Articles, Literacy, Reading

South Africa’s reading crisis is a cognitive catastrophe

An African boy is lying on the ground with a friend reading.

John Aitchison, University of KwaZulu-Natal

When the late Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko published his seminal book, “I write what I like”, in 1978 it wasn’t about individual self-expression or even self-indulgence. It was a political statement with its origins in the work of Brazilian adult literacy activist Paulo Freire.

Freire identified the profound connection between reading, understanding the world and so being able to change it. Half a century after Biko was murdered by South Africa’s apartheid state, his country is no nearer being able to do this.

Instead, many of the country’s children are struggling to read at all. That’s according to the results of the international PIRLS 2016 literacy tests on nearly 13 000 South African school children. These showed that 78% of grade 4 children cannot read for meaning in any language. South Africa scored last of the 50 countries tested. Also worrying was that there were no signs of improvement over the last five years. In fact, in the case of the boys who were tested, the situation may have worsened.

A few weeks before these results were released, another study had found that 27% of children under five in the country suffer from stunting and that their brains are not developing as they should. Damage like this is largely irreversible. It leads to low school achievement and work productivity – and so to ongoing poverty.

These truly disadvantaged children are those of the poor; the 25% of South Africa’s population who live in extreme poverty. Given their dreadful circumstances, it might be understandable that 25% of children might not succeed in learning to read. But 78%? There has to be another explanation for that.

There are indeed reasons. They range from the absence of a reading culture among adult South Africans to the dearth of school libraries allied to the high cost of books and lastly to the low quality of training for teachers of reading.

No reading culture and bad teaching

Part of South Africa’s reading catastrophe is cultural. Most parents don’t read to their children many because they themselves are not literate and because there are very few cheap children’s books in African languages (and it must be remembered that English is a minority home language in South Africa).

But reading at home also doesn’t happen at the highest levels of middle class society and the new elite either. It’s treated as a lower order activity that’s uncool, nerdy and unpopular. And it’s not a spending priority. South Africans spend twice as much on chocolate each year than they do on books.

The situation doesn’t improve at school. Until provincial education departments ensure that every school has a simple library and that children have access to cheap suitable books in their own mother tongues, South Africa cannot be seen as serious about the teaching of reading.

Another problem lies with the fact that reading is taught badly. South Africa closed down its teacher training colleges between 1994 and 2000. This was done ostensibly to improve the quality of teacher education by making it the sole responsibility of universities. It backfired.

Previously, universities used to teach mainly high school teachers. Now they were expected to train foundation level teachers of the first three school grades. It was an area university’s education departments knew little about. They also inevitably incorporated only those training college educators who had postgraduate degrees. Sadly, these people generally had no great interest in the grunt work of teaching little children to read. So foundation level teacher training at universities is often a disaster.

There’s been some attempt to address this bungle. The latest of them is the Department of Higher Education and Training’s Primary Teacher Education project.

The teacher training curriculum is also problematic. Most teaching about reading instruction in South Africa’s universities is outdated. Faculties of education appear to have largely ignored modern scientific advances in understanding how reading happens.

What the science says

Over the last three decades cognitive neuroscience has clarified and resolved a number of debates about reading. It has been proven beyond doubt that reading – becoming literate – alters the brain.

Learning the visual representation of language and the rules for matching sounds and letters develops new language processing possibilities. It reinforces and modifies certain fundamental abilities, such as verbal and visual memory and other crucial skills. It influences the pathways used by the brain for problem-solving.

Failing to learn to read is bad for the cognition necessary to function effectively in a modern society. The inability of South Africa to teach children to read, then, leads to another type of stunting: one that is as drastic as its physical counterpart.

The country now has generations who have been cognitively stunted because of a massive failure in its culture and educational provision. All South Africans are implicated if they don’t do their utmost to help people learn to read.

John Aitchison, Professor Emeritus of Adult Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Further reading

To explore working with Lianne in Randburg / Sandton and other areas in Johannesburg, contact her for a consultation to discuss how she can assist you.

Articles, Literacy

Should we be strict about restricting screen time?

A young boy watches a video on a laptop with no restriction on screen time.

Experienced teachers share things parents should do to set their kids up for success – Part 4 of 10

If you want your children to be literate and successful, you had better get your head around whether to be strict about restricting screen time, and enforcing quality over quantity.

Parents need to be on the same page regarding this, with pre-determined family rules for screen time that are clearly laid out and adhered to by all family members.

Today I will stress the possible dangers of not restricting screen time. There is lots of research out there supporting both sides of this argument. I’ve made up my own mind but have you made up yours? Are you parenting your way through the digital era without a clearly defined strategy?

Here is some food for thought.

What is screen time?

Screen time is time spent in front of any type of screened device, for any length of time, for either entertainment or recreation purposes. This includes TV’s, tablets, laptops, computers, iPads, smart phones and game consoles amongst others.

