Snoeks Desmond

Ms Snoeks Desmond heads a small but successful literacy NGO in Kwa Zulu Natal called Family Literacy Project (FLP). During her university studies she looked in detail at the reasons for the success or failure of literacy projects in this province of South Africa. Her research showed that one of the main reasons why adults participated in literacy programmes was so that they could support their children and understand the problems and issues that their children faced at school. IIZ/DVV is at present supporting FLP in an attempt to expand this approach, which incorporates aspects of REFLECT, to other interested small organisations in Kwa Zulu Natal.

Family Literacy Project

The idea of family literacy is gaining ground in South Africa and different approaches are being experimented with. Some projects are based in pre-schools and crèches and work with parents and children together. Others target pre-school teachers themselves. A project where the main focus is on the parents and through them the children is The Family Literacy Project in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa.

The Family Literacy Project was not established as a response to an articulated community need but was prompted by research findings into the development of early literacy skills. The research study was conducted over three years into the effectiveness of early childhood interventions by the national Department of Education’s ECD Pilot Project. One of the findings was that despite training of community based pre-school teachers, there was little or no improvement in the literacy scores of the young children in their care. A different approach seemed necessary and using information from family literacy projects in other parts of the world, strengthening of parental skills was a way of ensuring that young children had a good start to their literacy development.

The main aim of the Family Literacy Project, which brings together adult and early literacy, is to encourage young children and their adult carers to see learning to read as a shared pleasure and a valuable skill. The emphasis is on the enjoyable aspects of reading and writing and underpinning this is the belief that it is easier to learn something when actively involved and having fun. This does not mean that learning will not require some effort, but it does mean that it is not seen as dreary. So, the work of the project is based on the understanding that for young children to become literate reading and writing must be introduced into their lives as desirable and enjoyable skills. Adults who care for them, parents and teachers, should guide them and by example demonstrate the importance of literacy. It is an imperative that adults are seen to be enjoying being literate and using their skills in many different ways.

In the Family Literacy Project groups, adults come together to improve their own literacy skills but integrated into each unit of six to seven sessions are supplementary materials, discussion and activities that link what the parent is learning to the way she interacts with her own children at home.

The project is based in deeply rural areas of the Southern Drakensberg. This is a world heritage site and is very beautiful but for most people who live there life is hard with no electricity, poor roads and no running water. There is little paid employment and many of the men work in cities several hours´ drive away.

However the project took some time to develop this method of working. At first, in March 2000, three family literacy groups were established and six workshops were run for each group. The adults discussed ways they could support the development of early literacy skills in their children and every session included a chance to try out a play activity.

Although the parents were not asked about their own levels of literacy it was clear that many were struggling with reading and writing. With this in mind activities were designed to help adults as well as children develop skills such as matching, letter recognition, sequencing and interpreting pictures

Parents made books, cutting out pictures from magazines. Working in pairs, they practised how best to use these with their children, asking questions and modelling how to handle the book.

Two of the groups were established alongside under-resourced but imaginatively run pre-school classes. During the workshops the group observed the teachers working with the children.

The first activity observed was story telling and the adults were so interested in this that at the next session one group arrived an hour early so that they could watch the teacher and children busy with a different activity.

The third group also existed as an adult literacy group. The crèche alongside this group was run by two women with no early childhood development training and was a safe but dull place. Sixty children crammed into a small rondavel left little space for any activities.

The adults, however, were excited by the workshops on early literacy. This group followed the same programme as in the other two groups but without any input from the pre-school workers.

A problem in the first two groups described was that attendance was erratic. There was always a group of women present, but many were there “representing” others, or came because on that day there was no casual work available in the forest or fields. Attendance at the third group was consistently high and apologies were always given if, on a rare occasion, someone was absent. This could be attributed to the fact that the group had been meeting for adult literacy lessons since 1997 and so had established a strong sense of the importance of regular attendance. The question arose -if an adult literacy component was introduced into the other two groups, would attendance there also improve?

