Opinionista Khadija Patel 1 July 2011

Relearning the ABCs of literacy

From massive cellular outages costing the country millions, to huge hikes in electricity charges  to the usual unseemly start of wage negotiations and reports that a paltry seven of almost 300 municipalities audited by auditor-general were given a clean sheet, it has not been a particularly bright week in South Africa.

In the clutches of a merciless winter, we’ve learnt that after studying the ups, downs and in-betweens  of our economy, Morgan Stanley believes Nigeria will outstrip South Africa as Africa’s largest economy in 2025. And while the country’s political future continued to be decided at Gallagher Estate, basic education minister Angie Motshekga announced the results of a countrywide assessment of grade three and six scholars, revealing shockingly low levels of numeracy and literacy throughout the country.

Shifting the blame for these results from the OBE curriculum to “lazy” teachers and then back to the department of education achieves nothing except to assure the superiority of a few. And yet, the alarm raised over these low levels of numeracy and literacy is not ill founded. If levels of literacy are any precursor to economic development, these results do not bode well for South Africa’s future. But instead of pulling concerned faces at the education system, these results should invite an examination of how literacy in South Africa is achieved.

Literacy, unlike numeracy is not a universal phenomenon that leads to a single unified set of outcomes. We believe the process of becoming “literate” to be only partly mechanical; the technical acquisition of reading and writing skills. Rather, literacy is a cluster of skills, linguistic, psychological and social.  Far more than simply the know-how of reading and writing, literacy is an intricate process hemmed into the social uses to which reading and writing are put. The acquisition of literacy entails more than the ability to recognise formulaic formations of the alphabet – it cannot be separated from its social contexts, from the ideological and societal factors at play. Language and reality are, after all, dynamically intertwined. So reading does not only involve the science of deciphering written language, it is inherently connected as well to the way people approach their world. Literacy then, is not the ability to read a text, but the ability to read the world.

The Annual National Assessment results placed literacy levels among Grade 3 pupils at 35% while Grade 6 pupils scored a paltry 28% for languages.  Amanda Strydom points out in the Mail and Guardian that the results show a link between low socio-economic status and poor classroom performance.  Poor resources, a lack of mother-tongue tuition and weak early childhood development are also seen to dog the progress of students in South Africa and the University of Johannesburg’s Salim Valley believes the results “show the inequality in our country”. The results of these tests indict the educational system with many failures, but the most frustrating of these is the imposition of standards that do not consider the social milieu of scholars.

South Africa is well known as one of the most unequal societies in the world. It is an inequality reflected in the comparison of the scores of better-resourced provinces like Western Cape and Gauteng with the likes of Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West and Northern Cape. Western Cape and Gauteng fared better at both the grade 3 and 6 levels. This ascendancy is, however, a menial one. The average score recorded in Western Cape in the grade 3 section was a trifling 43% and this was the highest in the country.  Taken together these results are proof that the system currently being used to achieve literacy in this country has failed and inherent to this failure is an approach that treats literacy as though it is independent of a social context.

In a grade one classroom, the teaching of literacy occurs in the interaction between a teacher and a pupil. A teacher brings into the classroom, his own gender, social class, educational background, ethnicity and geographical heritage, so too, does the pupil. And it is in the juxtaposition of teacher with pupil in this setting that literacy is acquired. Yes, there is a definite sense in which the acquisition of literacy is principally a cognitive function and not a social function, but the cognitive function is dependent on the social interaction. Teachers have to be sensitised to the social contexts of their learners, understand that books are not readily ascribed with learning among some children simply because they have never before been exposed to books. But teachers cannot achieve this in a vacuum of language policies. It is imperative that language policies in South Africa change to recognise the need for mother-tongue education beyond the foundation phase. It is imperative that language policies in South Africa cater for the acquisition of literacy in South Africa in vastly different settings. It is strident that language planning in South Africa approach literacy not as a mechanical goal that can be universally applied, but as a continuing social process.

Linguists describe an achievement of competence in any language as the ability to appropriate language to a particular context. And if by literacy, we demand that children be able to appropriate language to its written forms effectively, then the instruments used to achieve this literacy must also be appropriated to the social setting of those children.

There has been a call for business in South Africa to “invest” in literacy, but throwing money at the problem will not solve it. If business is indeed to invest in literacy in South Africa, it is in the development of language policies that will allow students to learn to read their world.

Paolo Freire, an iconoclast in the development of literacy programmes, believed literacy not to be the ability of people to read and write words, but rather “people being able to read and write their own words”. That is the literacy we need to strive for in South Africa. DM

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