Types of screen time

Passive screen time

The main characteristic of passive screen time is that no thought, creativity or meaningful interaction is required of the child. The child passively absorbs information through mindless repetition or progress.

  • TV
  • YouTube video on AutoPlay
  • Repetitive games
  • Binge watching shows or movies
  • Social Media

Active screen time

Active screen time involves cognitive and/or physical engagement while using the device.

  • Coding activities
  • Educational games that require decision making and problem solving skills
  • Making Youtube videos that involve creativity and decision making
  • Editing pictures
  • Reading for leisure or knowledge

Remember that any screen time can be active or passive depending on how it is used.

Age appropriate screen time

In general, no passive screen time is recommended for children ages 0-6 years. There is research that suggests that it may delay language development, limit vocabulary growth or contribute to even more serious problems such as insomnia, screen addiction and lower psychological well being.

If screen time is allowed at all for children older that 6 years, it should be active, limited, supervised, interactive, fun and these activities should be played with family members. Don’t allow yourself to get into the habit of using screen time as a babysitting service.

For older children, I recommend limited screen time that is active and purpose driven. Some experts say that if it does not have educational value it has no value at all. I’m not sure if I agree with this completely but once again I strongly suggest that you don’t allow yourself to get into the habit of using screen time as a babysitter.

There is some indication that in older children too much screen time can lead to mood regulation problems, delayed or improper social development, concentration issues, behavioural and learning problems.

The effect of screen time on the brain

It is undisputedly a drug – and a fiercely addictive one at that. Studies on the effects of screen time on the brain, have indicated that the amount of dopamine released is comparable to that of cocaine or heroine.

UCLA Doctor, Peter Whybrow, refers to screens as “electronic cocaine” due to the level of dopamine that’s released while using digital technology. We know that the effects of dopamine are addictive, which is why so many of us adults can’t stay away from FaceBook or our other social media accounts. If we are unable to control our own addiction to screen time, we can’t really expect our children to do so of their own accord. We have to parent.

I’m sure most parents have experienced the epic, terrible two’s like melt down style tantrum that takes place when you switch off your child’s screen after asking them 3 times to come to the dinner table for the not negotiable family dinner.  What transpires can be frightening, but in light of what we know from the research about addiction, it is understandable.

Victoria L. Dunckley (M.D.) has written extensively on the topic of restricting screen time. She indicates that by not restricting screen time it can lead to Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS)  which is essentially a disorder of dysregulation.  In her article, she states that “dysregulation can be defined as an inability to modulate one’s mood, attention, or level of arousal in a manner appropriate to one’s environment. Interacting with screens shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode which leads to dysregulation and disorganization of various biological systems.” No wonder a tantrum ensues.

In addition, Victoria L. Dunckley (M.D.) blames a lot of mental health problems in kids on the effects of electronic screens. She believes that “the unnaturally stimulating nature of an electronic screen—irrespective of the content it brings—has ill effects on our mental and physical health at multiple levels”.

Why be strict about restricting screen time?

We know that…

  • Children don’t reliably self-regulate screen time. Therefore, we should still try to teach them how.
  • Light-at-night / blue light exposure adversely affects sleep.
  • Persuasive design is used by video game and social media companies to pull users, including children, onto their sites and keep them there for as long as possible—as this drives revenue.
  • Various other problems are associate with too much screen time
    • Attention problems
    • Learning problems
    • Mood disruption
    • Social problems
    • Behavioural issue
  • Those in the know in the tech industry , like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Chris Anderson, Evan Williams and Tim Cook sometimes severely restricted their children’s screen time. This should be a warning to us.

Guidelines for restricting screen time

There are an astounding number of articles online advising on guidelines for restricting screen time in the home. I strongly feel that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ option that will work for everyone. I think that as a family you should do sufficient research of your own in order to make an informed decision. Then create a set of rules / guidelines that work for your family, that everyone can adhere to and which don’t compromise your child’s psychological, social, educational and behavioural well being. Balance is everything.

My only list of suggested ‘musts’ are these…

  • Each family must have rules that govern screen time.
  • These rules must be adhered to consistently.
  • The charging of digital devices should take place in the parents’ bedroom overnight.
  • Parents / legal guardians must have access to all social media accounts and must monitor them.
  • Adhere to the law and age restrictions regarding social media accounts. There are reasons for these age limits and 13 years old is a general guideline.
  • Restrict screen time close to bedtime.
  • Restrict screen time during dinner time.
  • No screen time until homework and chores are done.
  • Paper books must still be part of a child’s daily life.
  • Screen time must not be used as a babysitting service.
  • Parents must set the example.

Further Reading

For Part 3 in this series and to read “Develop a culture of reading in your home”, please click here.

To explore working with Lianne in Randburg / Sandton and other areas in Johannesburg, contact her for a consultation to discuss how she can assist you.