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Putting the pieces of the puzzle together

Date Released: Tue, 18 April 2017 09:30 +0200

By: Cathy Gush

Empowering parents to support their children’s education and development is not only a nice thing to do; it’s essential. Without it, it’s like trying to build a puzzle with a piece that’s missing.

Research has consistently shown that parental involvement in children’s literacy development is a game-changer. The international PIRLS Study that measures children’s literacy achievement, and in which South Africa routinely fares very poorly, is overseen by Prof Sarah Howie of the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment at the University of Pretoria. According to Prof Howie, the single most reliable indicator of children’s literacy success (or otherwise) is the amount of resources and support they have in the home.

Home literacy practices are vital not only by virtue of preparing children for school, but also because they complement the way in which literacy is taught in most schools. A heavy emphasis on phonics and decoding, i.e. the small but decontextualised building blocks of literacy development, means that comprehension and making meaning is neglected. Children lack the bigger picture of what it’s all about and how language actually works. This awareness, and the emotional investment that is essential for language development, comes from being read to and hearing stories – and this is where parents, caregivers and the home come in.

Acknowledging that parents play such an important part in supporting their children’s literacy development, the Rhodes University Community Engagement Office (RUCE) launched the Intsomi Project in 2015 as part of the Vice-Chancellor’s Education Initiative (Intsomi being the isiXhosa term for “traditional story”).The project has enabled some 170 Rhodes workers to access reading resources and educational games on a take-home basis for their children. Attractive shweshwe bags containing age- and language-appropriate books are exchanged at the RUCE office on a fortnightly basis, and participants also attend quarterly workshops on topics relevant to their children’s educational development. The workshops have addressed issues such as children’s routines, how children develop, what literacy resources are available and where, etc. One workshop focused purely on the educational games that could be played to promote children’s literacy development, and these games are also available on loan from the RUCE office.

A number of positive outcomes have resulted from this initiative. Aside from better results at school, relationships between parents and children have been strengthened, and a sense of agency has developed in the parents. They now see a role for themselves in their children’s education. But more than that, even, they are becoming activists for literacy in their own community – they want other children and families to reap the same benefits that they have had from growing their home literacy practices.

An action research group has been formed to serve as the “vanguard” of the Intsomi parents and to try out various ways of communicating within their communities. In this they are being assisted by Rhodes Journalism students, who are helping them to make posters, short videos and relevant radio programmes, and in turn this provides the students with practical experience and material that they can include in their portfolios.

The action research facilitator has worked with the group to identify their communicative ecologies – that is, the ways in which people communicate in their particular communities and the forms of media that are most frequently accessed.This approach is termed development support communication, and aims to support people at grassroots level to communicate about issues that are important to them and agitate for change if necessary. It stands in contrast to other forms of development communication that are largely top-down and

bear “messages” from government or other sources of authority, telling people what to do. Rather, the Intsomi parents are sharing their stories and are taking the initiative to be literacy advocates in their community, based on their own experience of enriched home literacy practices. Examples of this advocacy include mobilizing a book donation for a local preschool, and talking about Intsomi at the occasion of the hand-over, as well as lobbying for the local mobile library to include more (informal) living areas in their service.

The group has been building their sense of identity through social media platforms such as a Facebook page (Intsomi Parents) and a WhatsApp group. As part of the initiative, the Community Engagement Office has also helped the participants to get e-mail addresses and gain access to the Eduroam facility that allows free access to Wi-Fi on campus and in selected spots around town. 

The Intsomi parent participants are divided into groups according to the ages and stages of their children: ECD Phase (0 – 5 years), Foundation Phase (6 – 9 years) and Intermediate Phase (10 – 13 years). For the ECD Phase, the storybooks are mostly in isiXhosa, whereas by the Intermediate Phase, the books are mostly in English. This is to aid understanding of the stories in the younger years, but also to reinforce the fact that a good mother-tongue basis is important, and that multilingualism is valued.The project is also trying to stress the importance of laying the building blocks for children’s literacy in the early years through reading to them at a young age. 

Educating a child and promoting the kind of literacy that enables children to read for meaning, enjoyment and learning, can never be the responsibility of schools and teachers alone. It needs parents to help create that all-important emotional connection and a love of stories, books and language that comes from the home. The Intsomi Project is well on the way to doing that, and to sharing the magic with others. 

Cathy Gush is co-coordinator of the Lebone Literacy Programme and a Masters student assisting the Intsomi Project of the Rhodes Community Engagement Office.

Source:Community Engagement Directorate