The Three-Legged Pot Of African Literacy

First published in The Mercury, 11 September 2017

Most parents or adults I have interacted with have positive aspirations for the children in their lives. They all want their children to be successful, to become somebody. They often refer to being literate as one of the ingredients of success for their children. But although parents have these aspirations, teaching children to read and write remains a struggle. Could the way many South African adults perceive their children’s literacy learning be holding them back?

Many adults in our communities, and those who have become teachers, have had less than positive experiences and memories of becoming literate at school. Most of these adults went to under-resourced schools, were taught in a language they did not understand, had no access to reading-for-enjoyment materials in their languages, and they were not viewed as resourceful learners who had voices. These experiences have translated into how adults engage with children in their literacy learning journeys.

But, what if instead of seeing literacy learning as a school activity, we understood it as a socially-transmitted and transformative practice inclusive of all ways of becoming literate and valuable in all languages? Understanding literacy in a social context empowers adults and children at home and in the community by recognising that there are multiple ways children can learn to read and write.

Writing a shopping list or a text message, reading a newspaper, sharing stories, talking, or even singing together are all literacy-learning opportunities that happen readily at home. Just as the home space is where adults and older children engage younger ones to talk by allowing them to experience and use language, literacy learning can be encouraged through the same informal experiences that are purposeful, satisfying, and meaningful to children.

These common experiences give children regular access to different literacy activities and the opportunity to make use of language in their everyday lives, helping them to form positive associations with literacy. Adults and older readers and writers become positive reading or literacy role models, but they need to be aware of these interactive-literacy moments to take advantage of them.

They need to value their role as the first teachers of their children, understand that their language has value and know that by providing their children with a strong base in their mother tongue, they’ll be helping them learn a second language when they transition to English in Grade 4.

Ideally, in a social context, adults naturally help their children explore concepts and learn language. In this process, there is a co-creation of knowledge through talking and listening, and without knowing it, adults are supporting their children in reaching the aspirations they desire for them, and reading for pleasure will emerge too! Plenty of research has shown that when children read for pleasure, they do better at school than their peers who don’t.

With this socialisation around literacy, which can seem so normal and commonplace to English-language speakers for whom there is an endless array of books and stories available, children can move into school with power and confidence.  But for African language speaking children, especially those living in rural villages with their grandparents or who are heads of the household themselves, this is not the norm and the social approach to literacy is invaluable. If only adults knew how powerful they really are, and that sharing and talking about stories in home languages is one of the most effective ways of providing children with the tools they’ll need to learn to read, write and navigate the world.

And, if schools understood literacy as a social practice too – working together with homes and communities – the potential of children will be unleashed! Everyone would be working together like a big literacy orchestra, using the knowledge, languages, skills and culture inherent in them to give our children the best possible chance to fulfil their life potential.

Like a traditional three-legged cooking pot, or a harmonious literacy orchestra, Nal’ibali’s Story Powered School project is doing just this: connecting schools, homes and communities in rural KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape in the process of getting our children literate and empowered. But we need more people to join us, to realise the power they have as their children’s first teachers and the value of their indigenous resources and languages. We need to create a demand more books and stories in those languages and emancipate our children through books and stories that are our own.

Malusi Ntoypai is a community-literacy specialist working for the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign.