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South Africa, 8 September 2017: Early grade reading study is helping to end the cycle of poverty

© UNICEF South Africa/2017/Hearfield
A child works on his writing assignment at Mogodiri Intermediate School in Ventersdorp, North-West province.

 
By Sudeshan Reddy, Communication Specialist, UNICEF South Africa

A long and dusty gravel road leads to a series of flat concrete structures that comprise Mogodiri Intermediate School on the outskirts of Ventersdorp in the North-West province of South Africa. Surrounded by indigenous ‘veld’, the school is the only learning institution in the vicinity. Children, some as young as five, walk up to six kilometres each way to get to school and although a bus has been provided, it is not always reliable.

So-called ‘farm schools’, located on the outskirts of commercial farms, such as Mogodiri have historically served some of South Africa’s poorest communities. While the post-apartheid government has made notable strides in alleviating rural poverty, these regions remain characterised by high rates of illiteracy and limited employment opportunities. The meal provided to the children by the government schools feeding scheme is sometimes their only meal for the day.

Mogodiri (named after a tree that is indigenous to the area) was built in 1937 to serve the children of farm labourers. Today, 80 years later, the lives of the average farm labourer has not fundamentally changed, and many of these children remain trapped in a cycle of poverty with very limited career opportunities. Teachers speak of high rates of absenteeism and almost non-existent parental monitoring of some of their learners.

What has changed, however, is that investments are being made in the quality of the education received at farm schools and similarly under-resourced primary education facilities. Mogodiri is one of the schools participating in the Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS), with support from UNICEF, and the positive results are evident.

One is struck by the orderliness of the school and the classroom and the quiet buzz productive learners. In a sun-lit classroom with 26 learners, educator Maria Tseladimitloa begins her lesson by showing examples of phonics in the Setswana language and having the learners pronounce them. She then creates a breakaway group of six children and conducts a ‘guided reading’ exercise in which she and the learners read together. This differs from previous approaches whereby the educator would read ‘to’ the whole class, thus limiting focused attention and discouraging individual reading.
 

© UNICEF South Africa/2017/Hearfield
The grade two and three classroom at Mogodiri Intermediate School.

 
Reading is done from books provided by the Department of Basic Education, and the progress of each learner is tracked and ticked off in a notebook. A glossary is created in which the vocabulary of each learner is also monitored, and there is a spelling test every Friday. Maria notes that “children need attention, and we as teachers need to be able to multi-task.”

She uses mind map diagrams and colourful visuals in her classroom to drive home the message that reading is both fun and stimulating. Maria believes that the EGRS has provided much-needed structure and focus for reading lessons, adding that “we did not have a plan before.” She attributes her success to the training that she received through Class Act, an implementing partner, also supported by UNICEF.

When the students take the common provincial tests, there has been a noticeable improvement in the results of this school. This is borne out by officials from the Department of Basic Education who, on visits to Mogdiri, have acknowledged the improved reading skills of the learners in grades 1–3.

Jeremiah Ngake, at 13, is older than any of his classmates. Difficult personal circumstances are responsible for his having to repeat grade three. Nevertheless, Maria has seen a noticeable improvement in his reading ability and confidence level since his exposure to the EGRS. His favourite book is Baking with Granny, he shyly says.

EGRS coach Kate Maake oversees the training and monitoring of the teachers and visits the schools on average three times per term. When asked what motivates her to keep going, Kate responds that “I told myself that I need to get these children somewhere, to help the teachers mould them into responsible adults.” Coaches are trained to train teachers and, sometimes with difficulty, encourage them to embrace the new methodology and routine that is the EGRS.

Maryna du Plooy from Class Act describes the three coaches based in the North-West as being “relentless in their commitment and dedication”; and she adds that thanks to the support of UNICEF, EGRS will help shape a better future for thousands of learners.

 

 
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