International Literacy Day: A Time to Reflect on Tanzania’s Education System

By Priyanka Varma

Today, September 8th, marks International Literacy Day, a day when we not only celebrate Tanzania’s accomplishments in achieving an 87 percent youth literacy rate[1], but when we also recognize and seek to address the barriers that Tanzania’s education system continues to face. Notable, amongst these challenges, is the fact that only three out of five Tanzanian adolescents, or 52 percent of the eligible school population, are enrolled in lower secondary school, with even fewer actually completing their secondary education.[2] While many factors can be attributed to limited secondary school participation amongst Tanzanian youth, language of instruction plays a large role in discouraging students from continuing their academic studies beyond primary school.


To elaborate, Kiswahili is widely used in East Africa and serves as the main form of communication in Tanzania. As such, Kiswahili is the language of instruction in primary government schools, with English serving as a supplemental language course for primary level students. Yet by secondary school, Tanzania’s language of instruction abruptly switches to English. Students, in turn, enter secondary school with low-levels of English knowledge and are then expected to learn fundamental subjects, such as mathematics, science, and social science, in their non-native language.[3] Without receiving the proper guidance necessary to help ease this linguistic transition, students are oftentimes forced to drop out of school, either before entering secondary school or once enrolled in secondary school, due to difficulties in learning.


This summer, as a volunteer with the Cambridge Development Initiative (CDI), I began observing this challenge while working with students at two secondary schools in the Ubungo District of Dar Es Salaam. I found that students, despite being immersed in an all-English secondary curriculum, struggled to converse with me and my teammates in basic English. Furthermore, despite “English Only” signs posted around both schools, teachers too oftentimes hesitated to speak in English with our team and naturally deferred to Kiswahili instead. These observations, in turn, caused me and my teammates to call into question the actual extent of English teaching and learning taking place in these secondary school classrooms.


Upon further research, we quickly realized that the reason that students in particular struggled with English spawned from their primary school days, when English was taught as a single course using limited vocabulary, and that too only from standard three onwards. Without the depth and breadth of English preparation in primary school, students entered secondary school with limited knowledge of the English language. In order to help address this issue, my teammates and I recognized our inability to actually change Tanzanian policy and practice, but we still sought to at least make a small-scale dent in local children’s schooling experiences. As such, this summer, our team piloted an English Club for a group of 40 standard five and six students at a local primary school in Dar’s Ubungo District. Using music, games, and activities, we taught students thematically-focused English vocabulary in a fun and interactive manner, with the intention of making English more appealing to the primary school children while also providing students with the vocabulary needed for succeeding in secondary school.


After positive feedback from both students and teachers on our initial English Club pilot, our team has decided to scale up this initiative: Next summer, we plan to design and implement a full English Club program at this primary school, with each session focusing on different academic themes (i.e., geography, chemistry, geometry) to provide students with the vocabulary relevant for their secondary school coursework. In doing so, we recognize that this issue is not an easy fix. However, we hope that our initiative can make a positive impact on local students, with future potential for scaling up across additional schools and sparking a broader movement in setting Tanzanian students up for longer term academic success.


So today, on International Literacy Day, we are reminded of the importance of education, particularly in Tanzania, a country which holds one of the world’s largest young populations.[4] We recognize that while great strides have been made to reach Tanzanian children and youth, much work remains, and our team of CDI volunteers hopes that we can make a positive difference in the lives of local students, whether it be in the form of English Clubs or other initiatives, this summer and in the summers to come.



[1] World Data Atlas (n.d.). United Republic of Tanzania: Youth Literacy Rate. Retrieved from:

[2] Human Rights Watch (2017). I had a dream to finish school. Barriers to secondary education in

Tanzania. ISBN: February 2017. Retrieved from:

[3] Telli, G. (2014). The language of instruction issue in Tanzania: Pertinent determining factors and perceptions of education stakeholders. Journal of Languages and Culture, Vol 5. No. 1, pp. 9-16. Retrieved from: httpt://

[4] Human Rights Watch (2017). I had a dream to finish school. Barriers to secondary education in

Tanzania. ISBN: February 2017. Retrieved from:

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