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

Why it’s important to have regular family dinners.

A young boy is ignored at the family dinner table by his parents as everyone is engrossed in multiple electronic device.

Experienced teachers share things parents should do to set their kids up for success – Part 1 of 10

What I’ve noticed over the years is that the children who do well academically tend to have a strong family culture of regular family dinners. These children report having robust discussions about the days events, current affairs and other relevant topics. As a result these children often have strong verbal skills and a good dose of confidence, mainly because they get a lot of practice. Their strong verbal skills generally translate into stronger writing skills. This ultimately means that they cope fairly well at school.

As teachers we get to hear about your family’s daily life during classroom discussions. It may surprise you to know that we hear about the arguments, the money woes, which parent farts in the bath like Shrek, that crockery was thrown last night and who received a speeding fine and cursed at the cop.

Are you really listening to you kids?

Your children also tell us that you are completely inseparable from your phones and tablets and that you often don’t make eye contact when they try to communicate with you. They mutter that they are tired of you murmuring “Uh huh” “Mmm” and “I’m listening – carry on” when you are busy on your phone and really aren’t listening at all.

I hear the resentment in their voices. We, as teachers, hear them complain to their friends about the fact that both their parents work at the dinner table, taking business calls, because they are so busy setting up a new company. We know which families eat separately because of busy schedules or which families religiously eat dinner in front of the TV. As teachers we are privy to way too much information.

Dinner time and self-worth

I want to remind you that despite how busy your lives are and how commendably hard you are working to provide for your family, you must remember that children crave talking about their day with their parents. YOU are the significant adults in their lives and YOU matter most.

Dinner time is the perfect platform to feed their minds and nurture their souls through conversation. Conversation helps them to blow off steam and feel important. It helps to build their vocabulary and practice their newly acquired communication skills. It encourages them to think for themselves, find the words to express their thoughts and to practice social etiquette. All of this is invaluable.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of family dinners for us as adults either. We need them and benefit from them as much as our children do.

Powerful messages

By regularly setting aside time for family dinners, you are sending a very powerful message – “I value you. I value the time I spend with you. I genuinely want to know how your day went. What you experienced and learnt today is something that this family values. I value what you think and what you want to say. You do not have to ASK for time to speak to us, your family. We want to listen.”.

Advice for Parents:

  • At dinner time put away all electronic devices, and turn off the TV. Remove all distractions.
  • Your children have a life away from home that they are dying to share with you – new experiences, successes, failures, worries and concerns, new knowledge & skills, new friendships, friendship problems or just the everyday things that they have discovered and experienced out in the world.
  • They share the attention of their teachers with a large group of children for several hours a day. Therefore, at home they need your undivided attention for at least a portion of the evening. Give it to them before they go looking for someone else who can give them the attention they need.

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.