There’s no quick fix when it comes to im­prov­ing lit­er­acy

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - JACKIE SCHOE­MAN

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.

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