South Africa: Multilingualism ‘ma sks deficient teaching of reading’

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jun 27 18:55:44 UTC 2007

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Wednesday, 27 June 2007

  Posted to the web on: 26 June 2007
Multilingualism 'masks deficient teaching of reading'
Sue Blaine

Education Correspondent

THE multilingual nature of South African society is used as an easy excuse
for the fact that many primary school pupils have reading problems but it is
masking the fact that reading skills are often poorly taught, according to a
Pretoria academic.

"In SA, reading problems tend to be masked by language proficiency issues …
although English is used as a main language of teaching in South African
schools, poor literacy results cannot be solely attributed to
second-language instruction as teachers and learners are struggling with
literacy in the African languages as well as English," says Dr Sarah Howie,
director of Pretoria University's Centre for Evaluation and Assessment.

This is the depressing picture emerging from SA's participation last year in
the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), conducted by
the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement
(IEA) in almost 40 countries worldwide.

The IEA also conducts the Trends in International Maths and Science (Timss)
study, which has shown South African pupils to be wanting in these areas.

South African researchers conducting the Pirls tests surveyed 16288 Grade 4
pupils and their teachers in 431 schools across the nine provinces and in
all 11 official languages.

They also voluntarily assessed a sample of Grade 5 pupils, and tested all
the pupils' proficiency in their own language and the language in which they
are taught, most commonly English.

"We don't have (academically) publishable evidence yet … but from what we've
seen the (pupils) do no better in their own language (than they do in
English), and that's rather depressing," says Howie.

The accumulated data have to be "weighted" and properly assessed, and the
first official reports from the international tests are expected to be made
public in November, but Howie hopes to release some SA-specific data before

"It's reasonably well known that reading skills are poor in SA, but it's the
quality of the (Pirls) data that's important.

"It will be that much more sound and there is a breakdown per language group
for the first time. Also, we will be able to compare ourselves
internationally," she says.

The tentative conclusion from what has already come out of the Pirls tests
is that Education Minister Naledi Pandor's insistence that pupils be taught
in their own language for the first three years of school is a step in the
right direction, but that pupils need to be taught in their mother tongue
for a longer period.

This notion is not surprising to Prof Zubeida Desai, acting dean of
education at the University of the Western Cape, who has long said that
children should be taught in their mother tongue for the first six years of
formal education.

Desai says that children are taught basic literacy and numeracy concepts in
the first three years, and a wider subject range is introduced in grade
four, which is also when most children are expected to switch to learning in

"If they were taught in their mother tongue until the end of the
intermediate phase (grades 4 to 6), they would have a firmer foundation in
these new subjects. If this foundation is not there you are stymied for
life," she says.

Although reading ability alone cannot guarantee academic success, it is
"highly likely" that a lack of reading ability is a key barrier to academic
achievement, says Howie.

Of the other factors affecting pupils' academic performance, socioeconomic
status, teaching method and parental involvement are probably the most
important, Howie says.

It is generally acknowledged that many of SA's 360000 teachers have been
poorly educated themselves, meaning their ability to teach their charges
anything is severely compromised.

"Reading skills are not well taught. Teachers are insufficiently trained,
and they don't have good material that is relevant and motivates the kids to
read," says Cynthia Hugo, director of READ, a nongovernmental organisation
which has pioneered, tested and implemented reading, writing and language
development programmes for schools.

"What makes it worse is that by grade four teachers think you don't have to
teach reading any more. That's a problem because you have to teach reading
skills throughout at least primary school — there are different reading
skills," says Hugo.

Despite the government's closure of the teacher training colleges in the
early 1990s and their amalgamation with the universities — an attempt to
strengthen the education of teachers — it appears teachers are still not
taught properly how to teach reading.

Hugo advocates a "balanced method" of teaching which combines various
methods for teaching reading, from assimilating basic sounds (phonics) to
reading comprehension, but says if teachers are being taught this, it is not
always evident.

"I don't know what they are taught. It's not evident in most classrooms.
Teachers want help and they want materials (with which to teach)," she says.

Howie's research backs this up. In a case study on one unnamed institution
that educates teachers, 50% of the students said they did not believe they
had been adequately prepared to teach reading and students asked for
step-by-step guidelines on how to teach reading.

Dr Ellen Lenyai, of the University of SA's education department, says that
the effect of multilingualism of the type found in South African classrooms
has not been properly addressed by SA's educational institutions.

Teachers have to contend with classrooms in which many of the children come
from homes where each parent speaks a different language, and these
languages are in turn influenced by foreign languages which are contributing
to township argot.

Also, some teach in informal settlements where a large percentage of the
class may not speak South African languages.

Added to this, many students learning to be teachers have this kind of
background themselves and have a "shaky" foundation in the language in which
they have to learn, English.

Most textbooks are written in English and use English examples to illustrate

"They have to translate these theories into their own languages," Lenyai

"Take phonetics — you know how words are broken up in English. Now you take
a word in seSotho, 'tshware', which is 'to hold'. The students struggle to
break it up. Is it tsh/wa/re or tshw/a/re?"

SA also has a weak reading culture, clearly depicted in the Centre for
Evaluation and Assessment's finding that 38% of South African teachers did
not read regularly for their own pleasure and 56% had no library or reading
corner in their classroom.

The education department has put 100 books into almost every classroom in
SA, but they are not properly used, says Hugo.
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