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Mother tongue reading and learning is the key to literacy


Gail Campbell is the CEO of the Zenex Foundation.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for a ‘massive reading campaign’. This is a laudable call, but it’s worth asking: How can we ensure this campaign is successful?

In his State of the Nation Address on 20 June 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised the importance of ensuring that all South African children learn to read.

He said, “If we are to ensure that within the next decade, every 10-year-old will be able to read for meaning, we will need to mobilise the entire nation behind a massive reading campaign. Early reading is the basic foundation that determines a child’s educational progress, through school, through higher education and into the workplace”.

“All other interventions – from the work being done to improve the quality of basic education to the provision of free higher education for the poor, from our investment in TVET colleges to the expansion of workplace learning – will not produce the results we need unless we first ensure that children can read.”

Achieving this will involve not only building on and strengthening existing initiatives that have been gaining traction in the area of early grade reading and learning, it will also require government’s commitment to ensuring mother tongue reading and learning occur both at home and at school.

The recent Stats SA General Household Survey reveals that nearly half of SA’s children have never read a book with a parent or a guardian. It’s crucial that effective teaching and learning happens not only in English and Afrikaans but in all indigenous languages. This will increase the public’s awareness of the importance of reading and grow the capacity of the education system

South Africa’s Language in Education Policy emphasises literacy in the mother tongue and education in the mother tongue for as long as possible. The policy proposes the mother tongue for learning for the first six grades of a child’s education, with the addition of at least one other language to complement rather than replace the mother tongue. The policy’s only proviso is that the language of learning and teaching must be an official language of South Africa. Not only is it the intention of the policy that citizens should be multilingual, but it also recognises that using the mother tongue for learning is essential in ensuring the development of literacy.

The implementation of policy is often different from policy intentions, though.

Although provision is made in policy for a variety of approaches, the typical one is mother tongue education up to Grade 3 and then a switch to English in Grade 4. Choices like this are determined by School Governing Bodies (SGBs), which have the right to determine a school’s language for teaching and learning. SGBs, however, sometimes have limited exposure to research and best practice in this area or to make choices about the language of teaching and learning because of pressure from parents.

African-language speaking parents, for example, feel that their children’s educational opportunities depend on English being introduced into the classroom as early as possible. This, however, does not reconcile with research, such as the study by Stephen Taylor and Marisa Coetzee, which demonstrates that the longer a learner can learn in his/her mother tongue the better his/her academic results.

Teachers’ own proficiency in indigenous languages is often not promoted or developed. Added to this, there are insufficient teachers in the foundation phase to teach in indigenous languages. Also, teachers’ capacity to teach reading is inconsistent. Another challenge is that there are no learning benchmarks for indigenous languages and it is not sufficient nor possible to transfer benchmarks from English, given its different language structure.

Children need exposure to a range of books to stimulate a love of reading, and research points to the importance of reading in the home. There is a complex set of reasons as to why many children are not exposed to books at home. The General Household Survey reveals that almost 50% of the South African population has never read a book with their child. Fifty-eight percent of SA households, according to the survey, do not have any leisure reading books in the home.

Poverty is a key contributor to this problem. This is coupled with the fact that fewer than 15% of South Africans are active readers, and thus reading at home is not an active practice. And the scarcity of reading materials in indigenous languages which are culturally, and contextually relevant, makes continuous learning and reading for children unsurmountable.

Where to from here? Five key recommendations are:

  1. Children should learn in their mother tongue for at least six years. English should be introduced from Grade 1 but the switch to English as the language of learning and teaching should happen in Grade 7. While this is promoted in policy, the government needs to drive a proactive interventionist strategy to promote this policy.

  2. Language teaching must be strengthened through professional teacher development programmes. South Africa is not producing a sufficient pipeline of teachers who can teach indigenous languages in early grades and we need a strategy to attract teachers to the early grades.

  3. There is a need for graded reading series in all indigenous languages so that children can have better access to books. In addition, we need a formal register for indigenous languages reading material.

  4. The broader book development eco-system needs to be strengthened in order to develop and publish books which are culturally and contextually relevant.

  5. South Africa needs a collaborative stakeholder-led public campaign to promote reading and writing. This will stimulate demand for books and a greater sense of the value of reading and writing in all the official languages in our country. The government has started well with its Read to Lead Campaign and the National Reading Coalition, but working together we can do so much more. BM


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