Last week I attended a Literacy training with the librarian from the school in my village. 10 other Peace Corps volunteers attended the training with their respective counterparts – teachers or headmasters.

We started the training with a “Why Literacy?” session that was pretty startling. We looked at the Grade 12 exit exam results from 2016. To “pass” a subject, you need 40% on the exam and for “credit,” you need 60%. In my region of The Gambia, only 25% of students received 4 passes. Meaning 75% of Grade 12 students who took the exams (meaning they are the best of the best for making it all the way to Grade 12) couldn’t get more than 40% on their exams. There was not one female student in my region that had 4 credits – necessary for admittance to the University of The Gambia. The underlying cause of these poor test results comes back to literacy.

Nationwide, World Bank conducted a literacy survey and concluded that 0.9% of the population is proficient in reading comprehension. If that statistic is accurate, there are only about 1,000 people who are proficient in reading comprehension in this country of 2 million people. By Grade 12, students still cannot read, write, and speak English to the point where they can succeed in their exams. To be a teacher, you just need 4 passes. This means that some teachers only scored 40% in subjects like English and Math and consequently can only transfer that much onto their students.

As I’ve stated in previous blogs, the problem isn’t intelligence but just lack of English speaking in rural Gambia. Students might have a few classes in English everyday, but then they all go home and speak local language. Since those local languages aren’t written, there is little time to practice writing and reading even in a language that they understand. If I could take the Grade 12 exams with the students at my school and translate the questions into local language, I’m sure their results would be much different.

This is a sentence construction game we played – students jump on the words to create a sentence of their own design.

What we focused on at the training is reading aloud to your students. No matter what subject or grade, it is beneficial for the students to hear, read, and experience books. We talked about Direct Reading and Thinking Approaches to reading – asking questions, making connections, inferring, analyzing – things that come as second nature to literate Americans who have English as their first language.

My librarian is very good at her job. Her name is Jaila, she’s from the next village over, a prominent member of the Youth Association and has been working as the librarian for a few years now. She wants to work before she gets married which has given her the ability to be a great role model for the students. But when she brings in Grade 3 students for library class, they read books at the nursery (kindergarten) lesson because their reading comprehension is still at that level. She’s trying, but it’s not an easy problem to tackle.

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