Bridging South Africa’s Word Gap
9 December, 2016
Every week, our volunteer Reading Helpers and Literacy Tutors passionately and patiently sit one-on-one with learners to help them learn to read. By the time children start our programme, they’ve already been identified as struggling readers. They are between grades 2 and 4, and have fallen dramatically behind in learning how to read. Learning to read is crucial in the foundation phase because, once they leave Grade 4, children have to read to learn. However, in packed classrooms with little individual attention from a teacher, struggling readers are left behind while the school curriculum steams ahead.
Why do some kids battle to learn to read and others don’t? There are many possible causes, one being a low level of exposure to literacy experiences such as reading, talking and singing.
Learning to read starts long before a child enters primary school. In fact, starting from birth, children are exposed (some more than others) to foundational elements of literacy. They hear their parents or caregivers talk, baby babble becomes words, and more and more words begin to have meaning. Word by word, the groundwork of literacy is being laid. These experiences begin to build a foundation that will help children master literacy concepts in preschool and primary school.
An important aspect of these formative literacy experiences is vocabulary. A child’s exposure to a variety of words is deemed to be so vital in early childhood development that researchers claim it has a considerable impact on a child’s school career later on in life.
A family’s financial status is believed to determine a child’s exposure to literacy experiences, and as a result a huge contributing factor to how many words a child hears in their formative years. According to a study conducted by child psychologists at the University of Kansas in 1995, economic circumstances have a profound impact on the vocabulary of a child. The study claims that children from families on welfare hear 13 million words by the age of 4, compared to the 45 million words children hear in families of working professionals. This disparity is dubbed the “word gap”.
In South Africa, pervasive inequality, poverty and rife unemployment have left many families dependent on the Government to survive. Specifically, 45.5% of South Africa’s population live in households that receive at least one social grant. In light of the Kansas study and its link between growing up in a family on welfare and hearing fewer words, South Africa is very likely experiencing a word gap.
The Word Gap in South Africa
Educators, academics and literacy organisations across South Africa have raised concerns that children aren’t at the literacy level they should be when starting school. Wordworks, a South African NGO that supports early language and literacy learning among historically disadvantaged communities, has seen the low levels of literacy among young children from poor families first hand. Shelley O’Carroll, Director of Wordworks, expanded on her experience of the word gap, recording that “in our work we have found that children’s language is significantly less well developed than it should be when they start school, and that this impacts on their ability to make sense of the school environment, follow classroom activities and understand stories that are told or read to them. This is not only a second language issue, but seems to reflect limited language learning opportunities.”
Although exposure to more words seems like an achievable objective that could help remedy South Africa’s literacy crisis, closing the word gap is not so simple (a common critique of the 1995 Kansas study, which you can read more about here). Rather, there is a complex web of factors that influence how many words a child hears, as well as their access and exposure to language learning opportunities.
First and foremost, there are numerous economic factors. Parents and caregivers of low-income families are typically unable to spend as much time with their children, compared to wealthier families. This is often due to working conditions, such as having to work night shifts and weekends, with little time off and long working hours.
Children of poorer families are also impacted by available resources. “We know that books are scarce in many homes, and parents and caregivers don’t always see the value and importance of telling stories. Children therefore miss out on hearing the rich language of stories”, Shelley O’Carroll explained.
Resource constraints also extend outside of the home. Children of poorer families are unlikely to have access to well-resourced early childhood development programmes, or pre-schools and creches that have adequately trained staff and available literacy tools that aid in development.
Cultural factors also determine a child’s exposure to words. Shelley O’Carroll expanded, “There tends to be a traditional view that children should be seen and not heard, which influences how much adults engage with children, and therefore how many words they hear.”
Lastly, and possibly the most influential of all, simply being unaware of the value and importance of exposing a child to language from birth is a massive contributor to the word gap. “Feedback from parents and caregivers suggests that they often don’t realise the importance of talking with and to children, and that children asking and answering questions is discouraged in some homes and communities”, Shelley O’Carroll explained.
So, moving forward, how do we begin to close the word gap and connect children to language learning opportunities?
Shelley O’Carroll suggests starting with a deeper look at the use of language in South Africa. “We believe that it is essential that we gain a better understanding of language usage and interaction in homes and preschool settings in South Africa. It seems likely that we might find similar patterns to those in the US studies, but we have a great deal to learn by also focusing on the particular strengths of families and communities in our context so that we are able to build on existing parenting practices to support language rich early learning environments.”
Have you experienced the word gap? What are ways that we can work to close it? We would love to hear your thoughts. Leave us a comment below.
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