Creative Learners

Creative Learners
Learning Brief

Family Literacy Project

Getting Families Reading Together

Category: Creative Learners | Early literacy and numeracy development | 20 August, 2012 - 15:43


Masifunde Njengomndeni – Families Reading Together

The Family Literacy Project (FLP) has been working with families in deeply rural villages in the southern Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal since 2000.  Our aim was to address the concerns raised by the findings of research conducted in the late 1990s that showed no improvement in the early literacy levels in pre-schoolers, despite training and support provided through the national Department of Education. During this research, local woman asked our founding director for help in meeting the early learning needs of their young children.  Initially we focused on encouraging a love of reading and books, and supported parents and carers to play an active role in building early literacy and learning skills with their children at home.  Over the years our work has expanded in response to community requests, and our integrated programme now includes adult literacy, early learning, health, libraries, savings clubs and income generation.  
While we have seen conditions in rural areas improve slightly over the years, most families in the district are still plagued by severe conditions that negatively impact on their education, health and wellbeing:
  • The environment, while beautiful, can be harsh - summer rains result in dangerous and impassable roads, winter snowfalls isolate communities and create difficult living conditions for households with no electricity or piped water;
  • Mobile clinics visit villages once a month, providing limited access to health services
  • Local economies provide few opportunities for generating income, and most income from grants and migrant labour is spent in nearby towns and cities; 
  • Children grow up in print poor environments – there are few literacy resources available, environmental print is almost non-existent and families do not have money to buy leisure books, newspapers or magazines - resulting in few opportunities to read and write every day;
  • School infrastructure is inadequate, and in many instances under-skilled and unmotivated teachers provide poor quality education;
  • Parents and carers often have little or no education, and for many the literacy skills they learned at school have been lost over time.  
Rural children miss vital opportunities in their early years to develop early literacy and language skills that will prepare them for school and help them develop into adults with a range of choices as to the role they want to play in society.  As important, missing out on early literacy and learning activities excludes children from the pure enjoyment and adventure of being read to, of reading and writing today, without concern for the future.  
Generally adults in rural areas believe that they don’t have anything to offer when it comes to preparing their children to read and write.  People often say that “learning happens at school” and believe it is the job of teachers to educate their children.  And we have heard teachers question what would be left for them to do if parents started to help their children build literacy skills at home.  These attitudes severely hamper the development of the vast majority of children in South Africa, and stymie the Department of Basic Education’s intentions and efforts to improve literacy and numeracy scores.      
Thankfully, more and more teachers realise the importance of building pre-reading and writing skills in the early years and welcome parents’ efforts to help their children before they start school.  And there are examples of parents finding that there is much they can do to help their children prepare for school, despite their own limited schooling.  Furthermore, efforts to help high school children benefit significantly through literacy initiatives may yield results, however it is our opinion that helping very young children to build their reading and writing skills, while a long term strategy, will have the most impact when it comes to improving literacy levels in the country.   
If children arrive at school at 6 years of age, eager to learn, comfortable with books, interested in stories, experienced in using pens and crayons, familiar with colours and shapes and symbols, what a difference their school experience would be.  There is much that parents, with little or no schooling themselves, can do at home to put these building blocks in place.      
Family Literacy Project's programme Strategy
FLP aims to develop adult literacy in order to enable the proper development of early literacy skills in young children (from birth) and enhance the literate environment within the home.  We believe that a supportive family environment is needed for the development of early literacy skills in young children, and it is important that young children and their adult carers see learning to read as a shared pleasure and valuable skill.  We also work with foundation phase children and teens, to promote intergenerational learning, facilitate a home visiting programme to reach vulnerable families, provide brick and box libraries to improve access to books, and support literacy groups to establish self managing savings clubs and income generating projects.   
  1. Adult literacy sessions:  2 hour sessions twice a week, where adults improve their literacy and language skills based on the participatory REFLECT approach which promotes community development and address unequal power relations.  Sessions include literacy building activities to do with children at home. 
  2. Home visiting programme:  Adult group members visit families who are not in the project, thus spreading family literacy messages and activities in each village.  In this way the most vulnerable children in a village (those who do not attend creche and are cared for by elderly caregivers) have a chance to learn through play.  The home visitor reads to the children, they play games and make puzzles together, and discuss health issues with caregivers based on the household and community component of the Integrated Management of Childhood Illness strategy (hc-IMCI).  The hc-IMCI strategy features in the National Integrated Plan for Children and is supported by Unicef.   3. Child to child sessions: Weekly sessions with foundation phase children to promote a love of reading and books and encourage writing, drawing, discussion and creative thinking.  Different methods of reading have been used, eg being read to, reading in small groups or in pairs, reading silently. Sessions include games and singing and children have fun while learning. 
  3. Teenage sessions:  to provide relevant information on sexuality, relationships and HIV+AIDS, and to encourage group discussion, build self confidence, improve comprehension and English language skills. We use the Auntie Stella materials developed in Zimbabwe that focus on teenage sexuality and the challenges teens face in relationships, and strategies to tackle these issues.
