Improving literacy and numeracy in north-east Nigeria thanks to innovative teaching methodology

Teaching at the right level improves literacy and numeracy skills of conflict-affected children.

Fatima Shehu, Monitoring and Reporting Officer, UNICEF Nigeria
A woman writing on the blackboard
UNICEF/2021/Shehu
29 November 2021

Hauwa Saidu and Bawa Zara Shehu have many things in common. Both are survivors of armed conflict in north-east Nigeria and both are public school teachers who struggled to get children in their respective schools to progress at the same pace.

The duo often felt frustrated with the teacher-centred methodology prescribed by the existing teachers’ training curriculum. No matter how hard they tried, the teachers could not get all learners to equally understand their subjects.

Left with no other trick in her bag, “I would simply move on to the next chapter once one or a few of my pupils seemed to have an understanding,” said Saidu. “I just assumed the other learners who were unable to understand were incapable,” said Shehu.

Two women smiling
UNICEF/2021/Shehu
Hauwa Saidu and Bawa Zara Shehu

But after a two-week Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) methodology training organised by UNICEF and the Borno State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), Saidu and Shehu now know better. The training, funded by the Global Programme for Education (GPE) and the Bank of Germany (KfW), is helping teachers across Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states realise that existing teaching methods are not child-centred, and to take approaches that are more effective to improve literacy and numeracy skills.

“It was the best and most interesting training I have ever had,” said an excited Shehu, who has been teaching for 12 years.

TaRL entails assessing and re-grouping children based on their learning levels, as opposed to the current practice of using a child’s age and height to determine an appropriate class. This way, children who are ahead of others are not held back in their learning, and vice versa.

The approach was first piloted in Borno State in 2018 for six months, with two hours a day dedicated to teaching basic reading and numeracy skills using the local language. 

The results were impressive. Pupils who could not read the alphabet dropped from 68 per cent to 17 per cent, and children in grades 4-6 who could read a paragraph of four lines in the local Hausa language increased from 14 per cent to 45 per cent. In numeracy, children who were proficient in subtraction increased from 11 per cent to 59 per cent.

The approach has now been adapted with materials developed in Kanuri and Fulfulde, which are the major local languages in Borno and Adamawa States, to expand access to more children.

Shehu is faced with overcrowding in her classroom and is often unsure how to manage her learners. With TaRL, she now knows how to organise the children and ensure that learning takes place.

“Having already assessed my pupils, I simply cluster them into subgroups based on their capabilities, give them tasks and appoint the strongest among them to lead the group, while I supervise,” she explained.

Saidu is equally excited about how she learned to use locally available materials as substitutes for teaching resources.  

“Before, we used to struggle to get teaching materials, but now, we have been taught to improvise with locally available materials like cardboard, sticks, straws and other materials,” she said.

Yaro believes in the great potential TaRL offers in bridging literacy and numeracy gaps among children in north-east Nigeria.

“It can also be used in non-formal settings for out-of-school children to improve their literacy and numeracy skills. Following a couple of activities, improvement is evident within days.’’

The challenge

Data shows literacy rates for north-east Nigeria at 50.5 per cent for boys and 31.8 per cent for girls. In Borno, 74.8 per cent of children aged 4-16 years have never attended school. There is also a decline in the number of schools and enrolment by 58 per cent and 61 per cent, respectively.

A group of people sitting on the floor
UNICEF/2021/Shehu

The 12-year long insurgency has further worsened the situation, with learning interrupted for a long period of time and the abduction, killing, and maiming of learners and teachers.

But beyond school attendance is the question of quality. Children who enrolled and remained in school showed little or no improvement in the area of literacy, with many unable to write their own names upon completion. This fueled negative perceptions by parents and guardians of formal education being a waste of time.

 “The ability to read and write, and to perform basic operations with numbers, is a necessary foundation and indispensable prerequisite for all future schooling and lifelong learning,” said Yusuf Ismail, UNICEF Education Specialist in north-east Nigeria.

A woman writing on the blackboard
UNICEF/2021/Shehu

“If foundational learning skills are not developed strongly among children in the early years, they will find it very difficult to catch up in subsequent grades and their academic performance will continue to remain poor in later years, with the risk of dropping out of school altogether. Therefore, it is important to focus on improving basic literacy for children to stay in primary school and transition to junior secondary school levels. This programme is doing just that – and we are already seeing a positive impact,” he said.