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Lack of NRF Chairs in teaching reading in African languages a huge disgrace in SA: a Q&A with education specialist Dr Nic Spaull

Nal’ibali’s fourth column of their third term was recently published in The Daily Dispatch and Herald and features an interview with Dr Nic Spaull, senior researcher and education specialist at Research on Socio-Economic Policy (RESEP). Here Dr Spaull discusses the accessibility of African texts to teach reading, developing stories written by home-language speakers, and the necessity of government funding to publish books in African languages:

Dr Nic Spaull

You’ve talked before about reading being South Africa’s biggest solvable problem. But the recent pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) survey puts the number of Grade Four children who cannot read for meaning in any language at 58%. Where to begin turning this around?

I think there are a number of basics that we need to get in place. We need to ensure that all teachers know how to teach reading systematically and that they have the time to do so – studies have shown that teachers are only using about half of the year’s instructional time. Given that 70% of children in South Africa initially learn to read in an African language, we need to ensure that there are enough quality texts available to actually teach reading. Most series have 15 very short books per year from grades 1-3. This is simply unacceptable.

You have written how at Grade 4 level you see children being expected to transition between the phases of ‘learn to read’ and ‘read to learn’ – essentially being able to read for meaning. Yet it’s also the age when schools tend to switch children from mother-tongue education to English-language instruction. That sounds like a recipe for disaster?

It’s worth noting that a number of other African countries also transition to English in Grade 4 and have much better reading outcomes than we do. It’s hard to pinpoint South Africa’s problems, though – the best research comes from the work of Carol MacDonald in the Threshold Project, which was done in 1989! We desperately need more research to ensure that learners are not only bilingual but also biliterate.

What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve come across to encourage production of books in indigenous languages?

I think the move to develop graded readers in the African languages from scratch is a great example of progress – the Vula Bula books by Molteno, for example. Up until recently most of these for African languages were just translations from English, which doesn’t work well for grading because words and themes that may be ‘easy’ in English are actually very difficult in some African languages. I think the work of Nal’ibali is also really important – developing stories written by home-language speakers and easily accessible to children.

It’s not just hard to find published literature in indigenous languages, there’s a dearth of linguistic research too – there are no oral reading fluency benchmarks for African languages, for example. Where would you particularly like to see significant change?

This drives me crazy. Why on earth are there no National Research Foundation (NRF) Chairs in teaching reading in African languages? Why is early grade reading research not a national research priority with priority funding? This is such a huge disgrace in South Africa. While it’s great to see individual publishers and authors pushing forward and publishing books and stories in African languages, ultimately we need the funding and commitment from government that this is a national priority.

You’ve talked about making the achieving of mother tongue reading competency by grade three a prioritized national goal. What – and how long – might it take to achieve this?

To be completely honest this will take time. It takes time to train teachers, get high quality resources in every classroom and every home: I think a ten-year time-horizon is probably realistic, but even that is really ambitious.

Reading and telling stories with children in their home languages provides them with a strong foundation for language learning and increases their chances of future academic success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, for to access children’s stories in a range of SA languages, visit:


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