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Enabling Biliteracy Among Young
Children in Southern Africa
Realities, Visions, and Strategies
Carole Bloch
Writing from a multilingual education perspective, in this chapter I focus on
the challenges facing early literacy and biliteracy learning and teaching in
southern Africa, particularly South Africa. I give information about how the
language policies and pedagogical approaches in Africa have tended to
hinder literacy learning and the development of reading and writing practices
in African communities. I provide examples of research and materials devel-
opment initiatives from my place of work in Cape Town, the Project for the
Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA). I also discuss ways
of addressing the urgent need to stimulate and support reading and writing
habits in African societies by deepening the uses of African languages in
print, particularly through the development of children’s literature.
Kweli phepha, elibhalwe ngombono wemfuno engeelwimi ezininzi,
kugqaliselwa ikakhulu kwimingeni ejongene nobugcisa bokufunda nokubhala
kubantwana abasebancinci, kwakunye nokufunda nokufundisa ubugcisa
bokufunda nokubhala ngeelwimi ezimbini kuMazantsi e-Afrika, ingakumbi
eMzantsi Afrika. Ndinika ulwazi malunga nendlela imigaqo-nkqubo yeelwimi
neendlela zokufundisa e-Afrika zithi zithintele ngayo ukufundisa ubugcisa
bokufunda nokubhala, nokuphuhliswa kokuqeqeshwa kwabantwana ukuba
bafunde ukubhala nokufunda ingakumbi kuluntu lwe-Afrika. Ndikwanika
nemizekelo yophando neenzame zokuphuhliswa kwezixhobo zokufundisa
abantwana ukufunda nokubhala kwindawo endisebenza kuyo eKapa,
iProjekti yoPhando ngeMfundo engenye eMzantsi Afrika (iPRAESA). Ndixoxa
nangeendlela zokujongana nesidingo esingxamisekileyo sokuba zandiswe
ngamandla iinzame zokuvuselela nokuxhasa ukuba iindawo zoluntu e-Afrika
ziziqhelanise nokufunda nokubhala ngokuthi kuzikiswe ukusetyenziwa
20 Global Perspectives on Multilingualism
kweelwimi zesiNtu kwizinto ezibhaliweyo, ikakhulu ekukhuliseni uncwadi
All African societies are multilingual. Yet most children do not enjoy the
normality of attending school where their mother tongue or a familiar
language is the language of learning. When they do, it is not for long as
the school quickly pushes them into learning in a language that is new to
them. This is a major contributing factor to the enormous problems with
literacy learning among children before and since the advent of universal
primary education.
In the following pages, I focus on some of the ways South Africa is
trying to address this disconnect of languages students experience, from
my perspective as coordinator of the Early Literacy Unit at the Project
for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA). A
multilingual education institute based at the University of Cape Town,
PRAESA has been in existence since 1992. It is one of the few organiza-
tions in South Africa that concentrate entirely on language planning,
policy, and implementation.
I now address the statuses of the languages in the South African context
and outline what I perceive to be some of the key factors that have shaped
early childhood literacy development in southern Africa.
The development of African languages in high-status functions, such as
in teaching beyond the first few grades, in publishing scholastic books, in
writing legal documents for the courts, and the like, has been held back by
the hegemonic status of the postcolonial language, in this case, English,
brought about by colonial conquest and postcolonial language policies. Afri-
can languages have extremely low status, particularly as languages in print.
This is evidenced by the kind of print we see used and displayed in both urban
and rural settings. For instance, most signs in African languages are those
that make sure that negative and prohibitive messages are understood, such
is only one African-language daily newspaper in South Africa (in isiZulu),
and no food or other commercial packaging uses African-language print.
Enabling Biliteracy Among Young Children in Southern Africa 21
It is safe to say that the power and status functions of language are
marked most clearly in printed form. In Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi wa
Thiong’o (1993) makes the fundamental point that while the dislocation
of children from their mother tongues in school actually does not destroy
the vitality of oral language, it has serious negative impacts on literacy
So the written language of a child’s upbringing in the school . . . became
divorced from his spoken language at home. There was often not the slight-
est relationship between the child’s written world, which was also the lan-
guage of his schooling, and the world of his immediate environment in the
family and the community. (p. 17)
A fundamental principle in education is that appropriate and effec-
tive teaching begins with and builds on what children already know and
can do. For young children this implies, above all, extending their strong
suit, which is their oral language development, in various ways, includ-
ing moving them toward insights and understandings about literacy itself.
