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"Multilingualism 'masks deficient teaching of reading'" (South Africa)

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  • Don Osborn
    The following item from the South African paper, Business Day, was seen on lgpolicy-list . Don Posted to the web on: 26 June 2007 Multilingualism masks
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 28, 2007
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      The following item from the South African paper, Business Day, was seen on
      lgpolicy-list . Don

      Posted to the web on: 26 June 2007
      Multilingualism 'masks deficient teaching of reading'
      Sue Blaine
      Education Correspondent

      THE multilingual nature of South African society is used as an easy excuse
      for the fact that many primary school pupils have reading problems but it is
      masking the fact that reading skills are often poorly taught, according to a
      Pretoria academic.

      "In SA, reading problems tend to be masked by language proficiency issues
      ... although English is used as a main language of teaching in South African
      schools, poor literacy results cannot be solely attributed to
      second-language instruction as teachers and learners are struggling with
      literacy in the African languages as well as English," says Dr Sarah Howie,
      director of Pretoria University's Centre for Evaluation and Assessment.

      This is the depressing picture emerging from SA's participation last year in
      the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), conducted by
      the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement
      (IEA) in almost 40 countries worldwide.

      The IEA also conducts the Trends in International Maths and Science (Timss)
      study, which has shown South African pupils to be wanting in these areas.

      South African researchers conducting the Pirls tests surveyed 16288 Grade 4
      pupils and their teachers in 431 schools across the nine provinces and in
      all 11 official languages.

      They also voluntarily assessed a sample of Grade 5 pupils, and tested all
      the pupils' proficiency in their own language and the language in which they
      are taught, most commonly English.

      "We don't have (academically) publishable evidence yet ... but from what
      we've seen the (pupils) do no better in their own language (than they do in
      English), and that's rather depressing," says Howie.

      The accumulated data have to be "weighted" and properly assessed, and the
      first official reports from the international tests are expected to be made
      public in November, but Howie hopes to release some SA-specific data before

      "It's reasonably well known that reading skills are poor in SA, but it's the
      quality of the (Pirls) data that's important.

      "It will be that much more sound and there is a breakdown per language group
      for the first time. Also, we will be able to compare ourselves
      internationally," she says.

      The tentative conclusion from what has already come out of the Pirls tests
      is that Education Minister Naledi Pandor's insistence that pupils be taught
      in their own language for the first three years of school is a step in the
      right direction, but that pupils need to be taught in their mother tongue
      for a longer period.

      This notion is not surprising to Prof Zubeida Desai, acting dean of
      education at the University of the Western Cape, who has long said that
      children should be taught in their mother tongue for the first six years of
      formal education.

      Desai says that children are taught basic literacy and numeracy concepts in
      the first three years, and a wider subject range is introduced in grade
      four, which is also when most children are expected to switch to learning in

      "If they were taught in their mother tongue until the end of the
      intermediate phase (grades 4 to 6), they would have a firmer foundation in
      these new subjects. If this foundation is not there you are stymied for
      life," she says.

      Although reading ability alone cannot guarantee academic success, it is
      "highly likely" that a lack of reading ability is a key barrier to academic
      achievement, says Howie.

      Of the other factors affecting pupils' academic performance, socioeconomic
      status, teaching method and parental involvement are probably the most
      important, Howie says.

      It is generally acknowledged that many of SA's 360000 teachers have been
      poorly educated themselves, meaning their ability to teach their charges
      anything is severely compromised.

      "Reading skills are not well taught. Teachers are insufficiently trained,
      and they don't have good material that is relevant and motivates the kids to
      read," says Cynthia Hugo, director of READ, a nongovernmental organisation
      which has pioneered, tested and implemented reading, writing and language
      development programmes for schools.

      "What makes it worse is that by grade four teachers think you don't have to
      teach reading any more. That's a problem because you have to teach reading
      skills throughout at least primary school - there are different reading
      skills," says Hugo.

      Despite the government's closure of the teacher training colleges in the
      early 1990s and their amalgamation with the universities - an attempt to
      strengthen the education of teachers - it appears teachers are still not
      taught properly how to teach reading.

      Hugo advocates a "balanced method" of teaching which combines various
      methods for teaching reading, from assimilating basic sounds (phonics) to
      reading comprehension, but says if teachers are being taught this, it is not
      always evident.

      "I don't know what they are taught. It's not evident in most classrooms.
      Teachers want help and they want materials (with which to teach)," she says.

      Howie's research backs this up. In a case study on one unnamed institution
      that educates teachers, 50% of the students said they did not believe they
      had been adequately prepared to teach reading and students asked for
      step-by-step guidelines on how to teach reading.

      Dr Ellen Lenyai, of the University of SA's education department, says that
      the effect of multilingualism of the type found in South African classrooms
      has not been properly addressed by SA's educational institutions.

      Teachers have to contend with classrooms in which many of the children come
      from homes where each parent speaks a different language, and these
      languages are in turn influenced by foreign languages which are contributing
      to township argot.

      Also, some teach in informal settlements where a large percentage of the
      class may not speak South African languages.

      Added to this, many students learning to be teachers have this kind of
      background themselves and have a "shaky" foundation in the language in which
      they have to learn, English.

      Most textbooks are written in English and use English examples to illustrate

      "They have to translate these theories into their own languages," Lenyai

      "Take phonetics - you know how words are broken up in English. Now you take
      a word in seSotho, 'tshware', which is 'to hold'. The students struggle to
      break it up. Is it tsh/wa/re or tshw/a/re?"

      SA also has a weak reading culture, clearly depicted in the Centre for
      Evaluation and Assessment's finding that 38% of South African teachers did
      not read regularly for their own pleasure and 56% had no library or reading
      corner in their classroom.

      The education department has put 100 books into almost every classroom in
      SA, but they are not properly used, says Hugo.

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