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Promoting Literacy in School Libraries in Sierra Leone
The heart of information literacy is contained within definitions used to describe it. Traditionally librarians have given ‘library induction’ or ‘library skills training’ in a limited role. Library users need to know where the catalogue is, what the services are, and most importantly where the enquiry desk is. This is not to reduce the value of traditional library induction, but libraries and information are also changing. The provision of information through a library in a traditional form has gone through radical alterations. Already in most library and information organisations staffs are adjusting their services with the provision of new media and access to information provision within these organisations. Thus librarians are talking about social inclusion, opportunity, life-long learning, information society and self development.
A plethora of definitions for information literacy abound in books, journal papers and the web. Some of these definitions centre on the activities of information literacy i.e. identifying the skills needed for successful literate functioning. Other definitions are based on the perspective of an information literate person i.e. trying to outline the concept of information literacy. Deriving therefore a single definition is a complex process of collecting together a set of ideas as to what might be, should be, or may be considered a part of information literacy. For example Weber and Johnson (2002) defined information literacy as the adoption of appropriate information behaviour to obtain, through whatever channel or medium, information well fitted to information needs, together with critical awareness of the importance of wise and ethical use of information in society. The American Library Association (2003) defined information literacy as a set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information. While CLIP (2004) defined information literacy as knowing when and why one needs information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner. Succinctly these definitions imply that information literacy requires not only knowledge but also skills in:
• recognising when information is needed;
• resources available
• locating information;
• evaluating information;
• using information;
• ethics and responsibility of use of information;
• how to communicate or share information;
• how to manage information
Given therefore the variety of definitions and implied explanation information literacy is a cluster of abilities that an individual can employ to cope with, and to take advantage of the unprecedented amount of information which surrounds us in our daily life and work.
STRUCTURE OF THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
Sierra Leone’s current educational system is composed of six years of formal primary education, three years of Junior Secondary School (JSS), three years Senior Secondary School (SSS) and four years of tertiary education-6-3-3-4. (The Professor Gbamanja Commission’s Report of 2010 recommended an additional year for SSS to become 6-3-4-4). The official age for primary school pupils is between six and eleven years. All pupils at the end of class six are required to take and pass the National Primary School Examinations designed by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) to enable them proceed to the secondary school divided into Junior Secondary School(JSS) and Senior Secondary School (SSS). Each part has a final examination: the Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE) for the JSS, and the West African Senior Secondary School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE) for SSS, both conducted by WAEC. Successful candidates of WASSCE are admitted to tertiary institutions based on a number of subjects passed (GoSL,1995)
The curriculum of primary schools emphasizes communication competence and the ability to understand and manipulate numbers. At the JSS level, the curriculum is general and comprehensive, encompassing the whole range of knowledge, attitudes and skills in cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains. The core subjects of English, Mathematics, Science and Social studies are compulsory for all pupils. At the SSS level, the curriculum is determined by its nature (general or specialist), or its particular objectives. Pupils are offered a set of core (compulsory) subjects with optional subjects based on their specialization. Teaching is guided by the teaching syllabuses and influenced by the external examinations that pupils are required to take at the 3/ 4-year course. English is the language of instruction (GoSL,1995).
The countries two universities, three polytechnics, and two teacher training colleges are responsible for the training of teachers in Sierra Leone. The Universities Act of 2004 provides for private universities so that these institutions too could help in the training of teachers. Programs range from the Teacher Certificate offered by the teacher training colleges to the Masters in Education offered by universities. Pre-service certification of teachers is the responsibility of the National Council for Technical, Vocational and Other Academic Awards (NCTVA). There is also an In-service Teacher Training program (Distance Education Program) conducted for teachers in part to reduce the number of untrained and unqualified teachers especially in the rural areas.
LITERACY IN SIERRA LEONE
In Sierra Leone as it is in most parts of the developing world literacy involves one’s ability to read, write and numeracy. It is the ability to function effectively in life contexts. A literate person is associated with the possession of skills and knowledge and how these could be applied within his local environment. For instance a literate person is believed to be able to apply chemical fertilizer to his crops, fill in a loans form, determine proper dosage of medicine, calculate cash cropping cost and profits, glean information from a newspaper, make out a bank deposit slip and understanding instructions and basic human rights.
Literacy is at the heart of the country’s development goals and human rights (World Bank, 2007). Wherever practised literacy activities are part of national and international strategies for improved education, human development and well-being. According to the 2013 United Nations Human Development Index Sierra Leone has a literacy rate of 34 %.Implicitly Sierra Leone is an oral society. And oral societies rely heavily on memory to transmit their values, laws, history, music, and culture whereas the written word allows infinite possibilities for transmission and therefore of active participation in communication. These possibilities are what make the goal of literacy crucial in society.
