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School closures likely to have a serious impact on early literacy learning


Professor Elizabeth Henning is Director at the Centre for Education Practice Research (CEPR) at UJ. She is also a South Africa Research Chair (SARChI): Integrated Studies of Learning Language, Science and Mathematics in the Primary School.

It is vitally important that teaching takes place for children to learn in the crucial first year of formal education. But while school closures are a matter for concern for foundational learning, the picture is not entirely bleak. There are some strategic schooling options.

Concern over the loss of learning for children in the early grades during the Covid-19 lockdown has seen several commentators referring (once more) to the now-infamous outcomes of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study in South Africa. The results showed that for a large number of primary school children in the country – some 78% of Grade 4 learners – the text of this test remained meaningless. 

This spectre of the challenge is again looming with a renewed warning that the foundation of literacy for many children is going to be compromised by school closures. Professor Martin Gustaffson’s article in Daily Maverick of 23 July 2020 alerts us to such effects, which will be evident when the Grade 1 class of 2020 are in matric and beyond. 

No one would agree that missing instruction for long periods can be beneficial for younger learners in the long run. For one thing, it takes time to learn to read. It takes a lot of practice and repetition – especially in the early phases of becoming literate. 

At that stage, it is still quite hard to recognise and to make sense of “squiggles on the page” as representations of meaningful words in a language. Stanislas Dehaene, a cognitive neuroscientist at the College de France in Paris, explains that alphabetic symbols have little appeal for folks who cannot derive meaning from the “squiggles”. 

Those of us who do not recognise the written symbols of, for example, Mandarin, Arabic, or Hebrew, know this full well when we see print in these languages. Even modern Greek symbols are quite difficult to decode for readers who do not know the symbols, even though the language was an origin of the western alphabet.

In my view, the people who know most about how hard it is to learn to unravel language symbols in print are the teachers who teach children in the first grade. Researchers know this too, but it is the teachers who know how much grit, meaning-rich reading material and efficient pedagogy are required to get a whole class of pre-literate children to read. The Funda Wande organisation, run by Dr Nic Spaull and a team of literacy professionals, does outstanding work with teachers in this regard. 

A leader of research into early reading, Prof Catherine Snow from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, advocates for systematic, step-by-step instruction which builds children’s knowledge of how individual letters, as well as combinations of letters, correspond with single sounds, or phonemes. 

Gradually, through practice and repetition, children read whole words and then also sentences. However, Snow notes that if children do not know the meaning of the words that they are able to ‘sound out’, they are not yet ‘reading’ for real. They are simply practising their letter-sound recognition skills – doing so by saying sounds, listening to someone else saying the sounds, and by seeing letters in conjunction. 

Beginner readers practice these skills over and over in a language that they know in its spoken form. More than anything, they need to practice their skills regularly while being monitored by someone. 

I was so impressed with the school principal of my daughters’ primary school. Each Grade 1 child was invited to her office once a week to “come and read to her”. I suspect her monitoring of their progress had a big influence on their early literacy. Many Grade 1 teachers try to do this too, even though it is a significant challenge in large classes.

But the route to real reading with meaning is not a single-lane pathway – it is a dual-lane bridge. Along with early recognition skills, children learn new words and thus expand their knowledge. They learn the value of vocabulary. 

If word meanings and understanding of word relationships in sentences are not a priority in early literacy learning, children do not move beyond recognition skills and many end up struggling to understand text, as the results of the last PIRLS assessment have shown.

During this time of further closure of schools, young learners in their first grade may suffer substantial literacy learning loss. Unless there are people at home who can assist them in their daily practice, they may not retain what they learned in the first few weeks of instruction they received at the beginning of the year.  

What will the literacy foundation of the class of 2020 Grade 1 learners be like? That is the challenge head teachers of the Foundation phase have been grappling with. The teachers I have spoken to agree that repetition of the Grade 1 literacy curriculum will be inevitable. Even though children who managed to retain some of their first learning from those now-distant few weeks in Grade 1 may recall some of their first encounters with literacy, it is unlikely that they will have moved further on their own – even in homes where family members assisted with the learning parcels sent home with children in March.  

The picture with mathematics is not much different. Early numeracy, like early literacy, is acquired cumulatively too. Dr Hanrie Bezuidenhout, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Education Practice Research where I work, found in her PhD study in 2018 that the 57 children in Grade R in a school in Soweto were ready for the Grade 1 curriculum after a year in which teachers invested heavily in the children’s foundational number concepts.  

In another study, though, we found that for children who do not experience this type of conceptual learning, Grade 1 mathematics is a tough challenge. 

With Prof Annemarie Fritz-Stratmann and her team from the University of Duisburg-Essen, we established that the majority of the learners in a sample of 600+ in Gauteng schools were not ready for the demands of the curriculum in the first grade. I refer to these findings to emphasise how much teaching must take place for children to learn in the crucial first year of formal education. 

While the school closures are a matter for concern for foundational learning, the picture is not entirely bleak and we do have some strategic schooling options for Grade 1 learners who have been without teachers for so long in 2020. 

The field of cognitive developmental psychology has some good news. It comes, again, from neuroscience: according to Dehaene and many others in this field, the window for learning in the early years of formal schooling remains optimal throughout the primary school years. The human brain’s plasticity does not diminish in childhood. There is time for strategic catch-up. DM


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