South Africa’s literacy crisis is well recognised, and the government as well as many other stakeholders are all striving to find solutions. Our board member, Xolisa Guzula, and some of her colleagues at UCT Education Department and other institutions, have recently contributed to the debate around how to improve South African literacy education. They are forming a collective, bua-lit, and have launched with a paper called ‘How are we failing our children? Reconceptualising language and literacy education’.

These academics and practitioners argue that so far the big scale literacy ‘solutions’ have been based on a narrow understanding of literacy as a set of skills, and thus overlook a broader understanding of reading and writing in a wider context. These sorts of literacy programmes see young children coming to school as needing to learn a hierarchical set of skills, starting from letters and building up. The idea is that in the first three years children need to learn to read, and then from then on ‘read to learn’. Interventions are structured programmes, with a one size fits all approach.

However, a ‘social practices’ approach to literacy understands literacy as far more than this limited set of skills. Reading is a complex process, and includes more than just cognitive mechanics. It entails making meaning of particular texts at particular times, and for a particular reason, and in a particular context. Merely being able to decode and understand words does not enable readers to engage with texts on a meaningful and personally enriching way.

The ‘social practices’ approach emphasises that children come to school with their resources, interests and own abilities in different languages, and that no teaching – or reading and writing – occurs in a vacuum, with purely a transmission approach. This has implications for future interventions and policies, as there cannot be a set of standardised ‘solutions’ that are imposed. The authors list strategies that can be used for future programmes that will then build children’s rich literacies, based on this deeper understanding of what reading and literacy practices are.

The paper has an interesting section on language, exploring just how limiting and anti-educational our current practices (based very much on monolingual understandings of language learning) are turning out to be.

The paper also explores the limitations – and potential damage – from the implementation of large scale, standardised testing in terms of content, language and context. The danger too is that if only these big ‘evidence-based’ studies are trusted to develop policy, there is little recognition of the value of in-depth case studies – and, ironically, it is only these sorts of studies that can show how ‘teaching for the test’ can have many negative impacts on children’s learning, and classroom practices. (I have certainly experienced this in my experiences working in schools. And, in my experiences as a former teacher, I can safely say that my matric classes were the least creative or educational on a fundamental level. So when test results become the gold standard, I am not surprised that education can suffer.)

The ‘literacy wars’ that the paper refers to (‘phonics’ vs ‘whole language’) are very much focused on primary schooling and how children first come to reading, which is not the area in which we at FunDza are working.  However, at our high school level, we also believe strongly that unless young people shift their understanding of reading and writing, and see them as relevant, enriching and personally meaningful practices rather than difficult chores or skills that have to be mastered, then they are unlikely to become the thinkers, creatives, entrepreneurs and leaders we so badly need.

Have a read of this interesting and thought-provoking paper here.