In academic parlance literacy hinges on the printed word. Most pupils are formally introduced to print when they encounter schoolbook. School teachers in Sierra Leone continue to use textbooks in their teaching activities to convey content area information to pupils. It is no gainsaying that pupils neither maximise their learning potential nor read at levels necessary for understanding the type of materials teachers would like them to use. Thus the performance of pupils at internal and public examinations is disappointing. Further pupils’ continued queries in the library demonstrate that they do not only lack basic awareness of resources available in their different school libraries but also do not understand basic rudiments of how to source information and materials from these institutions. What is more worrisome is that pupils do not use appropriate reading skills and study strategies in learning. There is a dearth of reading culture in schools and this situation cuts across the fabric of society. In view of the current support the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) to establish literacy standards in school this situation has proved frustrating as teachers do not know how to better help pupils to achieve this goal. Thus they look up to the school librarians to play a more proactive role.
LITERACY DEMANDS ON SECONDARY SCHOOL PUPILS
In everyday situations school pupils are expected to be able to identify and seek information they need. Providing a variety of reading and writing experiences using varied materials in the school library can help develop pupils’ literacy ability (Roe, Stoodt-Hill and Burns, 2004). The mode of assessment in schools in Sierra Leone includes class exercises, tests, written and practical assignments, as well as written examinations to see pupils through to their next levels. These pupils, for example, need to read content books and supplementary materials in school for homework. Pupils have even more literacy needs in their activities outside school. They need to read signs found in their communities, job applications, road maps and signs, labels on food and medicine, newspapers, public notices, bank statements, bills and many other functional materials. Failure to read and understand these materials can result in their committing traffic violations, having unpleasant reactions to food or medicine, becoming lost, losing employment opportunities and missing desirable programs. Equally so pupils need to write to their relatives and loved ones, instructions to people who are doing things for them, notes to themselves about tasks to be completed, phone messages for colleagues and many other items. Mistakes in these activities can have negative effects on them. Good literacy skills are especially important to pupils who plan to pursue higher education studies. The job market in the country calls for pupils to be literate. For instance most jobs advertised these days require people who have completed their JSS. The fact is that workers need to be able to understand graphic aids, categorized information and skim and scan to locate information. Also the nature of reading in the workplace generally involves locating information for immediate use and inferring information for problem solving. The reading and writing of a variety of documents like memos, manuals, letters, reports and instructions are necessary literacy skills in the workplace.
SCHOOL LIBRARIES IN SIERRA LEONE
School libraries in Sierra Leone are perceived as integral aspect of the county’s educational system. These institutions bring together four major components of the school community: the materials, pupils, teacher and library staff. The main purpose for the establishment of these institutions in schools is to complement the teaching/learning process, if not to support the curriculum. This purpose is achieved in two ways: by providing pupils with the means of finding whatever information they need; and by developing in pupils the habit of using books both for information and for pleasure. Pupils need information to help them with the subjects they learn in school. The textbooks they use and the notes they take in class can be an excellent foundation. They may also be sufficient for revision purposes. But these could not be enough to enable pupils to write good essays of their own or to carry out group projects. School libraries then are expected to complement this effort and therefore are perceived as learning centres.
Pupils need information on subjects not taught in school. School libraries are looked upon as places pupils find information to help them in their school studies and personal development. Through these institutions pupils’ habit of using libraries for life-long education is not only developed but also school libraries could be used to improve pupils’ reading skills. In the school community both pupils and teachers use school libraries for leisure and recreational purpose and for career advancement. The culture of society is also transmitted through use of school libraries. Because of the important role school libraries play in the country’s educational system they are organised in such way that pupils as well as teachers can rely upon them for support in the teaching/learning process. Most of these institutions are managed by either a full-time staff often supervised by a senior teacher. Staffs use varied methods to promote their use including user education.
JUSTIFYING THE LIBRARIAN’S INVOLVEMENT IN PROMOTING LITERACY IN SCHOOL
A pre-requisite for the development of autonomous pupils through flexible resource-based learning approaches is that pupils master a set of skills which gradually enable them to take control of their own learning. Current emphasis in teaching in schools in Sierra Leone has shifted from “teacher-centred” to “pupil-centred” approach thereby making pupils to “learn how to learn” for themselves so that the integration of process skills into the design of the school curriculum becomes crucial (GoSL,1995). It is in this area of “learning” or “information literacy” skills that one can most clearly see the inter-relationship between the school curriculum and the school library. For pupils to become independent users of information and for this to occur it is vital that they are given the skills to learn how to find information, how to select what is relevant, and how to use it in the best way possible for their own particular needs and take responsibility for their own learning. As information literate, pupils will be able to manage information skilfully and efficiently in a variety of contexts. They will be capable of weighing information carefully and wisely to determine its quality (Marcum2002). Pupils do recognise that having good information is central to meeting the opportunity and challenges of day-to-day living. They are also aware of the importance of how researching across a variety of sources and formats to locate the best information to meet particular needs.
