Are the Born-frees really free?

2014-06-09 18:37

Over 600,000 young voters were added to the recent South African voters’ role. They are the first young people to reach voting age without experiencing life under Apartheid. Unlike their forbearers, they were born into democracy and grew up in a free society. Or have they? How much freedom have they experienced educationally?

For many young people schooling is a struggle to access learning through a language that is not their mother tongue. Officially, at age nine they switch from a mother tongue to English as a medium of instruction. At this age, they have not properly acquired the reading and writing proficiency necessary for deep learning to take place throughout their education. There is much research that indicates that reading and writing should be acquired in the language the child knows best. One can add effective English teaching to the school curriculum following what is known as an additive model; rather than using a subtractive model where students’ mother tongues are abandoned in favour of English at a very early age. This is being done successfully in countries like Ethiopia, India and others. Students can achieve a matric where they are fluent readers and writers in English and in their mother tongues.

The hegemony of colonial English and the legacy of Apartheid education have trapped many scholars into a mediocre education where they are scarcely able to read an English academic textbook or write an academic essay. If they wish to enter higher education, these are tasks they have to be able to perform or they are doomed to failure. Recent school assessments of literacy demonstrated that only 33% of grade six learners are performing at competent literacy levels for their grade. Research tells us that these students never catch-up what they have missed. They enter higher education with starry eyes and not much else to support a successful engagement with academic knowledge.

We need young matriculants who can read effectively and who can write adequately so that they can use these skills meaningfully as tools for learning in tertiary education. Young people are excluded from contributing to the economic and technical growth of this country because they lack a formal, literacy-based education. As things stand now, the majority of our students will do anything except read their textbooks, because they need to know 95% of the words on a page to make sense of what they are reading. Most students just simply do not have the English vocabulary knowledge to negotiate their textbooks successfully. Reading becomes a laborious, time-consuming task that is just too hard.

There is, however, encouraging work being done in schools by concerned citizens, such as Prof Jonathan Jansen’s School Partnership Project. Ten poorly performing township schools are included in this project and educators are being assisted to grow a culture of reading in these schools. They use a proven technique called Sustained Silent Reading where one or two hours per week are set aside and everybody in the school, from principal to groundsmen, all read something for pleasure. This method was successfully used in the Fuji Islands and many other countries with effective results. A recent experiment in another township school in the Free State resulted in the matric results improving by 30%. It is a relatively simple method to apply, but it requires the buy-in of all concerned. The biggest problem is always where to get the reading material which has to be something the learners will enjoy. Most schools have no libraries. How can a reading culture be grown if there are no enjoyable books available on the school campus?

The problem of reading material for the Partnership Project was solved by Media 24 who donate 2,500 dated copies of magazines to this school project. The project has not been running long enough for results to be demonstrated, but the learners positive responses as they explore the pages of these magazines, is proof enough of a successful intervention. They openly express their eagerness to receive and sit with the magazines and read whatever they can at this stage. Their vocabulary, syntax and comprehension will grow and improve steadily and very soon they will want books to read for sheer pleasure. This input will impact positively on their writing, speaking and listening as well.

Not only do we need to re-evaluate the role of language in education and think twice about neglecting the role of indigenous languages, but we need to provide opportunity for learners to develop their literacy in both English and their mother tongues. We can have matriculants who are able to use English well and progress in higher education without giving up their mother tongues. Rome was not built in a day. We can start slowly and select a few schools and let the results show us the truth. Once the evidence is out there, and we act on it, then only will the Born-frees be truly free.

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