Literacy is not just the ability to read and write English


It is common among certain Nigerians to refer to someone else as an illiterate because they cannot communicate in English. You would also see people equating this English language deficiency with lack of intelligence.

But education experts say this classification is inaccurate. According to them, this societal perception has largely excluded persons who are proficient in other languages and skills from the scheme of things.

Defining literacy is not a problem

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) defines a literate person as one who can with understanding both read and write a short, simple statement on his/her everyday life, and an illiterate person as one who cannot with understanding both read and write a short simple statement in his/her daily life.

In a much recent definition of literacy, UNESCO said it is the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.”

It is also described as involving “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.”

From the above definitions, we see that literacy is about how people communicate. It is measured at different proficiency levels.

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This is also unlimited as someone may be literate in one context but be illiterate in another based on using specific languages.

Experts would say that one’s ability to use English makes one literate only in English but the same person may be illiterate in using French or Igbo.

Literacy in Nigeria

Nigeria’s national literacy rate is 65.1%, according to a Federal Ministry of Education data. A state by state analysis of the data only three states of the 19 in Northern Nigeria have a literacy rate above the national average for both male and female adults.

A university teacher, Abubakar Abdulkadir noted that the data is based on “formal” Western education sort of literacy.

“Unfortunately today in Nigeria, literacy is only tied to Western literacy – your ability to read and write English or in the Latin script,” the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua University, Katsina don said.

“The use of the Latin script to write Yoruba, Hausa or other Nigerian languages is still literacy maybe because we are using English characters,” he added.

“Whereas, a person who acquired Arabic literacy is not literate.”

During a parley between traditional rulers and the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) last October, there was a move to redefine what literacy is in Nigeria after recognising the half correct perception.

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As a senior official with UBEC, Bello Kagara told in Abuja, even the traditional Almajiri School pupils are literates.

“We called on the Nigerian government to redefine literacy because most of these Almajiri (pupils) are not entirely illiterate,” Mr Kagara, the UBEC Director of Social Mobilisation said. “They are literate, but in another language.”

“But in the Nigerian context, literacy means knowing English language. In a country like Korea, literacy means the ability to use Korean.”

“But here in Nigeria, people that are able to read and write Arabic are not considered as literate.”

“If you know how to read French, you are literate. If you know how to read English, you are literate. But if you can read Arabic, you are not seen as literate.”

Beyond reading and writing human language, he made reference to the ability to use technological tools as part of literacy too.

“There are people who can use computer today too, without the ability to read and write. They are literate in computer language but not probably in English.”

He however reeled on ongoing efforts to integrate Western education into the Islamic education of the Almajiri Model Schools spread across Nigeria as multifaceted literacy is being encouraged since English is the nation’s lingua franca.

Data obtained from UBEC showed that 157 Almajiri Model Schools were either built or supported with facilities between 2010 and 2014 as part of the integration process.

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Between integration and choice

The goal of the President Goodluck Jonathan administration when it launched the Almajiri Education Programme was to integrate the literacies. But it had been largely unsuccessful as some of the schools are rotting away due to successive governments’ neglect.

Dr Abdulkadir noted that the near failure of the programme was because of some sense of different choices among parents and the society.

Those who he said don’t believe in the almajiri system found it offensive on the one hand that it is being integrated while those who want to choose only the almajiri system also find it unacceptable on the other hand.

“Parents have the right to choose whichever they like, provided that the child’s right to literacy and skill acquisition are not being violated,” he added.

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