Literacy activities in schools in Sierra Leone are the responsibility of content area teachers, reading consultants and school librarians. Of these the role of the school librarian is paramount. As specialist the school librarian is expected to provide assistance to pupils and teachers alike by locating materials in different subjects, and at different reading levels by making available materials that can be used for motivation and background reading. The school librarian is also expected to provide pupils with instructions in locating strategies related to the library such as doing online searches and skimming through printed reference materials. The librarian is expected to display printed materials within his purview, write specialised bibliographies and lists of addresses on specific subjects at the request of teachers. He should be able to provide pupils with direct assistance in finding and using appropriate materials; recreational reading can be fostered by the librarian’s book talks or attractive book displays on high-interest topics like HIV/AIDS, child abuse, child rights, human rights and poverty alleviation. In view of this the fundamental qualities expected of the good school librarian include knowledge of his collection and how to access it; ability to understand the needs of his users more so those of pupils; ability to communicate with pupils and adult users; and knowledge of information skills and how to use information.
ROLE OF THE SCHOOL LIBRARIAN
Pupils’ success in school depends to a large extent upon their ability to access, evaluate and use information. Providing access to information and resources is a long-standing responsibility of the school librarian. The school librarian should provide the leadership and expertise necessary to ensure that the library becomes integral in the instructional program of the school. In school the librarian is the information specialist, teacher and instructional consultant. He is the interface responsible for guiding pupils and teachers through the complex information resources housed in his library (Lenox and Walker, 1993). He is looked up to assist and guide numerous users in seeking to use and understand the resources and services of the library. In this respect the school librarian should inculcate in these users such skills as manual and online searching of information; use of equipment; developing critical skills for the organization, evaluation and use of information and ideas as integral part of the curriculum (Lonsdale, 2003). The school librarian should be aware of the range of available information retrieval systems, identify that most suitable to the needs of pupils and provide expertise in helping them become knowledgeable, if not comfortable, in their use. Since no library is self-sufficient the school librarian can network with information agencies, lending/renting materials and/or using electronic devises to transmit information (Tilke, 1998; 2002).
As information specialist the school librarian should be able to share his expertise with those who may wish to know what information sources and/or learning materials are available to support a program of work. Such consultation should be offered to the whole school through the curriculum development committee or to individual subject teachers. The school librarian should take the lead in developing pupils’ information literacy skills by being involved with the school curriculum planning and providing a base of resources to meet its needs. He should be aware of key educational initiatives and their impact in teaching and learning; he should be familiar with teaching methods and learning styles in school; over all he should maintain an overview of information literacy programmes within the school (Herring, 1996; Kuhlthau, 2004).
Kuhlthau (2004) opined that information seeking is a primary activity of life and that pupils seek information to deepen and broaden their understanding of the world around them. When therefore, information in school libraries is placed in a larger context of learning, pupils’ perspective becomes an essential component in information provision. The school librarian should ensure that skills, knowledge and attitude concerning information access, use and communication, are integral part of the school curriculum. Information skills are crucial in the life-long learning process of pupils. As short term objective the school librarian should provide a means of achieving learning objectives within the curriculum; as long term information skills have a direct impact on individual pupils’ ability to deal effectively with a changing environment. Therefore the school librarian should work in concert with teachers and administrators to define the scope and sequence of the information relevant to the school curriculum and ensure its integration throughout the instructional programs (Tilke, 2002; Birks and Hunt, 2003). Pupils should be encouraged to realise their potential as informed citizens who critically think and solve problems. In view of the relationship between the curriculum and school library, the librarian should serve on the curriculum committee ensuring that information access skills are incorporated into subject areas. The school librarian’s involvement in the curriculum development will permit him to provide advice on the use of a variety of instructional strategies such as learning centres and problem-solving software, effective in communicating content to pupils (Herring, 1996; Birks and Hunt, 2003).
Literacy could be actively developed as pupils need access to specific resources, demonstrate understanding of their functionality and effective searching skills. In this regard pupils should be given basic instruction to the library, its facilities and services and subsequent use. Interactive teaching methods aimed at information literacy education should be conducted for the benefit of pupils. Teaching methods could include an outline of a variety of aides like quizzes and worksheets of differing complexity level to actively engage pupils in learning library skills and improving their information literacy. Classes should be divided into small groups so that pupils could have hands-on-experience using library resources. Where Internet services are available in the library online tutorials should be provided. Post session follow-up action will ensure that pupils receive hands-on-experience using library resources. Teaching methods should be constantly evaluated to identify flaws and improve on them.
