Literacy Day, the puzzle of soaring numbers of ‘illiterate literates

BY: By Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

I think the launch of the One-Teacher-One-Laptop initiative last week, couldn’t have happened at a better time, coming just a few days before this year’s International Literacy Day (ILD), observed worldwide on September 8.

Ghana’s literacy rate is said to be, as at 2018, 79 per cent for “the percentage of the population age 15 and above who can, with understanding, read and write short, simple statement on their everyday life,” according to the World Atlas and other sources.

Unfortunately, we are also confronted with the problem of what I term the ‘illiterate literates’.

How do we solve the puzzle of the growing numbers of those supposed to be literate, beneficiaries of all the educational programmes, but who show little sign of that investment?

What can be done to solve this nagging, but evidently not seriously confronted issue?

This year’s global theme for the ILD was ‘Literacy for a Human Centered Recovery: Narrowing the Digital Divide’; and Ghana chose as its national theme, ‘Complementary Education and Human Development in the COVID-19 Era: The Role of Digital Literacy’.

Techiman, capital of the Bono East Region, hosted the observance.

One definition of ‘Digital divide’ is “the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technologies and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.”

But I wonder why there was so little pre-event publicity in this country about such an extremely relevant UN observance, notably in a country trying to wipe out illiteracy.

Even more telling, was the fact that the day after the event in Techiman, none of the main daily newspapers I checked had even one line about it!

International Literacy Day is marked to “remind the world of the importance of literacy for individuals, communities and nations as well as the need to intensify efforts towards more literate societies,” says the Normal-Formal Education Division of the Ministry of Education.

Still, even as great strides are being made in the Education sector, including efforts to bridge the digital divide through such innovations as the laptops for teachers, what steps are being taken to ensure that those who benefit from all that, demonstrate that they are making good use of the opportunities?

Anyway, in fulfilment of its ‘One Teacher, One Laptop’ promise, on September 3 the Government began distributing laptops to teachers across the country.

Teachers of St Mary’s Senior High School, in Accra, were reportedly the first recipients of the pragmatic, ingenious project.

The Government is paying 70 per cent of the cost of the computers, while the teachers will pay 30 per cent.

Deputy Minister of Education, Rev John Ntim Fordjuor, noted that the teacher population currently stands at 350,000 and there are some 80,000 laptops ready for distribution, starting from SHS teachers.

Speaking at the St Mary’s ceremony, the Vice-President, Dr Mahamudu Bawumia, said: “It is my expectation that the Government’s investment in the laptops will benefit teachers, but more importantly, the students who ultimately are at the centre of the educational ecosystem.”

Clearly, the 79 per cent literacy rate is impressive.

But does this encouraging figure reflect the reality, what we experience, what we see, read and hear around us?

Does it show in the sort of English we come across, the official language? What about proficiency in the vernacular languages?

Many of us can’t even communicate in our mother tongue without adding some English – and bad English, at that!

More intriguing, the youth so adept at using mobile phones, don’t seem interested in acquiring the same expertise in the main languages they use to communicate, language they are expected to use in their education as well as in employment.

Besides, on social media platforms both English and Twi – the two I’m familiar with – get equal treatment: mistakes galore!

As I reflected in this space in 2017:

Sometimes I am tempted to believe that if we want to know the true state of education in most places in Ghana, we need not look beyond the signs all around us, whether on signboards, on commercial vehicles or on structures.

The spectacular mangling of the Queen’s English, the curious spellings and the contorted grammar are on public display everywhere; so much so that one may be forgiven for thinking that our signwriters specialize in getting it wrong.

I’m sure not much has changed since I wrote that.

One example a recently mounted sign in front of a drinking which announces “Akosua’s pup”, instead of ‘Akosua’s pub’.

Obviously, neither the signwriter nor the client who accepted, and paid for it, knew any better.

Nevertheless, presumably both its creator and the client, too, are counted among the 79 per cent?!

It seems to me that signwriters need to have some language training to qualify for that occupation.

Even on official sites of Government departments, institutions and businesses, the text of many leaves much to be desired.

Not surprisingly, West African Examinations Council reports often stress the importance of schools paying extra attention to English Language, also because improvement in English would help candidates do better in other subjects.

The mystery is, colleges of education are known to be strict about admissions, serious about producing well-trained and competent teachers.

What then could be the reason for so many illiterate literates who are supposed to have benefitted from their years in the classroom under qualified and accomplished teachers?

So what is the way forward?

I suggest that attention should not be focused solely on advancing the non-formal or complementary education agenda, as highlighted annually on September 8, and rightly so, but equally also on the growing numbers of illiterate literates; those who are rated literate, but who exhibit so many literacy shortcomings!

It should be a national concern, the growing incidence of illiterate literates because, embarrassingly, the evidence is all around us!

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