Jane Olantuji Hughes, a teacher and headmistress in Nigeria for twenty-two years, seeks to revolutionize how reading is taught in primary schools so that there is a clearer distinction between the teaching of reading and the teaching of English. Jane has been developing a new reading curriculum, workshops for teachers, and culturally appropriate textbooks for beginning readers.
The New Idea
In response to the staggeringly high illiteracy rates in Nigeria, and in particular, the failure of public schools to teach reading even to their graduates, Jane Olantuji Hughes has been at work on several fronts to promote the teaching of reading in Nigeria's schools. Jane has developed several beginning reading texts for primary schools as well as textbooks for teachers on how to teach reading. But the central thrust of her work is organizing a series of workshops for primary school teachers.The program Jane started, called the Literature Awareness Program (L.A.P.), began by organizing workshops for the teachers at the school where she served as headmistress. Groups of teachers from participating schools are taught techniques of teaching reading and also shown how to create materials in the classroom, shaped by the pupils' own interests, experiences, vocabulary and language usage. The series of workshops and follow-ups reinforce the new approaches and enable teachers to discuss their problems and achievements.Jane has worked closely with teachers both as headmistress and as a leader of in-service teachers' courses. A turning point for Jane in thinking about the problem was when she stopped relying on university specialists, and began using teachers themselves as resource persons and facilitators in her workshops.
At present, reading is not taught as a distinct subject in primary schools in Nigeria. Instead it is assumed that children learn to read as they learn English. Since English is a second language for the children, learning new words and how to read them at the same time is often overwhelming. (Their mother tongue is Hausa, Berom, or Yoruba.) Many children learn to "read" through rote memorization, but only a few achieve Jane's goal of "reading with understanding".The problems with the public school reading programs lead to greater disparities between the public and private educational systems. Jane says that, "Increasingly, access to secondary and tertiary education is becoming the prerogative of children who have attended private schools, because public school pupils cannot read."
Jane's strategy for improving the teaching of reading is multi-faceted, and has evolved significantly over the fourteen-year period that she has been actively pursuing it. At the center of Jane's strategy is a series of short workshops for teachers. These workshops are facilitated by Jane and by other teachers (usually trainees from Jane's earlier workshops). They stress to teachers the difference between literacy and the ability to speak English. At least 10 teachers from each school as well as the headmaster/mistress are required for admission to the seminar. Jane refuses to let teachers participate on any lesser terms, because she feels that the need for reinforcement after the workshop is critical, and that if fewer teachers attend, or the heads of schools are not involved, then this reinforcement will not happen. Although Jane has, since 1996, been temporarily traveling back and forth between the U.K. and Nigeria, the L.A.P. project continues with considerable support from the British Council. Training of teachers has continued up through phase III, with another phase in progress.Teachers are shown how to develop classroom reading materials, when texts are not available. For example, they record the pupils' own presentation of their "news" and interests, in their own words and syntax. Thus the language patterns as well as "text" vocabulary are familiar and easier for the pupils. They also can immediately see and grasp the relationship between spoken and written language.A critical part of Jane's strategy is the creation of culturally-appropriate beginning reading texts, which are mostly absent in Nigeria today. Jane writes simple texts for children that feature a vocabulary of 15-30 words with which the children are already familiar. These "basal texts" can serve as a foundation for effective reading classes. Jane also creates textbooks for teachers for the teaching of reading.The Reading Association of Nigeria (RAN) was formed in 1982 in response to the low levels of literacy in the country. Jane is an active member of RAN and has been using their newsletter regularly to disseminate her ideas and achievements. She hopes to use the organization to place reading more firmly at the center of the government's national education agenda. Jane has also worked with two government bodies (the National Teachers Institute and the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council) to have the teaching of reading placed on the curriculum of teachers' colleges. After many years at a private school, Jane is convinced that her system must be adopted by the Nigerian Government and have national impact: "I think it is worthwhile working through the primary schools, however hopeless the situation may appear now, because the primary schools are going to remain with us."
Jane Hughes, married to a Nigerian, has spent over 25 years living in Nigeria. She earned a degree in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics in 1967, and later earned a Masters in education from the University of Jos in Nigeria, where she has taught part-time.From 1982-1991, Jane served as headmistress of the Fatima School, a large private school of 1000 primary students. In 1991, despite financial constraints caused by her husband's retirement, Jane resigned and has since then been working full-time on her ideas.