Reading is the essential discipline

The offensive statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town has been removed but will the main reason for the unrest – a lack of transformation – be addressed?

And what do students mean by transformation when they call for it?

I believe our young people do not feel empowered by the education they are receiving. In fact, many are still educationally marginalised 21 years into democracy.

The monitoring of the literacy levels of pupils is undertaken regularly by the Annual National Assessment (ANA) survey and other measurements; the dismal results published year after year. Many of our school-leavers come to university unable to read their textbooks or string a literate paragraph together; their schooling has failed them.

At a fundamental level, our pupils should be able to read their textbooks in a meaningful way and be able to write understandable sentences.

Reading and writing have to be taught systematically and must increase exponentially in difficulty as the pupil goes through the system. Reading is a discipline and teachers must be trained to apply the strategies and techniques involved in the teaching of second-language reading such as English.

Linguistic gap
We know that pupils who are being taught to read and write in a language that they do not know well face tremendous challenges, especially if their teachers are not trained to deal with the second-language pupils’ needs in the content areas. Pupils are disadvantaged by a conceptual linguistic gap and, as they go through the school system, this gap grows wider.

Even a matric certificate does not guarantee literacy and proficiency in English. But, after six to eight years of education in their mother tongue, with additional, sound English instruction alongside it, pupils can progress through the schooling system being able to read and write in both English and their mother tongue. This is being done successfully in other parts in Africa and elsewhere.

If we fail to recognise the research and heed the evidence for mother-tongue literacy development then, at the very least, we need to ensure our teachers leave training institutions able to deal competently with the needs of the English language pupil throughout the curriculum.

In addition, we need to supply schools with plenty of print material and a library so that a print-rich environment can be created to foster literacy and counteract negative practices such as rote learning and the oral repetition of content.

Research in the field of linguistic diversity emphasises that students from deprived socioeconomic backgrounds, who have not been exposed to print and literacy-related activities in the home, struggle to learn. But the effect of this can be mediated and even side-stepped by sufficient exposure to print and literacy-based activities at school level.

This is where a school library with a well-trained librarian versed in the promotion of reading and literacy-related activities is a valuable resource, encouraging literacy.

Academic language
Another way of counteracting deprived socioeconomic backgrounds is to reinforce academic language in all the content areas. Again, this needs a trained teacher who knows how to do it, with the process continuing in higher education.

There are several studies that point to a strong relationship between active reading and reading achievement that, in turn, supports academic achievement. Classrooms should be places where literacy activities take place and are filled with reading and writing opportunities and materials that interest pupils. Above all, these classes need to be staffed by teachers who create a culture of literacy.

Many students do attain that prized degree or certificate, only to find that they are still unable to become part of the economy and consequently roam the country searching for jobs. They may feel marginalised and demand transformation.

Marginalisation can be mediated in the classroom by systematic efforts to connect instruction to the lives of pupils and to affirm their identity.

Pupils should not be expected to leave their identities, culture and language at the classroom door. Connecting learning to their lives and affirming their identity can be achieved in higher education as well. These facts about multilingual education are well researched and are grounded in evidence-based practice.

Evidence suggests that pupils whose teachers set high expectations usually achieve their goals with the right step-by-step learning and teaching.

Teaching authorities who help their pupils to cheat in examinations are diminishing their competencies. If pupils are not regarded as sufficiently competent to write an examination based on their own efforts, they can never form what is termed an “identity of competence”. They are in effect being denied the right to own their own learning and educational progress. Such negative practices by teachers serve to promote stereotypes that marginalise our pupils even further and result in frustration.

That said, it is heartening to note that the learning of an indigenous language will be made compulsory from next year. But it will be interesting to see whether these languages are taught by proficient, well-trained teachers and whether a literacy-based classroom approach will be adopted.

These classes should offer the pupil many different opportunities, not only to speak and listen, but also to read and write in the language being learnt.

As educators, we know from decades of research and evidence-based practice what the nature of academic language is, how the second-language pupil acquires it and why pupils in multilingual contexts, where learning takes place in a second or even third language, struggle.

Above all, we also know what instructional responses we need to create to address the difficulties experienced by second-language pupils in the classroom.

We ignore this research at our peril. We will continue to face the growing dissatisfaction of our young people who want to be empowered by their education and take their place as responsible, creative citizens of the country.

Arlys van Wyk is adjunct professor and head of the Unit for Academic Literacy at the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of the Free State

Key studies on reading and learning

Reading in a Second Language: Moving from Theory to Practice, by William Grabe (2009), outlines how reading in a second language is incrementally developed by explicit reading instruction. Grabe says second-language learners need systematic, precise and cumulative instruction when they are exposed to many and different opportunities to develop reading skills.

Fundamental Psycholinguistic and Sociological Principles Underlying Education Success for Linguistic Minority Students, by Jim Cummins (2009), describes how academic reading and writing skills are acquired by second-language learners. He emphasises that, from five to eight years of age, through a process of additive bilingualism, pupils can acquire English (in our context) and also develop academically in their mother tongues. This is backed by more than 200 empirical studies over 40 years. Pupils whose mother tongue is different from the language of instruction at school are educationally at risk if the necessary support is not provided. 

• In Redesigning English-medium Classrooms: Using Research to Enhance English Learner Achievement (2011), David Dolson and Lauri Burnham-Massey contend that school instruction could mediate the ­negative effects of poor socio­economic circumstances by appropriate instruction, including a focus on language across the ­curriculum, connecting instruction to pupils’ lives, and affirming pupils’ identities. These instructional implications are explained in Big Ideas for Expanding Minds (2015) by Jim Cummins and Margaret Early. 

• In Engagement in Reading: Lessons Learned from Three Pisa Countries (2007), William Brozo, Gerry Shiel and Keith Topping argue that schools can sidestep the educational disadvantage caused by poverty by providing many ­different opportunities for pupils to read. A good school library and a trained librarian who knows what pupils want to read at each level of schooling is essential. Pupils need to become involved with literacy and be exposed to a print-rich environment. (Pisa is the Programme for International Student Assessment.) 

• In Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (1995), Gloria Ladson-Billings discusses the ways in which many pupils’ languages and cultures are devalued. She argues that proper ­teaching can go a long way towards ­mediating this by treating all children as ­competent. Pupils whose teachers have high expectations of them and view all their pupils as competent achieve greater success, according to Ladson-Billings.

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