Tackling Nigeria's Dwindling Literacy Rate

 Tackling Nigeria's Dwindling Literacy Rate

By Victor E. Dike

"We cannot hold a touch to light another path without brightening our own" --Ben Sweetland

One of the major challenges facing Nigeria today is how to reform its education sector and train enough high quality manpower to develop the nation. A lot has been said about revamping the nation's falling standard of education but the leaders have not taken appropriate actions to improve the situation. One of the problems caused by the neglect of education is the overcrowded and chaotic classrooms and Nigeria's dwindling literacy rate. This article argues that because of the obstacles to effective teaching and learning many students today lack the literacy skills to succeed in life after schooling; and this has affected their productivity and national development.

Basically, literacy is the ability of an individual to read and write. But its broad definition goes beyond that; literacy involves reading, writing, speaking and listening. The UNESCO (2004) broadly defined literacy 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 to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society."1

Meanwhile, the National Empowerment Development Strategy (2005) put Nigeria's literacy rate at 57%, which declined from the 64.1% literacy rate of 1999 and the 71.9% of 1991. And a survey by the National Bureau of Statistics in 2006 found that 46.7% of Nigerians are purely illiterate while 53.3% are literate in the use of the English language. A breakdown of the study, which used 15 years as "adult age," shows that 61.3% of the literate population is male and 45.3% female. This writer does not want to plunge into the national political debate of zonal supremacy in education, but it is pertinent to mention that the study shows that the highest literacy level is located in the Southeast geo-political zone with adult literacy figure of 73.5%. The Southwest and South-South geo-political zones share second position with 70.4%; the North-Central literacy level is said to be 53.5%; while the Northwest is the lowest with 23.2% of adult population. According to the survey Nigeria's adult male literacy is 31.0% and female 15.4%.2

As if the above statistics is not troubling enough a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) study that came out on January 15, 2008 found that over 10 million Nigerian children of school age are not in school and that most of them are either hawking goods on the streets or doing some form of menial labor to make ends meet. The study showed that 6.2 million are girls and 3.8 million boys; and about 53 per cent is of secondary school level and 47 per cent primary school.3It is worrisome that such huge number of Nigerian youths will enter into the competitive world without the basic knowledge of the social, political and economic realities of life.

Why are so many Nigerian children out of school? Poverty at home, lack of assistance from the government, and lack of access to formal education are part of the problem. A wide variety of personal, social, cultural and institutional factors are, however, working against those who are lucky to be in school. Because of the unending teacher's industrial actions caused by the general neglect of education, lack of current books and materials for teaching and learning, lack of reading intervention programs and specialists (at the basic level), lack of functional school and public libraries many of them are facing many problems including poor reading habits. Consequently, most of the secondary school graduates that are in various cadres of tertiary institutions are unprepared for the rigors of higher education.

In most cases the students reading material is often limited to what the teachers who are toiling under the most inhumane conditions of service wrote on the board during lectures or their handouts. But this is not enough to give the students the literacy skills to participate fully as informed and productive members of the society. Also, reading is fast vanishing on campuses across the land because many students are today being distracted by other trivial issues, including ubiquitous cell phone (or handsets); others are wasting a lot of time watching television, playing video-games, and browsing the internet. If good reading habit is not cultivated at the primary and secondary levels, it becomes much more difficult to develop it at the tertiary level. Because the structures that create a high quality education are missing what students are learning in school today have no value beyond the classroom. The Daily Trust of November 26, 2008 reported that the government recently acknowledged that about 80 per cent of Nigerian youths are unemployed and 10 per cent underemployed. This is mostly because they lack the skills employers want. A disorganized educational system can only produce half-baked graduates.

One cannot overemphasize the importance of good reading and writing skills; it opens the door to knowledge, and improves a person's literacy skills and quality of life. However, high literacy skill is critical for a nation's social, political and economic development. How would Nigeria become an industrialized nation in the year 2020 when so many of the youths lack the skills to drive the economy?

Everyone has an opinion about the nation's poor state of education -politicians, teachers, administrators, businesspeople, and parents-all voicing their concerns. Despite all the analysis, viewpoints, and myriad of reforms nothing has changed. The leaders are good at reciting the problems facing the nation without providing the tools tackle them. As educators, we know that criticism of Nigeria's ÔÇśpoor reading culture' (even by the politicians who are part of the problem) is not enough. Why has the mountain of education reforms failed to arrest the dwindling standard of education? How would Nigeria rekindle its fading reading habit? The society should adopt effective strategies to tackle the crisis in education. The first step to reverse Nigeria's dwindling literacy skills would be to adequately fund schools and provide teachers with the tools for effective teaching and learning. The holistic strategy should include building school and public libraries (with current books and journals), and directed by dedicated professional librarians and competent language arts teachers, taming corruption that is draining the resources allocated to education, and employing professional school administrators with proven integrity and inspired by the commitment to make a difference in the lives of the students, and providing conducive environment that would motivate people to read.4 Experts have noted that good libraries could lure some of the ÔÇśstudents who hate to read' and give them access to great minds.5

