Change the world, Cognitive stunting, Consequences of illiteracy, Foundations for academic success, Illiteracy, Reading, Reading crisis, Reading culture

South Africa’s reading crisis is a cognitive catastrophe

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South Africa needs to build a reading culture. UN Photo/P Mugabane/Flickr

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.

To explore working with Lianne in Johannesburg (Fourways, Strathavon & Bordeaux South), contact her to find out how she can meet your needs.

Literacy, Pre-reading

Why you CAN’T skip reading to your child for 20 minutes per day.

The idea for this article comes from a poster I came across on Pinterest that blew me away. Finally, I had come across an infographic that hammers home the point that reading to your child daily is NOT negotiable. It easily outlines the accumulative effect of reading to your child from early on, and highlights how disadvantaged your child could be if they are only read to for half – or less than half – of the time of their peers.

Take a look at the poster below and you’ll see what I mean. Click here to purchase posters or to download a PDF version from the creator.

Infographic: Why you CAN’T skip reading to your child for 20 minutes per day.

In this poster you can see that by the time James goes to nursery school he has been read to for 28,800 minutes, an accumulated 20 minutes per day 5 days a week. Travis, on the other hand, has only been read to for 5760 minutes before he goes to nursery school, an accumulated 4 minutes per day 5 days a week. The difference between 28,800 and 5760 minutes is significant.

The questions then posed by April Greer who created the poster are…

  • Which child would you expect to know more?
  • Which child would you expect to have a better vocabulary?
  • Which child would you expect to be better prepared for school?
  • Which child would you expect to be better prepared to learn to read?
  • Which child would you expect to be more successful in school?
  • How do you think each child will feel about himself as a new student?

These are profound questions.

They force us to consider the fact that doing something, that some consider irrelevant, such as reading a bedtime story to your child for a mere 20 minutes a night, can have such a significant impact on…

  • their exposure to words and vocabulary development,
  • school readiness,
  • knowledge,
  • self-image
  • and their ability to achieve success with greater ease.

While some children are still busy with the struggle of learning to read, your child could move on to reading to learn.

So the next time you consider putting your child straight to bed, without a bedtime story, you may want to reconsider.

Tips for bedtime reading:

  • Make bedtime stories part of your nightly routine.
  • Try to read in the same location if possible.
  • Cuddle while you read. It helps you to bond.
  • Toddlers love reading the same books over and over, which is appropriate for their developmental level.
  • Often they will only want to read the pictures – which is part of the pre-reading strategies they need to learn.
  • They will sometimes want to go back a page or two, or even back to the beginning of the book when you’re only half way through the story. Try not to get frustrated as this is also age appropriate and is perfectly fine.
  • NEVER take storytime away as punishment or as a form of discipline. You don’t want to sabotage your own efforts to turn your child into a lifelong reader.
  • Aim to keep reading time relaxed, calming, positive and enjoyable.

Reading aloud

Some adults take to reading aloud like a duck to water. However, there are those individuals that feel as awkward as a fish out of water, especially when reading in front of other adults. Here are some pointers to help you get on.

In the video clip below Michael Rosen, an English children’s novelist, poet, and author, gives some wonderful tips on how to engage your child more while reading.

Richard at AbeBooks.com gives us fantastic tips for reading to children.

Are you up to the challenge of reading nightly bedtime stories?

To explore working with Lianne in Johannesburg (Fourways, Strathavon & Bordeaux South), contact her to find out how she can meet your needs.