Since this happens so rarely for young African children, the “written world”
that Ngugi refers to rarely comes into existence.
The following general scenario would strike a familiar chord for many
teachers across the African continent. From Grades 1–3, the language in
education policy can vary (and change rapidly, depending on which poli-
tician is in power) from 3 years in the mother tongue to “straight for En-
glish,” or something in between. Furthermore, there are situations (usually
urban) that are multilingual in the sense that several languages are spo-
ken by the children but frequently are unknown by the teacher. These
children require special consideration, such as an “explanation” why
mother tongue education is not feasible. Irrespective of the particular
policy, most teachers tend to communicate with children and teach in an
indigenous language that they and (most or all of) the children share. The
impending switch to English, the ex-colonial and market language in early
childhood development (ECD)—which includes nonformal preschooling
and the “foundation phase” of formal education, Grades 1–3, referred to
as the reception years—depends on the confidence of teachers. Teachers
often do not know English well and do not have training in second- or
foreign-language pedagogy. Thus, the switch to English is experienced by
many teachers as profoundly disempowering in relation to their ability to
assist students and to the students’ abilities to do the schoolwork. Usually,
from Grade 4 onward, the official medium of instruction is English and
almost all reading materials (textbooks, etc.) are in English. The children
have to write in English, and all assessment (which is almost exclusively
written) takes place in English.
22 Global Perspectives on Multilingualism
A strange, almost conspiratorial social arrangement has evolved in
which all participants in the system “play the game” by pretending that
learning actually is taking place in English. The true situation is that most
learning in English is rote learning, and meaning making is expected or
achieved only occasionally. Learning in English thus is reduced largely to
exercises to get students through tests and exams. Apart from the few
exceptions that prove the rule, children’s creative impetus and desire to
learn are crushed.
The underlying assumption is that the ex-colonial language is a nec-
essary condition for educational achievement, as knowing such language
carries the possibility of entering the world of the markets, which is domi-
nated by the ex-colonial language, that is, English. According to Ngugi wa
Thiong’o, the fact that people find it so difficult to imagine that African
languages can and should be developed and used to perform functions that
English, or for that matter French, can, reflects a “colonized” mind. As
Ngugi (1993) states:
The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth . . . [but] eco-
nomic and political control can never be complete or effective without men-
tal control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition
in relationship to others. For colonialism, this involved two aspects of the same
process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture,
their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and litera-
ture, and the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser. The domi-
nation of a people’s language by the languages of the colonising nations was
crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised. (p. 16)
Similarly, people also find it hard to accept the observation, so often made
by my colleague Neville Alexander, that only a small percentage of citi-
zens actually need to know English well and that society, if it is to achieve
real democracy and escape mediocrity, has to give people the choice of
performing their everyday business in their mother tongue. Alexander calls
what is occurring in many African countries, a “static maintenance syn-
drome.” By this he means that although African languages are valued and
accepted, the uses of the languages are limited to only certain, generally
oral, purposes. He points out that
people begin to accept as “natural” the supposed inferiority of their own lan-
guages and adopt an approach that is determined by considerations that are
related only to the market and social status value of the set of languages in
their multilingual societies. (Alexander, 2002, p. 119)
Understood in this light, one of the urgent tasks in African society in
general, and in education more specifically, is to find ways to exploit the
Enabling Biliteracy Among Young Children in Southern Africa 23
creative potential of African languages. To accomplish this, the rift between
their oral and written forms must be healed, so that literacy can become
widely available and be used as part of people’s daily lives. This will give
both children and adults the chance to use their language more fully and
to experience their worlds as coherent and meaningful.
Various factors have combined to perpetuate the widespread lack of so-
cial and cultural practices related to reading and writing in southern Af-
rica, one very powerful one being the pedagogy that is characteristic of
early schooling. Views about the nature of literacy that originated in the
United States and Europe in the first half of the 20th century continue to
have influence today. Reading then was widely understood as a psycho-
logical perceptual activity, which led to a focus on the relationships be-
tween sounds and symbols. In what South Africans call the North, that is,
North America and Europe, this view gave rise to strongly behaviorist skills-
based approaches to literacy that included the notion of “reading readi-
ness,” which enabled the textbook industry to sell nonprint activities and
materials (see Gillen & Hall, 2003, p. 4).
