There’s no quick fix when it comes to improving literacy
ACCORDING to a recent study by the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit only 5 percent of Grade 5 students are able to read at the required rate of 80-90 words per minute.
The unit’s spokesman, Dr Nick Taylor, attributed these shocking results to a drop in the standard of teacher qualifications.
However, Cotlands – a non-profit children’s organisation working in the early childhood development space – believes the problem starts even before a child enters the classroom.
After years of research and more than seven decades of working with vulnerable children, Cotlands says that in order to address these literacy concerns, children need to be taught pre-writing and pre-reading skills which begin before Grade R.
Reading and writing skills are learnt even before our formal schooling career begins. The first five years of a child’s life – when they are most receptive to new information – are the most crucial to ensuring children are well equipped for school.
Children develop a connection between letters and sounds in those early years through imaginative play, rhyming and word games.
Children who are given early learning opportunities display a marked improvement in their reading and writing ability. These foundation phase skills put children who have access to early learning opportunities in a much better position to perform well academically.
Rhymes and songs may seem like parrot-fashion learning; however, children below five associate letters with sounds, which enables them to develop stronger reading and writing skills.
This foundation phase learning is vital for success at later grade level. Children who are not exposed to early learning opportunities are placed at a disadvantage compared to those who do receive structured early childhood education.
Research suggests that even in well-resourced institutions, students who have not received early learning opportunities and have not capitalised on that crucial window of opportunity stand very little chance of recovering those lost years and their failure is perpetuated throughout their academic career.
It is for this reason that Cotlands advocates quality and equal early learning opportunities.
According to the Child Gauge 2013 report there has been a significant increase in pre-school access, with 90 percent of 5-6 year-olds and 55 percent of 3-4 year-olds attending an educational institution or care facility.
However, the quality of the access could not be quantified.
In the communities Cotlands serves, both rural and urban, many children have no access to for- malised early childhood education. For those that do, their exposure tends to be inconsistent and of low quality because of a lack of human, skills and financial resources.
These children lack the foundation they need to succeed in formal schooling. This results in them starting schooling at a great disadvantage, leading to children not finishing school, which in turn leads to high levels of unemployed young adults struggling and unable to break the cycle of poverty.
This has broader societal consequences when their children are born into the same disadvantaged community, repeating the cycle.
High-quality early childhood education is imperative to ensure children reach their potential, successfully complete their schooling and become active contributors to South African society. Through the delivery of non-centre based early childhood development programmes, Cotlands is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty and reaching our country’s development goals.
Cotlands aims to assist children to enter formal schooling, equipped with the necessary foundation skills.
We sometimes assume that children in day care centres are being stimulated and prepared for school, but this is often not the case as many centres in under-resourced communities function merely as babysitting facilities. This does little for later learning. It is vital for children to have access to resources and constructive stimulation if they are to excel at school.
Through its early learning groups operating in five provinces and its mobile toy libraries, Cotlands is making significant strides in improving the quality of early learning given to vulnerable children. Cotlands does this by providing early childhood development centres and crèches with training and resources to help them improve the quality of learning. Cotlands’ early learning play session model was developed using knowledge gained from our own centre-based ECD programmes, our community care programmes, government consultation, community needs assessments and information from a detailed literature review.
Our programmes are based on best practice principles ensuring the holistic development of each of the children we serve. Non-centre based approaches such as these are a cost-effective answer to the early learning crisis facing the country.
Studies conducted by early childhood development organisation Ilifa Labantwana back this up. Their research has found that children who attend 15 or more constructive play sessions in a year showed significant improvement in cognition compared with children who attended fewer sessions.
One lesson is not enough to make a lasting impact. Children need ongoing age-appropriate stimulation during their foundation years.
This proves challenging for investors who have become accustomed to the instant and visible gratification they experience when handing out food parcels or erecting a building.
The early childhood education sector needs investors who are in it for the long haul. This brings to mind Nelson Henderson’s powerful quote: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
If we are to see improved literacy results at school we need to be serious in tackling this critical problem.
While it’s difficult to plough resources into something that will only yield results in 15 or 20 years from now, the consequences of not doing so will perpetuate poor results and continue the cycle of poverty.
● Schoeman is the chief executive of Cotlands, an early childhood development NGO.