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We must help learners find the magical power of reading
Author: Zelda Barends
Published: 25/04/2022

​World Book and Copyright Day was celebrated on Saturday 23 April. In an opinion piece for Cape Times, Dr Zelda Barends from the Department of Curriculum Studies writes that we should raise awareness about the benefits of reading because this will help learners to discover the magical power and value of books and inspire them to read more.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Zelda Barends* 

World Book and Copyright Day, a UNESCO initiative, is celebrated annually on 23 April to promote the enjoyment of books and reading, and to recognise the magical power of books. Unfortunately, this is something that many South African learners may not have the privilege of enjoying. This may be partially due to the low levels of literacy amongst our learners as well as the lack of access to books and reading material at an early age.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Incredible work is being done to alleviate these issues. Researchers, activists, teachers, government officials and NGO's have devoted hours of hard work to develop accessible pathways for learners to obtain access to books and quality programmes focused on increasing their reading levels. Vested partners are working hard to understand and address the literacy crisis so that relevant sectors can develop appropriate interventions to change the narrative and give our learners a fighting chance.

In recognising the concerted efforts that are being made to improve our learners' reading levels, we could also help parents, caregivers and practitioners to cement certain skills to foster their learners' ability to learn to read effectively. In order to offer such support, it is important to understand the foundation of learning to read.

It is imperative that learners learn about books and words especially during the early learning stages. In fact, to become a skilled reader, a learner must learn how the words he/she hears, and users in their spoken language are represented by the printed text they are reading. Evidently, a learner should become aware that words are made up of individual sounds. The scientific term for this is phonemic awareness.

Even before one starts to focus on developing learners' phonemic awareness, one should help them to become familiar with a reading model.  In their early years, learners learn about reading by watching skilled readers read or model reading behaviours. They learn how to hold a book and become familiar with the details of the front cover, title, author, pictures, and words, also known as the concepts of print. The concept of print is taught and developed when a reading model points out these key features of books and texts while reading aloud. This knowledge is integral for reading and learners will begin to imitate this knowledge when working with texts themselves which is a great springboard for reading.

Role of parents, caregivers and practitioners

In the early learning phase, learners may appear to read words, but they do so by interpreting the visual text as opposed to connecting spoken letters to sounds. This is considered a crucial activity to developing certain reading skills. This is also something that happens naturally when there is a good reading model.

However, some of our learners do not have the luxury of such models, placing them at a disadvantage already. To foster this ability, parents, caregivers and practitioners could teach learners how to handle books by making them notice the details of the front cover, the title, the author and pictures.

Increasing learners' knowledge of the alphabet is also crucial. However, this knowledge should not stop at only being able to identify and recite the 26 letters, but should be expanded to letter-sound associations, which we refer to as phonics. In most cases, learners are able to sing the alphabet song very early in their lives, but this should be extended to include a growing level of knowledge about sound-letter correspondence and letter-sound correspondence. If this is in place, learners should be able to group spoken sounds together to form words which, in scientific terms, is the development of phonological skills.

So, how can parents, caregivers and practitioners do this?

Reading aloud is a great activity where knowledge of the concepts of print is developed. While reading aloud, parents, caregivers and practitioners should talk to learners about the text they are reading and demonstrate to them the correspondence between spoken and written words. In instances where reading resources are limited, they should talk to the children about their own writing and drawings. They can, for example, add words to their drawing and then indicate the correspondence. Building learner background knowledge is also imperative. This can be expanded through the conversations about texts, which will also help to develop the learner's vocabulary.

Teaching the alphabet is also fundamental. However, teaching the names of letters should not be at the expense of sounds associated with the letter. When parents, caregivers and practitioners teach learners the alphabet, they should also afford them the opportunity to write the letter and say the sound, and to find pictures of items that start and end with a particular sound.

Learners should be allowed to experiment with sounds, to play with words and to create nonsense words as they learn new sounds. This enables their awareness of sounds in words and enhances their phonological awareness.

As we raise awareness about the benefits of reading books, let us also try to help each and every parent, caregiver and practitioner who is tirelessly trying to support our country's learners on their reading trajectory. In doing so, we may just help learners to discover the magical power and value of books and inspire them to read more.

*Dr Zelda Barends is a lecturer and Foundation Phase Programme Coordinator in the Department of Curriculum Studies at Stellenbosch University.