Teaching reading for meaning? : a case study of the initial teaching of reading in a mainstream South African school.
This case study examines the pedagogy of early reading in one mainstream (numerical norm) South African school. Existing research shows that there is reason for grave concern in South Africa regarding the reading achievements of a large proportion of children in the Foundation Phase of schooling. The impact of poor reading achievement in the early years not only remains largely unmitigated throughout schooling, but also affects adult illiteracy rates and academic achievement in institutions of higher learning. The implications for individuals and for society as a whole are profound. However, the acquisition of reading competence in the Foundation Phase at school in South Africa is surprisingly under-researched and has tended to focus on the language of instruction (the "mother tongue debate") or on broader sociological explanations for the generally poor reading performance of South African school children who do not attend elite schools. Explanations relate to the web of widespread poverty, poor health conditions, and early childhood learning experiences at home and in ECD centres which inadequately prepare children for the demands of schooling, and lack of access to resources such as books in the home. Little of the existing literature directly addresses how pedagogies of early literacy influence the "reading crisis". This study contributes to understanding poor reading achievement by providing a rare rich description of three Grade 1 literacy classrooms in one South African township school, seeking pedagogical explanations for the continued low reading achievement of South African school children. This interpretative, qualitatively dominant, theory-seeking case study is bounded by category (the pedagogy of teaching reading), space (Grade 1 classrooms in one particular mainstream school in KwaZulu-Natal), time (2006/2007) and theme (How meaning is positioned in the teaching of reading). It captures the understandings and practices of Grade 1 teachers with respect to the initial teaching of reading through an additional language in a typically mainstream school in South Africa. The positioning of reading as a meaning-making activity and the kind of "literate subject" produced by this positioning are foci of investigation and analysis. Data are examined from the perspective of reading theory. Data were gathered from a transect walk through classrooms, extensive classroom observations, teacher interviews, participatory artefact analysis, questionnaires and children‘s drawings. Findings were that these teachers, though fully qualified, have neither coherent understandings of how literacy develops nor appropriate pedagogical knowledge to inform their practice. The dominant instructional practice in these Grade 1 classrooms is whole class recitation of lists of words and of short and mostly unconnected text with restricted meaning and function. Teachers do not consciously help learners to develop the ability to manipulate and play with sounds. Scant attention is paid to the development of concepts about print in these Grade 1 classrooms, in spite of the literacy-poor backgrounds from which most learners come. There is effectively no access to books in the classroom, visits to the school library are irregular and teachers do not read aloud regularly to learners. Learners are not significantly exposed to extended text in the first year of schooling. The almost exclusive use of phonic decoding does not develop learning strategies for word recognition and comprehension, and is inappropriate for proficient reading in English. Most importantly, teachers and learners do not approach reading or writing as a meaning making activity. In the light of international research, it is argued that these practices prevent children from coming to an early understanding of the functions of text and from developing a range of strategies for comprehension. It is argued that this lack of focus on meaning and on ways of constructing meaning in reading are factors contributing to the poor performance of learners in standardised reading tests. Explanations for these pedagogical practices involve a complex interplay of personal experience of reading, outdated initial teacher education and inadequate continuing teacher education. Recommendations are made regarding initial and continuing teacher education for Foundation Phase teachers.