Who Is Who In Literacy – Meet Wordworks
29 March, 2017
In January we launched a new blog series Who is Who In Literacy to highlight some of South Africa’s leading organisations that promote reading and literacy among children.
In the second instalment of our Who Is Who In Literacy series we feature Wordworks, an organisation that supports early language and literacy development among children from birth to 8 years. Wordworks provides training, resourcing and mentorship through its four early language and literacy programmes, and works with anyone that plays a role in the life of a child, from parents to teachers and community members.
We spoke with Wordworks Director Shelley O’Carroll to find out more about the work they do, and about her perspective on the literacy landscape in South Africa.
South Africa faces major challenges when it comes to literacy. What are some of the hurdles that you encounter working in under-resourced areas, specifically in early literacy development?
One of the most fundamental obstacles we encounter is the limited awareness of the importance of supporting early language and literacy. This is largely due to the misconception that learning to read and write starts when a child begins school. As a result, there is not enough support for building language and literacy in families, preschools and community settings.
Parents have a vital role to play in supporting their children’s development as readers and writers. However, in many communities in South Africa, parents are inclined to minimise their role, relinquishing this instead to school as the proper place for learning. Parents often feel that their own educational background does not ‘qualify’ them to support their children and perhaps most importantly, many homes in under-resourced communities often lack resources that might enable parents to engage in language and literacy-related activities.
ECD practitioners are often under-qualified and underpaid, and their role in supporting early language and literacy learning is undervalued. Many Grade R teachers do not have access to up-to-date knowledge, teaching methods or resources to teach early language and emergent literacy effectively. In-service training opportunities are limited and there is little recognition of the importance of Grade R for literacy development.
Another hurdle we encounter is that schools in historically disadvantaged communities frequently struggle with large class sizes and limited access to specialised remedial services. There is very little or no support for children who enter the school system without adequate early learning opportunities or proficiency in the medium of instruction of the school.
We find that many children are at risk right from the early stages of their schooling, having missed out on vital learning opportunities in their early years. They are likely to fall further and further behind the expectations of the school system, and their difficulties are compounded when the medium of instruction at school is not their mother tongue.
How does Wordworks address these hurdles?
Support for parents and caregivers
Two thirds of a child’s waking hours in their first eight years are spent with parents or caregivers. This is why our programmes acknowledge the important role of parents and caregivers in supporting early learning. We show parents and caregivers practical ways that they can build vitally important language and literacy foundations through everyday activities. We also advocate for making books and resources more accessible to families, and for making sure that every clinic, library, preschool and school is able to offer courses for parents about how to support their children’s learning at home.
In-service training for Grade R teachers
We have developed an in-service teacher training programme and resources for Grade R teachers that focus specifically on strengthening the teaching of language and literacy. By training trainers who already work with Grade R teachers, we believe that Grade R teachers will be better equipped to fulfil their vitally important role in supporting early language and literacy, and to lay critically important foundations for children from under-resourced contexts.
Community-based tutoring programmes
With so many children entering the school system unprepared for the demands of the curriculum, we believe that there is a need to draw on community members to work with children who are at risk of difficulties with reading and writing. We have developed an early literacy intervention that can be delivered by untrained teachers to support children from Grade R to Grade 2.
Are South Africa’s teacher training colleges failing to provide necessary literacy training? If so, what needs to change?
Grade R is still new in the formal education system and the professional status and qualifications of Grade R teachers vary. More recently, some higher education institutions have introduced a dedicated Grade R teaching qualification, but historically, most Grade R teachers received their qualifications through ECD NGO’s or FET Colleges. Language and early literacy learning was not covered in depth in most ECD qualifications, and a lack of relevant practical teaching opportunities meant that student teachers seldom observed good classroom practice.
In both pre- and in-service teacher training, there seems to be a need for more emphasis on the importance of building language-rich environments for children and on supporting effective classroom interaction. Teachers need more opportunities to observe good teaching practice, and need access to opportunities to reflect on their practice in supportive learning environments.
You recently highlighted the need for more research that specifically looks at the situation and opportunities for increasing the impact on children’s literacy levels prior to entering Grade R. What do you feel needs to be the focus of the research at this age?
Over the past four years, important literacy research carried out in South Africa has focused on children in Grades 1 to 3. However, to find solutions to our literacy problems, we must start looking for the roots of literacy in the years from birth to five. We need a much better understanding of the literacy crisis that already exists as children enter school, and we need locally developed tools to assess young children’s early language and literacy in this early phase.
We also need research on how to effectively work with parents and caregivers to build their knowledge about how young children learn, and convince them to prioritise the kinds of experiences that promote early language and literacy.
We need small scale studies that show evidence of impact and at the same time we need to look at how existing systems and services can be leveraged to provide access to resources and knowledge about early language and literacy learning at scale.
There needs to be research on what language learning opportunities exist for young children in under-resourced communities in both home and preschool settings. This research can inform the development of pre-and in-service teacher training courses to equip ECD and Grade R teachers to build language-rich environments that support interaction and language learning.
How can other organisations, whether schools or literacy NGOs, support and be supported by Wordworks’ efforts?
We support schools and other organisations to build early literacy programmes into their broader work, and invite them to apply to attend training in one of our programmes.
We support a network of schools and organisations that have attended our training (WordNetworks). WordNetworks provides schools and organisations with ongoing guidance and input, and facilitates access to resources and opportunities.
More information about our programmes can be found on our website (www.wordworks.org.za). Schools and literacy NGO’s can also download some of the free resources on our website for use in their day-to-day work.
Registered Non-Profit 063-979 PBO 930027054 UK Charity Reg No. 1109567