Further the school librarian should demonstrate willingness to support and value pupils in their use of the library through: provision of readers’ guides; brochures; book marks; library handbooks/guides; computerization of collection; helpful guiding throughout the library; and regular holding of book exhibitions and book fairs. Since there are community radio stations in the country the school librarian could buy air time to report library activities, resources and services. He can also communicate to pupils through update newspapers. Pupils could be encouraged to contribute articles on library development, book reviews and information about opening times and services. The school librarian could help pupils to form book and reading clubs, organize book weeks and book talks using visiting speakers and renowned writers to address pupils. Classes could also be allowed to visit the library to facilitate use. More importantly the school librarian should provide assistance to pupils in the use of technology to access information outside the library. He should offer pupils opportunities related to new technology, use and production of varied media formats, and laws and polices regarding information. In order to build a relevant resource base for the school community the librarian should constantly carry out needs assessment, comparing changing demands to available resources.
The Internet is a vital source for promoting literacy in the school library. The school librarian should ensure that the library has a website that will serve as guide to relevant and authoritative sources and as a tool for learning whereby pupils and teachers are given opportunity to share ideas and solutions (Herring, 2003). Through the Internet pupils can browse the library website to learn how to search and develop information literacy skills. In order for pupils to tap up-to-date sources from the Net the school librarian should constantly update the home page, say on a daily basis, if necessary. Simultaneously the school librarian should avail to pupils and teachers sheets/guides to assist them in carrying out their own independent researches. He should give hands-on-experience training to users to share ideas with others through the formation of “lunch time” or “after school support groups”. Such activities could help pupils to develop ideas and searching information for a class topic and assignment.
Even the location of the library has an impact in promoting literacy in school. The library should be centrally located, close to the maximum number of teaching areas. It should be able to seat at least ten per cent of school pupils at any given time, having a wide range of resources vital for teaching and learning programs offered in school. The library should be characterised by good signage for the benefit of pupil and teacher users with up-to-date displays to enhance the literacy skills of pupils and stimulating their intellectual curiosity.
Indeed the promotion of literacy should be integral in the school curriculum and that the librarian should be able to play a leading role to ensure that the skills, knowledge and attitudes related to information access are inculcated in pupils and teachers alike as paramount users of the school library. But the attainment of this goal is dependent on a supportive school administration, always willing and ready to assist the library and its programs financially. To make the librarian more effective he should be given capacity building to meeting the challenges of changing times.
American Library Association (2003). ‘Introduction to information literacy.’
Birks, J. & Hunt, F. (2003). Hands-on information literacy activities. London: Neal-Schumann.
CLIP (2004).’Information Literacy: definition.’
GoSL (2010). Report of the Professor Gbamanja Commission of Inquiry into the Poor Performance of Pupils in the 2008 BECE and WASSCE Examinations (Unpublished).
___________(1995). New Education policy for Sierra Leone. Freetown: Department of Education.
Herring, James E. (1996). Teaching information skills in schools. London: Library Association Publishing.
__________________ (2003).The Internet and information skills: a guide for teachers and librarians. London: Facet Publishing.
Kahlthau, C. C. (2004). Seeking meaning: a process approach to library and information services. 2nd. ed. London: Libraries Unlimited.
Lenox, M. F. & Walker, M. L.(1993). ‘Information Literacy in the education process.’ The Educational Forum, 52 (2): 312-324.
Lonsdale, Michael (2003). Impact of school libraries on student achievement: a review of research. Camberwell: Australian Council of Educational Research.
Marcum, J. W. (2002). ‘ Rethinking Information Literacy,’ Library Quarterly, 72:1-26.
Roe, Betty D., Stoodt-Hill & Burns, Paul C. (2004).Secondary School Literacy instruction: the content areas. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Tilke, A. (1998). On-the-job sourcebook for school librarians. London: Library Association.
_________ (2002). Managing your school library and information service: a practical handbook. London: Facet Publishing.
Weber, S. & Johnston, B. ( 2002). ‘Assessment in the Information Literate University.’ Conference: Workshop 1st International Conference on IT and Information Literacy, 20th- 22nd. March 2002, Glasgow, Scotland. Parallel Session 3, Thursday 21st March,2002.
World Bank (2007). Education in Sierra Leone; present challenges, future opportunities. Washington,DC: World Bank.
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