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Learn to read

| September 5, 2012 | 0 Comments

Read to learn

By Jane Hofmeyr
She had been teaching the early grades for a number of years in a ‘free school’ in Edmonton, a very disadvantaged, immigrant area north of London. Most of the children receive free meals and half of them start school speaking no English.

The importance of teaching reading was highlighted in my recent visit to an academy and a free school in Edmonton. These are new types of state schools with considerable autonomy that are being established by the British government.

The heads of Cuckoo Hall Academy and Woodpecker Hall Free School are most impressive women with years of experience in schools in very poor areas. This taught them that it was essential to enable children in such contexts to master the skills of reading as quickly as possible, and so applied to become an academy and free school in order to have more curricular freedom to introduce a thorough, robust phonics programme for three-year-olds. They use the Ruth Miskin Programme, a rigorous and sequential approach that develops speaking, listening, reading, writing and spelling through systematic phonics and by the time the children enter year 1, they can read simple phrases or sentences.

The two schools have achieved “outstanding” reports in two recent Ofsted inspections and their pupil outcomes exceed the national average in the reception year. The heads ascribe this to the phonics programme, coupled with extensive staff training in how to teach reading, and the use of flexible learning groups.

Pupils’ progress in literacy and numeracy is assessed every eight weeks and then they are grouped with those at the same level of development. This ensures that the teachers match their teaching and learning to the level of competency of the group. As a result the children’s competency improves rapidly. After eight weeks, pupils are re-assessed and put into new groups depending on the progress they have made.

The use of phonics as the most effective method of teaching reading is now official policy in many English-speaking countries: the British, Australian and New Zealand governments commissioned research into the best methods of teaching reading, with the result that all now recommend using phonics.1, 2, 3

When I learnt this I wondered what approach to reading was being used in South African schools and asked Prim Gower at ISASA to help me research this. (By now you might have gathered that I was trained as a high school teacher, a long time ago!)

Teaching reading in South Africa Reading is the most fundamental skill that children have to master because for the rest of their lives they have to read to learn. This cannot be overestimated in South Africa where the Annual National Assessments of 2011 revealed that the average literacy scores for children in grades 3 and 6 were 35% and 28% respectively.

In response to learners’ very low literacy levels, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) produced a National Strategy for Reading in 2008.4 This recognises that “many teachers simply don’t know how to teach reading”, and presents various initiatives to assist teachers with reading materials and provides guidance on resources and Reading Steps. This was followed in 2011 by the DBE’s National Integrated Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, which sets improvement targets for the ANA results, and recent Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) for English Home Language in the Foundation Phase that contains a strong phonetics approach, a major departure from the past.5

Furthermore, in 2012 the DBE has introduced Rainbow Workbooks for Foundation Phase pupils. These borrow from American and British programmes and according to literacy expert Professor John Aitchison, have a simple, well thoughtout sequence of exercises to cater for teachers who are unable to teach phonics.

Professor Veronica McKay, the coordinator of the workbooks, told Prim that a systematic phonic approach is used in which a letter is taught every two days and phonics are systematically introduced at a rate of about two per week up to the end of Grade 3. “We tried to cater for kids with a low boredom threshold by introducing ‘fun’ phonic activities with some dry drill.”

I was very reassured to discover that a phonics approach is officially recommended and used in the workbooks, which Jane Hofmeyr Independent Education • Spring 12 15 could go a long way to assist teachers in teaching reading, but then I wondered to what extent our Foundation Phase teachers are formally trained in this. Prim found out that teaching reading is in the teacher education curriculum but that many university academics who instruct the student teachers are not up to date with recent research on phonics and how to teach the mechanics of reading. As a result phonics tends to be taught in a mechanical way with drilling in excess.

There is a severe shortage of Foundation Phase teachers in South Africa and the experts believe that in general that quality of their training is poor. This must be a root cause of pupils’ low literacy and numeracy levels and requires urgent attention. These teachers must be well trained by experts with practical experience so that they can establish a firm foundation of basic skills on which our ailing education system can build.

English proficiency for academic success

For a long time linguists have pointed to research that shows that it is best for children to become proficient in speaking, reading and writing in their mother tongue before they switch to English. However, despite the research findings, most black parents want their children to learn English as soon as possible, preferably at preschool, and it is a major reason why they choose independent schools. They quite correctly observe that English language proficiency is key to academic achievement and success in the workplace.

I do not want indigenous African languages to be neglected at school, but we need to pay attention to accumulating research evidence which indicates that high-level mastery of English cannot be overemphasised for success, especially at secondary school.

Independent impact evaluations of mathematics, science and English intervention programmes in schools that are funded by the Zenex Foundation have shown that communicative English competence in teachers or learners is not sufficient to enable them to teach or learn mathematics and science at a high level.6What experts term ‘Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency’ (CALP) is essential: a level of proficiency that enables mastery of abstract concepts and technical language. Without CALP in English, learners cannot achieve high results in mathematics and science, and in-service teacher training programmes have limited impact on pupil achievement.

This point is underscored by a recent study by the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) that was based on a comparison of 563 Grade 9 learners’ proficiency in English in the International Benchmark Tests with their subsequent results in the IEB’s examinations at the end of Grade 12.7 This revealed that “there is a significant relationship between English language proficiency as early as Grade 9, and the average number of distinctions learners attain in Grade 12. This finding inferentially supports previous studies of English language proficiency as a predictor of academic success…”

If the attainment of distinctions in the National Senior Certificate (NSC) can be predicted at least three years in advance, IEB researcher, Helen Sidiropoulos, points out that it “becomes incumbent on schools to ensure that the teaching and learning of the English language in the early secondary school years receives proper attention and that the language teachers are properly equipped and trained”.

More evidence has emerged from the evaluation of learners’ achievement in the ISASA Mathematics and English Programme, which found that learners’ English proficiency in the selection tests correlated best with their final marks in mathematics and science in the NSC. Whereas in the past, programme staff had paid most attention to the learners’ results in the mathematics and science selection tests, they now rely heavily on their English results.

The importance of reading and English proficiency for academic achievement is clear, but what about reading for pleasure? “Oh, for a book and a cosy nook, and oh, for a quiet now!” sums up my love of reading books (and my Kindle). I find it inexpressibly sad that so many children in South Africa do not have access to any books in their homes and that surveys of teachers in public schools show that most do not read themselves. How do learners develop the habit of sustained reading, if they don’t have books or role models who read? I cheered up, however, after an anecdote I was told recently: in a Johannesburg public school, DEAR (Drop Everything And Read!) is implemented: for 15 minutes a day after break every pupil and teacher reads a book in class. Marvellous!


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6. Campbell, G. and Marx, J. (2007) ‘Putting language into the mathematics and science equation’. Johannesburg: Zenex Foundation. (Source:

7. Sidiropoulos, H. (2012) ‘English language proficiency in Grade 9 as a predictor of number of distinctions attained in Grade 12’. Umalusi Conference – Standards in Education & Training: The Challenge, 10-12 May 2012, Johannesburg. See

Category: Spring 2012

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