Reading to Learn South Africa
The Reading to Learn (RtL) programme for teaching reading and writing has been developed in a long term
action research project with teachers in Australia at all levels of education, from early primary through to secondary and tertiary study, across curriculum areas.
The methodology has been developed in response to current urgent needs, particularly of marginalised learners, to rapidly improve reading and writing for educational access and success.
To this end it draws on the theories of Vygotsky of learning as social process; Halliday’s model of language as text in social context, and Bernstein’s model of education as pedagogic discourse.
These theoretical foundations are integrated in a set of teaching strategies that are optimally practical in diverse classroom settings, and accessible for teachers to acquire and use as part of their ordinary practice in their grade or curriculum area.
The strategies have been independently evaluated as four times as effective as other literacy approaches at accelerating reading and writing development, capable of improving learners’reading ability from junior primary to secondary levels within one year (McCrae et al 2000). They are currently being applied in primary, secondary and tertiary contexts in Australia, Indonesia, Africa (South Africa, Kenya, Uganda,) Afghanistan, Sweden and other parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America, with learners from a wide spectrum of language, cultural and educational backgrounds.
Reading levels in South African schools
Read about the 2016 PIRLS results here
The problems facing literacy teaching in our schools has been well documented over the last 15 years by annual assessments and a host of research studies. The most powerful illustration of the cumulative effects of low academic literacy levels are illustrated by the Higher Education South Africa national benchmark tests in 2009 of 12,202 first year university students across South Africa - the best products of the schooling system. Students were measured across three levels: proficient level - able to cope with mainstream programmes without support; intermediate level - would need extra support; and at basic level - serious learning problems needing extensive support. It was found that 48% performed at the intermediate level and a further 7% were at the lower basic level. When one considers that 41% of the intermediate level students were in the bottom half of the range, then the seriousness of the problem is clear.
Criteria for Effective Intervention
To intervene effectively in this situation, a literacy programme must be based on:
1. an understanding that reading is the primary skill for academic success in all learning areas, without which students will not be able to write effectively;
2. a sound understanding of the reading process and a methodology that is based on, and supports learners through the reading process;
3. a sound understanding of the structure and language patterns of different genres across the curriculum which is incorporated into the teaching process
Such a methodology must be able to be used:
1. to intervene at all levels of the education system,
2. to enable those learners who have inadequate reading levels to develop their reading to appropriate levels;
3. and to enable learners to read and write all genres effectively in all learning areas.
Relevance to the South African Context
Linking back to the criteria for effective intervention, RtL would be appropriate in the South African context for the following reasons:
It is theoretically sound. It is based on a clear understanding of the reading process and on the way language works in texts to make meaning for different purposes across the curriculum. Secondly it provides a highly explicit and supportive teaching process, that which constantly affirms students and opens up their learning potential.
Lesson sequences and teacher-learner interactions are carefully planned to provide a high level of support for reading and writing texts of all kinds across the curriculum. The strategies provide underachieving students with maximum support as they develop the knowledge and language resources required to read and write texts independently.
The approach provides a pedagogy appropriate to learners in upper primary and high schools as well as Foundation Phase; is inclusive of students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds; is flexible and adaptable; and is supportive of different levels of literacy development, including reading, writing, spelling, punctuation and grammar.
It is not expensive and is not dependent on expensive and extensive material support. The only essential requirement for its implementation is that teachers have access to a photocopier to provide learners with copies of the texts to work with.
Finally, and most importantly, the structured nature of the programme and the clear step-by-step process makes it accessible to teachers. This, coupled with the extensive training and material support, enables teachers to internalise the methodology and gain confidence and skills in an ordered and methodical manner.