In Africa, where print tends to have little if any significance for social
and other exchanges in many communities, educational systems often are
staffed by untrained or poorly trained teachers and teacher trainers. All of
the developments in African education that were initiated to achieve
universal primary education have included as a central tenet the require-
ment of instilling basic literacy and numeracy. This was, and to a great
extent continues to be, executed by these teachers and trainers, most of
whom have been educated through the ex-colonial language, which they
often have not mastered. Methods based on the view of literacy as autono-
mous sets of skills that can be broken down, learned, and then later used
in learning either a first or a second language have been applied rigidly
over many decades, largely without question as to their relevance to mean-
ing making and its role in learning languages.
The significant shifts in understandings about literacy in the United
States and Europe that gradually have given rise to new literacy pedagogies
during the second half of the 20th century have barely begun to be no-
ticed within the school world in South Africa. I am referring here to (1)
the notion that reading and writing are ideological in nature and form part
of a society’s social and cultural practices and that there are many differ-
ent literacies that come into existence for various reasons (Heath, 1983;
Street, 1984; Taylor, 1983), and (2) research and theoretical insights about
24 Global Perspectives on Multilingualism
children’s written language development such as emergent literacy and
whole language (Goodman, 1986; Holdaway, 1979).
In print-scarce regions, such as in many parts of South Africa, it has
continued to be accepted that conditions of poverty in the “third world”
produce children who generally are unable to grasp even the basics. The
corollary is that teachers have extremely low levels of faith in children’s
ability to learn. The fact that so many children grow up in communities
where they rarely if ever come into contact with meaningful reading and
writing in their home languages has not influenced the design or imple-
mentation of curricula in any other way. The South African school world
is still gripped by the erroneous belief that reading and writing can be
taught in social and cultural vacuums as sets of skills that constitute the
“tools” for reading and writing (Bloch, 2002).
This has had devastating consequences for learning and creativity. In
classrooms across Africa, children are still forced to begin Grade 1 with
readiness activities that include coloring in or tracing over shapes, letters,
and numbers, and drill in chanting sounds and forming letters—outside
of any interesting context of use that might make sense to them. These
activities delay even further the time when they actually will start engag-
ing with print and finding out about reading and writing. Ironically, in the
African continent, resonant with oral wisdom and stories, textbooks loaded
with decontextualized low-level skills and drills are favored. Such teach-
ing methods have given rise to recent assessment results in the Western
Cape Province and nationally in South Africa that are appalling. They
suggest that most Grade 3 and Grade 6 children are unable to read at grade
level and that numeracy performance is even worse (see media statement
issued by the Western Cape MEC for Education, on May 25, 2004). The
endemic problems are that children learn to decode, but do not under-
stand what they are reading, and that they learn to copy sentences, but
cannot compose their own text.
At best, those who can afford them use “readers” with restricted,
unnatural language. Storybooks and other meaningful texts are concep-
tually viewed as irrelevant for school learning and effectively discarded as
supplementary material, a luxury that most African children don’t have.
Youngsters are denied opportunities to experience the richness of print
stories in their own languages.
Yet—as we are reminded in an article in Le Monde Diplomatique (Dijan,
2004) about the rediscovery of ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu in
Mali—there is a tradition of African literacy going back to the very origins
of writing in Pharaonic Egypt and other sites in the Levant. The fact is that
Africa has both a rich oral and a precolonial written tradition that has not,
as yet, been exploited to inspire teachers. Rather, the system produces
teachers who act as agents to transmit a mind-numbing and alien literacy
Enabling Biliteracy Among Young Children in Southern Africa 25
curriculum, often in a poorly understood language. They unwittingly
collude with the system to negate the need for real reading materials (such
as storybooks). What chances do teachers have to be inspiring role mod-
els when they have been unable to engage with print in their own lan-
guages (and often even in English) either as children or adults? Given these
circumstances, it does not appear too harsh to propose that the perpetua-
tion of a system that holds back the development of a written children’s
literature in African languages has contributed to crippling the develop-
ment of effective literacy teachers.
The situation is even more complex: Those active in promoting the
use of the mother tongue in education in Africa are often linguists and
language scholars who are passionate about dissecting and getting teach-
ers to transmit the “correct” form of the language. Perhaps unintention-
ally, they tend to strengthen the case for narrow skills-based methods. On
the other hand, only a few Africans have been trained as early childhood
literacy specialists who have knowledge and understandings about how
young children learn. The effect on teachers is that they tend to teach lit-
eracy in the mother tongue as if it were actually a foreign language.
