Literacy and numeracy can be enhanced

As the country recovers from the shocking results of the Annual National Assessments’ literacy and numeracy tests in which nearly six million grades three and six pupils took part, Jenny Taylor, the director of Read for Africa, reckons that not all is not lost.

Taylor believes innovation and creativity are the key elements that can help to turn the situation around in improving learners’ proficiency in reading and spelling. She said the ­problem of “reading failure” among pupils, particularly at the foundation phase, presented a serious ­challenge to the country’s ­education system and it warranted urgent intervention.

Taylor was addressing about 500 teachers, parents, therapists and other professionals gathered at Kingsmead Junior School in Johannesburg to tackle the national assessments’ results as well as how teachers can assist in ­avoiding similar catastrophic ­outcomes in future tests.

“Schools need better ways of teaching reading and spelling. Most teachers are still using an old approach like spending too much time ­teaching one isolated letter instead of using an integrated and ­stimulating approach,” said Taylor. Pupils lose interest quickly when they are not taught in a creative and engaged way, she said.

Taylor said most people and ­companies donate books to schools often to promote a culture of reading among pupils. But, she said, this alone did not go to the heart of the problem because, “­without the skill of reading, these books are meaningless”.

Teachers and parents are the most important resource and it is what they do with the text that will ­ultimately determine how effectively a child or new reader responds to reading, said Taylor.

Train the teacher first
Her organisation has been involved in training teachers on the best method to use to improve pupil ­performance in reading and ­spelling.
Taylor said the method used is based on the American model, called Phono-Graphix, and some schools had already adopted it with great levels of success. Kingsmead Junior School is one such school.

“The school has combined the important skills in reading, writing and oral work through the use of the Phono-Graphix reading method in its foundation phase and has also been successful in ensuring that pupils develop the necessary skills while promoting a high level of ­interest and love for reading among their pupils,” she said.

Phono-Graphix is based on the theory that there is a connection between sound and picture and this, according to its proponents, is the foundation of written English. It equips teachers with the skills needed to help children access the English code and to teach these skills in keeping with the way ­children learn. One of its ­principles is that “letters are pictures of sounds”.

Taylor said Read for Africa had mastered this skill and was in a ­position to empower teachers and parents to teach their children in an effective way. “We believe we ­developed an approach that ensures that pupils learn how to read and spell in the easiest, fastest and most cost-­effective way,” she said.

Start early
Over the past decade, South African pupils have lagged behind their continental and global counterparts in international assessments tests. Announcing the national assessments’ results, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, said: “This [poor results] is ­worrying precisely because the critical skills of literacy and numeracy are ­fundamental to further education and achievement in the worlds of both education and work.

“Many of our pupils lack proper foundations in literacy and ­numeracy and so they struggle to progress in the system and into ­post-school education and training.”

She said the problem was that as a country we use the performance of pupils at the end of their 12-year schooling to measure the health of our education system.

Motshekga said that this cannot be right because it “does not allow us to comprehend deeply enough what goes on lower down in the system on a year-by-year basis”.

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