Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen

Once upon a time at the Sunflower Learning Centre…

“Meaning-making is something much more profound than simple comprehension.” This is the view of the bua-lit language and literacy collective [] (Photo: Andrea Stalbom)

The magic of attaining good matric results often starts around 18 years before teenagers write their final school exams. This is when they should be exposed to story-telling, books, reading, pictures, songs and rhymes, by adults who demonstrate the value of words. Maverick Citizen visited The Sunflower Learning Centre to see early literacy in action.

The Sunflower Learning Centre’s Sonica Petros reads to boys from Zonnebloem Boys School. (Photo: Andrea Stalbom)

Six eight-year-old boys tumble into the Sunflower Learning Centre hopping around restlessly until they’re instructed to pick a book, sit down and read. Immediately, they all swarm in the same direction – a tight phalanx, zero hesitation – and one by one reach up for a book from the Beast Quest series on a shelf high enough for some of them to have to stand on tiptoe.

Then they all bounce – boys that age never seem to just walk – over to a structure that looks like a tiny house where fairy lights twinkle in its ceiling and sit down on cushioned benches. Some of them have to remove the colourful hats they came in wearing, part of Spring Day festivities, in the jostle inside the tight space.

They begin reading, moving their mouths and vocalising just enough for a drone to emanate into the bright and breezy school library.

One of the ideas about literacy inherited from European schooling systems is that children are generally monolingual and that they speak their home language in a “pure” way. South African children, however, are exposed to more than one language from a young age. The children who use the Sunflower Learning Centre almost all speak more than one language, mix their languages, and fluidly move between languages. (Photo: Andrea Stalbom)

The boys attend what is known as a “commuter school”. Zonnebloem Boys Primary is situated on the lower slopes of Table Mountain, pincered between Philip Kgosana and Nelson Mandela drives, and is part of the Zonnebloem College Estate. It is 2019, and there is one white boy in this school, the rest are black – Muslim, coloured and African. Around 85% of the kids come in from townships daily, and most of them have to get up at 4.30am to be on time.

The language of tuition here is English. On a shelf at the back of the reading house is a picture book written in isiXhosa, and another in Afrikaans. Can any of the boys read them? No, they say. They can only read English.

Could I try and read the isiXhosa book? Would they help me? I ask.

They gather around and listen to me crashing over and bumping into the words, patiently saying a word clearly for me over my shoulder when I have mispronounced.

“What is intliziyo yakho?”

“Your heart,” they chorus, one of them thumping his hand on his chest.

Children need early and regular exposure to storytelling and books. Reading for pleasure is a key factor in determining academic success later in life. (Photo: Andrea Stalbom)

Another boy has reached for the Afrikaans book and is reading it aloud. I thought you can’t read Afrikaans, I say. “Actually, I can,” he says. “A bit. And some Arabic as well. My dad taught me.”

Six boys, three home languages, one lingua franca – English – between them.

Sonica Petros is the librarian at the Sunflower Learning Centre.
“We have books in most South African languages, but the children don’t really take them out. They can only read in English.

“Well, so they say. My son goes to school here and when he goes home in the afternoons, I sometimes send a note home with him to give to my mother. It’s written in isiXhosa and he knows exactly what the notes say, even though he says he can’t read isiXhosa.”

Reading for meaning

Early in November 2019, just as scholars and students around the country were starting exams, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga wrote in a national newspaper about a “comprehensive, evidence-based national reading plan to deal decisively with this nagging problem of lack of reading for meaning throughout the system” that would soon be announced.

Motshekga’s piece was possibly pre-empting the usual end-of-year hand-wringing about the state of education in South Africa, which happens without fail around the time matric results are released.

The article’s headline, “Education is a system on the rise that is beginning to show irreversible gains”, prompts the question: “Why is it only rising now, a quarter of a century after the ANC came to power?”

There are many answers.

One that can’t be overlooked is that the ANC was put in the unenviable position of having to marry various strands of apartheid education that improved the lighter the skin colour of the scholars. During National Party rule, inordinate amounts of money had been spent on white children’s education, appallingly little on black children’s. South Africa has yet to recover from that injury.

And yet, why has so little progress been made in a quarter of a century of supposedly inclusive education?

One thing most experts agree on is that a fundamental building block of successful education – which leads over years to increased chances of high academic success in matric – is early access to stories, received either orally, or through exposure to picture and storybooks. Ideally, this exposure must happen in a child’s mother tongue. These are the things that create an environment for the “reading for meaning” Motshekga refers to in her piece.

Learning to read is not chanting and parroting

In the same way as a parrot mimicking human sounds is not speaking, learning to read by parroting the sounds a teacher makes while pointing at letters on the board is not the same as literacy.

A national collective of language and literacy researchers, activists, educators and teacher educators, which goes by the name of bua-lit [Editor: this is how the collective writes its name and it is a political statement], defines literacy as “a complex social practice that varies from context to context”.

Reading and writing always happen in a specific way – the context determines what kind of practice it is. For example, reading a bus timetable, which means obtaining information for travel, or writing a love poem, which means communicating admiration or desire to a beloved.

“It is the purpose of the reader and writer, and how they participate in the activity, that gives meaning to the engagement with written texts. Meaning-making is something much more profound than simple comprehension.”

Children need to see and handle books. They need to have adults or older children around to show them what books mean – and how they mean. In other words, they need to be shown that letters represent things in the real world, so that children will want to learn to decode those letters as they unfold into words, sentences and paragraphs. Picture books support this process by creating links between the written word and the images on the page.