All of these factors have mingled conceptually to lead even the best-
intentioned development work in African contexts to focus much more
on textbook production and distribution than on a fundamental transfor-
mation and intensification of teacher education. Teacher guides instruct
teachers in minute detail as to what they should do in each lesson. How-
ever, apart from the fact that the guides are generally in English rather
than a language that teachers are likely to know well, if teachers are not
given the chance to understand and reflect on why they do what they do,
the use of textbooks will have, at best, limited success. Furthermore, it is
not in any case sufficient merely to have textbooks, even good ones, in
one’s own language. Findings from her research in the United States led
Purcell-Gates (1995) to observe that
written language is apparent in the environment only to the extent that it is
recognized or noticed. It is recognized or noticed only to the extent that it is
used by fellow members of one’s sociocultural/sociolinguistic group. (p. 50)
It is important to take note of such cautionary words in print-scarce con-
texts such as those we find in many parts of rural Africa. It is all too easy
to think that once we have printed materials in appropriate languages, our
problems will be over. The challenge is far more complex. We need solu-
tions at different levels of society—political and economic as well
as social and cultural—so that people have opportunities to tune into the
uses of written language and make these personally meaningful, thereby
coming to incorporate reading and writing into their lives.
26 Global Perspectives on Multilingualism
At the heart of the work that PRAESA is engaged in lies a simple question
to which we feel we have to find the answer: How can we move from the
existing situation, in which the languages of the former colonial powers
dominate, to one where the indigenous languages of Africa become domi-
nant (Alexander & Bloch, 2004)?
The Early Literacy Unit at PRAESA tries to encourage new ways of
thinking and acting in relation to early literacy development and learn-
ing. Since 1997, South Africa has had a progressive language in educa-
tion policy that promotes additive bi/multilingualism. We now refer to
what is slowly emerging as its practical manifestation as “mother tongue-
based bilingual education” (Western Cape Education Department, 2002),
because this term provides a clearer statement of what is required in most
African multilingual school systems. However, one of the persistent lega-
cies of apartheid education is a myth that is alive in the minds of many
parents across the country—they equate mother tongue-based bilingual
education with inferior education. This is one reason why there is
still widespread resistance to the use of African languages as languages
of teaching in education. English is equated and conflated both with
literacy and with “good education.” Our organizational stance is clear:
It is not a matter of either mother tongue or English, but both mother
tongue and English are necessary for a quality education within our
This message is gaining ground, albeit slowly, since little has been done
by the government to provide parents with the information they need to
make informed choices about what is best for their children’s language
development and learning. Thus, the gap between policy and practice is
substantial, and there is much advocacy and other persuasive work for
language activists to undertake. As Alexander (2004) points out, there is
a lack of governmental political will to implement policy.
The fundamental issue is the failure of government to answer the simple
question: Should we base the education system of the new South Africa on
the mother tongues (L1s, home languages) of the learners or should we base
it, essentially, on the English language, even though the latter is the home
language of under 9% of the population of the country and is “understood”
by fewer than 50% of the population? The accumulation of evidence con-
firming that the prevailing English-mainly default language-medium policy,
instead of compelling the decision makers to consider seriously going over
to the policy of mother tongue-based bilingual education, elicits denialist and
compensatory educational responses along the lines of “simply” improving
the competence of the learners in English. (p. 13)
Enabling Biliteracy Among Young Children in Southern Africa 27
In the absence of a committed position by the government on this
issue, PRAESA has concentrated on initiating and exploring the dynamics
of small-scale research and materials development projects so that when
the time comes for significant implementation, we will have some models
to consider.
Arising from insights gained between 1998 and 2003 while developing
Xhosa–English biliteracy among a group of children in a multilingual school
in Cape Town (see Bloch & Alexander, 2003; Bloch & Nkence, 2000), we
realized that changes in language medium and teaching approaches could
succeed only if they were accompanied by broader changes in teachers’
attitudes toward reading. Apart from our own experience, we were in-
spired by research on Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) cited by Krashen
(1993), which suggests that readers who engage in FVR are superior in
reading comprehension, writing fluency, writing complexity, attitude to-
ward school, and self-esteem; that people who say they read more, write
better; that reading as a leisure activity is the best predictor of compre-
hension, vocabulary, and reading speed; and that free reading has a dra-
matic effect on acquiring a second language.
