Schooling alone won’t fix illiteracy

In South Africa, when a thoughtful report is published about how to improve child literacy it is generally welcomed as "a good thing". So the very fact that the basic education department's national education evaluation and development unit (Needu) chose to focus on literacy in grades 1 to 3 for its recent report guaranteed it a sympathetic hearing.

The trouble is the consensus around the urgency of tackling our low literacy rates has resulted in accolades for a report that raises as many questions as it answers.

Needu chose to use a narrow lens in its scrutiny of literacy teaching and learning in grades 1 to 3. Rather than investigating the range of complex factors that shape literacy underachievement, the report focused on school performance — the quality of teaching and learning and the effectiveness of the instructional leadership in schools. This would have been fine if the diagnosis and conclusions of the report had remained within these parameters.

The approach Needu used in its research did not provide it with grounds for conclusions about why so many children in our primary schools cannot read and write at age-appropriate levels. By asking questions only of the formal schooling system, the scope of the report's understanding was limited. If you only consider part of the question, you will only get part of the answer.

The report's central recommendation is a sensible one: The department must act swiftly to improve teachers' knowledge and skills. However, the report implies that if we can improve the knowledge and skills of foundation phase teachers, literacy results will inevitably improve. But the evidence suggests that the reality is more complex. 

Understanding the circumstances
To understand why our children are struggling to achieve their potential, we must consider the factors that bear on their capacity to learn. If, for example, children are sick, hungry, underdeveloped or unhappy, their concentration, recall and even ability to think are likely to suffer. 

In particular, two core components of successful language and literacy learning are consistently highlighted by international studies but completely ignored by the Needu report — high-quality language and literacy experiences in preschool and a conducive home-learning environment. 

Children's progress in literacy is determined not only by how well they are taught at school, but also by their levels of language and literacy when they enter school. Needu does not include any assessments of children's language and literacy skills at the beginning of grade 1, and so is unable to address the degree to which this might be a significant factor in the subsequent development of reading and writing skills. 

This is important because there is a risk we might again ignore the wealth of international research showing that if children begin school with poor language and literacy skills, it is difficult for them to catch up even with skilled teaching.

Recently, economists have shown how remedial interventions at school age are more costly than investment in good quality early education. Their verdict has persuaded governments to intensify the attention and resources focused on preschool.

Tackling the large disparities in the quality of grade R teaching, and equipping these classes with appropriate learning resources, should be priorities for the department. But the years between birth and five are also crucial. This is the optimal period for language development, so it is essential that children are exposed to learning opportunities in home, community and preschool settings that enable such development.

Acknowledging the home environment
This means recognising the role of families and communities as co-creators of education. Studies have shown not only a strong link between a child's home-learning environment and their later attainment in reading and maths, but also that the ability to deliver effective learning support in the home does not have to depend on parents' education levels. 

This is an optimistic message — that all parents and carers can be empowered to play a central role in breaking intergenerational cycles of lost potential. But this requires support from the government, and in particular greater investment in non-centre-based as well as centre-based early childhood development programmes. Universal access to parenting workshops, and evidence-based learning resources will ensure that all children, especially those who are most likely to miss out on early learning opportunities, are able to build solid foundations for learning.

If we are to improve our children's chances, we need a radical shift in thinking and approach. It is unrealistic to expect schools and teachers to redress the deep inequalities that already exist when children start school. They cannot be expected to single-handedly make up for the entrenched shortcomings of a system that does not provide adequate learning opportunities for children. 

So perhaps the question the basic education department should now focus on is this: How can government strategies ensure that every child starting his or her school career has the same opportunity to benefit from improved teaching in school?

Rebecca Hickman is a policy and advocacy consultant who specialises in education. Shelley O'Carroll is the founder and director of Wordworks, a nonprofit organisation that works with parents, teachers, community volunteers and home visitors to strengthen early ­language and ­literacy learning. Their report, ­Narrowing the ­Literacy Gap: Strengthening ­language and literacy development between birth and six years for ­children in South Africa, can be downloaded at

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Rebecca Hickman
Rebecca Hickman
Rebecca Hickman is an early learning consultant

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