Turning the tide on illiteracy: a search for early childhood language stimulation among Free State pre-schoolers
Van Staden, Annalene
MetadataShow full item record
One of the most significant educational accomplishments in a literate society is learning to read and write. Social-constructivist theorists emphasise the mediating role of language in the process of knowledge construction during the social interaction of children1 with more capable peers, adults and educators. This theoretical account confirms recent longitudinal findings that significant relationships exist between quality early childcare learning environments and academic performance in the primary school. Moreover, evidence abounds of direct links between quality language input in early childhood education and emergent literacy skills development and the stability of literacy, social and behavioural skills throughout childhood and adolescence. Against a backdrop of recent literacy statistics obtained from the Annual National Assessments (2011) of South Africa, which indicate a downward trend in literacy achievement for the majority of children, it is critical to gain an understanding of teacher practices and the quality of early childhood language input currently being offered in early childhood education. Despite numerous efforts to increase the literacy level of primary school children, it does seem that early literacy is still lacking in the majority of children who enter the formal school environment. For instance, in the Free State province only a third of Grade 3 children achieved the basic literacy outcomes in 2011. A collaborative effort is thus in the process of being undertaken to assess the quality of early childhood language stimulation programmes being offered at randomly selected Grade R-classes in the Province. The study involves a research team comprising six members, 107 educators and 3657 Grade R children. This longitudinal, community-based research project is in three phases: Phase One (2009–2010) the pilot project was launched; Phase Two (2011) has been replicated but with a more representative sample of classes and early childhood centres, including in-depth and focus-group interviews with a representative sample of Grade R educators; and Phase Three (2012–2014), in which identified needs of Grade R educators will be addressed through workshops and in-service training opportunities. Embedded in the broader theoretical framework of ecological systems theory, the first phase also considered the impact of various teacher and classroom variables on the language outcomes of pre-school children. These included school demarcation, socio-economic status, school fees, educator-child ratio, language of teaching and learning (LOLT), and educators’ training and experience. Data was gathered through multiple methods of the administration of the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERSR), classroom observations, recording field notes and informal discussions with the Grade R educators. Important findings are that the quality of language input varied significantly across different educational settings in rural and urban areas of the province, though Grade R classes in urban areas are much better equipped and teaching practices to support language development more advanced. Major concerns that impact negatively on the language-related experience of pre-school children were socio-economic and financial constraints; the majority of children not having access to books and other support material; over-crowded classes and how these affect quality teaching and learning; both teachers and children being disadvantaged because of LOLT policies in some of the schools; and authoritarian teaching styles. The results not only confirm those of previous South African studies, that the quality of language stimulation programmes need urgent attention, but also provide the basis for a radical re-think by policymakers and stakeholders in education on the entire provision of pre-schooling.