correspondent GERALD KITABU interviewed Masozi David Nyirenda, a Specialist in Education Planning, Management, Economics of Education and Policy Studies on increasing rate of illiteracy in schools. Excerpts:
QUESTION: I understand that in the past two years there has been public outcry from various education stakeholders on the increasing rate of illiteracy in our schools, especially in primary and secondary schools. What is the level of literacy at present?
ANSWER: Thank you. First of all let us define literacy. According to UNESCO, literacy is defined as the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society."
Literacy is often measured through two different categories namely, youth literacy (age group 15-24) and through adult literacy (age group 15 and above).
While the first ratio relates measures more particularly the success of the education policy in terms of school coverage and learning achievement, the second ratio focuses on adults, as citizens and productive member of the workforce.
Learning to read means learning to decode and, or interpret a written language. The ability to read requires basic reading skills such as: awareness in sounds of the language; awareness of print (letters); and the ability to identify the relationship between the letters and the sounds.
That is, reading in a language made up of alphabetic letters involves two things: to relate the sounds to printed or written letters; and to understand the meaning of individual words and printed text.
Adequate mastery of the basic reading skills includes: a lot of practice; exposure to reading instruction; and appropriate strategy and motivation to comprehend the written language.
The easiest ways to learn to read in different orthographies (alphabetic writing systems) are those which have only one letter for each phoneme (one-to-one or transparent letter-sound correspondence) e.g. Kiswahili, Finnish, Italian.
Children only need to learn a small set of letter-sound correspondences. They will be able to read all the possible words in that language. The most difficult orthographies are those in which letter-sound correspondences are irregular, inconsistent or ‘opaque’ e.g. English. There are few or none clear rules on how letters and sounds are supposed to be matched.
Q: What does Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) say about literacy?
A: The Millennium development goals (MDGs) provide international milestones which should be covered by various countries in order to ensure the lives and environment of the citizens of these countries are improved. The two MDG goals that focus education are both relevant to literacy: MDG 2 because it deals with Universal primary education (UPE), the touchstone for youth literacy; and MDG 3 because one of it measures the ratio of literate females to literate males.
Literacy problem does not face Tanzania only. Estimates show that there are more than 800 million people worldwide who cannot read and write. It is about 64percent among these are women and children. In Africa, about 21 nations have adult literacy rates below 50 percent and overall 4 of every 10 Africans (two-thirds of them women) are illiterate.
The UNDP Report on illiteracy levels worldwide of 2009, show that most of African countries are ranked below 80. Seychelles which lead among the African countries ranks 87 worldwide with 91.8percent literacy, Zimbabwe follows at rank number 88, with 91.2 percent literacy rate, while the third among African countries is Namibia which ranks 106 with 85.0percent literacy rate. Tanzania ranks at 136 with literacy rate of 69.4percent.
The rest of African countries are below rank of 100, with countries such as Chad (25.7percent), Mali (24.0percent) and Burkina Faso (23.6percent) takes the three last positions.
Let us look at the current literacy situation in Tanzania.
By the mid-1880s, Tanzania was one of the countries with the highest literacy rates in Africa, reaching 98 percent. Tanzania has experienced a 20 per cent drop in literacy rate for the past 30 years, a situation that is deeply worrying education stakeholders in the country. In the 1980s Tanzania had a literacy rate of over 90 percent but recent studies as compiled by a UN agency showed that this had dropped to 72 perecent (UNESCO, 2012) The current literacy rate of people ages 15 and above who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life is 72.9 (UNESCO, 2009).
Children at age 13 complete primary education without adequate reading and writing skills, e.g. about 5,200 children who had been selected to join secondary education in 2012 were found they could not read or write (MoEVT, 2012).
Research findings about reading situation in primary education in Tanzania, from a national survey with children who had completed standard 7 (Uwezo, 2010) show low performance especially in reading and writing skills as follows: one in five primary school l leavers cannot read standard 2 level Kiswahili; only 3 in 10 standard 3 pupils can read basic Kiswahili story; only 1 in 10 standard 3 pupils can read basic English story; oonly 3 in 10 standard 3 pupils can do basic Mathematics; only 50 percent of the children involved in the study could read the words correctly; about 30 percent of them did not write any of the words in the test instrument correctly; about 45 percent of the children identified less than four out of ten sounds in the test instrument; children made errors of omission (e.g. of consonant cluster – ndani written as dani), addition ( of Y – kimbiya - or W – huwona - and substitution of letters – L for R and vice versa.
Q: Are there any initiatives to enhance learning environment?
A: According to Dr. Ngorosho of the University of Dar es Salaam, there are a variety of initiatives to enhance the learning environment for reading skills in the primary schools in Tanzania such as: To support the acquisition of basic reading skills of children in Tanzania through a synthetic phonic approach; To use Kiswahili version of the Finnish literate game (Graphogame); the Graphogame is a digital game environment for learning basic reading skills; the game focuses on the connections between spoken and written language (i.e. sounds and written language); and importance of early screening of children at risk of reading and writing difficulties.
Also in the list are development of a group-based screening instrument in Kiswahili language for identifying readers at risk of developing reading and writing difficulties (Kalanje, 2011); actions to support the development of children in the risk zone of becoming poor readers; and creation of an intervention programme (Kumburu, 2011).
It is inevitable fact that literacy is a vital ingredient in the fight against poverty. Reading, writing and numeracy skills are increasingly required for even the simplest jobs.