The “I CAN read" literacy project, the brainchild of Stellenbosch University's Dr Zelda Barends, not only aims to improve the literacy levels of foundation-phase learners but also alerts prospective teachers to how context can and should influence their approach to teaching. Over the past four years, the project has evolved into a significant social impact initiative, shaping many young learners and student teachers.
Barends, a lecturer in Curriculum Studies and the Foundation Phase programme coordinator in the Faculty of Education, designed the after-school language development programme focusing on foundation phase learners (Grades 1 to 3) as a way to help address South Africa's huge primary-school literacy crisis. Supplementing the existing curriculum, “I CAN read" currently comprises 77 pre-service teachers who offer language support to approximately 360 learners from three schools in the greater Stellenbosch area. Lessons consist of phonics and word-building to eventually elevate learners reading comprehension.
At the same time, the programme also offers student teachers a platform to become culturally responsive teachers. Students are expected to adapt their teaching methods according to the diverse contexts and needs in the classroom. “Through the project, students receive extensive exposure to many different contexts, and get to experience how different learners learn and what influences their learning ability," says Barends.
Matie students training to become Afrikaans Home Language foundation phase teachers, teach the little ones twice a week for 11 weeks in the first semester of their fourth-year BEd studies. And the feedback is overwhelmingly positive.
Emma Smit, currently enrolled for her MEd degree, says the project changed her entire approach to teaching. “I became aware of the importance of forming social-emotional connections with my learners. Getting to know learners, their families and home situations now form part of my daily teaching practice. And I believe that teachers can only be successful if there is a sense of community that extends beyond the four walls of the classroom."
Jacolette du Plessis, another alumna who took part in “I CAN read" in her final year of study, says it was challenging but worth it. “We learned many valuable teaching techniques and realised that each learner is unique, with his or her own story. Many learners face daily challenges, from unreliable bus transport to food shortages, no parents at home, bullying, alcohol, drugs, abuse, violence, and the list goes on," says Du Plessis. “Most importantly, I now look differently at the resources I select and create for my classroom. I find joy in picking texts that reflect my learners, their backgrounds and personal experiences."
Barends believes the project is slowly but surely helping to improve the children's literacy levels. Feedback points to some improvement in participating learners' schoolwork, especially their ability to write descriptive sentences. The children also appear to enjoy reading.
“People need to be able to read to be fully functional in society. By improving learners' reading skills, they can gain access to better education, which has a sustainable impact on society," says Barends. “In South Africa, children's early literacy development is still limited, possibly due to language disparities and other social issues. Often, people also underestimate what reading entails. The reading action depends on so many processes that need to be developed early in a child's life. Once the child is older, it becomes virtually impossible to do."
She hopes the project will expand further, and that partnering with the Department of Basic Education will allow them access to more schools.