Children need to see how writing is used in the world: on cereal boxes, on signposts, in text messages, as lists.

In order for them to want to see the link between the squiggles we call words and something that has meaning to them, they have to be enticed. They have to want what is inside books: their worlds, their stories, their information. And what entices children is always play. The rhythm of words and song, play-acting, embodying, drawing and “play-play writing”, the thrill of tension, the release of laughter.

And the more often and more accurately they see themselves reflected on the pages of books, the more likely they are to be engaged by them.

James Gee, a key theorist in the social practices approach to literacy says: “We never just read or write ‘in general’, rather, we always read or write something in some way. We don’t read or write newspapers, legal tracts, essays in literary criticism, poetry, or rap songs, and so on and so forth through a nearly endless list, in the same way. Each of these domains has its own rules and requirements. Each is a culturally and historically separate way of reading and writing, and, in that sense, a different literacy.” (Photo: Andrea Stalbom)

Library learning

The Zonnebloem school which is home to the Sunflower Learning Centre has existed for 160 years but has only had a library since 2017.

In 2016, a systemic test – to see how many kids in Grade 3 could read at the expected level for their age – showed that less than 50% of the pupils at the school could read at the standard for their age. One year later, when the test was done again, the number had jumped to 80%.

“But,” says Zephne Ladbrook of the Otto Foundation, which founded and funded the Sunflower Learning Centre, “there was a lot more to that huge jump than just this library”.

Certain appointments in the teaching staff at school made a difference, as did employing “community keepers”, adults who help traumatised children, sitting with them in small, cosy, pleasantly appointed rooms in a prefab on the grounds to give them a chance to catch their breaths in their often chaotic lives.

Ladbrook also points to infrastructural interventions such as improved playgrounds and toilets, and the strong focus on the arts, on music and on sport.

The improvements in the children’s academic performance are likely to be further boosted now that there’s a feeding scheme kitchen at school. It is widely accepted that hungry children do not learn as easily as nourished children.

Children commonly learn to read and write in grades 1 to 3. The focus then is on fluent reading and decoding text. But literacy extends beyond these years (Photo: Andrea Stalbom)

Yet at the centre of these interventions, is the bright beating intliziyo of the Sunflower Learning Centre, which goes out of its way to provide age-appropriate books in local languages, that also contain stories and pictures that reflect a reality the learners can relate to.

“We recently read the book Hair Love to some foundation-phase girls from the girls’ school,” says Petros. “The main character has a big afro. Usually, when you open a book the first time, they sit and listen quietly, but on that day, they were jumping up saying, ‘that looks like my hair’. Their excitement was suddenly on a different level.”

This approach to literacy is generally called the “socio-cultural approach”, one in which teachers and librarians can stimulate children’s imaginations “through rich engagements [with] texts involving re-writing, play-acting, recounting, drawing and so on,” a bua-lit document explains.

Before children come to understand reading as a set of routines and rituals that happen in the classroom – in which they often have to mimic sounds for no purpose that makes sense to them – they have to, in an ideal world, see reading and writing as something useful, something related to their experience of the world.

South Africa’s literacy problem

South Africa has a literacy problem. Not a small one.

Of 50 countries that participated in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2017 study, South Africa’s Grade 4 learners scored lowest, and it was found that 78% of Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning.

The National Framework for the Teaching of Reading in African Languages makes reference to the need for a wide variety of high-quality reading materials. It states that, “It is important for schools serving poor communities to make [themselves] centres where children receive rich language and literacy input, irrespective of their home background”.

While this stated intention is in line with the socio-cultural model of early literacy, bua-lit says the framework ignores various realities.

For instance, outside of graded readers, there are very few books published for children other than in English and Afrikaans. Libraries are not well-stocked with indigenous-language books, and where they do have them, those have often been developed in English and Afrikaans and then so badly translated into African languages that they obscure meaning, making reading for pleasure impossible.

Most government strategies for improving reading or literacy focus on the foundation phase but, says Xolisa Guzula, a School of Education specialist in multilingualism and multi-literacy education at the University of Cape Town, there aren’t enough books available for children in their home languages when they reach the intermediate phase of schooling, which is when schooling most often switches over to English.

“There’s a dearth of books for children in grades 4, 5 and 6 on more complex subjects. Very little fiction-wise and almost no non-fiction for pre-teens in their own languages in the sciences. There is simply no bilingual support from Grade 4 onwards,” says Guzula.

At the Sunflower Centre, Nonikiwe Mashologu is the literacy director. She manages book purchases and catalogue building. It’s Ladbrook’s task to acquire the books she recommends.

Ladbrook’s work also requires her to network and visit other schools.

“I recently had reason to visit a school library in Khayelitsha where the language of instruction is Xhosa. Do you know, they didn’t have a single – not one – book in isiXhosa in that library?”


The Zonnebloem boys are being called back to their class. Petros admires one of their Spring Day hats and the boy puts it on her head. She asks him to take a picture, posing earnestly in front of a row of the new books that have recently come into the library. The boys crow and hoot. She laughs and chases them back to their classrooms.

There is no shortage of books here. There is no shortage of adults prepared to engage children in the act of making meaning of writing and reading.

The Sunflower Centre, though, is a rare diamond in a desert of need. MC

[The Otto Foundation can be found on Instagram @ottofoundation and Facebook @ottofoundationtrust]


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