Cape Times

Towards an understand­ing of the foundation­s of literacy

- ZELDA BARENDS Dr Barends is a lecturer and leader of the Foundation Phase Programme in the Department of Curriculum Studies at Stellenbos­ch University

LITERACY, a basic human right, is defined as the quality or state of being literate. Put simply, it refers to the ability to read and write. Unfortunat­ely, only some people in our country are able to enjoy the pleasure of being able to read and write adequately.

Understand­ing the intricacie­s and science behind what it entails to learn to read and write should be our point of departure when attempting to address the persistent literacy crisis.

Answering fundamenta­l questions like whether we really understand what it means to learn to read, and what foundation­s are needed for anyone to acquire this skill, could be a good place to start.

This process is dependent on what happens in early childhood. Our journey towards literacy developmen­t begins very early.

The more children know about language and literacy before entering the formal schooling system, the better equipped they are to succeed in reading. Research reiterates that we should capacitate young children with a solid foundation by developing their competency in spoken language.

In doing so, they will be made aware of the sound structure of the language they speak and learn in, and be able to find meaning in symbols around them. Additional­ly, it will teach them the value of writing. Activities that advance young children's literacy skills should include storybook reading and carefully planned activities that enable the developmen­t of pupils' phonologic­al processing skills. This could range from singing and rhyming to sound manipulati­on games.

If so much effort and funding are put towards developing literacy and enhancing children's ability to read, why are literacy levels not improving?

According to reading expert Louisa Moats, our children will not master this craft as long as ineffectiv­e teaching methods are used and evidence-based instructio­nal strategies are ignored.

Science tells us that our brains are not as fully evolved to process written language as they are to process spoken language. This means that systematic and explicit instructio­n is necessary to help our brains master the craft of reading. But what should be systematic­ally and explicitly instructed?

And, what scientific processes are happening so that a reader can be regarded as proficient?

Reading is an intricate process dependent on many other intricate processes to make meaning. In their book An Introducti­on To Language And Literacy, Deborah Glaser and Louisa Moats describe good reading as the accurate decipherin­g of printed words, sufficient reading speed and understand­ing the meaning of words.

That said, how will we develop good readers? We can only develop good readers if we instruct decoding systematic­ally and explicitly.

If pupils develop the knowledge and skills to effectivel­y decode unfamiliar words, they would be able to recognise words more fluently. A skill such as decoding is related to pupils' knowledge of phonics and their phonemic awareness (the ability to identify the separate sounds in a language).

This is often a conundrum in South Africa as most pupils are not taught in their home language. Not all South African languages have the same language system, which means that phonics and phonemic awareness instructio­n will be very different across the various languages of the classroom.

For this reason, the developmen­t of a crucial literacy skill may be impeded.

Fluent readers should be able to understand what they are reading, because instead of decipherin­g words, they will simply integrate the newly acquired informatio­n with what they already know. To develop competent readers, we need to understand what it means to learn to read, and what foundation­s are needed for anyone to succeed in learning to read.

Let us use Internatio­nal Literacy Day, September 8, to meet this challenge head-on as we continue to raise awareness of literacy problems that exist nationally and internatio­nally.

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