In the following pages, I describe the Free Reading in Schools Project
(FRISC) that was conducted in the Western Cape Province to stimulate
and support reading for enjoyment.
We ran the FRISC project from 2002 to 2004 to enable teachers and
children to experience the enjoyment of reading stories in both their
mother tongue and English and to try to deepen our understanding of how
story reading can assist with biliteracy development and additional lan-
guage learning. Krashen (1993) suggests a minimum of 1 year is needed
to see results, and it was clear to us that since most African children have
had few book-related experiences, they would need more time.
Since none of the schools had sufficient appropriate reading material
on site, despite the former Minister of Education Kadel Asmal’s 1999 dec-
laration to “break the back of illiteracy,” PRAESA donated storybooks. A
PRAESA literacy specialist demonstrated reading aloud for teachers (who
had already agreed to be in the classroom for the free reading time), with
the understanding that the teachers would begin reading aloud to the
children so that the literacy specialist could monitor the process and pro-
vide support and feedback. Time also was set aside for the children to se-
lect their own books to read silently or with a friend, and there was no
28 Global Perspectives on Multilingualism
expectation that they would do any formal or didactic activities related to
their reading. Workshops were held periodically to raise and discuss par-
ticular issues, such as strategies for reading aloud, where to get and how
to select appropriate reading materials for different age groups, how to meet
the reading needs of multilingual groups, and how to ask open-ended
questions about stories.
Analyzing and writing up the process proved to be invaluable, mainly
because it identified as critical some issues that, on the surface, seemed
too obvious to bother about. I use extracts from the notes of Xolisa Guzula,
the facilitator of the FRISC project at three different schools, to illustrate
some of these.
The first observation is at the beginning of the project when Xolisa was
getting to know Blesbok Primary (all school names are pseudonyms), a very
large school catering to children living in an ever-growing informal settle-
ment on the outskirts of Cape Town that is typical of many communities
found at the edges of towns and cities in South Africa. Its inhabitants are
mainly Xhosa speakers who have come from the rural areas of the Eastern
Cape in search of jobs. People live in shacks and are extremely poor.
Later on I went to read to the Grade 4s. . . . I found a “coloured”
woman who was teaching them about their rights. She had a pipe
[to keep “control”] in her hand and the children were very noisy.
Fortunately, her period was over and I started with my reading. I
asked the class whether they had been read to before or even now
at school and at home. They told me that they have never been
read to. They are not read to at school. I told them that I go to their
school to make sure that stories are read to them and that they
have access to storybooks so that they can choose books out of
interest and read them. They were happy and as I read the story
they gave me all the attention they could give me. The class was
dead silent, you could even hear a coin dropping on the floor. Even
though I went there having prepared to read only one story, I
ended up reading three stories for them because they kept asking
me to read the next one. (August 2001)
Consistently and unsurprisingly, the children, whoever they are, love
listening to stories. This fundamental and wonderful fact, which we see as
the starting point for many further insights—educational and otherwise—
is a surprise to many teachers, who do not readily understand the value
of stories. One can surmise that this has to do, at least in part, with teach-
ers seeing themselves as the givers of skills and knowledge, and with a
corresponding difficulty in viewing the children as meaning makers and
constructors of their own knowledge.
Enabling Biliteracy Among Young Children in Southern Africa 29
The second observation is from Zimbini Primary, located in an estab-
lished former township of Cape Town, where the teachers and pupils speak
only isiXhosa, but the medium of instruction is English after Grade 3. It is
known as one of the old primary schools in the area and also is regarded
as the best. The notes capture the ongoing challenge Xolisa has experi-
enced when trying to encourage teachers to take on the role of reading
daily to children.
Teachers at Zimbini seem very enthusiastic about reading when
one speaks to them. However, in practice, it is a different story.
Grade 4 children reported at one stage that their teacher last read
to them before June (2002). They read on their own. The teacher
has witnessed me on many occasions reading to the class but hasn’t
taken that initiative. Sometimes when I’m there she asks them to
read silently but she does other things, like going to the office or
attend to another teacher to discuss their things. (November 2002)
The next observation, back at Blesbok, illustrates the frustration Xolisa
sometimes has felt in situations where the best interests of the children
were not considered and she had to deal with the problem that arose when
teachers under duress took advantage of the extra support she represented
to them.
