Tackling Literacy at Lower Grades Lays a Firm Academic Foundation and Skills Development

Literacy and numeracy are critical rudimentary skills that lie at the heart of any education system. Learners who hone their reading and counting skills early on have greater chances to succeed academically and can easily access career opportunities as well as participate meaningfully in a democracy.

Kagiso Shanduka Trust (KST) is concerned by the poor culture of reading among learners in most schools across the country. We have developed a successful District Whole School Development programme (DWSD), which among others, aims to equip learners with literacy and numeracy skills by providing curriculum development training to educators.

The programme is currently being implemented in primary and secondary schools in the Fezile Dabi and Motheo districts in partnership with the Free State Department of Education. 

According to Library Information Association of South Africa, most schools do not have adequate library facilities and the few that have, are poorly resourced and also lack qualified librarians.

It is a view shared by experts who also attribute the poor literacy and numeracy skills among learners to lack of decent, well-stocked and school-based libraries.

As KST we believe that parental involvement at the Foundation Phase is very vital to deal with the problem of poor literacy and numeracy skills in our schools. This gives the children sufficient stimulation and instils in them the love for books. When they get to Grade 4, they are already well equipped to read with comprehension and also do better in subjects that require higher order thinking skills.

Research suggests that parents can boost their children’s brain power and development by reading a bedtime story for or with the child. Furthermore, parents or caregivers who verbally engage with the children help them improve their vocabulary than their counterpart within a short space of time. Analysing a book and relating its content to real life experiences also improve the child’s comprehension and cognitive skills.

Our view is that the problem of poor literacy and numeracy should not be put on the lap of the government alone. Rather, other role players such as civil society, individual community members should step to the plate and help find sustainable solutions.

The 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)’s statistics paints a bleak picture of the South African learners’ reading culture. PIRLS is a credible global body that administers baseline assessment tests to around 50 countries every five years.

PIRLS found that about 80% of South African Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning, adding that Grade 4 is a critical turning point in the South African education system as learners “transition from learning how to read, to reading for meaning and learning”. The results placed South Africa at the bottom of the pile of the countries participating in the study.

The South African Book Development Council (SABDC)’s recent research outcomes were also less complementary when it comes to the country’s general reading culture. They indicated that only “14% of the population identify themselves as book readers and approximately 51% of South African households do not have a single leisure reading book”.

But we think all is not lost as there a number of existing literacy initiatives that the country can leverage to improve literacy levels in our schools.

Take for instance, the ‘National Book Week’; this has become such a popular and a critical platform to generate interest and ignite passion for reading among the young ones. It needs sustained public support and active participants of all key players including learners.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE)’s ‘Read to Lead Campaign’ is another successful school-based literacy project. Launched in 2015 to increase the average learner performance in literacy to 75%, the campaign used influential personalities as ‘reading ambassadors’ to promote and spread the love for reading among the learners.

We feel the DBE should model and reinforce its effective reading instructions. It should also promote strategies that allow for teachers and learners, particularly in a multi-lingual African context, to use all their language resources to create meaning.

Reading Clubs have also become popular in mobilising people to value reading as a hobby. Members of the club exchange books among themselves and most of them read for or with their children in the comfort of their homes thus exposing their children to a reading culture. Educators can also improve their own reading by tapping into their own experiences on how they themselves were taught how to read. 

Universities should train student educators how to effectively teach reading and how to enable learners to decode and understand meaning in a text. Countries such as India with similar challenges of diversity and disadvantaged populations have already begun to deal with how reading is taught.

KST provides support to both educators and leaners on how they can improve literacy levels. For educators, KST provides curriculum development programmes in English and English Literacy. Through our DWSD model, we provide group training as well as classroom-based support to all educators. We enlist the assistance of subject mentors to provide additional support by co-teaching subjects that are challenging to educators.

Through this approach, educators have the opportunity to improve their content knowledge and also learn effective teaching methodologies. We collaborate with District Officials and ensure that at every opportunity of our efforts are in line with those of our partner – the Free State Department of Education.

From the learners’ perspective, we encourage schools to take part in literacy activities planned by the education department. This past week, our Primary School learners took part in the National Spelling Bee Championship and the Language Festival which entailed activities such as debates, book reviews and poetry.

In addition, we also conduct eyesight screening for the learners at identified schools in the province. We observed that many learners struggled to read properly due to poor eyesight. To date 58 606 have their eyes screened and 2 588 received spectacles while 288 have been referred for further medical attention. The performance of those who received spectacles, has improved significantly.