National and provincial assessments show that a high percentage of South African children are not acquiring basic literacy in their first three years at school. There is no doubt that changing these statistics will require strengthening the teaching of literacy in schools, particularly in the early years. However, the reasons for our poor literacy results are complex and rooted in factors that go well beyond the classroom. There is a need for research which is framed by new ways of thinking about when, where, how and with whom our children learn.
In the past four years, important research has been carried out in South Africa to try and understand why our literacy results are so low. These studies have focused on Grades 1-3, and have found that children struggle to read fluently and to understand what they read. Proposed solutions for this include increasing reading material in classrooms and improving teachers’ knowledge about how to teach reading more effectively. We have questioned why this research on our literacy crisis has not considered children’s levels of language and early literacy when they begin Grade 1. Children who learn to read and write successfully don’t only do so because they have better teachers in Grades 1 to Grade 3. They do so because they have the benefit of a high quality Grade R year and homes and early learning environments that build a love of books, an understanding of how print works and strong spoken language that will support the development of reading and writing.
To find solutions to our literacy problems, we must start looking for the roots of literacy in the years from birth to five. We need a much better understanding of the literacy crisis that already exists as children enter school, and we need locally developed tools to assess young children’s early language and literacy in this early phase. Before they walk into a Grade 1 classroom, some children will have had six years’ worth of experiences that support the development of reading and writing. How would our school literacy results change if more children had access to these experiences?
Within the South African context, the prevailing view for many years has been that children learn to read and write when they begin school, and there is limited awareness of the importance of supporting early language and literacy and therefore a lack of prioritization of building language and literacy in families, in preschools and in community settings.
From birth to eight years children spend about 30 000 hours awake, and of these, a maximum of 10 000 hours at preschool or school. This means that two thirds of their waking hours in their first eight years are spent with parents or caregivers. We believe that we can contribute to changing low literacy levels if we can work with parents to make use of the 30 000 hours available to build early language and literacy for each child instead of only 9 000 hours in the classroom. Parents have a vital role to play in supporting their children’s development as readers and writers. However, in many communities in South Africa, parents are inclined to minimise their role and believe that school is the proper place for learning. Parents often feel that their own educational background does not ‘qualify’ them to support their children. Homes in under-resourced communities often lack resources which might enable parents to engage in language and literacy-related activities.
ECD practitioners are often underqualified and underpaid, and their role in supporting early language and literacy learning is undervalued. Many Grade R teachers do not have access to up-to-date knowledge, teaching methods or resources to teach early language and emergent literacy effectively. In-service training opportunities are limited and there is little recognition of the importance of Grade R for literacy development. Through supportive and reflective training opportunities, we believe that ECD practitioners Grade R teachers can play an important role in supporting early language and literacy, particularly for children from under-resourced contexts.
Schools in under-resourced communities frequently struggle with large class sizes and limited access to specialised remedial services. There is very little or no support for children who enter the school system without adequate early learning opportunities or proficiency in the medium of instruction of the school. We find that many children are at risk right from the early stages of their schooling, having missed out on vital learning opportunities in their early years. They are likely to fall further and further behind the expectations of the school system, and their difficulties are compounded when the medium of instruction at school is not their mother tongue. Because so many children are entering the school system unprepared for the demands of the curriculum, we believe that there is a need for creative early intervention and compensatory initiatives that draw on community members to work with children who are at risk for difficulties with reading and writing. Within school and after-school volunteer programmes at schools, libraries and community centres have enormous potential for mobilising citizens and communities to partner with teachers to play a role in the education of their children.