The teacher sees me in the staff room and says, “let’s go but I’m
going to leave the children with you. I am busy.” I told her that
this period [lesson time] is very important like her other periods.
She said that she’s very busy because one of the students has
passed away. I told her that I understand that but can’t she do
what she needs to do afterwards. The teacher says she is not sure
whether to give children books to read or read to them but she is
going to leave them at 11:00. I tell her to give children books so
that they can read on their own. She then asks two boys to go and
fetch books with her. Meanwhile children are spending most of
their time sweeping the classroom. Books don’t stay in the class-
room. This is depressing and frustrating. There are only two
posters with nouns and verbs on the walls. After the literacy half
hour I went to the staff room and found the teacher eating fish
and chips with another teacher. And it seemed that this is what
kept her busy. I sense that the teachers are not taking the literacy
half hour seriously. Later on she came to ask me what I did with
the children. I told her that we did folktales. The teacher told me
that she is tired from being an MC in the memorial service and
her body is sore from practicing drum marjorettes with the
30 Global Perspectives on Multilingualism
children. That was the excuse she could give me. I was angry and
frustrated. (no date)
This extract gives a sense both of the daily hardships that often can make
people appear “tough” and of the seeming incapacity of many teachers to
value reading enough to promote and support it with their children. Our
most fundamental challenge is the large number of teachers who them-
selves need to be nurtured emotionally and to have their own interest in
reading stimulated and nurtured if they are to inspire others.
I don’t want to paint a completely gloomy picture—there are some
motivated and inspiring teachers as well. The next observation is from
Sunshine Primary, a small independent Christian school situated not far
from the University of Cape Town. A multilingual (English, Afrikaans,
Xhosa) school that is relatively well resourced, it recently had employed a
Xhosa teacher specifically to support Xhosa development among first- and
additional-language speakers. Most of the teachers are bilingual Afrikaans/
English, and most of the children speak an African language (mainly Xhosa)
and come from predominantly middle-class backgrounds.
Reports from the Xhosa teacher (Teacher C) were positive ones as
she reported that most parents are helping their children to read
isiXhosa at home. Children in Teacher C’s classes hadn’t had
teaching in mother tongue, especially those who were doing Grade 4
last year. The Grade 1’s at the moment are the lucky ones because
they are starting to learn mother tongue from the very beginning.
Teacher C also reported that there was only one exception, in a
Grade 1 class where a child’s parent threatened to move the child
to another school because she hadn’t sent the child to the school to
learn isiXhosa. The parent was angry because the child was mainly
interested in reading Xhosa books at home and that they do not see
where the child is going to go with isiXhosa. (June 2002)
This account gives a sense both of the hope that keeps us going and
of the enormous challenges we face in addressing parental attitudes about
using African languages in school. The sentiment expressed by this par-
ent is a common one and reflects the belief that the use of one language
will hinder the development of another—such parents feel that their child
already knows the mother tongue and doesn’t need to “waste time” on it
at school.
The final observation, back at Zimbini Primary, points to the impor-
tance of establishing authentic and supportive mentoring relationships, as
well as the fact that the shortage of reading materials in African languages
is a major constraint in developing reading in African languages.
Enabling Biliteracy Among Young Children in Southern Africa 31
Teacher D is much better now. She seems to understand how the
project works. [The fact that she is] making time to chat with me
and I am trying to build a good relationship with her has provided
her with new insights into the project. She reported using different
strategies in the classroom, like getting children to touch books and
read on their own. For most of this year, she’s only been reading
aloud to them. She’s worried about the level of the books in Grade 5
because the children say the books are boring. It seems like for
next year we’ll need novel-like books for them to read. It has only
been a year and ¾ and we’ve run out of books in African lan-
guages. (November 2002)
It is difficult for people who have grown up in an English-language envi-
ronment to imagine a situation in which there is no body of written chil-
dren’s literature and to appreciate the implications of literally running out
of books for learning to value one’s mother tongue and for literacy learn-
ing. Yet for most African-language-speaking children across Africa, get-
ting hold of storybooks in one’s language is a rare gift.
