Planting the seeds of literacy with well-designed picture books

2010-02-02 00:00

AN innovative publishing effort by the local School of Education and Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal aims to supply storybooks to children in severely underresourced schools.

Seed Books consist of 23 short ­picture books in Zulu, for use by children in the foundation phase of schooling, that is, Grades One to Three. The books are copyright-free, and were designed to be easily photocopied, so that teachers may make more books as needed. In December 14 000 books were printed and this year, they will be distributed with other teaching materials to 600 teaching assistants on a teacher-training course developed by UKZN, who will be working in very poor schools. Each book cost R1,57 to print, thus each set of 23 books costs just R36,12, a cost covered by the Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund.

The stories were the brain child of Clare Verbeek, who says, “The intention of this project is to provide books for young children in literacy-poor communities, we want children to be able to take their copies of the books home to read with their families. The books are graded to cater for different stages of early reading — some have more pictures and little or no text, while others have more words along with some pictures.” The stories were produced in a collaborative effort by Faculty of Education staff members, including Verbeek, Thembani Dladla, Zanele Buthelezi and Kathy Arbuckle of the Centre for Adult Education (CAE). Writer Bridget Krone assisted with editing, commissioning artists and generally keeping the project moving at crucial stages. Joyce ­Shabalala and Taadi Modipa proofread the final texts.

The books have a local flavour and cover a wide range of topics, from family life, to the weather, counting, hairstyles, and animals — often with a humorous twist. Local artists, including the likes of Jinny Heath, provided illustrations in several different styles. “I think these little books offer simple texts for beginner readers but at the same time they are cognitively engaging. Quite a feat,” says Sandra Land of CAE.

It is widely accepted that formal education in these early years is best conducted in a pupil’s mother-tongue, yet there is a dearth of reading ­material available in many of the ­official African languages to support reading development. In addition, many schools do not have libraries or funds to obtain the variety of books necessary to foster a love of reading among pupils, and the latter is true of many homes. This lack of resources impacts on the entire education ­system, as many students reach ­tertiary level and battle to read as fluently as their studies demand. Developing a love of reading at the earliest stages of ­education is extremely beneficial to future progress, and innovative projects like the Seed Books ­series promise cost-effective ways to promote literacy at school and in homes.

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