Kenyan parents no longer buy storybooks for their children because over the years, there has been a wrongly held notion that reading storybooks is a waste of time and that storybooks do not add any value on the child’s performance is school.
Instead, parents focus on buying textbooks, revision books, encyclopedias and past examination papers so that their children can read, memorise and duplicate the content when sitting for national examinations. In fact, even the government grant for free primary education only caters for the textbooks of examinable subjects and nothing is left for storybooks and supplementary books.
Lack of storybooks in the menu of learners is one of the reason why we are having a huge literacy crisis in Kenya as captured by various studies and baseline survey. Unbeknown to many parents and policy makers, storybooks too are textbooks that children need to have if they are to excel in school and later in the job market. Storybooks help children to learn better the language of study or instruction, be it English or Kiswahili. Without proper comprehension of the instructional languages, children will not understand the contents of other subjects, therefore they will not do well in school!
The low literacy levels of learners in primary schools as highlighted by the national assessments done by Uwezo, a citizen-led initiative, are depressing.
The 2014 report 'Are Our Children Learning? Literacy and numeracy across East Africa' shows that one out of four students in Standard 7 does not have Standard 2 level literacy skills. Also, only less than a third of children enrolled in Standard 3 have basic Standard 2 level literacy skills. Furthermore, children from poorer households consistently show lower learning outcomes.
Similar outcomes have also be revealed in the past. For instance the 2013 assessment report revealed that while 100 per cent of children in Class 3 and higher should be able to read basic English and Kiswahili, and do simple mathematics, only very few are able to do so. Actually fewer than 4 out of 10 Class 3 children can read a Class 2 Kiswahili story while in the same class, 2 out of 10 can read a Kiswahili word.
As for English, just 3 out of 10 Class 3 children can read a Class 2 Kiswahili story while 2 out of 10 children in the same class cannot read an English word. In Class 8, 4 out of 100 children cannot read a Class 2 English story. The script is the same in numeracy.
These surveys have been collaborated by Primary Reading and Math program (PRIMR), USAID supported programme that seeks to improve quality of learning in early primary years in Kenya. Its baseline survey captures depressing literacy levels across all the counties in the country.
According to their survey, in Bungoma County, 62.8% of children at the end of class 2 could not read a single word after two years of schooling. Only 9% in the same county had the capacity to read at the bench mark level of 65 words per minute in English. In Kiambu, 52% of children could not read a single word at the end of class 2.
This is even further collaborated by the annual Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) average pass rate of schools, which has stayed at 250 marks since 2003! Less than 50% of schools achieve this as an average mean score. 23% of private schools score lower than 250 points while a huge 55% of public schools score lower than 250 points.
In 2014, the UNESCO’s Monitoring Global Report also confirmed these finding by revealing that millions of Kenyan children are failing to learn the basics despite much improved access to primary education.
But this is no surprise because over the years, the children only read with the extrinsic motivation to pass national examination and get admitted to a good national school in case of primary or attain the university cut-offs in case for secondary. In such a situation, when a child achieves his/her goals, voluntary reading is likely to end because the focus now turns to doing a utility course at the university and then later look for employment.
The second issue is that in Kenya there are no policies in the education system that encourages the promotion of a reading culture. Although there is some time set aside for reading at the library every week, there are no policies in form of legislation, regulation or guidelines to firm this up. In this regard, library lessons are neglected by most schools and most of the time, teachers use that time to teach curriculum lessons or pupils use it to do their class and homework. Some other schools do not have this library lesson in their timetable at all! Most schools do not use this library lesson for reading because they see the syllabus as too demanding. They see no need to conduct library lessons since it’s not an examinable subject.
Added to this, is the fact that there is no official policy requiring primary schools to have libraries. While the regulations on the number and size of classrooms, toilets, labs, kitchen and the rest, schools are not mandated to have a library as a pre-condition of establishing a school. School libraries are not given any official support from the government or even parents in the list of priorities for a school.
Are storybooks the answer to this endemic manmade literacy crisis? Yes! This is according to research from credible institutions.