Maverick Citizen

LITERACY CRISIS

Inside a cold container in Nelson Mandela Bay, ‘Preposition Bear’ and ‘Granny Squad’ are on duty to help children read

Inside a cold container in Nelson Mandela Bay, ‘Preposition Bear’ and ‘Granny Squad’ are on duty to help children read
Jobanathi Mkaza (12) helps learners Luthando Xekee (11), Liyema Boyi (12) and Oyama Menze check out books. (Photo: Mike Holmes)

It’s an icy morning at the Shine Literacy Centre, which is run from a container in Gqeberha’s Walmer Township. But ‘Preposition Bear’, a large teddy bear with a pink hula hoop around his tummy, is already on duty.

“For children to read with comprehension they need to know and understand their prepositions,” says Pat Hippert, who has been running the  Shine Literacy Centre in Gqeberha’s Walmer Township for the past five years. 

“So, bear goes up, down, over, under, and through the hoop many times a day.”  

“Preposition Bear” wears a jaunty pink scarf to ward off the winter cold, and neatly folded fleece blankets are provided for the children. “Nobody can learn when they are cold. They can wrap up warm this way.”  

Pat and her squad of grannies, moms and volunteers at the Shine Literacy Centre have been at the forefront of the quest to get more Grade 3 children reading with comprehension. The centre is run from a container in Gqeberha’s Walmer Township.

This week, the results of an international study measuring the ability of Grade 4 learners in South Africa to read with comprehension were released by the Department of Basic Education. The results were dismal, finding that in 2021, 81% of Grade 4 learners were unable to read for meaning in any of South Africa’s 11 official languages.  

“These children come from big classes and if they fall behind they no longer feel included,” Hippert explained. “Not being able to read is a massive disadvantage as they will fail maths too because they can’t do word sums. 

“We can only take the best of the worst ones,” she added. “So we cannot help everyone that is struggling, and sadly, without intervention, it will be too late for many.” 

Teachers told Daily Maverick it would help if they can teach in English from the Foundation phase because the children get confused with the phonics of the different languages for the same letters.  

“You teach them the alphabet in isiXhosa and then you tell them the alphabet is the same letters but different sounds in English. They get confused,” one said. 

“If we can teach them in English, this won’t be a problem. When they come to school they were already exposed to English through television and through the games they play on the phone so it is not that it is foreign to them.” 

“Cat”, for instance, Hippert explained, is one of the words that children find most difficult to identify from sight because in isiXhosa the “c” is pronounced with a click. The teachers added that they were allowed to hold back Grade 3s who were not ready to progress from the foundation phase last year.  

“These kids did not have school from March 2020 to August 2020 and then only every third day. We tried to catch up with them but we couldn’t,” another teacher said. 

Parental involvement is vital

Teachers said it would be vital for more advocacy to be done in communities on the value of parental involvement. “We see the parents when the children come to Grade R and then they disappear. Most days we can’t even get them to sign the books,” one teacher said.

The teachers also pointed out that large class sizes mean they cannot pay individual attention to children who are struggling. “The clever ones get bored. We are staying late most days trying to make sure that all of them will be okay but it is very hard,” one teacher said. 

Glenda Brunette, who runs the NPO Walmer Angels that provides humanitarian aid to Walmer township, which includes some of the poorest areas in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, said that families are struggling to survive. Apart from a lack of food and uniforms, there is a lot of violence in the township, she said. 

“Yesterday I was asking children why they were not in school and they said their jerseys were still wet and they can’t come to school without it.” Some children do not have jerseys and Brunette has been providing these as well as school shoes to families in distress. 

She said the levels of hunger in the area have been rocketing. The lines at some soup kitchens are around the block.  

“Many children are still hungry when they leave school [the school does have a nutrition programme] and they also come to eat at the soup kitchen because there is no other food … I am at the point where I have to decide do I buy jerseys, or do I buy food for the children.” 

‘We first give them something to eat’

Hippert said when the children arrive for their Shine Centre lessons, “We always first give them something to eat, maybe some water and then we make sure they are okay before we learn. We make sure their mindset is right, that they can do their very best.” 

Hibbert tries to make reading fun. She is a master of “making the voices” when reading a story. “I teach the children that reading out loud slows the brain down and makes them focus. And the voices are for fun but also show they understand what they are reading. 

“One of our learners became the head boy,” Hibbert beams. “We are so proud of him. We also have some prefects coming from Shine Centre.”  

A part of the container has been changed into a library with donated books, and during break time children line up to borrow and return books they have read.   

Bronwen Miles has been a volunteer at the Shine Centre for the past seven years. “I am just a mom,” she said. “Sometimes I ask the children to start their lesson by drawing a picture, just to get the juices flowing.  

“We go to fetch them at class and the children are always so happy to see us. They can’t wait to come to the Shine Centre.”  

Lesley Foster is a veteran of the battle for literacy in the Eastern Cape. She was involved in two programmes that have been discontinued, Nali Bali, providing little books for children to read in isiXhosa and English, and a programme that linked up older children to read to and with younger children. 

“It is a pity that both these programmes have been discontinued,” she said. “They worked very well.  

“Many of the children can actually read isiXhosa fluently and with confidence. When they read English their confidence falters. That is something we have to bridge. We need more books that they can relate to. These are not children who have books in their home.”  

The library is run by Hippert’s daughter Joy. Every shelf is neatly stacked with books that they received from donors. 

“We also show the children that we do not hurt books. We handle books with care,” she said. Donated books that are in too bad a condition for use are cut up and the pictures used to brighten up the shelves in the little container library. DM

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