The “I CAN read" literacy project not only aims to improve the literacy levels of foundation-phase learners, but also to alert prospective teachers to how context can and should influence their approach to teaching.
This Social Impact project is the brainchild of Dr Zelda Barends, a lecturer in Curriculum Studies and the programme coordinator of the Foundation Phase in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University (SU).
“We all know what the statistics are – that 78% of our learners can't read with comprehension. South Africa is experiencing a huge literacy crisis. My research and work with teacher education also indicated to me that teachers' efforts are sometimes in vain because they do not understand the context in which they are working."
Barends designed an after-school language development programme that focuses on foundation-phase learners (grades 1 to 3) at a school in the Stellenbosch area. This programme supplements the existing curriculum.
A total of 75 Education students in their fourth year offered language support to 330 learners at the school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for 11 weeks in the first semester. The lessons consisted of phonics and word-building activities and were concluded with storybook readings to develop the learners' vocabulary and expand their knowledge.
At the end of the 11 weeks each learner wrote his or her own story about a social issue they are confronted with in their own life. These stories and illustrations were then compiled into books for each grade and handed to each learner in the relevant grade.
“These books give them a sense of agency. They now see they can read and they can write. The 'I CAN read' project is a support project, but it also empowers learners and gives them self-confidence," explains Barends.
“The feedback from the teachers was also precious. They said the children now write descriptive sentences."
The Education students were divided into pairs and had to work together on the lesson plans, with emphasis on the reaction of learners during the lessons and discussions on how it should influence their teaching strategies.
“It was important for me to create learning opportunities where students work in contexts that are unfamiliar to them, so that they can become aware of how their own choices and their own opinions and their own world views influence their teaching."
Barends' dream is for SU to produce teachers that can teach efficiently in different contexts (context-responsive teaching), while addressing the needs that exist in schools. At the end of the semester the students had to complete a comprehensive assignment about their experience.
“It is hard work to be a teacher – you are challenged on all levels. You cannot be prejudiced and a 'one size fits all' approach does not benefit anybody. We need to acknowledge who our learners are and where they come from."
According to Barends this project is a good example of how the different responsibilities of academics (research, teaching and learning, and social impact) can be implemented.
“I used what research said, applied it in my teaching and learning, and expanded it into a Social Impact project with the help of my students."
It is also an example of reciprocity in Social Impact projects, where not only the community benefits from the process, but also the University.
“The learners and the students all developed new knowledge," said Barends.
She hopes to expand the project to at least one more school next year.