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UNICEF and the Nelson Mandela Institute: Helping make reading the passport to success

UNICEF South Africa/2018/Reddy
© UNICEF South Africa/2018/Reddy
Enthusiastic learners at Dlangweza Senior Primary School.

13 March 2018 - It is a reality that education is a necessary tool to break the cycle of poverty. This is particularly true in the rural areas of many developing countries, where generations are unable to advance economically due to not having the basic tools of literacy and numeracy. South Africa’s apartheid history is characterised by the rural dispossession and dislocation of the black majority, where rural areas were often neglected in terms of educational opportunities and were seen as mere suppliers of labour.

One form of this neglect is in the lack of support for mother tongue instruction. There is sufficient compelling research indicating that being taught in one’s home language enhances a child’s overall learning and their comprehension of language, concepts and logic.

With this realisation, UNICEF South Africa began partnering with the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development (NMI) in 2007 in the Eastern Cape province within the Schools for Africa project on the Bilingual Literacy in the Foundation Phase programme, labelled by community members as the ‘Magic Classroom Collective’, because of the miracle of watching children learn how to read for the first time. The underlying premise of this initiative is that teaching should be engaging and diverse and not linear and monotonous, while being fully grounded in its local context. In the case of the Eastern Cape, this means promoting learning in isiXhosa, the majority language in the province.

Between 2013 and 2017, UNICEF South Africa contributed approximately ZAR 14 million (USD 1.2 million) to NMI. Evidence shows that there has been an improvement in both numeracy and literacy levels of Grade 3 learners since the inception of this programme over a decade ago. Its success has led to the University of Fort Hare (the alma mater of several African statesmen including Nelson Mandela) setting up, during the course of 2018, a Bilingual Education programme to train teachers to teach in indigenous languages using indigenous languages as the medium of instruction for trainee teachers.

© UNICEF South Africa/2018/Reddy
Angel Madikizela brings reading to life with confidence and passion.

Fifty kilometres from the town of Bizana, in rural KwaZulu-Natal the road becomes much more rugged and hilly. After traversing numerous hills and valleys that characterise the rural Eastern Cape, the landscape plateaus and one arrives at neat precinct of buildings that comprise Dlangweza Senior Primary School. Established in 1985, the school today has 178 learners from Grade R to Grade 7 and the NMI has worked with this school since 2009 with a focus on Grades R to 3.

Educator Nosimo Bhokomela has been teaching at the school since the Magic Classroom Collective Programme was introduced and has observed a notable improvement in both reading and counting skills. The programme she observes “has made teaching friendly” as it has led to more engaged and enthusiastic learners.

Her view is echoed by the School Principal, Mr Zamuxolo Mdatya who elaborates on the challenges faced by teaching in these communities where poverty is an obstacle at many levels. Passionate and committed, Mr Mdatya estimates that up to 70% of the learners at this school are children of single parents, usually mothers. While mothers search for work in urban areas, children are taken care of by their grandparents and, in some cases, their siblings in child-headed households. An added challenge is that some of the children do not have birth certificates and are thus unable to access any of the life-changing social grants that have helped drastically mitigate extreme poverty in post-apartheid South Africa. The number of children not having the relevant documentation also impacts on the amount of state subsidy received by the school hence it is in everybody’s interest to have all children officially registered.

Describing the programmes workbooks as being “very user-friendly” Principal Mdatya credits it with helping him and his teaching staff realise that the foundation phase of teaching is critical to a child’s development. Programmes that encourage innovation in teaching and learning are thus critical in schools and communities such as this one, as they help equip learners to further their education and thus aspire towards a future out of the cycle of poverty.

UNICEF South Africa/2018/Reddy
© UNICEF South Africa/2018/Reddy
Six-year old Thobela Boyoyo is the most advanced reader in his class.

Six-year old Thobela Bhoyoyo is an inspiring example of a learner who has benefitted from the programme. This Grade R learner, known as “Comrade” to his peers due to his love of anti-apartheid struggle songs, is a confident reader who, according to his teachers, understands the reading text at a level above that of most Grade 6 learners. His teacher recounts how, at the beginning of the school year, he was distracted and needed a channel for his considerable energy. The Magic Classroom Collective programme tapped into this energy by making books the focus of his learning and this allowed for the realisation that he is a talented and interested reader. Neatly-dressed in his school uniform, this shy little boy says that he “loves seeing the words” in his home language of Xhosa and that his favourite story is about goats because “there are goats where I live.” He adds that he wants to be a teacher when he grows up and recounts proudly how his friends like him to read to them.

In a touching scene, Principal Mdatya invited the boy’s mother, Nonkanyiso, to hear her son read to his classmates. After reading excerpts of a short story in a clear voice that showed an understanding of the text he was reading, there is enthusiastic applause from his fellow learners. Nonkanyiso smiles quietly as she speaks of Comrade being “very curious and always asking lots of questions.”

© UNICEF South Africa/2018/Reddy
UNICEF Education Specialist Dr Saadhna Panday-Soobrayan with Principal Zamuxolo Ndatya.

Education Specialist at UNICEF South Africa, Dr Saadhna Panday-Soobrayan, suggests to Principal Mdatya that he invite parents on a regular basis to come and listen to their children read, thereby fostering a culture of reading outside the school as well.

Nobuntu Mayeza, the Teacher Support Coordinator at NMI, explains that this interactive, non-linear model of teaching encourages foundation phase educators to prioritize contact time with their learners. This has led to educators completing their work for their term in time as they are motivated by the curriculum toolkit and the support they get from NMI. Nobuntu cites the examples of two Dlangezwa Primary School learners who passed their recent Mathematics Common paper examinations and have been awarded funding to attend one of the best secondary schools in the province. Principal Mdatya says that he and his teaching staff credit the programme for this achievement by learners who would otherwise not have had this opportunity and notes that the Management Workshops hosted by the NMI have been helpful as well.

Foundation Phase teacher Fikiswa Madikizela noticed shortly after her arrival at Dlangweza that “children are reading more at this school than the others I have taught at and this makes them more open minded.” Before the programme was initiated, she found that “children were getting bored” but now the content is more varied and stimulating and allows for a diversity of study techniques by the learners and thus less monotony for the educators. This is evidenced by the fact that the school does not close at 1pm like most in the area. Instead, says Ms Madikizela, children “want to read the Xhosa story books” and often arrive early at school, “before the bell rings”, so that they can read stories before lessons begin. These reading sessions are encouraging as the children themselves get a chance to read (as opposed to being read to by their educators) and they ask questions which shows a good level of listening and understanding.

Not far from Dlangweza Primary is Maje Senior Primary School where 11-year-old Angel Zinhle Madikizela is a Grade 6 learner. As a beneficiary of this programme, Angel began reading stories in Xhosa when she started school. Today, she is an active member of her school’s Reading Club and is an enthusiastic proponent of the power of reading. She has also written poetry and her advice is to always “think before you write” and believes that “education leads to success”. School Principal Ace Gqamane informs that Angel was recently placed second at the District Level Spelling Bee and has done very well in isiXhosa spelling competitions as well. These accolades are attributed by the Principal and educators to this programme which encouraged young Angel’s love of reading.

Comrade and Angel are but two examples of the power that innovative learning initiatives have in shaping a more positive future for young learners and the Magic Classroom Collective’s programme has shown itself to be a successful tool in furthering the education and basic life skills required for this future. 





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