The Nigerian Centre for Reading, Research and Development (NCRRD) will next week hold a three-day national conference to chart a new course in addressing the dwindling reading culture, especially at basic education level. In this interview, the pioneer Director of the centre, Professor Isma’ila A. Tsiga, speaks on the consequences of the declining reading culture among Nigerian youth. Excerpts:
Daily Trust: What necessitated the formation of the Nigerian Centre for Reading Research and Development?
Professor Isma’ila A. Tsiga: Well, the centre came into being in October 2017, and what happened was that the United States Agency for International Development, USAID had initiated an education project largely to promote reading in the early grades in Nigeria. The progamme had taken off in two focal states, Bauchi and Sokoto. USAID invited the Florida State University because it has a world famous centre for reading research. The centre conducts research in all aspects of reading. So when the university came to assist USAID in running the Northern Education Initiative Project, they discovered that the greatest problem was that children could not read, and reading is the foundation for learning, because if a child cannot read, he/she cannot learn effectively and even at higher level reading is central to learning. They discovered that the children could not read properly.
DT: Is there a particular class in which a child must at least be able to read?
Prof. Tsiga: Yes, a child should develop reading culture from the very beginning, the child should be taught to learn to read where possible right from home before he/she is enrolled into primary school, but where that is not readily available because the parents are either unable or do not care, at least the child should be able to cultivate reading habit from primary one, and at every stage there is a standard a child should be able to obtain before they complete primary one, primary two three and so on. The child in primary four for instance which marks the beginning of upper level of primary school should have a set reading standard.
DT: What do you think is responsible for this?
Prof. Tsiga: Well, there are many factors responsible for that underachievement, one is the teachers who are often not available, or where they are available, as the Florida State University discovered in their survey, they are not trained how to teach children to cultivate reading habit, and that is the objective of Nigerian Centre for Reading Research and Development.
DT: The decline in the reading culture today is different from what obtained in your time, can you relate us how it was in your time and where we started getting things wrong?
Prof. Tsiga: Well, I am an old man, my time is different from what obtains now, it is not the question of time but rather what should obtain. It is also not the question of when and how we are getting it wrong but rather how we are not doing what we are supposed to do and so things fall apart! For instance, now we have cheap tools of communication, modern tools of communication which are technological, there is a difference between my world when I was growing up as a child and the present world in terms of the technology or tools of technology available to us.
DT: Is there a particular age or level of education a child must attain before he/she accesses these gadgets?
Prof. Tsiga: Ideally, children especially in the early grade, in the early years of primary school and even secondary school should only consult parents to help them obtain information that they cannot ordinarily access quickly and we recommend that no child should be issued a handset until they finish secondary school, or under no circumstance should parents provide handsets for their children in primary school, especially the lower classes.
DT: Sir you identified lack of qualified teachers as one of the responsible factors, but every year faculties of education in Nigerian universities and colleges of education produce hundreds of thousands of graduates, why has that problem remained intractable?
Prof. Tsiga: Many reasons account for that, one is that the teaching curriculum or rather the training of teachers has for years not included specialised training on how to teach reading to young children so that the teachers that graduate from the colleges of education and universities are qualified to teach anywhere, but reading requires some more skills so that teachers should be exposed to these skills on how to teach children and how to make children appreciate reading. Part of what was discovered, what gave rise to formation to Nigeirian Centre For Reading Research and Development was that it was discovered that even where those teachers were available they do not have particular skills to teach reading. It’s only recently that the curriculum is being redesigned to include how to teach reading especially to younger children.
DT: What is your personal assessment of some children’s current books in terms of quality and quantity?
Prof. Tsiga: I would say from experience that yes, there are very many good books, but largely, the biggest problem is that they are not enough at all. Our society produces very few good books for our children in relation to our needs. Our society does not write enough books with enough moral content and direction for children. If you carry out a census for books used in the primary schools, in fact any primary school you would find out that they are largely foreign. Secondly, you would find out that even where they are not foreign they are very much inadequate, thirdly, local books are largely unavailable and fourthly, books in the local Nigerian languages are also not available in most cases.
DT: What do you think should be done to change this?
Prof. Tsiga: What should be done is that publishers should encourage authors to write meaningful books for them to publish. Secondly, government should deliberately intervene in the production of children’s books because they will aid reading for children and once children get it right in reading they will become great achievers at different levels of education. Thirdly, parents should also make books available to their children at home because research has shown that once children have available supply of interesting reading materials at home then they become great readers.
DT: NCRRD plans to hold a national conference on teaching of early grade reading, how significant is that conference going to be in charting a new course?
Prof. Tsiga: Very good, number one, this is the first conference ever organized in Nigeria on two important themes that we want to cover. One, children’s books, two, teaching of early grade reading, that is the teaching of reading in the early primary levels 1,2,3 for instance. The conference will bring together scholars, researchers, policy makers and everyone involved in education, especially in the teaching of reading in early grade.
DT: How do you hope to re-ignite the passion for writing children’s literature in the country?
Prof. Tsiga: Thank you for reminding me this, I forgot it in our discussion but all renowned publishers in the country have been invited to this conference. We even wrote the national head quarters of the Nigerian Union of Publishers and the Nigerian Book Sellers Association informing them about the conference. In the invitation letters we sent to them we inform them that exhibition tables and chairs would be made available to them and they have also been encouraged to register some of their desk officers responsible for the production of children’s books to attend the conference and the centre was very lucky to have persuaded the authorities of the Bayero University to underwrite the cost of registration fees so that participants as well as book sellers and book publishers would be provided facilities free of charge, no participant is paying a kobo for registering online.
DT: What would you say are the consequences Nigeria has suffered or is suffering because of this decline in reading culture?
Prof. Tsiga: There are very many consequences, you use books for many reasons, one is to teach knowledge, the child that cannot read cannot have access to the enormous unimaginable billions of ideas that have been written down and published in books. Secondly, if the child cannot read then the child cannot grow academically in an effective way, it means they cannot have comprehensive knowledge and ideas about their society and the rest of the world. Thirdly, if the child cannot read well then the child cannot be influenced well by the positive thinkers in that society who write books. Reading does not only prepare the child to pass exams but also shape the direction in which children grow up.
DT: If this conference will in the end achieve its target result, how will that translate into addressing myriad of problems in the country’s education sector
Prof. Tsiga: Definitely, it will help a lot. One is that if you bring good authors and publishers together and they meet and they exchange manuscripts, then you will have more supply of locally produced materials, what I mean by that is materials that are culturally relevant.