  4. Young girls sessions:  These weekly sessions target 9-12 year old girls and aim to build their self esteem, help them set boundaries in their relationships, plan for their future, and learn about their changing bodies. 
  5. Community Libraries:  We have four library buildings and box libraries at facilitators’ homes, with fiction, non-fiction and reference books in Zulu and English, for all age groups.  Newspapers are bought once a week.  We also stock a large selection of puzzles, toys and games for children to play with.  All community members are encouraged to use the libraries, not just the FLP literacy group members. 
  6. Family Literacy Network: this was established for long standing adult literacy groups that have made significant progress in developing their literacy skills.  The Network groups form self-managing savings clubs, set up small income generating projects that serve the local community, and continue to visit neighbours to play with and stimulate 0-4 year olds and to encourage parents/carers to do the same.  
Central to our work is the development of our facilitators who are chosen by their communities to work in the villages in which they live.  These women are trained over a two year period in all aspects of our programme.  They and their families become role models in their communities as they put into practice what they learn through the project.  FLP supports their ongoing personal and professional development which is key to their continued commitment to the organisation and their communities.
An evaluation of the impact of the Family Literacy Project was carried out by Professor Elda Lyster and Sandra Land.  The report is available on our website     
Implications for others
Family literacy means that families are involved in their children’s literacy development, and that children do not have to wait to attend formal places of learning such as playgroups, ECD centres, and schools to start to learn.  Based on our experience, we recommend that the following points be taken into account when designing family literacy programmes and activities.  
Adult literacy
  • Adults with low levels of literacy can have a significant influence on the development of early literacy skills and learning in their young children, despite their own lack of schooling.
  • Working with adults to improve literacy requires a long term intervention.  Learning to read and write takes time and is challenging, and people need to develop the habit and appetite for reading and writing.
  • When people don’t use their literacy skills consistently they soon lose them.   Programmes need to include post literacy activities.  
  • Adult literacy initiatives need to address real issues in people’s lives.  When literacy sessions are geared towards improving living conditions and advocating for rights, then people are more likely to attend regularly and for longer periods, compared to programmes where participants cannot relate personally to the content.  
  • Most parents and carers want their children to have better opportunities than they had, and see literacy and education as the key to achieving this.  Adults are therefore highly motivated to play a part in their children’s learning. 
  • Once children witness adults and older siblings reading and writing in their own homes, they naturally want to emulate these behaviours.  Reading and writing are no longer foreign activities.  Supporting adults and teens to make the home environment more literate is a key to improving literacy in young children.
  • Adults with little or no education can be taught how to look at books with children, to make up their own stories based on the pictures, to match colours and shapes, etc., to build an interest in the child in books and stories.
Children’s early learning and literacy 
  • Children need to be read to regularly, and we advocate reading to children every day.  
  • When children begin reading it is more important for young children’s confidence and enthusiasm to be fostered rather than focusing on getting the mechanics of reading right.
  • The more interested children are in books, the more they will read which will result in improved reading.
  • Children want to emulate not only their parents and carers but also their older siblings.  Programmes would do well to include intergenerational learning activities.  
  • Getting children to retell the story or draw a picture of what they have heard or read is a good way to reinforce learning.
  • When introduced to books, children may need incentives beyond the sheer joy of reading.  Setting a target number of books to read and receiving a small prize for reaching their goal encourages children to read more.   
  • Incentives can help children develop the habit of borrowing books and reading, and when the incentive is no longer there are likely to continue to read.
  • If children are to learn to read they need books in their mother tongue that depict their own lives.  As books are expensive and non-essential items for families living in poverty, and visiting libraries in nearby towns is costly, relevant government agencies, NGOs, FBOs and other service providers need to prioritize supplying books to rural community centres, crèches, etc.
  • Structured holiday programmes for children in rural areas should be fun and provide opportunities to learn through play.  Children should be given opportunities to be creative, make small craft items, draw, paint, be read to, play games and make puzzles.  These are experiences few rural children have available to them on a regular basis.
Home visiting
  • Community based women with low levels of literacy can successfully pass on basic health messages to neighbours and demonstrate to them how to play with and read to their young children.  
  • Home visitors received training in hc-IMCI for two hours per week for six months before being ready to start home visits.
  • Home visiting kits need a variety of toys and books for 0-5 year olds, and information booklets on early childhood development and health messages.  
  • Home visitors’ journals provide opportunity for post literacy activities as visitors’ record what they did during their visit.  Journals are also used for monitoring purposes.  
  • Home visiting bags and rattles were made by literacy group members as part of their income generating activities.
  • Home visitors made up to 9 visits per quarter to one home and received a R15 food voucher for each visit.  This was redeemed at a local grocer, and was a small token for their time (each visit takes up to 45 minutes).
  • Adults with low levels of literacy are often among the least powerful in a community.  Sharing valuable information about health and child development with neighbours built self-esteem in individuals and added to the social cohesion in villages.  


55 Botha Road, Botha's Hill, KwaZulu-Natal South Africa

 (031) 765 1875

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