Research and Development Manager of the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, Jenny Katz, said there needs to be a national initiative to improve pupils’ literacy skills at the foundational phase. Furthermore, teachers require extensive training in assisting pupils during the literacy process. More importantly, schools need to be provided with the right resources.
Additionally, she said, it is a collective responsibility for schools, teachers and parents to make reading attractive and appealing to pupils as it is a simple and crucial skill which will impact every aspect and phase of their lives.
“There’s definitely a lot of things we can do and put in place quite quickly to resolve this because it is a crisis, and we should be all feeling quite desperate.”
Katz’s sentiments are in response to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which found that 81% of grade 4 South African learners cannot read for meaning. Moreover, South Africa ranked the lowest of 43 countries participating in learners’ literacy skills.
In 2010, Molteno Institute published a series of graded readers in various indigenous South African languages to teach children how to learn and read in their home languages.
According to their website, the Vula-Bula anthology consists of short, simple, entertaining stories. With predictable texts and collaborative illustrations, the stories aim to facilitate interest and encourage reading for enjoyment.
Katz said in contrast to English, South Africa’s indigenous languages, in terms of their phonics or sound systems and vocabulary, are pretty simple and easy for pupils to comprehend.
“That’s the difference that the readers have made. We don’t put in complex consonant blends and difficult phonic structures. We give the children as short as possible and as simple as possible sentences and short stories to read that will act as a stepping stone to building their fluency and hopefully their ability to understand what they’re reading.”
What is the Efficacy of the Readers?
The Vula-Bula anthology is supported and endorsed by the Department of Basic Education. It has been provided to certain government schools.
In 2019 and 2020, Molteno Institute provided every foundational pupil in the Eastern Cape with a copy of the readers. As a result, an independent evaluation was conducted to determine the efficacy of books on the pupils’ literacy capabilities. Katz said the findings of the evaluation showed an improvement in the pupils’ literacy skills.
“It definitely has an impact. It’s been available and has been provided to many prominent Department of Education initiatives across the country. But other than the Eastern Cape, it’s been quite small up until now. The department is aware of it, they know it, and hopefully, when the national catalogue is reopened, it will appear on the catalogue.”
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Can the Literacy Skills in One Language be Transferred to Another?
Quite quickly, Katz responded. However, she believes South African schools tend to switch to English as a medium for the rest of their schooling career too early as pupils need to grasp their home languages.
Katz said pupils need to comprehend their home languages’ basic structures and systems while simultaneously developing their English skills as a first additional language. Only once they have mastered and understood the basics of their home languages will they be able to transfer those skills to other languages.
“You have to really start your studying as a child in the language you know best and then transfer. It’s not that difficult. Although you’re dealing with two different written kinds of word creation systems in English and in any of our home languages, a lot of the sounds are very similar because we use the same alphabet. Then you build on the existing knowledge of the children, and you focus on the differences when they move on. But I always feel, if you have the basic skills [and it is] entrenched in the language you know and you understand conceptually why you have to do things and how you go about doing things, it’s not a challenge to move over to the next language.”