Spelling bee at Mitchells Plain school encourages reading

Words are plastered all over the walls of the Beacon View Primary School classroom in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town, where Leonie Appel prepared three learners to win a provincial spelling competition this year and inspire the entire school to start reading.

Appel, who has been a teacher at this school for nearly 20 years, is its literacy and numeracy coordinator. When she heard about the Growsmart literacy competition she launched a search for three learners to represent their school.

Knock-out rounds led learners Ameerah Elmie, Casey Goldschmidt and Xolelwa Qwashu all the way to winning the Growsmart competition’s R160 000 prize money for their school and R20 000 worth of prizes for themselves. Appel said gearing learners up for this spelling competition had had a lasting impact.

“All learners in grades four to six participated in a competition at the school to see which learners could represent the school at Growsmart. The top five spellers out of each class competed in a semi-final. We then had the top eight and finally the top three learners,” said Appel.

“The competition required three learners to compete. One had to spell the word, another had to give the definition of a word and the third learner had to use the word in a sentence.”

Combat illitereacy
Appel explained that the knock-out rounds motivated learners to start reading. They were eager to spell their way to the top of the school and hopefully win the Growsmart prizes. Appel said this had entrenched weekly spelling competitions at the school in a bid to combat illiteracy.

“It’s difficult to pin-point exactly where the problem was with low literacy levels at our school. One of the challenges is that learners are not being educated in their mother tongue. They speak Afrikaans at home but their parents enrol them into English classes,” said Appel.

“Learners also don’t read anymore because technology has grown so much. We don’t find them going to libraries to take out books. It’s easier to watch TV or be on their cell phones. They just don’t read books.”

Magda Esterhuizen, the school’s principal, said the school also needed to build a proper library for its learners. She said that would be one of their priority uses for the prize money. A general school facelift was also essential.

“The prize couldn’t have come at a better time. Next year our school will be 25 years old. This prize money will help us with a basic facelift so that we can start a new school,” said Esterhuizen.

The school, with its 1 487 learners, is one of the largest in the area.

“We are going to build a school library and a resource centre for teachers. We’re going to paint the school and fix all the broken lights. When people walk in here they must see the difference at our school.”

Growsmart has presented an opportunity to interact with its immediate community, said Appel.

“It has infused the school, educators and learners with a desire to read with meaning and understanding. Teachers are more positive. The learners’ writing skills have improved. They would think of a word, grab a dictionary and use that word in their comprehension,” said Appel.

Set a trend
“It has also set a trend. We want to have a spelling contest at our school each year. It also gave us an opportunity to interact with parents. We want to reach out to our parent community and have spelling competitions for them too.”

The three learners, who went through thousands of words in Growsmart newspapers, were excited about their prize money. Their wish-list includes laptop computers, printers and stationery.

Casey Goldschmidt, one of the three winners, was already planning for next year.

“I want to have my school fees (an annual R210 at this school) paid up for next year. I also want to buy a school uniform and stationery,” she said.

Ameerah Elmie and Xolelwa Qwashu were the other two winners. Elmie said that the competition was “exciting” and Qwashu said it had helped her improve her English.

“I speak Xhosa at home so I have to work hard in class to study English. Sometimes we also speak English at home and that helped me feel confident for this competition,” she said.

“At home, I would read a newspaper and look for any words that I don’t know in a dictionary. This improved my English.”

Paddy Attwell, communications director in the Western Cape education department, said the department had partnered with Growthpoint Properties, which has funded the competition since its launch last year.

“This spelling competition generates great excitement among learners and provides a fun way of encouraging interest in words and reading. Growsmart’s initiatives are helping to build a strong culture of reading and writing in our schools. The department’s number one priority is the development of the literacy and numeracy skills of primary school learners,” said Atwell.

“Our comprehensive literacy and numeracy strategy includes regular tests for primary school children, teacher development and support, heavy investment in textbooks and reading books, and community mobilisation. Parents and communities have a huge role to play in encouraging reading, writing and calculating at home and during leisure times.”

Jewel Harris, the assistant regional manager at Growthpoint Properties, said the company would continue running Growsmart as their corporate social investment project. This year the company targeted learners from 120 schools and the final round was held in September. Harris said the hope was to “enhance teaching and learning” and the Growsmart newspaper was based on the
school curriculum.

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