Are we teaching reading wrong?

Jul 26, 2015 | News media and blogs

by Grethe Koen

With our schools buckling under the weight of too many children and too few resources, Grethe Koen looks into the South African civil organisations teaching our kids how to read.

It received precious little mention in our media, but local organisation Project for the Study of Alternative Education in SA (Praesa) recently scooped one of Sweden’s most illustrious literature prizes.

The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, named after celebrated Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren, honours authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and reading promoters, and comes with a hefty R7.19 million in prize money. It is an illustrious achievement and something South Africa can be really proud of.

In Stockholm, I met up with Praesa’s director, Carole Bloch, and some of her team members a day before the prize-giving, and I learnt a bit about Praesa’s approach to teaching kids how to read.

Traditionally, teachers start by teaching children their ABC, followed by phonetics – where kids sound out words. While this is an important part of learning to read, Bloch believes it is not enough, and suggests that more has to be done.

“How children learn to read and write is a contested idea,” she says. “What we [Praesa] have learnt is that children learn through taking part in a social experience – by being immersed in oral language.”

This means having access to an environment where they are inspired and motivated to read, and where reading is seen as enjoyable. You cannot separate the theory of reading (the teaching of phonetics done at schools) with the actual practice, immersion and enjoyment of it.

Only when children engage in something meaningful and rewarding does it spark the urge to want to read by themselves.

Right now, those conditions do not exist for most of South Africa’s underprivileged children. They neither have homes filled with books, especially not books in their mother tongue, nor do they have parents who read to them.

Bloch also believes that the way people use reading and writing depends on cultural beliefs.

“In general in South Africa, African languages only came to be written down for the purposes of bibles and church. Reading and writing was seen as something necessary for school and to get a job, and not as something enjoyable,” she says. “Of course, there was also no development of African children’s literature, which made it ever harder to foster a culture where parents read stories to their kids.”

What ends up happening is that reading is seen as an alienating activity that takes place in the formal school environment, and usually in a language that is not the child’s mother tongue. This immediately formalises the activity, and makes reading something that occurs separately from an everyday routine.

One of Praesa’s projects, called Nal’ibali (IsiXhosa for “Here’s a story”), is a campaign that encourages reading for enjoyment. The project has more than 500 volunteer-run reading clubs across South Africa, where children get used to writing by taking part in “story play”.

They are read to and then encouraged to narrate their own stories to adult scribes. This cycle of reading and writing means that kids become storytellers as well as authors.

Nal’ibali has teamed up with Times Media Group, which produces a biweekly bilingual supplement of allocated reading that can be used by volunteers in their specific groups. These small inserts contain stories, literacy activities and reading club tips to support club heads.

On top of this, Nal’ibali’s website has stories in all of South Africa’s languages that can be printed out, as well as audio stories to listen to on your computer.

With our schools buckling under the weight of too many children and too few resources, civil organisations like Praesa are filling a vital gap and teaching our children one of the most critical life skills required to become fully fledged thinkers.

City Press