I now discuss a materials development process that was initiated to
support the development of a culture of reading. PRAESA secured financial
support in 2001 from the Royal Netherlands Embassy for what we see as an
essential project to break through the economic argument that “there is no
market for African languages, therefore no point in publishing in these lan-
guages.” While the attitude still dominates, it is being systematically chal-
lenged, albeit in small ways, and there are now some publishers who are
specializing in multilingual and African-language materials. PRAESA’s in-
tention has been to help stimulate the market by developing, distributing,
and monitoring the use of stories, both original and translated, for children
ranging in age from preschool to teenagers. A translation unit has been es-
tablished at PRAESA to deal with various issues. In addition to developing
a feeling for translating children’s literature, they have set out to learn about
and deal with a range of complex issues that arise when working with lan-
guages that have not been widely used in print, such as normalization. In
some cases, PRAESA has published materials. In other cases, we have col-
laborated with publishers willing to publish in African languages by guar-
anteeing print runs that make the process worthwhile for them. Working
in Afrikaans, Xhosa, and English, PRAESA has developed several books for
children, including both originals and translations (Bloch, 2005).
An important consideration has been how to facilitate the mentoring
of new African writers and illustrators. For historical reasons, this domain
32 Global Perspectives on Multilingualism
has rested largely in the hands of middle-class English or Afrikaans
speakers. Most educational publishers are too busy dancing to the tune of
government deadlines for textbook submissions to spend the time neces-
sary to mentor. We recently conducted two workshops for writers and il-
lustrators at PRAESA and collaborated with a local publisher, New Africa
Books, to produce six original stories that are now available in 11 languages.
Although the stories and illustrations are in some ways “raw,” they dem-
onstrate how such opportunities can give creative expression to voices
previously unheard, and certainly these stories resonate powerfully for
many South African children. We are convinced that we need to increase
substantially both original writing and illustration and translations in order
to give birth to a substantive body of children’s literature. The first publi-
cation of Stories Across Africa was completed in 2007—it is a pan-African
set of Little Hands books that are already available in 24 languages (see
One way we know that the early literacy situation is so serious across
the continent is the anecdotal evidence we have amassed from interact-
ing for over 3 years with teacher trainers, language planners, and African
language specialists from several African countries, including Namibia,
Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Malawi,
Kenya, and Cameroon. They were all participants in a series of five week-
long intensive courses, conducted by PRAESA at the University of Cape
Town, designed to train trainers for multilingual education. We included
components on early language and literacy learning as well as materials
development for multilingual classrooms. Our aim was to empower trainers
so that they could share effective pedagogical ideas and strategies with
teachers. Many countries have undergone curriculum change or are in the
midst of it, and the thrust is usually toward learner-centered education.
However, it is extremely difficult to get beyond the level of rhetoric when
trainers themselves have not had opportunities to experience what they
are expected to impart. In Namibia, for example, where learner-centered
education has been “implemented” since independence in 1991, and many
staff have undergone many workshops, I know from my experience as an
early literacy specialist on the Upgrading of African Languages Project of
the National Ministry of Education, supported by the GTZ (1999–2007),
that few, if any, teachers know how to actually transform the informa-
tion they receive into practice. In addition, participants have related an-
ecdotes about associated sociocultural issues such as lack of political will
to support mother tongue education, the dearth of learning materials, the
Enabling Biliteracy Among Young Children in Southern Africa 33
lack of teacher training, and overcrowded classrooms, not to mention the
devastation caused by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other social and eco-
nomic factors.
To help address teacher preparedness issues, and to help ensure that
participants have access to what they need for training, PRAESA has com-
pleted a set of training materials for literacy in multilingual settings, Training
for Early Literacy Learning (TELL). These free materials can be downloaded
from the Internet ( This endeavor has been a collabo-
rative effort between PRAESA and the National Centre for Language and
Literacy (NCLL) at Reading University in the UK. Viv Edwards, a colleague
from NCLL, and I discovered that we deal with many similar language-
related pedagogical issues, and rather than reinvent the wheel, we decided
to adapt a set of training materials she had already developed for early lit-
eracy in the UK. We have considered very carefully how these materials
can facilitate the conceptual shifts trainers and teachers need to make. For
instance, whereas traditional methods view speaking, listening, reading,
and writing as separate subjects, the TELL materials emphasize the inte-
grated nature of language learning, providing information and activities
that allow trainers and teachers to explore relevant pedagogical points and
engage in reflective exercises. The materials provide a generic structural
framework to which trainers in different countries will be able to add their
individual and local intricacies.
