The foundations of language are laid and set before children reach Grade R, when, based on this, researchers can predict children’s future educational attainment. However, with attendance at early childhood development centres lower than it has been in the past 18 years, many young South African children are facing a gloomy future. Three literacy NGOs, supported by Liberty Community Trust, have teamed up to intervene.
The first five years of life are the most significant for brain development. This is the time when the foundations for language and life are laid down and when for children to thrive later in school and in life, they need to be surrounded by caring adults who create safe and stimulating environments for them, that are filled with plenty of opportunities to play and imagine and to listen to, think and talk about stories.
Each one of us is a storyteller in some form, or another and stories could well turn out to be South Africa’s secret weapon. Great and well-told stories motivate children to learn to read and write for themselves and are what set the vital foundation of literacy learning as well as cognitive and emotional development. Research shows us that we cannot wait for children to learn the mechanics of reading at schools. For the effects of a literacy intervention to be meaningful and lasting – so that the results are felt well into the school years and adulthood – it needs to take place in the early years.
Yes, this includes increasing the availability of good quality books and stories in children’s home languages for parents and community members to share with their children, but it also means ensuring that the adults who surround these children understand why, or at least accept, that telling and reading stories with children is extremely valuable – and essential – for their future educational success and for the success of the community.
With most learners leaving the school system without the basic skills they need to succeed in school and in life – remember: 78% of Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning and close to one-third of children are functionally illiterate and live in rural areas – these communities remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Yizani Sifunde (isiXhosa for ‘Come, let’s read) – a newly launched literacy project from partners Nal’ibali, Book Dash and Wordworks (and funded by Community Liberty Trust), understands this.
The initiative will be injecting 100 000 brand-new locally-contextualised story books in children’s home languages into communities in Queenstown, East London and Tsholomqa in 2021 with the majority of these being for children to take home. It will also be supporting practitioners at 40 ECD centres to make use of a literacy-themed learning programme and providing practical training and materials to caregivers and interested members of the community on how to run extra mural reading clubs.
Ultimately, Yizani Sifunde aims to significantly change the life trajectory of young children by helping parents and community members value their authentic teaching roles and reawakening a love of stories.
Regular reading and story sharing in home and community settings (together with programmatic support as well as a vibrant media campaign) will influence children’s oral and written language development as well as the confidence, understanding and practices of all those who are involved so they are better placed to spark their children’s potential long before they start school – whether, COVID allowing, these institutions are open or not.