Academic journal article Reading & Writing

Opening Up a Philosophical Space in Early Literacy with Little Beauty by Anthony Browne and the Movie King Kong

Academic journal article Reading & Writing

Opening Up a Philosophical Space in Early Literacy with Little Beauty by Anthony Browne and the Movie King Kong

Article excerpt

Early literacy in South Africa

The complex reasons for learners' underachievement in literacy in South African government primary schools are well documented (Fleisch 2008, 2012; National Education Evaluation and Development Unit 2013). However, what is new is the observation that even South African middle class children are falling behind in literacy proficiency in comparison with their peers elsewhere, and that this overall underachievement picture is unlikely to change soon (Fleisch 2012:1). South Africa's learners were assessed in 2006 and 2011 by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Studies (PIRLS), an international comparative study of learners' performance in reading achievements at their fourth year of schooling. In 2006, the basis of the written test was reading comprehension, with approximately 215 000 learners taking part across 40 countries (45 educational systems) who were expected 'to engage in a full repertoire of reading strategies, including retrieving and focusing on specific ideas, making simple and more complex inferences and examining and evaluating text features' (Howie et al. 2007:13). As the performance of the South African Grade 4-5 learners was so low in comparison with similar learners from other participating education systems, the test for South Africa in 2011 was redesigned and presented as a new baseline measure. PrePIRLS is a shorter, easier test for Grade 4 learners; it has less emphasis on higher-order reading skills and is administered in all 11 official languages (Howie et al. 2012:7).

Of particular concern with the PIRLS 2006 findings was the fact that in South Africa none of the African language learners was able to reach the High International Benchmark1 either at Grade 4 or at Grade 5 level, and that at most 17 % -18 % of South African learners in only two languages (Afrikaans and English) could be considered competent readers (Howie et al. 2007:28). Therefore, African language groups were not tested in PIRLS 2011, but only learners who were tested in Afrikaans or English2 (also only in Grade 5) (Howie et al. 2012). Despite the easier assessment in prePIRLS 2011, only a few (6%) were able to read at an advanced level (Howie et al. 2012:112). It is significant that teachers, reportedly, spend most of their time on basic reading skills instead of on 'more inferential types of skills'. More complex reading skills are introduced 'at a much later stage for South African learners than internationally' (Howie et al. 2012:112). Moreover, '[l]earners exposed at an earlier grade tended to achieve higher scores in reading' (Howie et al. 2012:114). Although there are some exceptions, few teachers were found to use children's literature. Instead, textbooks, workbooks and worksheets have become very popular (Howie et al. 2012). Why is this?

The assessment criteria of PIRLS 2006 were directly aligned with national curriculum policy standards (Howie et al. 2007) and its 'much-worse-than-predicted' results (Howie et al. 2012:15) have influenced teacher education, national and regional policies as well as reading intervention strategies. In the struggle to ensure that the poor in South Africa enjoy quality basic education, two significant national interventions have been introduced since PIRLS 2006, which still serves as a critical external baseline for reading literacy achievement at Grades 4-5. These interventions include a new revised national curriculum, namely the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS). CAPS has been introduced with standardised national workbooks for Grades 1-6 aimed at improving classroom practices in combination with the Annual National Assessments (ANAs), with a focus on learning in Grades 1-6 (Department of Basic Education 2011:5). Since then, the Department of Education claims that the ANAs 2013 and 2014 show improved results, but extreme caution is required: although monitored by the department, anecdotal evidence suggests that teachers can interfere with the process (e. …

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