Bringing Reading To Life

First published in The Mercury 01 June 2017

Research has also shown that literacy and language development does not happen through rote learning, testing or correcting mistakes and pronunciation. Nor does it happen when a teacher mechanically follows a standard lesson plan. 

While observing teaching practice between 1992 and 2002, I witnessed, with few variations, the same model of a reading lesson:  The children sit obediently in rows, some of them restless. The teacher reads a paragraph from a text in the reader.  She asks a learner to read the paragraph aloud. The teacher corrects him every time he makes a mistake or mispronounces a word. The teacher reads the sentence back to him in the ‘correct’ way. The class then all answer the same set of simple, one-word questions or fill in missing words in an assessment exercise. 

In these lessons, there was no storytelling on the part of the teacher or the children, and no learner participation or interactive listening.  I would observe with dismay how trainee teachers systematically killed a text – one that was often remote from the children’s lives and interests, and that there were few or no questions requiring interpretation or critical thought.

Surely this situation has changed? Hopefully here and there, but research done last year found that 58% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning and 29% are completely illiterate. This translates into a disturbingly high number of children who will be unable to read in their fifth year of schooling.

Convinced of a different approach to literacy learning, I invited my teaching students to participate in two different reading lessons where they played the role of the children. The first lesson being the  one previously described, the other beginning with a story – told with liveliness and with plenty of interaction between the storyteller and the class. This was followed by a range of fun and interactive activities that related imaginatively to the story.

Reflecting on the first lesson, the students said they felt and remembered as school children experiencing humiliation and boredom during this kind of reading lesson.  They also admitted with some surprise to enjoying the second lesson, and, when some of them trialled this in their own teaching practice, described how their classes came alive! Their learners were motivated to read, discuss, present dramatisations, and write.

Children who read for pleasure have been shown to do better in the classroom – across all subjects – regardless of their family’s social standing. And, what better way to encourage reading for joy than through telling and sharing stories? Teachers must be encouraged in various ways, bring stories to life for children, sparking their imaginations and involving them actively and enjoyably through the way the story is told and through activities that continue this process.

This year the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign launched a drive to place stories at the hearts of selected rural classrooms in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern. My hope is that all staff, educators, and community members touched by this project will harness this amazing story power they are being given. And, that other educators and school staff are inspired to follow suit, because, when children can read, they can understand; learn and succeed at school, helping to lift families out of poverty and grow our economy.

Rose Jackson’s professional career is committed to the literacy development of South African children of all ages and in different contexts, and has spanned over fifty years.