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INFOTECH: Early Mother Tongue Reading Key to Maths and Science Success


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The ability to read well in one’s home language is arguably the most important skill that children can learn in the Foundation Phase, in order to improve overall performance in Maths and Science.

That’s the view of Gail Campbell, CEO of independent grant-making management agency, Zenex Foundation.

The Zenex Foundation is an independent Trust established in 1995 to undertake the delivery of programmes and projects in Mathematics, Science and Language education in South Africa. The aim of the Zenex Foundation is to improve the quality of learning and teaching, and to positively contribute to the education sector through research and programmatic contributions.

To date, the Foundation, has invested more than R671m and delivered programmes and projects in Mathematics, Science and language education in South Africa over the past 20 years.

Campbell’s views come as South Africa’s National Literacy Month draws to a close and as the results of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report for 2016-2017 were released yesterday (28 Sept 2016). The results placed South Africa in last position at 138th out of 138 countries in terms of the quality of the nation’s Maths and Science education. Last year, South Africa was ranked 138 out of 140 countries while two years ago it held the last position again in the same report.

“We are disappointed to see that perceptions about the quality of South Africa’s Maths and Science education remains so dire, placing us at the bottom of the competitiveness list for 2016-2017,” says Campbell. “However, it must be noted that the final GCI score in the WEF Report comprises 12 measures which are influenced by several factors including but not exclusively education.”

In recognition of the fact that education is key to economic growth and development and that the education system is performing poorly, the Department of Basic Education has initiated several programmes to improve Maths and Science and literacy performance. Recent studies suggest that these efforts are beginning to bear fruits.

Evidence from the SACMEQ (The Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) show that South Africa is on the road to recovery, even though the gains are small. It must be noted that the best gains are made at the lowest levels of the schooling system and that it will take time for the effects to be felt in the later phases of schooling, where the WEF Report places the majority of its focus.

It is important to note, however, that this year’s WEF Global Competitiveness report reveals a small, but vital improvement in the education rankings in this year’s survey, and that is in the quality of the education system.

According to the survey, South Africa improved by five places in the quality of the education system. Moreover, the primary school enrolment is also now passing 97 percent.

Campbell emphasised that the first step to turning this performance around is to work hard at ensuring early learning and reading in a child’s home language takes place countrywide, to ensure long-term benefits.

“South African and global educational research supports the view that early literacy is the foundation for all future learning,” says Campbell. “Good reading skills translate into improved performance in Maths and Science, as well as other subjects, in later grades.

“A growing body of evidence now goes further to suggest that learning to read in one’s home language is the best platform upon which to build learning and that the calibre of reading required to succeed academically has to be taught at school in the Foundation Phase.”

Campbell adds that a more structured reading programme in the classroom – in the child’s home language – is an important area of educational need right now.

“If learners are taught to read effectively through structured and systematic instruction, the young learner can make better progress from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn and as such can learn any subject,” says Campbell.

“Teaching young children to read effectively, is a specialised skill, and not all teacher training programmes in South Africa place enough emphasis on equipping teachers to teach reading in a structured and systematic way. As a result, the vast majority of the country’s children cannot read for meaning by the end of Grade 4,” continues Campbell.

While there is increasing consensus on the importance of building home language reading skills, two of the major challenges to improving Foundation Phase home language literacy in South Africa are a shortage of quality African-language reading materials; and the ability of all educators to teach reading skills effectively.

To address these challenges, the Zenex Foundation is focusing on both teacher development and resource development as the two key levers to ensure that reading is well taught in South Africa’s classrooms.

The Foundation is working with the Department of Basic Education, academics and other education specialists to introduce teacher development programmes and home-language reading resources in a number of projects across South Africa during 2016 and into the 2017 year.

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