Learning and language: Home, school and community

Under this theme, the research covered the ‘golden triangle’ of learning, namely home, school and community. Each component is complementary to the others. Working in all of these domains allows for the development of holistic understanding of and approaches to children’s learning needs. Deficits in any one of them should be compensated by one or both of the others for as long the system remains dysfunctional. CAROLE BLOCH, CHRISTOPHER DIWU, XOLISA GUZULA, NADEEMA JOGEE, NTOMBIZANELE MAHOBE, ZOLA WABABA and study leader, NEVILLE ALEXANDER, report on what they found and what can be done to improve early language learning.

An educational system that seeks to deliver meaningful access to effective learning must be based on the learners’ mother tongue(s).

It will take at least one generation for the education system to shift towards a mother tongue-based education rather than based on English, which for many, if not most, children is a second, third or even a foreign language. Long-term thinking and realistic planning are essential if we wish accomplish this.

It will require, among other things, teacher retraining in line with a mother tongue-based system, language development with respect to terminology standardisation, lexical expansion, and production of learning and teaching support materials, as well as adaptation of management approaches.

The focus of our research is to build a model on which to base dual-medium classroom practices and biliteracy learning as aspects of a mother tongue bilingual education system. Biliteracy development, whether simultaneous or consecutive, refers to the use of two languages for reading and writing. It is a way of advancing bilingualism in that children not only speak two languages fluently, but use the two languages systematically for learning literacy.

The concept implies a wide range of practices, especially single-medium teaching accompanied by the learning of additional languages by means of excellent second language teaching approaches.

Action research

The model on which our interventions are built is of a qualitative nature and is based on action research. For this purpose we carefully selected typical community and language profiles of four schools in poor communities in the Western Cape. This model ought to be replicable in similar contexts elsewhere in South Africa, subject to the appropriate adaptations.

Tactically, our dual-medium focus opens the way to persuading sceptical parents that mother tongue teaching is a valid approach to the education of their children. It helps them to understand that the mother tongue is an effective base from which to learn an additional language that can, and should, be used as a complementary medium once the child has acquired second language instructional competence.

Mother tongue education is not a silver bullet. Without the essential improvement in teaching methods and the availability of appropriate learning and teaching support materials, learners will continue to do badly even if they perform better than in a system that is based on a second language.

Action research, or participatory action research, is a refelctive process of progressive problem-solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a team – Wikipedia

Integrating bilingualism with language at school

The integration of the bilingualism approach to language learning and to the language used in school (language of learning and teaching, (LOLT)) with the language approach to early literacy and biliteracy learning is based on the premise that children learn best if they are taught through the medium of the language(s) they know best.

Creating literate school communities

The approach to early literacy learning is based on the sociocultural and holistic understandings of how the ability to read and write competently takes place. Thus, we believe it is possible to create conditions that allow children to learn to read and write meaningfully as they come to use literacy as part of their daily lives.

Fundamentally, we take it that children learn to read and write in similar ways to how they learn to speak – implying that mechanical skills are learned within the context of authentic experiences with written language. Scaffolding to learn these skills provided by parents, teachers, siblings, friends and others, is an essential element in these processes. This approach, which is informed by a significant body of research, involves in essence:

  • The understanding that there is an urgent systemic need to promote reading for enjoyment as part of learning to read and write. Despite the fact that this aspect of learning to read is widely known and acknowledged as valuable, it is often ignored in formal education. For example, it has been shown to have a positive impact on language skills such as vocabulary development, spelling, knowledge of grammar and additional language learning.
  • Interactive writing is one of the strategies that inspire children to write. It changes perceptions about writing, so that learning to write becomes an exercise in communicating for real reasons rather than about perfecting handwriting, spelling and punctuation only.

At home


It is widely accepted that school is the place where children are taught to read and write and, in most South African schools, the focus is on teaching children these skills separately – the expected precursors to connecting to meaningful reading and writing.

But many children fail to make the connection. This has led to a cycle of ever-falling expectations of African language-speaking young South African children, and to curriculum adjustments to try to make things even simpler. It has also led to beliefs that literacy learning in African languages is difficult and that it can only be taught by means of ‘direct instruction’.

Yet many children learn to read and write through informal interactions with print before they begin school. Several studies show how young children’s literacy emerges as they play and are included in regular and purposeful activities that include the print medium. Certain conditions of learning are necessary for this to happen, as they are for learning to talk. No baby would ever learn oral language if s/he didn’t interact in particular ways with a community of speakers.

The Project for the study of alternative education in South Africa's (PRAESA) researchers documented some of their own children’s informal language and literacy learning at home to find out how those conditions supported early reading and writing. Researcher-moms spent six months in 2007 documenting events and practices around reading and writing initiated by and with their own young children.

Literacy development takes place wherever literacy practices are occurring. Through interactions with others, in particular social and cultural settings, learners develop understandings of language systems, both oral and written.

In practice

Tumi, aged six, lives in a home where isiXhosa, English and isiZulu are in regular use, and where the language of school is English. Her mom, Xoli, makes conscious decisions about language use at home, because she wants her children to know both their mother tongue and English. At school, there is no recognition of their mother tongue, but classrooms are relatively well resourced and teachers are relatively well trained.

Xoli has clear strategies for supporting and valuing isiXhosa. These include getting appropriate reading materials in both languages, deciding which language to use when, how, and for what. She reads and writes isiXhosa around Tumi and she speaks to Tumi about their language use. Tumi knows, and over time comes to value, the fact that she is growing up bilingually.

