Q&A with Shelley O’Carroll

shelThe aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the twenty-fourth interview in the series. Shelley O’Carroll is the Director of Wordworks.

1)   How did you get into education, can you summarise your journey to get to where you are?

I’ve always been a bit of an idealist and can remember having a very keen sense of injustice during my school years in the late 1980’s. I was a bit late to be an activist, but left school as Mandela was released and for me there was a strong sense that I had a responsibility to contribute to a process of redress and do what I could to improve the lives of people who had been deprived of opportunities. I chose to become a teacher and majored in psychology. While I was busy with my undergrad studies I was involved in an adult literacy project in Khayamandi, and looking back, I think that was probably when I realised what a gift you give when you help people to learn to read. When I finished my HDE, I applied for a Commonwealth Scholarship and went to the Institute of Education in London where I did my masters in Psychology of Education. I came back to South Africa after my masters, taught at a bridging school in Joburg and then went to WITS to do a BEd (Remedial) as I needed an honours in order to register for an educational psychology internship. This gave me great clinical experience working with children who struggled with reading. I was a part time research assistant while I did my BEd and really enjoyed writing and being part of a research team. After I completed my BEd, I came back to the Cape to do an internship and registered as an Educational Psychologist. I worked for a few years as a school counsellor and then in private practice doing psychoeducational assessments, and specialised in working with children with reading difficulties. I also did some community work with Grade One children at a very disadvantaged school. For a while, I felt like I was living in two different countries – doing assessments with children from ex-model C and private schools – and then spending the rest of my time working with children who had so few opportunities and were so far behind even in their first year of school. I applied for an NRF scholarship and went back to London to do a doctorate – I really wanted to better understand how to help children as they started learning to read in Grade One. After I completed my PhD, I stopped working as an Educational Psychologist and set up a non-profit organisation with two colleagues.

 2)   What does your average week look like?

I juggle quite a bit – and rush around a lot! I am a mother of two young children and so I tend to start work at 7am, do school lifts and spend time with my children in the afternoon and then get back into work again most evenings. I spend some of my working day running Wordworks, managing projects, funders and budgets – and increasingly working with partner organisations who use our resources in their work. I invest quite a bit of time working with our programme teams on materials development and guidelines for training. Whenever possible, I try to find time to read and share new things I learn. I’d like to be spending more time writing and documenting our work.

3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick one or two that have been especially influential for you which one or two would they be and why?

An old favourite is ‘Literacy before schooling(Ferreiro and Teberosky, 1982) – this really helped shape my thinking about how, given opportunities, children try to make sense of printed words and written language long before teachers in formal school settings begin ‘teaching them to read’. Apprenticeship in thinking(Rogoff, 1990) made me realise how children (mine included) were being apprenticed into literacy through daily experiences with print and oral language.  Other articles and books by Connie Juel, Morag Stuart, Brian Byrne, and Linnea Ehri helped me to understand what skills and knowledge children must have in order to learn to read – and how much children’s thinking has to shift in order to understand how written language works.

When I look at my bookshelf, I realise that the other books that have been influential have been a set of Handbooks of Early Literacy and Language’ (Vol 1-3). These consist of articles written by a number of leading researchers and when I first read them I just remember being struck by how much research there was on how important young children’s language and emergent literacy was for later literacy development at school level. This was not part of mainstream thinking about literacy in South Africa at the time, and even now, evaluations of literacy performance and interventions to improve literacy tend to focus on teaching and learning in classroom contexts, largely ignoring what happens before children begin school in homes and preschool settings.

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

I think this would be easier to answer if I a.) had more time to read and b.) had a clearly defined field of research. Although I position myself in the field of early language and literacy development, our work spans home, community and school contexts and children from birth to seven years. There are so many areas of work within this broad field, and I probably know a bit about some of the leading thinkers, but not enough to really comment with any authority. Having said that, I think Lynn Murray, Peter Cooper, Zahir Vally and Mark Tomlinson’s research on booksharing with toddlers in Khayelitsha is groundbreaking and really shows the potential impact and value of sharing books with young children.

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in education in South Africa?

It will come as no surprise that I think the field of early language and literacy learning is significantly under-researched. We need more evidence about what children begin school knowing, not only what happens at school. We need more evidence about what kinds of interventions work to improve children’s early learning, and models of how to take good programmes to scale. We need to understand better how families can play a role in children’s education at school and at home.

