Effective Literacy Teaching Key to Fixing Education

Cape Times (South Africa), May 5, 2009 | Go to article overview

Effective Literacy Teaching Key to Fixing Education


BYLINE: Paul Hoffman

Now that the hullabaloo and excitement of the elections are over, it is time to turn attention to solving the problems of the country through responsible action rather than loud rhetoric.

If regard is had to the priority lists of issues identified by all of the major political parties during the election campaign, then it is apparent that a core issue to be addressed in the interests of securing a long-term future of peace, prosperity and progress is the proper provision of basic education.

Everyone in South Africa is entitled to a basic education. This is a right guaranteed to child and adult alike in our Bill of Rights. The state is obliged to promote and fulfill this right. It has not been doing so, on a disastrous scale.

The statistics are sobering: only 3.5 percent of the black (African) six year olds who started school in 1996 emerged 12 years later both functionally literate and in possession of a matriculation certificate. Those not so lucky are doomed to a life of menial labour, unemployment, poverty and, all too often, criminality. Jobs worth having are not available to the illiterate and the uneducated.

Those who are not functionally literate, and this includes all but 42 000 of the 278 000 black matriculants of 2007 (the last year for which statistics are available), have no secure future in an economic dispensation such as ours.

It is accordingly of vital importance that the fundamentals be put in place as soon as is humanly possible. At this stage it is not known what changes in personnel and in policy will be made by the incoming national and provincial governments. There has been talk of a separate ministry for tertiary education, it is not known whether all or even any of the provincial ministers will remain in their positions; there is also no certainty as to who will be minister(s) of education at a national level.

What is known is that education has been identified as a priority issue by all major political parties. That there is a crying need for change is beyond dispute. We have succeeded in melding the various education departments of the apartheid era into one and virtually all of our children are in school. This is promising. What is less than satisfactory, however, is that most schools seem to function as mass baby sitting services in which education is not being delivered properly to far too many of our children.

This is not the fault of the children. They have the same potential as children anywhere. The system of education ought to be unlocking that potential. It is not, on a frightening scale.

Insufficient attention is paid to adult education, skills acquisition and vocational training.

The private sector has neither the means nor the responsibility to teach the nation to read and write. This is the function of government at central and provincial level.

The first step is to get children to read. Surprisingly high percentages of youngsters in our primary education classes do not get this right in the system as it functions at present. There are, however, some signs of hope. The sheer irrelevance of euro-centric reading materials available in the system has been identified as a major blockage to the success of the early reading classes.

Inappropriately illustrated stories about "Janet and John" are meaningless to young township children and their rural black counterparts. Poorly translated and densely worded readers are a definite turn-off to children who can, quite understandably, not relate to their content.

A Cape Town-based non-profit organisation called Literacy for All has actually done something positive to address these problems. …

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