Home Op-eds Uganda’s functional illiteracy and its dumbing-down of the nation

Uganda’s functional illiteracy and its dumbing-down of the nation


The status quo
The other day, I was honored to be hosted as a guest speaker during rotary E-club Uganda’s fellowship. Rotary E-club Uganda is a new entity in town, composed of enthusiastic young ladies and gentlemen, who are focused in making their community better- Rotary style. I am, also, both humbled and proud to be one of them.

The topic, and presentation, of concentration was functional illiteracy. The presentation was done entirely online and between 6:30AM and 7:30AM. The headline, of The Daily Monitor, a leading daily, on the same day (Wednesday September 21, 2016) was to the effect that the Government of the Republic of Uganda had admitted that 80% of teachers can’t read. What a coincidence!

On further reading, it was revealed that 8/10 of primary school teachers who qualified last year can neither read nor solve basic mathematics questions. A nationwide assessment had also revealed that the tutors at primary teachers were not any better. Less than 20% of them could interpret graphs in similar exams, while only 5.7% final year students passed.

Some 46,000 Primary Three and Primary Six pupils, alongside 12,300 pre and in-service teachers, as well as 164 tutors participated in the National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) in July last year (2015). They were tested for literacy and numeracy skills. Only 21.8% and 38.8% of Primary Teachers Colleges’ year-two students were rated proficient in numeracy and literacy in English language, respectively.

Tutors performed worse in writing skills for English language with 9.6% passing, followed by pre-service teachers and in-service teachers, although both categories preferred well in grammar. Primary school children could hardly write symbols from words, multiply numbers and failed to correctly state the amount when UGX 5,000 and UGX 2000 were added.

In another, recent article, Timothy Kalyegira wrote for the same newspaper (Why do Africans find reading difficult?) that social media might have freed millions of people all over the world to take part in public discourse but these social networks, like Facebook and Instagram, have also laid bare the dishearteningly simple, even underdeveloped minds that most of us have. Timothy added that most Ugandan internet users are utterly unable to write a single sentence coherently. Most cannot understand a fairly simple observation and in their responses tend to totally miss the point.


None of the above expressly used the words functional illiteracy, but they, at least from their submissions, are the apt illustration of the scourge that besets us. The words don’t even exist in many people’s vocabulary.

Functional illiteracy is reading and writing skills that are inadequate to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond the basic level. It means that a person is not able to read and write, and do maths well in regular life.

Origins and history

Functional illiteracy is know or said to have originated in or around about the time of 1945-1950. The first time the words are known to have been used is 1946. Functional illiteracy is, majorly, documented to have started as a plan to dumb-down the American people, to transform them from an individualistic to a collective society. It was hatched by a one John Denney in 1898 as outlined in an article titled “The Primary School Fetich”.


Using a grade level definition (as it is a foreign, American concept), people who can read at the 5th grade level, or above are considered literate. People who can read at the 4th level or below are considered functionally literate. Those who can read between 5th grade and 8th grade levels may be considered marginally literate. By Ugandan levels or standards, these standards or grades are mid and upper elementary/primary school and lower or ordinary level secondary school classes/levels.

For a clearer distinction, a functional illiterate is someone who might have spent time, of up to 12 years in public schools and learned to recognize some words, as whole configurations, like Chinese characters, but is incapable of decoding the written language. They are frustrated handicapped readers who find reading so onerous that they avoid it.

Illiterates, on the other hand, are people who were never taught to read and write. Pure illiterates cannot read and write any capacity, for all practical purposes. Dyslexia, it should be noted, is just a funny word for the condition that is functional illiteracy.

Effects of functional illiteracy

Generally, the effects, of functional illiteracy, are both negative and positive. Negatively some people, some highly successful, have said that they would rather be beaten than have to read, an indication of the psychic pain reading disability can do. Functional illiterates believe that they are not intelligent enough to be able to read their own language which they can speak quite well.

Positively, some functional illiterates are driven by their innate intelligence and ambition to overcome their reading handicap and are capable, successful business owners or are pursuing successful careers. Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood described as “dyslexics”. Locally some functionally illiterate, but rich people have become honorary professors and consuls.


Functional illiterates around us include; my grandmother, a primary school dropout, who can identify letters and patch words together and conjure up sentences but after a hustle; that gentleman sharing a matatu seat with you and is reading a English newspaper (Daily Nation), but cannot express themselves – at all – in the same language that the newspaper is written; that suit and tie Ugandan corporate who cannot write proper grammar or punctuate their writing properly; that educated, contemporary human who would rather prefer to express themselves with a sea of emoji’s and most of us who read books to meet their education and/or examination requirements; and, last but not least, that handler of a popular social media account who will not listen to advice on correcting their tenses and checking their spellings.

