Nigerian Education And Literacy Today
WHILE there are some exceptions, the generality of the products of Nigeria’s educational system today seems to have got it wrong when it comes to literacy in English. I am not in a position to judge the state of literacy in the country’s more than two hundred indigenous languages and so will limit myself to literacy in English.
Literacy involves competence in reading and writing and both aspects have a symbiotic effect on each other. In other words, reading helps writing and writing leads to more reading. Where did we go wrong in a country whose educational system was so solid that it produced the likes of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ayo Banjo, Phebe Ogundipe, and Peter Enahoro, among many others? These writers are very adept at their use of English in such a beautiful manner.
There were times that pre-school and first-year elementary school pupils read the Queen’s Primer to familiarise them with letters of the alphabet and simple words to make short correct sentences. Elementary schools required textbooks that accelerated reading and writing.
And the secondary school students read texts that emphasised grammar that would lead them to write and speak grammatically correct English. That beginning with serious effort to read and write helped to establish a good foundation in literacy. What was gained in secondary school preparing for the West African School Certificate or General Certificate of Education, Ordinary Level, examinations got improved upon at the Higher School Certificate and GCE, Advanced Level.
By the time a student had completed tertiary education, that student had gone through what it took to read and write well. There was a time at the University of Ibadan when, after a lecture, a class of about 50 students was split into three or four groups for tutorials. The small tutorial groups discussed the past lecture and students were given reading and writing assignments, which eventually made them to be adept at writing. Now, in Nigerian universities, there is barely any writing assignment done except for “writing exams.” If you don’t make students to practice writing through writing assignments built into the curriculum and syllabi, how do you expect to graduate literate people? And if students do not read good books, how will they broaden their vocabularies to express themselves better in speech or writing?
Nigeria’s educational system today does not seem to be providing what it takes for our graduates to write well. I have gone through projects written by Nigerian and Malaysian students and read presentations by Indian graduate students and at that level Nigerian students generally fall far behind in expression. While the Nigerian graduate projects are filled with grammatical errors and clichés, the Malaysian ones make exhilarating reading. Also from my interaction with South African students and young writers, their level of communication in English is also higher than that of the Nigerians.
Good expression in oral or written communication is very important. Products of university education go into the job market and hold positions in which they have to use their reading skills to understand instructions and their writing skills to express themselves.
Writing and speaking well reflect an individual’s personality; hence they should be taken very seriously. Literacy or written communication is so important that in many universities, especially in the United States, there are compulsory writing-intensive courses for all students whether they are in engineering, finance, health sciences, or the humanities and social sciences. This means there are many writing assignments during the semester and writing is taught in addition to the subject of the course itself. In almost every course in the humanities and social sciences, and perhaps other colleges, there are term papers to write on the course itself and that policy requires students to write ten-page essays in so many courses in one semester.
In addition, every university has a Writing Resource Center or something else where trained language teachers assist students in writing their projects. University teachers always refer students weak in their writing skills to the Writing Resource Center for assistance to improve on their works. By the time a student has done that for four years, there is a better chance that he or she will have some knowledge of and practice in writing.
The problems of Nigeria’s education and literacy today start very early and with time the poor condition of writing worsens. At the secondary and tertiary levels, there is corruption fueling the very poor state of English in Nigeria. It appears those expected to select reading materials do not do so strictly on the quality of the works.
There is too much lobbying for the books to be selected and the officials meant to perform that task do some compromising in the process. In addition, many of the teachers are not trained to teach English language and other courses. I have read of teachers who could not spell their own names in Edo State.
Recently, there were press reports of parents caught writing exams for their children. Those parents should spend time and money to teach their children how to read and write at home rather than impersonate them to cheat. Many parents would pay to bribe exam supervisors to turn a blind eye on students to cheat at national exams but they would not pay qualified private tutors to coach their children in writing and the subjects they are being examined on. The endemic corruption in the educational system has to be removed and a new system of probity put in place to have good literate teachers and good grammatically correct texts to teach the students.
At the university level, where I have a good degree of insight into what happens, corruption and greed drive the recommendation of required textbooks in many departments. There appears to be no system of checking standards of books recommended for courses. Self-published authors peddle their books rife with grammatical errors, typos, and clichés to be recommended in courses that have large classes. Other lecturers, to ingratiate themselves to their colleagues or others, use their self-published books and throw quality to the winds. If students don’t read uplifting books, how can they learn to write well?
Let nobody get me wrong. Our children and students are capable of writing good creative English instead of the poor and awful expression of today. When I listen to Pidgin English, I see the creativity of our young ones. They create new expressions from the products of technology and the fallout of globalization.
They threaten to “delete” or “download” each other and at times “refresh.” They expect their boyfriends, girlfriends, or partners to be loyal “online” and “offline.” They exploit the novelty of globalization for new expressions in the daily lives of Nigerians. If they can create new expressions that are so powerful in Pidgin English, then with proper guidance they can take back control of good English that many products of Nigerian schools lack today if the educational system is reformed.
Reading good books expands one’s vocabulary, choices of styles to emulate, and familiarity with writing itself. It appears young people are not reading much. Of course, the forces of globalization have captured their leisure time and they would rather play video games or watch movies with their phones than spend that time to read something different from their required texts. Many adults would spend their leisure time to watch Africa Magic or European football than read. It is instructive that Onitsha Market Literature grew out of traders who had the time to trade and still read. I will presume that traders in any of the markets today will either watch football and movies or devote their break time to prayers! Young and old should take to reading so that they can improve on their oral and written communication skills.
All the offices in charge of elementary, secondary, and tertiary institutions should rise to their duties and make sure they recommend and enforce measures to improve the quality of education and literacy in their respective institutions. They should resist every lobbying and the inclination for self-remuneration and favoritism by recommending good texts for the teaching of English.
Teachers should encourage their pupils or students to read wide and that involves reading good newspaper articles, novels, short stories, memoirs, autobiographies, and other books on different subjects. Such readings will inspire students to express themselves better than they would without reading. The government at local, state, and federal levels should streamline the teaching of English across their areas of supervision and make sure that teachers are well trained and the students are made to read and write. The various ministries of education should intervene to save the nation from the pallid state of written English. Efforts should be made for teachers-parents associations to engage students in writing assignments at home and at school, especially in elementary and junior and senior secondary schools.
At the university level, the classes should be made smaller and big classes split into smaller ones so that the teachers can be more effective. Teaching classes of 100, 200, or more students makes it difficult for the teachers of English or any subject to be effective in paying attention to students who need special assistance. Furthermore, there should be more writing courses in every subject. It is not enough for students to take ENG. 101. They should also be required to take writing-intensive courses at every level in every discipline in tertiary institutions.
• Ojaide teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.