Wordworks is a South African non-profit organisation that focuses on early language and literacy development in the first eight years of children’s lives.
Since 2005 we have worked in under-resourced communities with those adults best positioned to impact on young children’s language and literacy development – parents and caregivers, family and community members, home-visitors, early childhood development practitioners and Grade R to Grade 3 teachers.
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We provide initial training and support for those using our resource-based programmes in homes, classrooms and community settings.
- Through the Every Word Counts Programme, trainers are equipped to train home-visitors and ECD practitioners to strengthen the early learning component of their work with families and caregivers of babies and young children (birth to five years).
- Through the Home-School Partnerships Programme, facilitators are trained to run a series of workshops over eight weeks to empower and inspire parents and caregivers of children aged 4 to 8 years to support informal learning at home.
- Through the Ready Steady Read Write Programme, co-ordinators are equipped to train and manage a team of tutors who support pairs of children for at least six months as they learn to read and write.
- Through the Stellar Programme, trainers are equipped to train and support Grade R teachers to strengthen their teaching of language and literacy.
Programmes are sustained through ongoing relationships with Wordworks, including refresher training and events, input and guidance, access to resources and opportunities, sharing of learning, and support for programme monitoring and evaluation. We support a growing network of individuals, schools, organisations and institutions that promote the importance of , and work for the improvement of children’s early language and literacy, through their association with our programmes and materials.
We develop, produce and distribute innovative, high quality multilingual materials to support early language and literacy learning. We invest in public education and advocacy, sharing knowledge and ideas so as to open doors for all our children.
Our approach to early language and literacy
Our programmes all include messaging about the importance of language for literacy development and the need to build children’s home language in the early years as a foundation for the acquisition of a second language. The development of language and literacy in two languages is a reciprocal process and both local and international research supports a model of bilingualism that provides ongoing support for the mother tongue as children gradually become competent in a second language. Competence in a mother tongue has benefits for a second language, and rather than being in competition, first and second languages are interdependent. In South Africa there is a need for teacher training and resources that support effective language learning in multilingual contexts.
We advocate for children to have access to multilingual, language-rich stories and books, as well as meaningful experiences with print. We also know that letter-sound knowledge and phonological awareness are key predictors of whether children learn to read and write and we have developed resources and guidelines to support these important foundations for literacy.
Our programmes are based on an emergent literacy perspective and the idea that learning to read and write is a process that happens over time in the context of supportive and responsive relationships. Research evidence shows that children who have more developed language and literacy abilities when they start school generally go on to become better readers and writers.
We believe that there are untold benefits from building language and literacy from birth to eight years:
- Talking to children, giving explanations and asking and answering questions builds important understanding of word meanings, concepts and general knowledge. These are essential foundations for comprehension.
- If children are given opportunities to draw and experiment with writing prior to school, and observe adults around them writing they learn that writing has a purpose and that the letters on a page represent speech. They learn to express their ideas and thoughts through drawing and emergent writing, and this forms the basis of written expression.
- Reading to children helps to inspire enjoyment of books and stories, and fosters a love of reading and a culture of reading for pleasure. Where books are not available, talking and telling stories helps to bridge the gap between everyday language and the more complex and formal language of books and school environments.
- Pointing out environmental print helps children to realise that print carries meaning and motivates them to notice and make sense of the print around them. Helping children to notice letters and learn their sounds means that they begin school familiar with some letter-sound relationships. The CAPS Curriculum in Grade One moves very quickly through teaching letter-sounds to building words and sentences, and if children are familiar with most letters and the sounds they make when they start school, they will be in a much better position to keep up with the demands of the curriculum.
- Listening to songs, hearing rhymes and playing games with sounds in words helps children to develop listening skills that are vital for learning to read and spell words.
- Pretend play helps children build language, ideas and the ability to take on roles and act out stories. These are important foundations for literacy.
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Why our work is needed
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.