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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Research > Foundation Phase Literacy in African Languages

The Linguistics of Literacy in Foundation Phase learning Presenters: Mark de Vos (Rhodes) & Jenny Katz (Molteno Institute)

Date Released: Fri, 8 May 2015 12:20 +0200

The importance of Literacy: Literacy is probably the single most important set of skills for the individual: As an empowerment tool it gives access to further education and life opportunities, and is a tool for transformative democracy. Therefore, it is crucial that foundation phase literacy be taught effectively.  It is then surprising that literacy provision remains an enormous challenge in South Africa. The statistics are horrifying. 

The SA literacy crisis: In 2001, the national average for grade 3 literacy with just 38% (DOE 2003). Even in the province with the highest pass rate, only 39% passed the grade three literacy requirement (Pretorius Mokhwesana 2009:55). Furthermore, subsequent research in 2004 showed that only 28% of grade sixes could read at or above their grade level (DOE 2005). These statistics mean that only 13% of South African grade fours reach the minimum international benchmark; only 1% of South African grade fours reach the Advanced International Benchmark. Most shocking of all is that only 1% of IsiXhosa, SiSwati and IsIndebele learners reach the minimum international benchmark by grade four: 99% of these learners are illiterate after three years of schooling. 

The role of linguists in literacy studies: Because reading straddles “linguistic, neurolinguistic, cognitive, psychological, sociological, developmental and educational domains” (Pretorius & Mokwesana 2009:55), the roots of the problem are consequently diverse, multifaceted and inherently multidisciplinary.  While the issue is currently being tackled by policy experts, social scientists and educators,  part of the problem is that we don’t really understand how literacy "works" linguistically in African languages.  Linguists must play a more central role in addressing the linguistic components of the problem. For instance, there are currently no reading norms for indigenous languages and no norms for disjunctive vs. conjunctive orthographies.  Pretorius and Mokhwesana (2009:55) talk of a “virtual absence” of research, arguing passionately that literacy in African languages will determine the fate of these languages. 

The contributors: The workshop is unique insofar as its contributors bring different strengths to bear.  Dr De Vos has research interests in formal linguistics while Ms Katz has experience in African languages materials development in the Molteno Institute. 

The Workshop:  This workshop is exploratory and programmatic in nature.  Due to the fact that linguistics studies in this area are underdeveloped, we do not pretend to have all the answers.  Rather our workshop attempt to chart a research programme forward.  Specifically, the workshop will: 

  • (a)   Locate literacies in a South African context using the PIRLS (2006 and 2012) studies.
  • (b)   Attempt to identify some linguistic components of the literacy crisis (e.g. standardization, morpho-syntactic differences, inhibitors of automaticity of word recognition, lack of appropriate norms etc.)
  • (c)   Explore the impact that orthographies may have on literacy acquisition.
  • (d)   Consider ways in which translation of English foundation phase graded readers without consideration of linguistic principles leads to unusable teaching materials.  This session will be presented by Jenny Katz from the Molteno Institute.
  • (e)   Develop a research programme and share ideas for research projects.  Participants will be encouraged to share their experience and needs (for educators), their research (for researchers) and to start exploring how educators and linguists can find useful synergies.
  • (f)   Act as a forum where primarily a forum where linguists who are interested in the linguistics of literacy can share ideas and develop a shared programme (as opposed to the sociology of literacy, the anthropology of literacy, the study of social policy, the politics of literacy etc.).   It will also introduce linguists who may not have expertise in the area to some of the basics.

Source:Mark de Vos