To improve the state of education in Nigeria the government should change its strategy and begin to offer carrots to teachers and not sticks only. The teachers are pauperized and today it is a curse to be a teacher in Nigeria. As we read this article teachers across the land are on industrial action in their struggle for a better condition of service. The political leaders of Nigeria seem to forget that teachers train the future leaders of every society. More often than not they blame the teachers (for the problems in education) and students for their failure to learn and excel rather than blame themselves for not providing them with the tools to improve their reading, writing and analytical skills. They should learn to ÔÇśwalk the talk.' Without creating a conducive learning environment in schools (and at home) the ÔÇśhuman seeds' that are being planted in the society would wither and their growth hampered.6

The schools (from primary to tertiary institutions) should make reading a top priority by making materials (books, newspapers, magazines, academic journals, and Internet sites) available and affordable. And those who need private (or one-on-one) instruction on reading and writing (at the basic level of education) should be assisted by professional intervention specialists. Teachers should demand more from their students and encourage reading and writing by inserting research projects in their courses; they should properly blend theory with practice. They should teach the students "life lessons" they will use the rest of their lives.

The traditional method of learning (and teaching) by memorizing subject contents is no longer appropriate as it gives students only what Caine & Caine (1997) call "surface knowledge" because they do not understand the contents.7 Thus a person with "scholastic knowledge" that ÔÇśconsists of ideas, principles and proceduresÔÇôthe core content of any subject or discipline' only, lacks what it takes ÔÇśto solve real problems or for dealing with complex situations.' Because by itself "technical or scholastic knowledge" lacks what Gardner (1991) calls "generative" or "deep" or "genuine"8understanding of the subject or lacks "felt meaning and a grasp of practical application" "to apply knowledge to novel situation."9 Traditional teaching and learning methods and sources of information are no longer sufficient to give students the information they need at this information technology era.10 John Dewey was known for kicking against "the complete domination of instruction by rehearsing second-hand information, by memorizing for the sake of producing correct replies at the proper time."11

Nigeria should change accordingly and provide teachers and schools the necessary tools to effectively perform the jobs of educating the society. Teachers (and schools) should not be expected to perform miracles when the lack teaching and learning tools. Teachers need support through continuing professional development and motivation to enable them prepare the youths for success in the competitive global economy. Also, parents have important role to play in this struggle. They should find out how their own behavior and thoughts are affecting to attitude of their children toward education and learning. However, the weak economy (compounded by the current global economic and financial crisis) has put too much stress on families who are struggling to make ends meet with little or nothing left to buy books for their children. Thus improving the economy should be part of the holistic strategy to tackle the crisis in education.

Every society is capable of producing high quality manpower. One wonders why Nigeria could not adequately fund its schools with its huge oil earnings over the years. Nigeria should reorganize and redesign its education sector because the society needs problem solvers and creative minds - people with genuine and practical knowledge to manage the facing the nation. Nigeria will be facing more difficult problems if the leaders fail to provide the necessary infrastructure for good quality education and without a paradigm shift on how the larger society is managed. Thus without channeling adequate resources to the education sector and without motivating the teachers to provide good quality education to the youths and tackle the nation's dwindling literacy skills, Nigeria will continue to lag behind socially, politically and economically.


1. UNESCO Education Sector, The Plurality of Literacy and its implications for Policies and Programs: Position Paper. Paris: United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2004, p. 13.

2. Punch: "45% of Nigerians are illiterate-Survey," June 20, 2006.

3. Sunday Champion: "7m Nigerian children out of school-UNICEF," May 29, 2005; BusinessDay: "10million Nigerians Children out of school?" February 13, 2008; Nigerian Tribune (editorial): "10million children out of school," January 29, 2008.

4. G. Ivey and K. Broaddus, "Just plain Reading: A Survey of What makes students want to read in middle school classrooms." Reading Research Quarterly, 36, pp.350-377, 2001.

5. J. Worthy and S. McKool, "Students who say they hate to read: The Importance of Opportunity, Choice, and Access" (1996), in D.J. Leu, C.K. Kinzer, K.A. Hinchman (eds.), Literacies for the 21st Century; Research and Practice, 45th Yearbook of the National Reading Conference, pp.245-256, Chicago, USA: National Reading Conference. 

6. Carlos M. Santa "Adolescents Deserve More," in Creating Literacy-Rich Schools for Adolescents (Gay Ivey & Douglas Fisher), Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, Virginia, 2006, pp.122-141.

7. Renate Nummela Caine and Geofry Caine, Education on the Edge of Possibility; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia, 1997, p.109.

8. Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools should Teach; New York: Basic Book, 1991

9. Renate Nummela Caine and Geofry Caine, Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia, 1991; Renate Nummela Caine and Geofry Caine, Education on the Edge of Possibility; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia, 1997, pp.108-115.

10. Renate Nummela Caine and Geofry Caine, Education on the Edge of Possibility; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia, 1997, pp.45-52.

11. John Dewey: How We Think; Boston: D.C. Heath, 1910; John Dewey: Democracy and Education; New York: The Free Press, 1906.

Victor E. Dike is the author of Leadership without a Moral Purpose:A Critical Analysis of Nigeria and the Obasanjo Administration, 2003-2007 (forthcoming)