7) You are currently the director of WordWorks – can you give us some information about what WordWorks is all about, its aims and approach and maybe some of your plans for the future?

Wordworks is a non-profit organisation that has been working in the field of early language and literacy development for the past ten years. We’ve developed programmes and resources for parents, volunteers, home-visitors and teachers of young children, with the aim of supporting them to build young children’s language and early literacy. Over the past few years we’ve also contributed to sharing knowledge about early language and literacy through policy briefs and reports.

Our team offers direct training and mentoring to schools in Cape Town, and we also work with partner organisations who we train and resource to deliver our programmes as part of their work in schools and communities.

We wish to remain a small organisation and our aim is to grow our reach through sharing knowledge, skills and resources, and building the capacity of schools, communities and organisations.

7b) As I understand it WordWorks has been asked to do the training of all registered Grade R practitioners in the Western Cape? Can you give us an overview of the training and what the desired outcomes of the training are?

Thanks to donor funding from USAID, ELMA and JP Morgan, we are going to be working in partnership with the WCED to provide training for all Grade R teachers across the province in a balanced language approach, and to provide teaching resources we have developed over the past three years. Together with partners SDU, PSP and ELRU, we will reach 3000 teachers through training and supporting ECD Curriculum Advisors and Lead Teachers in all 8 Districts in the Province. The teachers will attend a 5 day block training and then be supported through monthly collaborative enquiry workshops over a period of 8 months. The training will be grounded in a balanced language approach to literacy, and aligned with provincial training of Grade 1-6 teachers as part of the provincial LITNUM strategy.

Our aim is that teachers will have more knowledge about how children learn to read and write and the important role that Grade R teachers can play in building language and early literacy. We also want to share practical resources and ideas about how to support young children’s learning in an age appropriate way. Without making Grade R a watered down Grade 1 year, very important language and early literacy skills can be developed if teachers have the skills, knowledge and resources.

8) I’m sure you are in a different space now than you were in a decade ago. What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?

Be realistic about what can be achieved in a day.

9) What is the most rewarding and most frustrating thing about your job?

The most frustrating thing is that I never have enough time! I seldom end a day feeling like I finished what I wanted to do, and am constantly trying to fit in too much.

Apart from having too much work and too little time, there is very little I don’t like about my job. I work with a fabulous team of very dedicated people, and we have the privilege of contributing to change and making a difference to young children’s lives. It’s great to be reminded of how much good there is in the world, and most of our work is with volunteers and parents who inspire us with their commitment to children in their communities. We get to develop and share great resources and ideas – and are constantly humbled by what this means to people. We started off with the aim of supporting young children’s language and literacy development, but realise more and more how our work is impacting on women in communities.

10) If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Basic Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing the South African ECD sector, what would you say?

  1. Improving the quality of teaching and learning through high quality, relevant and practical teacher training (both preservice training and ongoing professional development)
  1. Improving the status and working conditions of ECD professionals so that teaching young children becomes a more attractive career path and teachers are recognised for the important role they are playing.
  1. Increasing the provision of and access to non-centre based support for young children through supporting parents and caregivers (e.g. home-visiting programmes, workshops for parents).

 11)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?


 12)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

 I think it can be useful, but doesn’t take the place of good old fashioned conversation and dedicated time given to children by an interested caregiver.

13) If you were given a R10 million research grant what would you use it for?

  1. To develop and/or validate tools that we could use to assess the impact of early intervention programmes for young children.
  2. To set up a team to research two related questions: a.) whether low cost interventions can lead to changes in parents’ and teachers’ knowledge about young children’s learning, and b.) to what extent/under what conditions changes in knowledge lead to changes in everyday parenting and teaching practice.
  3. Although I’d have run out of money by now…. a longitudinal study that followed a cohort of children and evaluated the impact of early interventions to improve language/literacy on children’s reading and writing development once they started school.


Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Maurita-Glynn Weissenberg, Yael Shalem, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan MullerUrsula HoadleyStephen TaylorServaas van der BergElizabeth HenningBrahm FleischMary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric AtmoreDoron IsaacsJoy OliverHamsa VenkatLinda Biersteker, Jonathan ClarkeMichael MyburghPercy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli PretoriusPaula EnsorCarol MacdonaldJill Adler and Andrew Einhorn and Carole Bloch.

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