The Eastern Cape has one of the lowest Matric pass rates in the country, as well as some of the poorest results in national literacy assessment tests in the Foundation Phase. Many teachers are testifying that the learners in their intermediate and senior phase classes are unable to read and write at the required level. This evidence points to the fact that children are not grasping the basics of reading and writing at the foundational stage, and would imply that this is where intervention is most needed in order to remedy the problem in the long-term.
In addition, the ascendancy of English as the desired language of communication, and the (somewhat unfortunate) perception by parents that learning English is all-important, has led to a situation where many parents are insisting that their children attend English-medium schools even though it is not their mother-tongue. This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that most of the English-medium schools are perceived to be “better” schools in terms of their administration, resources, etc. Some Xhosa-speaking children even end up in Afrikaans-medium classes simply for the sake of getting into these schools. Parents also seem to feel that their children’s education is taken care of once they have got them into one of these “better” schools, whereas in fact the children need more support because of the additional burden of learning in a language that is not their own.
Add to the above the perpetual conditions and effects of poverty and unemployment on young children’s ability to learn and prosper, and one has a situation where intervention and additional support has become crucial if we are to impact on literacy levels and avoid having another lost generation, especially in one of the largest but poorest provinces. Grahamstown itself, because of a lack of manufacturing industries, has an unemployment rate of 70%.
The challenge is to find a way of providing support in the early years that involves as many stakeholders as possible and is sustainable or has the ability to become embedded practice. For this reason it is important to draw in parents and get the co-operation of the relevant teachers, as well as to build partnerships that can enhance the activity through research and up-scaling.
Implementing a new literacy strategy
The Lebone Centre (a vehicle of the ICDP Trust that was established by Kingswood College) is a hub from which various support and outreach activities take place in the surrounding community. A Love Reading Club had been established some years ago for the Grade 4 learners from the surrounding 3 primary schools, but when this was critically assessed, it was decided that an intervention was more needed in the Foundation Phase. Upon investigation of possible literacy support programmes, it was decided to begin implementing a literacy intervention programme that was based on two programmes operating successfully in the Western Cape, i.e. Wordworks and Shine. The Learning Trust provided funds for the pilot phase of this initiative in Grahamstown, which was launched with the same 3 schools as above, i.e. Grahamstown Primary, George Dickerson Primary and St Mary’s Primary, as there were already established relationships with these schools.
During the pilot phase, the programme was operating on a relatively small scale, working only with Grade 1 pupils that were at risk. However, the success of the programme meant that it became important to expand it to other grades, especially Grade R and Grade 3. Grade 2 learners were being taken care of by a Rhodes student society using the same methodology. The learners targeted are those who are at risk of not developing sufficient literacy and language skills to build the necessary foundation and/or to move on to the next grade. However, they are not the ones with severe backlogs or developmental/learning problems, as the programme cannot take the place of remedial teaching and volunteers are not qualified to tackle serious learning disabilities.
At the same time, it was decided to take on board the programme aimed at parental involvement, the Home-School Partnership, which has been developed by Wordworks, as well as to target other community institutions such as the local clinic, in order to persuade parents of the importance of supporting their children’s learning at home. This would be backed up by home visits to strengthen the input given to parents and to encourage their ongoing involvement. Targeting children in their very early years also means it can form part of a more preventative strategy, so that less intervention is needed once the children are at school.
Because the Foundation Phase children are worked with during school hours, it was very important to get the permission and co-operation of the teachers as well as the district office of the Education Department.
The initial training of some 19 teachers and facilitators by Wordworks has taken place, which will enable the workshop programme with parents to commence at 4 sites, i.e. Grahamstown, George Dickerson and St Mary’s Primary Schools and the Little Red Dragon Preschool. The schools have already notified parents of the upcoming workshops, and it has received an encouragingly good response. It seems that parent attitudes are improving towards being involved in or supporting their children’s education – perhaps ironically because parents are realising that they cannot rely solely on the formal schooling system for their children’s success in education.
The 112 Grade 1 children in the English-medium classes at George Dickerson and St Mary’s Primary Schools were all assessed, utilising tests developed and sent to us by Wordworks. About one-third of the learners have been selected to participate in the language skills programme, based on the test results and after consultation with the relevant teachers. Volunteers commenced working with these children during the last week of February.
IMPLICATIONS FOR OTHER IMPLEMENTERS AND FOR BROADER SYSTEMS AND POLICY DEVELOPMENT
It is important to build good relationships with schools first, as well as to communicate with the Dept of Education about your plans. You need to show willingness, and more than anything you need to stay the course and see through that which you have indicated you want to implement. Being physically based in the community where you work is also very useful.
Word-of-mouth recruitment of volunteers is probably the best way to go, and it is important to nurture each of your volunteers, understand their particular circumstances and keep regular contact.
Networking with other organisations is also very important, as you can avoid duplication but also learn from each other and complement each other’s activities, as well as strengthening the case for literacy interventions. It presents a united front to the “outside”, as it were, and reinforces the importance of literacy issues. Where possible, it is also good to build relationships with other parties such as universities, local libraries and the media.
Getting the right personnel on board who are good and sensitive communicators, is crucial.