Stellenbosch University
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Novel language and literacy intervention gets grant boost
Author: Sue Segar
Published: 24/07/2020

​Professor Daleen Klop and Monique Visser, lecturers in the division of Speech-Language and Hearing Therapy, are members of an international research team that recently received a grant of £265 732 (about R5.7 million) from The British Academy to develop and trial an early literacy intervention which will address the literacy achievement gap in South Africa.

The collaborative project – entitled The Effects of Story-based Activities on Early Language and Literacy in SA pre-schools will be led by esteemed British professors Jane Oakhill from the University of Sussex and will include another expert, Professor Kate Cain of Lancaster University. Both women are international experts in reading comprehension. 

In effect the project will be researching the efficacy of the approach used by a local NPO called Wordworks. Dr Shelley O'Carroll, the director of Wordworks will also be part of the research team. 

Klop said the collaboration came about when Oakhill met O'Carroll on a visit to South Africa and was so impressed with her work that she applied for a grant to do the research. 

“Wordworks has been working for the past 15 years in under-resourced communities in the Western Cape. It is a wonderful organisation," said Klop. “I have been working for my whole career in early literacy and this is one of the best approaches I have seen for promoting and improving early language and literacy skills in pre-school children." 

According to Klop, Wordworks focuses on training the caregivers of children in under-resourced communities through programmes which train them in the basics of language and literacy. It provides them with well-crafted learning material based on indigenous stories and multilingual storybooks and supports them in the implementation. 

"These are the caregivers who are not trained teachers but are working with children in community centres. 

"I really love this programme – to the extent that we have now introduced it in our academic programme. We use Wordworks to train our second year students in working with caregivers in a culturally sensitive way and how to develop resources that caregivers can use. We hope the students will implement it in their clinical training and particularly in their community service year because it's the type of approach we want in rural communities to support caregivers.

"However, without evidence, the successes are just anecdotal. This is where the researchers can play a role to provide evidence about the effectiveness of this approach to improve early language and literacy."

Klop added that intervention research is "very expensive". "Without a grant like this, we cannot do this."

"That is why it is so fortunate that we now have this grant from the British Academy."

Klop said the researchers aim to involve 30 caregivers and about 500 pre-school children in the greater Cape Town area, working in English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa communities. "So all the material and assessments must be developed for all the languages." 

Klop said the research is significant because of the importance of literacy skills. "Literacy skills are associated with positive outcomes in terms of employment, health, productivity and wealth creation, but in South Africa, a high proportion of children struggle with literacy. Our programme will target the literacy and language skills of all pre-Grade-R (4- to 5-year-old children), and is designed to meet the World Health Organisation's Sustainable Development Goal 4 by better enabling children to reach their developmental potential once they start school. 

Klop said the researchers are fortunate to have the UK research team on board for their expertise and input in the programme. 

"I can't wait to start working on this," she said.

Photo credit: Stefan Els