To test this out the project was allocated funding to engage a consultant to conduct a participatory rural appraisal. The focus of this appraisal was to determine adult literacy needs. Each group was asked to select a local woman who could, in 2001, be trained as an adult literacy facilitator. The facilitators were then trained in REFLECT methodology and helped conduct the appraisal that has since served as the baseline for subsequent evaluations of the project.

By March 2001 these facilitators had attended four weeks of adult literacy training and their brief was to establish adult literacy groups at the two sites where workshops had been run, and to strengthen the existing adult literacy class. They were also to work with three new groups established close to the existing groups. The expansion of the family literacy project into these new sites was partly the result of one of the findings of the participatory rural appraisal, whereby teachers expressed the wish to set up family literacy groups attached to their pre-schools.

So, early in 2001, in addition to the first three family literacy groups, four new groups were set up. One of the adult literacy facilitators was unable to attach herself to any pre-school or crèche as the parents in her area were all employed as farm workers or in co-operative ventures and were not free during the day. Her group is the only one not attached to a pre-school.

Each group now meets regularly for sessions led by the adult literacy facilitator. The method used is one that brings together the training received in adult literacy as well as REFLECT methods. In addition every unit, about eight lessons, includes a session on early literacy to encourage parents to help their children develop relevant skills.

During each unit the group decides what action to take that will use their new knowledge. These range from asking a husband to use a condom (HIV/AIDS unit); walking your child to crèche (child protection unit) to starting an income generation project (crime and poverty unit).

The Family Literacy Project has also tried to engage group members in different ways that use their newly developed or improved literacy skills.

Development of books: several readers have been developed by project staff. Before the books were printed, they were read by family literacy group members. They underlined words they found difficult. The text was changed to ensure that the books were accessible to most group members.

The women involved in the development of the books had their names included in the acknowledgements. This was important in recognising the contribution made and has served to build a positive attitude towards using literacy skills.

Libraries: every group has a small library. Women and children borrow books to read at home. Book club meetings are held every week in the groups and members discuss the book they borrowed. In addition, group members help the family literacy facilitator record the borrowing and returning of books. 

“The Family Literacy Project has definitely started a culture of reading amongst the participants. Most of the participants read on a regular basis (up to 3 times a week or more), sometimes in the evenings or late afternoon, but mostly over the weekends when they have a bit more time available to themselves. Individual reading includes library books, newsletters and magazines.” Evaluation, October 2002

Pen friends: A pen friend network exists between the groups with women from one group writing to those in a neighbouring group. This was difficult to initiate as women felt uneasy about writing to people they did not know. However after the first exchange of letters, the flow has increased and women were delighted to meet their pen friends at the December 2002 celebrations of the whole project.

Notice boards: community notice boards are maintained by each group to be read by the wider community. Information on these is taken from the most recent unit covered by the group. Group members draw or write, for example, about child protection or HIV / AIDS. As with the pen friend initiative, this took some time to become established. A workshop was held for one woman in each group to learn the skill of lettering and how to create posters. This woman is expected to co-ordinate other learners to make sure the notice boards are maintained and the information is changed regularly.

Parents and children: known as “Umzali Nengane” (parents and children), journals are kept by the women to record interactions with their children. They paste pictures in the books and talk to their children about the pictures. Sometimes they record trips to town or write down a child’s comments on a book they have read together. This has been particularly important in modelling use of literacy and shared enjoyment in talking and reading together.

Newsletter: the project has a regular newsletter edited by one of the facilitators. Articles cover project news and information, there is a word search and group members write in to the editor.

By the end of 2002, many group members had passed several external examinations and others had passed lower level tests set by the project. More importantly, the women are now visiting other mothers in their areas taking out books and showing them how to read to their children and discussing the importance of games and conversations. This is a new venture in 2003 but the early signs are positive. The word is out that reading and writing are fun, and that with the introduction of books into these very rural and impoverished areas children can be read to and everyone benefits.