Reading is the write way to go
A culture of reading is not deeply rooted in South African schools and unless teachers themselves can transmit their own love of reading to pupils in all aspects of the curriculum, poor language skills and literacy will remain widespread.
"Reading and Writing: Who Needs It?" was the topic of 2013's first seminar in the Teachers Upfront series. Held on February 13 at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg, the seminar was unanimous on the answer: everyone needs it, including teachers.
Jean Place, lecturer in the University of the Witwatersrand's school of education, described how good literacy teaching programmes in the early years developed pupils' confidence and their ability to explore texts, to think and to reason, which enhanced their achievement throughout the curriculum.
Children involved in richly varied reading and writing from an early age developed a delight in words and began "to read like writers and to write like readers", she said.
"Do we believe that our children in Africa cannot learn to read and write?" she asked. "No, they don't lack ability; they lack the teachers."
Because South Africa's teachers lacked the requisite expertise, educators had to consider how to get both children and teachers to delight in words in ways that ensured that real learning was central to every classroom.
"The starting point is getting the teachers to see themselves as readers and writers," Place said.
That implied a shift in mind-sets, but teachers could encourage reading in many ways, such as using word and language games.
Even spelling errors "can be opportunities for teaching", she said, urging teachers to use classroom time to "look for links in words, to seek words that do not conform to regular patterns, to encourage children to spell words on their own and to get children to be word detectives".
There was great delight to be had in allowing pupils to experiment, which included allowing them to get it wrong, as they often did.
"The more you do that with children, the more their confidence increases and the more they will risk," Place said.
With writing, it was important to craft each piece over time, she said. "Writing is a process. Build up a writing resource centre in every classroom and systematically work through texts using children's errors as opportunities to assess their progress and to guide teaching." This could start happening at the foundation phase.
Reading and writing helped children to participate fully in the wider society, Kamala Peter, a lecturer in the department of childhood education at the University of Johannesburg, told the seminar. But "if children are unable to make meaning from what they have read, their academic success in other content- or subject-specific areas that they encounter in school will be thwarted — writers develop through reading; readers develop through writing", Peter said.
She described three general phases in the reading process: learning to read, reading to learn and independent reading. She said a great deal of energy went into the first phase, which was about teaching children to decode words.
If children struggled at that stage and did not learn to decode language, after that their energy would still be going into that process and, as a result, "their cognitive resources are not used for making meaning but rather for decoding, and thus comprehension is inhibited".
Reading and writing were cultural inventions, she said.
"The human brain was designed to speak but not to read, and the act of reading is a culturally transmitted process, Peter said."
It followed that "if the teacher is not an avid reader, a love of reading won't be passed on to the learners".
Like Place, therefore, she stressed the central role of the teacher and said teachers must be able to motivate pupils and must be knowledgeable, skilled at teaching essential literacy skills to a mix of pupils and understand the structure of language.
Surette van Staden of the University of Pretoria's centre for evaluation and assessment focused on South Africa's dismal performance in the annual Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls). South African grade four and five pupils participated in the study for the first time in 2006 and the poor results were extensively reported in the media at that time.
South Africa participated again in 2011, but also took part in the "pre-Pirls" tests. They are based on the same conception of reading as the fully fledged study assessments, but are less difficult stepping stones than the latter. But South Africa's grades four and five again struggled.
Below the international average
Van Staden said that both their pre-Pirls and Pirls results were consistently below the international average score of 500 for the 49 participating countries, and the majority of South African pupils were below the modest international benchmark for adequate reading skills.
The higher achievement in Afrikaans and English among grade fives was "statistically insignificant", she said. The 2011 tests also showed that one-third of grade four pre-Pirls pupils were at risk educationally and could not read at the fundamental levels, even in their languages of learning and teaching.
But there were measures teachers could take to address this, Van Staden said. These included continual exposure to the printed word and longer reading passages, and homework "that may be the avenue to accomplish this exposure and afford learners the opportunity to practise reading".
She recommended that reading-based literacy should take precedence over oral literacy, specifically for African-language pupils, because oral exercises encouraged only surface-level questioning.
There had to be "explicit and deliberate teaching of comprehension strategies" and reading comprehension skills had to be introduced very early in a child's schooling.
This approach should be applied to reading throughout the curriculum, Van Staden said. "Reading should happen not only during formally scheduled reading time for the duration of language lessons."