A critical analysis of the relationship between literacy and disadvantage: a case study of grade 11 literacy practices in a township school.
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South Africa is currently in an educational crisis as evidenced by the performance of learners in a myriad of high stakes tests that they are exposed to. It has been established that this state of crisis is strongly correlated with the literacy levels of learners. The performance on the aforementioned tests are aligned with those who hail from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, performing overwhelmingly worse than those who do not. The aim of this study was to examine the relationship between literacy and disadvantage. The objectives of the study were to interrogate the literacy practices in school and to identify the ways in which disadvantage manifested itself within these literacy practices. In order to investigate these critical issues, a case study was conducted. One grade 11 class located in a township school formed the case of study. Data was gathered using classroom observations, post observation interviews, focus group interviews with the learners and with the teachers, a semi-structured interview with the principal and a questionnaire for the learners. Reading, writing, speaking and practical literacy practices were observed in the classroom. It was found that there was the general lack of a culture of reading amongst the learners and so the learners’ level of reading was below grade level. Writing was emphasized in class or given as homework with much of the writing centering on note-taking. Learners had to work in an environment where there was a chronic lack of resources (such as textbooks) which impacted on their literacy practices. The teaching and learning environment in which the literacies were embedded was characterized by a lack of suitable reading and writing instruction (in all of their subjects), feedback and practical science literacy. There were however, instances where teachers successfully and practically demonstrated particular tasks. The interactions in the classroom were dominated by the teacher-talk. There was language fluidity in these interactions as teachers used multilingual resources such as code-switching and transliteration to facilitate learning. Teachers also employed innovative teaching strategies. Further analysis of the data showed that disadvantage manifested in literacy practices in both obvious (such as lack of resources) and subtle ways (such as attitudes and social behaviours). The ways in which disadvantage manifested in the literacy practices also differed amongst the different literacy practices. An ecological theory for literacy development was used in order to understand the extent to which literacy development is context dependent and thus more susceptible to influence from situational factors of disadvantage such as poverty, ideology, pedagogy etc. This perspective revealed a nuanced relationship between literacy and disadvantage and concluded that literacy is the product of the individual and his/her environment (which comprises the micro, meso, exo and macro systems)