How to teach kids to read in a multilingual classroom

By admin
02 July 2014

With eleven official languages and many other African languages in South African classrooms, multilingualism has become quite a challenge for teachers.

In many schools today there may be as many as six languages and even more cultures represented in one classroom. How do teachers cope with this while trying to teach children to read and write?

The challenge of multilingualism in classrooms is an unplanned consequence of a post-1994 South Africa. With large numbers of African language learners attending schools that previously catered solely to English- and Afrikaans-speaking children, there remains no clear answer to the question of improving learner literacy when the language of learning and teaching (LOLT) is foreign to them.

Thankfully there’s significant interest in how South African children learn to read in multicultural classrooms. Oxford University Press Southern Africa recently hosted a Breakfast Indaba where Janet Condy, associate professor at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and Genevieve Koopman of the Western Cape education department, shared their insights on the topic.

Condy explains the heart of the problem, “Inevitably there is a situation where teachers and learners speak a different language.”

There are clear advantages for learners who are able to learn in their home language, including linguistic, cognitive, academic and psychological plusses. Yet until the issue of a shortage of teachers is addressed, teachers in existing multilingual classrooms can employ a number of strategies that will help learners learn to read and write.

Condy recommends the following strategies:

  • Try to use multicultural reading material. This will not only help with understanding, but also teach empathy, respect and understanding of other cultures and languages.
  • Use metaphors while learning to read, for example:

  1. Mirrors: Do you see yourself in this story?
  2. Windows: Can you learn something about other cultures from this story?
  3. Doors: What can you learn about other cultures from this story? How does it compare to your own culture?

  • Use authentic texts that are written or verified by home-language speakers.
  • Use ethnic characters in stories to teach awareness of other cultures.
  • Ask learners to identify characters’ feelings in stories.
  • After reading a story, ask learners questions about the text or to write a response (to a specific question).

Koopman explained the language in education policy (LIEP), which aims to introduce home-language teaching in the foundation phase from 2014, wants to address some of the difficulties of teaching reading and writing in multilingual classrooms.

She believes the first prize for learners would be that teachers are able to teach in their home language, but admits there’s a shortage of both teachers and resources in isiXhosa and the other indigenous South African languages.

Koopman has observed many “coping” strategies teachers use to teach in multilingual classrooms, including:

  • Many teachers naturally code switch – alternate between two or three languages – in order to convey complex concepts.
  • Some teachers ask learners to interpret for their peers.
  • Learner language groups are promoted.
  • Some teachers employ choral chanting, singing, rhymes and songs in an effort to accommodate different languages when teaching.
  • In the face of a lack of multilingual learning materials, teachers create their own and translate it into the required language.

“Although this is not ideal, it demonstrates a strategy to cope,” Koopman said. “Many teachers seek language support and attend workshops to familiarise themselves with curriculum content. There is good progress in the approach to teaching literacy, with a shift from teaching skills in isolation (phonics, reading, writing, communicating) to an integrated ‘whole language’ approach,” she added.

The incremental introduction of African languages to our schools and training institutions remains one of many challenges that educationalists, policymakers and publishers face.  In doing so, their commitment to finding solutions to multicultural, multilingual education in South Africa is as much about dealing with the ghosts of the past as it is about reimagining the future.

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