The earlier, the better for Africa’s children
Imagine looking at a page and not being able to read or fully understand the words because you never developed the skills to do so. This is the reality for many children in Africa. It is also a big obstacle to the development of the continent’s people as early literacy is essential for children’s reading abilities and future success in their education.
It is a sad fact that most African children do not get the necessary exposure to the written word. An international pilot study, co-headed by the North-West University’s (NWU’s) Prof Rosemary Wildsmith-Cromarty of the Education, Training and Development Practices (ETDP) SETA Research Chair in Early Childhood Education, is looking into ways to address this serious problem.
The study, involving four countries and approximately 1 500 children, has found that many youngsters from disadvantaged communities have to rely on oral recitations, community notices and storytelling to develop their literacy skills at home. They do use mobile phones but this offers only limited literacy via texting and reading messages. The most common text found in the home is usually the Bible.
The situation is not much better in schools. Children do develop some components of emergent literacy (the phase before actual reading and writing), and teachers do have access to teaching aids to promote literacy. However, many educators are stuck in a traditional way of teaching that relies on collective chorusing and rote memorisation. This is a major stumbling block in developing literacy skills and persists from pre-Grade R and Grade R upwards into Grades 3 and 4.
Research in the communities
The SETA Research Chair’s research project, which is named the Reading Research Network, has been developed via conferencing over the past four years. The NWU’s Prof Rosemary and Prof Caroline Dyer of the University of Leeds are at the helm of the project, which will conclude in February next year.
Prof Rosemary says the study, which the University of Leeds is hosting, took researchers from the NWU, Leeds, the University of Sussex, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Durban University of Technology to schools and homes in South Africa, Ethiopia, Namibia and Uganda.
“We interviewed teachers and observed classroom activities. We then went to the homes of the children where we interviewed the parents and caregivers.”
She says they looked at two schools in each country, one urban and one rural, as well as their surrounding communities. They did this to ascertain what kind of literacy exposure young African children receive from home to Grade 4.
The importance of early literacy
Prof Rosemary says neuroscience has discovered that if children are not stimulated by a certain age, certain synapses in the brain begin to atrophy by the age of two. “This is especially relevant to literacy. If the children do not develop those synapses to the point where they can build on them for the future, later learning becomes a huge challenge, as we have seen in the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) results where South African children in particular perform at the bottom. (PIRLS is an international study of reading (comprehension) achievement in fourth graders. TIMMs is a series of international assessments of the mathematics and science knowledge of students around the world).”
She says the Reading Research Network now aims to go for a much bigger research study, based on the findings of this pilot study. “We believe that the research can make a big difference in the lives of Africa’s children.”
The answer to the lack of exposure to literacy lies within the communities where the children live. “Communities need to own the education of their people. We need teachers who understand what play-based learning and stimulation is all about. The lecturers who teach prospective teachers need to know that too.”
This is where the researchers can make a significant impact and work together with the communities, including NGOs working in those contexts. “We need to have a team of people who can work locally and contextually — hopefully with community colleges involved — to promote early childhood development. In the end it is all about unlocking the skills that will enable children to climb the literacy ladder of success.”