File photo: Reading and writing skills are learnt before our formal schooling career begins, says the writer.

Some may blame teachers for poor literacy levels but our school literacy problems are far more complex, says Jackie Schoeman.

Durban - According to a recent study by the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (Needu), only 5 percent of Grade 5 pupils are able to read at the required rate of 80 to 90 words a minute.

Needu spokesman Nick Taylor attributed these shocking results to a drop in the standard of teacher qualifications.

The problem, however, starts even before a child enters the classroom.

After years of research and seven decades of working with vulnerable children, we have found that children need to learn skills before Grade R.

Reading and writing skills are learnt before our formal schooling career begins. The first five years of a child’s life – when they are most receptive to new information – are the most crucial to ensuring children are well equipped for school.

Children develop a connection between letters and sounds in those early years through imaginative play, rhyming and word games.

Children who are given early learning opportunities display a marked improvement in their reading and writing ability. Having foundation phase skills puts these children in a much better position to perform well academically.

Foundation phase learning is vital for success at later grade level. Children who are not exposed to early learning opportunities are placed at a disadvantage.

Research suggests that even in well-resourced institutions, pupils who have not capitalised on that crucial early window of opportunity stand very little chance of recovering those lost years and their failure is perpetuated throughout their academic career.


According to the Child Gauge 2013 report, there has been a significant increase in pre-school access, with 90 percent of five-to-six-year-olds and 55 percent of three- to four-year-olds attending some kind of educational institution or care facility. However, the quality of stimulation and learning could not be quantified.

In the communities we serve, many children have no access to formal early childhood education. For those that do, their exposure tends to be inconsistent and of low quality because of a lack of human, physical, skills and financial resources.

These children lack the foundation they need to succeed in formal schooling. They start schooling at a great disadvantage and often do not finish school, which in turn leads to high levels of unemployment.

This has broader societal consequences when their children are born into the same disadvantaged community, repeating the cycle.

We sometimes assume that children in daycare centres are being stimulated and prepared for school, but this is often not the case as many centres in under-resourced communities function merely as baby-sitting facilities. This does little for later learning as children should have access to constructive stimulation if they are to excel at school.

Through our early learning groups and mobile toy libraries, Cotlands’ non-centre-based approach is a cost-effective answer to the early learning crisis facing South Africa.

But providing children with one lesson is not enough to make a lasting impact. Children need ongoing age-appropriate stimulation during the foundation years if they are to excel academically.

If we are to see improved literacy at school we need to be serious about tackling this problem. While it is difficult to plough resources into a method of learning that will only yield results in 15 or 20 years, the consequences of not doing so will perpetuate poor academic results and continue the cycle of poverty.

* Jackie Schoeman is the chief executive of Cotlands, a non-profit children’s organisation working in the early childhood development space.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Mercury