According to the 2010 Nigeria Education Data Survey (NEDS), the Northeast region of Nigeria, where the project is located, has the lowest levels of literacy and numeracy in the country (National Population Commission (NPC) and RTI International, 2011). Adamawa State had an 86% gross and 58% net enrollment rate at the primary level, close to the national averages, but at the secondary school the rates were only 48.7% gross and 26.9% net, meaning that over half the child population does not make it to secondary school. Of the children ages 5-16 tested in the survey, 77% could not read at all, and 58% could not add two numbers with a sum under 10. (However, these figures include the children who were not enrolled in school at the time of the survey.)
Even more locally, in October 2013, STELLAR administered an Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) to 180 Primary 2 and 3 pupils in two schools in Yola as the baseline assessment for its fall semester tutoring program. The results showed very low levels of reading proficiency, with Primary 2 pupils reading on average only 0.38 words per minute (wpm) and Primary 3 pupils only 6.10 wpm (compared, for example, to 51 and 71 wpm, respectively, for grade-level equivalent norms in the United States). Since reading becomes the basis for further learning as the children progress through school, the outlook for their long-term retention and academic success is troubling.
Numerous complex factors contribute to this generalized underachievement that is not unique to Adamawa State. Commonly cited culprits include outdated curricula, the lack of pedagogical and reading materials, high student/teacher ratios, high absenteeism (teacher and pupil), and debilitating strikes (Emunemu, 2008). Other problems are the shortage of trained teachers (Theobald, et al., 2007), the questionable quality of their preparation, and low teacher morale.
Moreover, low achievement rates come as no surprise to those who recognize the critical role of language in education. Although English is the “official” language in Nigeria, and the most common medium for reading and writing, it is only spoken by 20% of the population (Adegbija, 2004). In Yola, of 208 primary school pupils interviewed in the STELLAR tutoring program in 2012, only 4% reported speaking English at home. The most common home languages were Hausa (44%) and Fulfulde (27%); the remaining 25% spoke one of 15 other languages. In principle, Nigerian education policy promotes the use of the home language in the early primary years (Adegbija, 2004), but in a land of hundreds of distinct languages, it would be difficult to overstate the opposition that both logistics and language attitudes mount against an effective implementation of this policy on the ground.
The STELLAR project design is based on a growing body of evidence of effective interventions to improve learning outcomes. In particular, studies in contexts similar to Nigeria have shown that tutoring children in small groups after school, even by nonprofessional tutors, is a cost-effective way to raise their academic proficiency levels (Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) et al., 2012; Pratham, 2009).
Second, research has linked time spent reading to statistically significant differences in academic achievement (see Samuels & Wu, 2004; Topping, Samuels, & Paul, 2007; Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding, 1988, among others). Naturally, to increase reading time, students must have access to appropriate reading materials.
Third, linguistic studies are generally in consensus that children learn better in the long run when they first build a solid academic foundation in a language they understand, especially a language they speak at home (see Heugh et al., 2007; UNESCO, 2008; Alidou et al., 2006; Dutcher, 2004; Gove & Cvelich, 2011, among others). First-language literacy strengthens rather than competes with or subtracts from second-language literacy (e.g. English).
Finally, with the advent of the computer age, much research has been undertaken to determine how and how much technology can contribute to learning outcomes. The results vary widely according to context, but it is theorized that technology can have a positive impact in the developing world where teachers and resources are scarce.
In brief, the rationale behind the STELLAR project activities is that a combination of tutoring, access to appropriate pedagogical and reading materials in English and home languages, and technological resources will all help to reinforce the basic academic skills of the children. It is hoped that a more solid academic foundation will in turn equip them to stay in school longer and learn more and better in the long term.