Cardinal actors and their contribution to the gradual erosion of our illiteracy

Specifically, the effects of functional illiteracy are highlighted by the notes taken by various commentators.

Timothy Kalyegira has written (Why do Africans find reading difficult? -aforementioned) that this challenge is a reminder of the nightmare that continues to stalk the Ugandan and African book, newspaper and intellectual industries. Timothy truly illustrates that every other consumer market, such as beer, mobile phones, internet connectivity and banking has seen a several-fold growth over the last twenty years. However, the growth of these markets could be explained by alcohol, for example, for it is what most people resort to when shaken by life and all its challenges –which sadly include reading.
An alcohol drinking parent is, naturally, expected to forget that it is incumbent to them to educate their children, that it’s their most important investment. An alcoholic teacher – like most of them do are – will definitely not appreciate that if they are wanting, they will transfer their deficiencies to their pupils. If the teachers have difficulties in a certain subject, especially one that emphasizes the bettering of reading and writing skills, they will not be able to teach it.

It has emerged that some of the folks who could not compose simple stories in secondary or high schools have been training as teachers for two years, with the hope of joining the teacher employment marketer getting onto the government’s payroll.

It is because of such an absurd state of affairs that you appreciate the existence of well-meaning, foundation course units like Writing And Study Skills, at universities like Uganda Christian University, Mukono and why most people do not fancy them.

A dearth of focus and concentration – by the teachers, parents and their pupils – is also worth noting. Teacher absenteeism coupled with the parent’s delegation of all teaching and learning responsibilities to teachers and the pupil’s distraction, thanks to the immense interruption by the internet, are all to be blamed in varying degrees for the general and continuing erosion of the decency of our reading culture.

Teachers are essential in laying the necessary foundation, while parents provide the much needed supplementation, especially when the pupils are no longer under the ambit of the teachers, whereas the pupils need to always be aware that investing all their efforts in their studies is for no one else but their own benefit.

It is still open to debate, that the use of mobile phones among students could be contributing to the poor performance of the pupils as the usage of SMS impairs their ability to write or speak while the use of slang has had an unfortunate effect on basic grammar.

New players

Acknowledging that responsibility is a burden for public institutions and that parents are more concerned with hunting for their families bread and butter – or so they claim, a couple of entities have taken it upon themselves to organize and conduct a range of literary events which target the enlightenment of elementary/primary school pupils (by, for example, conducting spelling bee competitions, just like 40 Days and 40 Smiles’ Angaza Program did at Nakasero Primary School, where they celebrated World Literacy Day), and interesting the general public, (by, for example, organizing festivals like CACE’S Writivism, which hosted authors and their audience from across Africa and beyond, and held much needed workshops as well).

It is such entities which will save the toddlers from pegging their academic excellence on their parents, when they boldly utter intriguing statements like “I cannot do my homework because Mummy is not around”, and move them to keep saying hopefully better ones like “Mummy, I finished reading all my books”. Their energies will be responsible for helping the mature population to realize that reading is not a lost cause, and that it is a necessity if we are to keep perked up with new ideas, and of better cultivated minds.


Intriguingly, Ugandans – most of us, vehemently deny that we are faced with a dilemma. Our literacy levels are dishearteningly poor. Our educated behave like they have not seen enough blackboards. Our leaders, or those with local credibility, the teachers are neither celebrated nor compensated. Motivation and inspiration have no meeting point in this quest for a more marginal literacy.

As such, most of our useful time is spent on blaming the system, the same system which has produced both a handful of good, and a handful of undesired apples. The solutions are not that easy to imagine. Regardless, it is worth considering that we revise the entry requirements for new entrants to teacher colleges and to schools themselves (for the students).

Also, that our curriculum is continuously remodeled to suit the ever changing demands of the day; and, accordingly, students are availed the most basic resources in order to comfortably appreciate their studies.

Importantly, there needs to be penalties; meaningful penalties aimed at encouraging all who are responsible for bettering the status quo to uphold the most right vales and to work harder both for themselves and for their students, and thus for their nation. The same penalties, which may include assignments beyond revising summaries of especially pamphlets (believe me, ours is a generation of pamphlets), would be helpful in keeping the pupils focused. Read aloud campaigns, for both the parents and their children would be helpful in maintaining a desired modicum of maintenance of that focus on reducing and eradicating illiteracy – in all its forms.


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