03 December, 2007

What township children are reading: a case study of three schools in Atteridgeville / Saulsville

At the SCBWI meeting of 20 November 2007, Nicoline Wessels and Hannalie Knoetze, lecturers at UNISA, shared some of the results of their research on the reading patterns of township children.

Many University lecturers have noticed the poor reading skills of their first year students and suggest that these are approximately on a grade 8 level. This means that some first-year university students are reading at the level of first-year secondary school learners. In addition, only 19.1% of South Africans reach a desired level of reading for adults. This has established a need for research.

Nicoline Wessels and Hannalie Knoetze, from the Department of Information Science, are carrying out research in three primary schools as part of an inter-disciplinary project.

The three selected schools are functioning primary schools with interested and enthusiastic principals. English is a second or even third additional language for the learners who come from all over South Africa and even further afield. Schools A and B have 600 learners, with School C, registering over 1400 learners. At least 80% of the children qualify for the feeding scheme and all three schools have been declared non-paying fee schools. One of the schools did not have electricity for more than three months this year .

School libraries have been established in each school and each library has been stocked with books from organisations such as Biblionef. The book stock comprises English, Sepedi, and in School C’s case also IsiZulu books. There are between 1-3 books per child. The ratio of books to learner will move towards a more desirable and internationally acceptable one as more books are added. In each case, a school librarian has been trained and they are supervised by a project manager. In addition, the researchers have initiated a number of reading related activities such as book clubs, book buddies etc. Other interventions include the twinning of schools.

The reading levels of learners have been tested periodically throughout the project.

Although their research has not been completed, it already points to a number of findings, for example:
• Children find it difficult to learn to read in English because the phonetics of English is so different from that of African languages.
• The level of most reference books such as World Books, is too high.
• There are not enough high interest, low level books available.
• Many of the so-called children’s classics are inappropriate.
• There are not enough books available in African languages.
• English books are more popular among the children.

Some books have been found to be more popular than others. These include:
• TV programme spin-off books;
• High interest, low level books;
• Beginning to read books;
• Multicultural books;

Since the implementation of the project, there has been steady improvement in reading levels, the latest level for grade 7 being 48% in School A. This was originally established as 31%. Thus, the implementation of libraries and reading related activities does seem to influence reading skills. However, the researchers express anxiety about what will happen to the school libraries and reading within the schools when the project closes down.

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