The examples below provide merely a glimpse of how young bilingual children are able to use what they know about sounds and spelling to write in two languages, and how literacy skills transfer across languages. Tumi, has received no formal isiXhosa phonics tuition, yet she begins to write for herself because she wants to.

Several studies show how young children’s literacy emerges as they play and are included in regular and purposeful activities that include the print medium.

Tumi’s  shopping list

  • Sugar
  • ubisi (milk)
  • brad (bread)
  • amasi (sour milk)
  • sweets

Tumi’s planning on paper

She writes ‘lala’ (sleep) and ‘wayke ape’ (wake up).

Her mother then provides her with the correct spelling for ‘wake up’

At school, Tumi had been learning words with double vowels, e.g. good. She showed her mom how to indicate the (Xhosa’) sound 'u' by making two circles with her fingers and thumbs of both hands. She thus tries out what she knows for English on isiXhosa:

'Ku' as 'koo' and 'lu' as loo 

All children are perfectly capable of becoming confidently biliterate. Mastering the sounds and spelling of the two languages takes place as the child writes to communicate what is significant to him or her.

The education system is systematically unaware of this capacity of bilingual students. Our work contributes to the growing body of research on emergent biliteracy, which suggests that young biliterate children living in ‘simultaneous worlds’ are enormously competent.

Conditions of learning

All homes and communities can create and offer certain conditions for learning such as:

  • Immersion
  • Demonstration

These two are necessary but not sufficient conditions for learning to occur.

Also needed are:

  • Engagement (with interactive role models)
  • Expectations (of significant others – subtle and powerful coercers of behaviour)
  • Approximation
  • Response
  • Use

At school

Children who are allowed and challenged to write every day complain if a day goes by without writing, and they write better when they are challenged. This is especially true of interactive journal writing by children. Unlike traditional writing that is prescribed and dictated by the teacher, interactive writing offers children an opportunity to write what they know and care about.

Because interactive writing is a social activity, children engage in real writing for a real audience. They are encouraged and allowed the freedom to write without fear of being wrong or making mistakes.

What is demonstrated in this strategy is faith in children and in their attempts. Interactive journal writing is shared writing between two individuals – often a teacher and a child, or two children writing to each other. It characterises an exchange of personal information which is of benefit while children practise the skills of authorship and experience rich, varied and meaningful reading and writing experiences.

Changing perceptions of teaching writing means allowing children to take responsibility for what they write and, instead of marking children’s journals, the teacher demonstrates language use and acts as a role model. This means responding to what is said, not how it is said.

Writing back shows children that you are interested in what they have communicated. In time, they find ways of improving their own spelling, punctuation, grammar and organisation of their own work. Increases in written fluency make them confident and want to write more. Supporting children’s writing development this way takes away the pressure that comes with assessment, which often voids writing of meaning. The journal can be a learning, teaching and assessment tool.

We have learnt:
  • the value of writing back to the children. They understood journal writing to be an interactive process and often expressed disappointment when we did not write back;
  • that if you are genuinely interested in them, an open and honest relationship develops. The children want to share their stories and be listened to. They do not all need to be given a topic to write about;
  • that working with both isiXhosa and English and encouraging writing in both languages developed their ability to read, speak and write in both languages. The journal was also a means of reshaping attitudes about different languages and built self-confidence in most of the children.

Respond to all the children and not only to those who write well. For those who still need extra support, the teacher acts as a scribe while the learners dictate what they want to say. Sometimes children share very personal information. What is written in the journals is not discussed outside the journal, unless it is agreed between the two people writing the journal. The journal is for both reading and writing. Encourage children to read your responses.

The quantity and quality of the teacher’s response is important. It is easy to look forward to certain journals as some children write particularly interesting things, but they all deserve extended responses that are better than just ‘nice’, even when they only write one line. They need to know that they are accepted. They need to be invited to write more and take more risks with their writing. 

Journals can also be used for reporting on other learning areas, like social sciences.

 Interactive journal writing should have an allocated time. The established routine gives children something that is about themselves and personally meaningful to look forward to.

Mentorship for classroom change: action and reflection

The study for Creating Literate School Communities also explored mentoring as an alternative model for teacher training. Mentoring is a nurturing process in which a more skilled or more experienced person serves as a role model, teaches, encourages, advises and befriends a less skilled or less experienced person for the purpose of promoting the latter’s professional or personal development. Mentoring functions are carried out within the context of an ongoing, caring relationship between the mentor and the child being mentored.

It is easy to look forward to certain journals as some children write particularly interesting things, but they all deserve extended responses that are better than just ‘nice’ even when they only write one line.

Our work in schools was intended to create conditions which inspire, promote and support teaching and learning. These conditions included nurturing teachers to use holistic approaches for teaching literacy (emergent, whole language, and balanced approaches); supporting mother tongue and additional language learning; getting children and teachers to read for enjoyment, and establishing school libraries.

Mentoring involved visiting schools at least twice a week from October 2007 until the end of 2010; creating and sustaining relationships and cultivating an atmosphere of collegial collaboration and problem-solving with their teachers; an individualised form of training tailored to their needs; and providing job-embedded, context-specific, ongoing support to teachers and students.

The mentoring process was not based on one specific model but on a collection of strategies used flexibly and sensitively in response to changing needs. The strategies included modelling/demonstration lessons; workshops; interactive reflective journal writing; reflective meetings; co-planning sessions and exposing teachers to professional development conferences, inspirational talks and professional books on literacy.