Transforming literacy learning spaces at primary school level is critical for South Africa, and it requires integrating storytelling, games, drama, music and art into curricula . This new technique encourages reflective and interactive learning spaces and is guaranteed to increase children’s literacy levels, said Dr Xolisa Guzula of the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Dr Guzula is an early literacy specialist at the UCT School of Education and she spoke to UCT News on International Literacy Day. The UNESCO-led commemoration day is celebrated annually on September 8 and the theme for 2022 is: “Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces”. According to research from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) – an assessment and research project designed to measure reading achievement at Grade 4 level, 78% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa South have difficulty reading fluently or cannot read for meaning. . This statistic paints a bleak picture for a large number of learners in the country, especially non-English native speakers.

“I must stress that these research studies and assessments only test reading levels and not literacy as a whole. Literacy is not just about reading. It also includes writing, critical literacies, and multimodal literacies,” Guzula said.

During this interview, she highlighted the need for transformed literacy spaces to increase literacy levels in the country. She also discussed the work that has already been done in this space and the subsequent benefits for the learner.

Niémah Davids (ND): As a researcher in this field, what are the biggest challenges you have observed over the years with the methods used to teach children to read?

“Teachers are required to teach reading using only direct instructions on letter-sound relationships.”

Xolisa Guzula (XG): We have long noticed that teachers are required to teach reading simply by using direct teaching of letter-sound relationships. During this process, children learn to pronounce the letters of the alphabet, build words by breaking them down into smaller units, and read them repeatedly to gain fluency and accuracy. This is an age-old method and is simply not enough to teach children [how] read. So we decided to explore an alternative aspect to reading; one that appeals to their emotions.

We decided to focus on reading for fun, which requires adults to tell stories to children or read to them in an engaging way. In doing so, we encourage them to incorporate theater and other art forms into the storytelling process to build excitement around the concept of reading.

ND: Tell us about the book clubs you have created in collaboration with colleagues to encourage a culture of reading.

XL: A group of us, including the late Dr Neville Alexander, have been involved with the Project to Study Alternative Education in South Africa (PSAESA) – a non-governmental organization focusing on multilingual education and development language and literacy. Through this work, we came across Zisukhanyo Youth Empowerment in Langa and together we decided to establish the Vulindlela Reading Club. The club aimed to build a culture of reading among the children of Langa. We made books available in English and isiXhosa, shared our love of reading with them, and encouraged them to immerse themselves in literature. This enabled participants to engage in reading and writing in a meaningful way. We found that children attended club sessions because they really wanted to read and weren’t forced to read when they weren’t ready. By joining the club, they participated in exciting activities related to reading and literacy, and they loved it.

After the success of the Vulindlela Reading Club, we created the National Nal’ibali Reading for Pleasure Initiative. This initiative has essentially seen the work of the Vulindlela Reading Club spread across the country – establishing reading clubs, creating newspaper supplements with stories that parents can share with their children at home, training book club leaders, developing new stories and making them available in the South. The 11 official languages ​​of Africa.

ND: Your work didn’t end with the Vulindlela Reading Club and the Nal’ibali National Reading for Enjoyment Initiative, did it?

XG: I always believed that we had to change the way we teach to please our children. And that’s been at the heart of my work for years. After successfully developing the Nal’ibali Reading for Enjoyment initiative, I left UCT and joined the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development. There, I worked on the Phemba Mfundi project to develop and strengthen reading and writing skills among young people. The children who were part of the project wrote poetry, stories, personal accounts and autobiographies, and these writings were then published in what we called the Learner Writing Journal. Once these newspapers were printed, they became part of the reading material list in the participants’ schools.

“We created pedagogical third spaces that combined children’s multilingualism and multimodal literacies to demonstrate the learning benefits that come with working this way. »

When I returned to UCT to complete my PhD, I started the Stars of Today Literacy Club to teach language and literacy to bilingual children. We created pedagogical third spaces that combined children’s multilingualism and multimodal literacies to demonstrate the learning benefits that come with working this way.

I later also co-founded the Bua-lit Language and Literacy Collective together with a group of colleagues from UCT’s School of Education and Department of Historical Studies, as well as some of the outside the university. Our goal is to collectively fight for social justice in language and literacy. Bua-lit pleads for a bi-multilingual education. Recently, we have also started helping schools write inclusive language policies and training their school board members, teachers and parents on these policies and how to implement multilingual pedagogies in class. We also create bi-multilingual materials for language and literacy, as well as science, and showcase work done by others to advance bi-multilingual education.

ND: What is your objective with this work?

XG: My goal is to enrich children’s language and literacy learning experiences and to emphasize that these non-English speakers do not need simplistic approaches to learning if they are to succeed in school and in higher education institutions. Children learning an indigenous African language in addition to English may not be required to learn English only or the mother tongue only to succeed. What they need is the best of both languages ​​to thrive.

ND: Why is it so important to transform literacy spaces and what should they look like?

XL: This is absolutely necessary to build and develop a healthy culture of literacy in children. One way to do this is to integrate reading and writing with storytelling, art, drama, music and games. If children can relate to the content, they will develop this love for reading. So a transformation is definitely needed in this regard.

In education, we must realize that children learn using both formal and informal methods, which includes learning through play. Children also learn new skills by building on knowledge existing. We need to end the division between oral and written language, because these are more interconnected than we care to admit. We also need to teach writing because if we don’t we will start to see the effects in higher education institutions. If we don’t teach multiple modes of communication, we will struggle to grow and develop creative 21st century professionals.

ND: Once we have succeeded in transforming literacy spaces in the country, how can we support the process?

“It takes time to turn learning into meaningful, quality experiences, and we’re getting there.”

XG: So much work has already been done by some of the organizations across the country and it is very encouraging, but it is still an ongoing process. We can support this work if we don’t force these organizations to expand their work too quickly. We need to give them time to develop the knowledge capacities and skills of those they work with (teachers and children), before expanding into new spaces. Moving too quickly dilutes the quality of work and makes it more about numbers and less focus on the work itself. Literacy is not like an injection; there is no quick fix. It takes time to turn learning into quality and meaningful experiences, and we are doing it.