Academic expert talks literacy development amid Covid-19 and why Grade 4s are most at risk

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"A critical moment in learning," (Martin UW Photography/Getty Images)
"A critical moment in learning," (Martin UW Photography/Getty Images)

School closures, unequal access to remote learning and a phased-in reopening means that for many children, both locally and around the world, the 2020 academic year has essentially been lost. 

Defining the impact of Covid-19 on education as "a critical moment in learning," Wits lecturer Dr Lindiwe Tshuma tells Parent24 that between 25% and 57% of the school year has been missed, with Grades 4, 5, 8, and 9 facing the biggest losses in learning. 

'A transition year' 

As in any other academic year, senior pupils have been prioritised, particularly matrics, whose successes and failures are immediately apparent and highly visible. 

But Tshuma says lower grades deserve equal attention, singling out Grade 4 as a significant "transition year" in SA's schooling system. 

"From Grade 1 to Grade 3, learners are learning to read, they are building a firm language foundation for later use. From Grade 4 onwards, learners are reading to learn, they make sense of what they read using language. Thus Grade 4 represents a transition year".  

Also see: Inclusivity a key focus for the future of education in South Africa

Important changes which take place in Grade 4

The most significant change in Grade 4 is the Language of Learning and Teaching (LoLT) which changes from mother tongue in Grades R to 3, to English or Afrikaans from Grade 4 onwards. 

"A number of changes take place in Grade 4: the (LoLT) changes; the number of subjects taught increases; the number of teachers also increase; [but] the most significant change is the change in the LoLT". 

According to Tshuma, children who transition from being taught in their mother tongue to being taught in English are called "English Language Learners (ELLs) and they make up 90% of Grade 4 pupils in SA's public schools".

For many under-resourced communities, this change is abrupt, Tshuma notes, and many teachers do not possess the necessary skills to make the transition as smooth as possible. 

"In well-resourced communities, there is no change in the LoLT as pupils' mother tongues are either English or Afrikaans." 

Still, successful strategies have been identified which include translanguaging and code-switching. 

"Translanguaging is based on the observation that learners use their two languages inside and outside the classroom in order to construct understanding. Code-switching is the alternating use of two or more languages in the same utterance or conversation. Code-switching is a form of translanguaging," Tshuma explains. 

Must read: How can you support your child’s schooling from home?

What factors in the home can enable a child's language development? 

Since the home has become a key space for learning during the pandemic, we asked Tshuma about what parents can do to assist their young children's language development. 

Her recommendations include storybook reading (hard copy is best) and providing the child with a suitable environment to focus on schoolwork. 

"Learners who are exposed to storybook reading early develop a wider vocabulary, have better background knowledge and better language and conceptual development; learn to read and write more easily and quickly than their peers who have not been exposed to books or reading". 

And while Tshuma acknowledges that at this point in the school year "there is no time to cover all the language development skills that would have been covered," we must remain optimistic in viewing the pandemic as "an opportunity for language development instead of an interruption to it".

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