HAVING BEEN INVOLVED in advocating for literacy in Rwanda over the last few years, I have closely witnessed some progress in advancing reading and writing although there are a few things I still need to grasp. Perhaps it is a matter of misunderstanding.
Like many of the students here in Rwanda, I didn’t have the chance to have at least one of my teachers – as a mentor and guide throughout the educational process – in class telling me how important reading and writing, in particular, is (if I can remember well). I spent the biggest part of my years then with these teachers, but it is only one of them who gave lessons in other classes that once expressed ‘something’ of that nature. He had discovered my passion for writing – interestingly through the ‘impressive’ performance I had registered in English tests and not a good text that I had written.
With the amazing ongoing efforts to promote the reading culture in Rwanda, the place of writing in classrooms is still imperceptible in my opinion. Of course, while focused on early-grade literacy, the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) through its Rwanda Education Board (REB) and Rwanda Reads, took a good option to increase biases towards reading; but one could ask about the increasing need to address poor literacy skills among the youth in secondary schools and elsewhere aged between 14 and 24, making up to 24% of Rwanda’s total population.
Although early grade reading (which I refer to as word recognition) is fundamental to literacy development, I still believe that there is need to reassess how writing can also be enhanced in post-primary classes.
Reading and writing are both vital aspects of literacy and they each require their own dedicated instruction. I am one of those who also believe that if students are to learn they must write because it is through the very exercises of writing that they make strenuous efforts with the details, engage in deep thought with the facts, and rework raw information and concepts dimly understood into language they can easily communicate to others.
Having been recently tagged in a tweet (on Twitter) that criticized the minimum role of Rwandans in telling their story in writing their story, I always seek to understand why most of the people seem not to care about this serious issue of poor writing skills.
I think it is yet time that we all rethink the different approaches to promoting literacy. Over the last decade, we have seen tremendous growth in literacy rates but I still wonder how many (among the literate population itself) can think about and analyse what they have read and write with skill and clarity. In a recent report published by MINEDUC, entitled 2011 Education Statistics, literacy was described as “the ability to read for knowledge and write coherently and think critically about the written word” but I feel the urge to doubt the statement. Besides reading for comprehension, is obvious that many still struggle to even transform their knowledge and thoughts into certainly the most effective format of communication, that is writing.
Like many of Rwanda’s youth, I had to find passion in writing; which helped me develop an unconscious love for reading. I faced the challenge in lack of relevant and engaging materials to read. In effect, I blamed shortage of materials with local content which engagingly facilitated my understanding and will to know more. I was seeking content that could help me find myself into the stories being told. I was unlucky enough not to find books, for example, with names of people or streets that was familiar with.
It was almost a nightmare for me to read a book filled with names of food and other things that I have never seen or heard of in Rwanda – and perhaps those of which I will never get to know. Those are some of the threats presented by materials from different cultures and societies to young readers in ‘developing’ countries.
For me, it sounded even better to read materials containing (for example) names like Keza, Rukara, Kibonge and so on. Because these are the same names I could think exist. Thinking of something else would make things more complex.
Okay, I know they say it’s always good to learn about other cultures and societies but I would argue that before you get to know others you must know and enjoy yourself and others around you. In this very context, young people are seriously in danger of losing touch to the inmost beauty of their nature and touchstone to humanity.
Because advancing writing does not clearly figure in our education system’s approaches, there is no way to expect effective communicators. In most of people’s minds, writing is still a skill that is ‘foolishly reserved’ to those pursuing literature or journalism majors.
I was recently reminded that good writers are always good readers, but good readers are not necessarily good writers.
To give more value to what our students get out of school, Rwanda’s education system ought to significantly invest more efforts in teaching language and writing as a tool for better comprehension and transformation of learning.
The writer is the President, Youth Literacy Organisation (YouLi). Twitter: @Rwabigwi