Does the Ghanaian Schooling System Make Children Literate?

ClassroomAs featured in the Huffington Post | 12 May 2016

Northern Ghana region is well known for its rural and remote environment. Schools are far apart and access becomes an issue, especially in the rainy season. Despite many attempts from the District Education Officials, teachers don’t prefer to reside in the area. They commute by public transport from nearby cities like Bolgatanga which stretches their daily routine to many hours. Various stakeholders came together to construct housing facility for teachers with the community providing for their meals at nights. Over the years, roads were constructed which made access to schools easier. School buildings were rehabilitated to make them safer for the students. This easy part was done in a couple of years.

However, the district officials and various stakeholders realized that due to the universal/automatic promotion policy the children were getting promoted to the next grade of primary school but without learning much. The graph below shows the gravity of the issue. Ministry of Education Ghana figures suggest that by the end of P2 (primary grade 2), the majority of public school pupils could neither read nor make sense of text —either in a Ghanaian language or in English. In every language, at least half, and often more, of the pupils assessed could not read a single word correctly.

Figure 1: Letter-sound knowledge-Percentage of pupils scoring zero, by language and region.
Source: Ministry of Education Ghana (2014)

In fact, listening comprehension was quite low.

Figure 2: Listening comprehension-Percentage of pupils scoring zero, by language and region.

Source: Ministry of Education Ghana (2014)

In Bolgatanga, a multi-stakeholder committee was set-up to investigate the reasons for children not learning. As of 2009, the language policy is to teach up to primary P3 in local language, and then fully transition to English by P4. English is taught as a subject since P1, but clearly students do not learn enough language to learn information through it (USAID, 2014). Recently, the Minister of Education has suggested removing English as the medium of instruction in primary schools, but this policy has yet not been implemented in all part of Ghana.

What is considered as a “local language” recognized by the school system is also a complex issue in Ghana. There are currently 11 regional languages that are approved as the medium of instruction in Ghanaian school system (Bodomo, 1996). These regional languages were decided based on the population census and the number of people speaking these languages. Each of these eleven languages has their own dialects and/or sub-languages spoken by specific tribes and specific geographic regions.

Buli and Mampruli are the majority languages spoken in the West Mamprusi, Bulsa South district Mamprugu Maoduri district of Northern Ghana. Unfortunately they don’t make the cut-off into the eleven regional languages approved for the school system. Dagbani is the regional language of Northern Ghan and all the textbooks are written in Dagbani. However not all teachers are fluent in any of the three languages (2 local and 1 regional) since they are appointed from various parts of Ghana. Children speak a different language at home and are taught in a different language at school. With the limited hours of actual instruction time that the student receive at school coupled with the local-regional-foreign language complications, many generations of students have “passed” to the next grade illiterate. The two local languages, Buli and Mampruli, are spoken widely in the region, but they are rarely written. Ghana Institute of Linguistics Literacy and Bible Translation are probably the only organizations that work on the scripts, mainly for religious texts.

Multiple stakeholders including community led organizations, research institutions and local Government bodies met to create supplemental materials for early graders in language spoken at home-Buli and Mampruli. Gillbt shared their materials and the stakeholders sat together to create easy text starting with letters to words and simple sentences. It was a fun and a doable task. The stakeholders participated in a workshop and created easy to read materials using existing scripts for the language of comfort for children at home. The methodology behind it was borrowed from cognitive neuroscience (Abadzi, 2011), a model that is tried and tested previously in other places like Gambia and Malawi. The workshop was also a great way of salvaging two local languages from slowly becoming extinct. Buli text includes characters like “Ŋ” and “Ɔ”, fonts for which are difficult to find. The workshop produced two thick books of about 150 pages in Buli and created plans to extend to Mampruli. The stakeholders decided to use this text as supplemental materials in early grades to gain proficiency in their “comfort” language first and use the language acquisition skills the learn other languages including English a couple of years down the lane.

The two supplemental books were ultimately not used in the schools for early graders. Many factors played a role here, first, the school examinations will be in the regional language and not in the local dialect. Therefore, early familiarity with the language of examination was preferred. Second, all approved textbooks will still remain in the regional language, however it was not the majority language of the districts. Third, teachers were not well versed with the two local languages as they traveled to the district to teach and lived in the cities. Fourth, using Buli and Mampruli in the school system would mean creating stories, more text and essentially creating all reading materials in a dialect that does not have any pre-existing ready material. Fifth, the government mandates only using “approved” languages from the 11 regional languages had to be adhered to. So the supplemental materials were to remain “supplemental” and not become “textbooks”.

Meanwhile months had gone by with another batch of illiterates ready to move on to the next grade. The stakeholders ultimately decided again to get on with English for early grades. Besides being unknown to the children, English has a complex spelling system, whereas local languages are spelled consistently. A U.K. based technique to learn English- Jolly Phonics ( was deemed fit. English material was available, teachers were trained in a month and a phonics-based method was adopted to make P1-P3 (Primary grades 1 to 3) learn English. Results are awaited.



Abadzi, Helen. (2013). Literacy for all in 100 days? A research-based strategy for fast progress in low-income countries (English). Accessed from

Bodomo, Adams (1996). On the language and development in Africa: The Case of Ghana. Nordic Journal of African Studies 5(2): 31-51. Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway. Retrieved from April 22nd 2016.

Ministry of Education, Ghana Education Service, National Education Assessment Unit (2014). Ghana 2013 EGRA/EGMA Findings Report. (

USAID and Ministry of EducationGhana Education Service National Education Assessment Unit (2014). Ghana 2013Early Grade Reading Assessment andEarly Grade Mathematics Assessment Report of Findings


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