Usually the sensational titles that sub-editors choose to use drives me crazy. This time I actually love that they focus on this quote about the lack of NRF Chairs in African Languages: 100% true!!
The edited Q&A is available on the TimesLive site here. But my unedited answers are here:
You’ve talked before about reading being South Africa’s biggest solvable problem. But the recent pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) survey puts the number of Grade Four children who cannot read for meaning in any language at 58%. Where to begin turning this around?
I think there are a number of ‘basics’ that we need to get in place to rectify this problem. They can broadly be grouped under ‘Time’, ‘Text’ and ‘Teachers’.
Teachers: I think we need to ensure that all teachers actually know how to teach reading. Unfortunately most teachers have not been taught what the various components of reading are (phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency and motivation) or how these fit together into a cohesive whole. Currently teachers focus on communalized activities like chorusing and offer very little differentiation or individualized instruction or assessment. There is little formal teaching of vocabulary, spelling, writing or phonics and almost no understanding of how to develop the most important skill in reading: comprehension. Countless research studies have shown that our teachers simply do not know how to teach reading and writing systematically.
Text: Given that 70% of children in South Africa are learning to read in an African language in grades 1-3 before transitioning into English in Grade 4, we need to ensure that there are enough texts available to actually teach reading. I’ve recently looked at the number of graded readers that exist in the African languages and most series have 15 very short books per year from grades 1-3. This is simply unacceptable. If one looks at wealthy English schools children are reading up to 200 graded books per year. They usually take one home per day. We really need to increase the number and quality of resources available in African languages.
Time: A number of studies have shown that teachers are only using about 50% of the instructional time that is available during the year. As a result children do not have enough opportunity to learn to read.
At grade four level, children are expected to transition between the phases of ‘learn to read’ and ‘read to learn’ – essentially being able to read for meaning. Yet it’s also the age when schools tend to switch children from mother-tongue education to English-language instruction. That sounds like a recipe for disaster?
The transition to English in grade 4 is fraught with difficulties. For learners that have not become literate in their home language in grades 1-3 it is almost impossible to become literate in a second language (English). I think this points to two things: (1) deficiencies in how we are teaching home language in grades 1-3 and (2) deficiencies in how we are teaching English First Additional Language (EFAL) in grades 1-3. There is also a dearth of research on this transiton. The best research on this comes from the work of Carol MacDonald in the Threshold Project which was done in 1989! We need more research on the transition and how to ensure that learners are not only bilingual but also biliterate.
It’s worth noting that a number of other African countries also transition to English in Grade 4 and have much better reading outcomes than we do. The transition to English in Grade 4 is certainly not unique to South Africa.
Text-poor environments are definitely a contributor to our national literacy crisis. What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve come across to encourage production of books in indigenous languages?
I think the move to develop graded readers in the African languages from scratch is a great example of progress. Up until recently most of the graded readers that had been developed in African languages were just translations from English, and often would lost all the ‘grading’ in the translations. This is because some words and themes that are ‘easy’ in English are actually very difficult in some African languages. The Vula Bula books by Molteno are a good example of de novo graded readers that were developed with the concept of grading in the specific language. I think the work of Nali Bali is also really important – developing stories written by home-language speakers and easily accessible to children.
It’s not just hard to find published literature in indigenous languages, there’s a dearth of linguistic research too – there are no oral reading fluency benchmarks for African languages, for example. Where would you particularly like to see significant change?
100%. This drives me absolutely crazy. Why on earth are there no National Research Foundation (NRF) Chairs in teaching reading in African languages?! Why is early grade reading research not a national research priority with priority funding? This is such a huge scandal in South Africa. The absolute failure of PanSALB to do what it was mandated to do by Parliament is a disgrace. While it’s great to see individual publishers and authors pushing forward and publishing books and stories in African languages, ultimately we need the funding and commitment from government that this is a national priority.
You’ve talked about making the achieving of mother tongue reading competency by grade three a prioritized national goal. What – and how long – might it take to achieve this?
To be 100% honest this will take time. It takes time to train teachers. Get high quality resources I nevery classroom and every home. We could create a great campaign and say that it needs to be done by 2020 and try and galvanize everyone, but that’s just not how long these things take. I think a ten-year time-horizon is probably more realistic. Even that is really ambitious. The Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen uses the Japanese experience in the mid-19th century as a classic example of the relentless focus on basic education. Soon after the Meiji restoration of 1868 The Fundamental Code of Education was issued (1872) which stated that there must be “no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person.” By 1913 the country was almost entirely literate, publishing more books than Britain and more than twice as many as the United States, even though it was much poorer than both of these countries. But none of this happens without a country-wide commitment to eradicating illiteracy and ensuring that every South African can read for meaning and pleasure.