Assuming that demonstrations of good practice facilitate comprehen-
sion, we also have made two videos for trainers and teachers—Feeling at Home
with Literacy and Building Story Bridges to Literacy. The first video, set in Cape
Town, follows Zia, a Xhosa-speaking child, from home to school and then
back home again, highlighting that literacy can be part of home and school
practices, that it can be enjoyable, that young children are resourceful when
they start making meaning using print, that the mother tongue can be used
alongside English for teaching and learning, and that play and imagination
are important for early literacy development. The second video is a short
animated film and was created with rural, print-scarce African settings in
mind. Its intention is both to help parents and community members appre-
ciate the value of telling and reading stories for children’s literacy learning
and to provide suggestions for how to get involved.
The work I have described is in progress. There is no doubt that we
must struggle against prevailing global economic conditions. The previ-
ously mentioned article in Le Monde Diplomatique ends with the follow-
ing words:
34 Global Perspectives on Multilingualism
The cost of saving the Timbuktu manuscripts is estimated at $5.6 million—
which is 60 times less than the sum that EuroDisney has just demanded from
shareholders to save its Paris theme park. Yet the preservation of this gold
mine of African history is still at risk. (Dijan, 2004, pp. 10–11)
Despite the ugliness of this reality, there are many points of light that keep
us going. A recent language-focused initiative on the whole-continent level
is gaining strength and support. We now have an officially constituted
language organization of the African Union, the African Academy of Lan-
guages. Under its umbrella, several continent-wide projects that are fur-
thering the intellectualization and development of African languages are
in various stages of implementation. These include a joint masters pro-
gram, a translation project, a terminology project, the Year of African
Languages in 2006–2007, and the Stories Across Africa project, which is
creating common anthologies of stories found or written in different com-
munities and reworking and illustrating them for children to read in their
own language wherever they are (Ndzenyuy, 2005). The energy gener-
ated by these projects is helping to engender a sense of purpose and a love
of reading among future African citizens.
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... The biliteracy and other research projects undertaken by the staff of PRAESA (Bloch 2006, Edwards 2007) are strategic, counter-hegemonic initiatives that demonstrate that the officially endorsed (English orientated) monolingual habitus of the elites is counterproductive, oppressive and exploitative with respect to the vast majority of the people. The fact that working class children, living under unfavourable conditions, can acquire biliterate competence simultaneously is a finding of immense consequence, as PRAESA researchers have demonstrated in school settings (Bloch & Alexander 2002) and are demonstrating now by way of early biliteracy classroom initiatives and community reading clubs in townships and in rural contexts. ...
... Since 1992, PRAESA (The Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa) has argued strongly for a focus on two interconnected educational priorities: the need to base our education system on the languages children and teachers speak, think and feel in; the need for early literacy teaching approaches to be based in meaningful and exciting encounters with stories and books (Bloch 1999, Bloch and Alexander 2003, Bloch 2009). ...
Conference Paper
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In this paper, I contextualise the work of the Nal’ibali national reading for enjoyment campaign, by raising and discussing some major issues which affect and influence formal literacy education in South Africa. I acknowledge how a wasteful tragedy is unfolding for millions of children who cannot learn to read and write well enough to learn effectively. Building on PRAESA's two decades of work in multilingual education and literacy I discuss the campaign which we designed and initiated to help to create the conditions which support the growth of reading for pleasure in multilingual settings. I then introduce the work of Nal’ibali, which means 'here's the story' in Xhosa.
... This strategy would assist learners in accessing content knowledge. Multilingual fiction and other resources are available in many South African languages (Bloch, 2009;McIlwraith, 2015). Various organisations produce materials in a range of South African languages. ...
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There is often a disconnect between the dominant language of the classroom and the home language of South African learners. Consequently, this may lead to dehumanising experiences in classrooms. This article explores the possibilities of using translanguaging to bring about humanising experiences for learners and teachers. Translanguaging is a means of providing planned and systematic use of the home language of learners with the language of the classroom in order to foster learning and teaching. A poetic inquiry is used to explore and make meaning of my understanding of what I observe in multilingual classroom contexts. Poetry and photography are used as data to support an argument for using translanguaging as a pedagogic tool to enable teaching and learning. Researcher-voiced poems (vox autobiographia) and literature-voiced poems (vox theoria) are employed to encapsulate understandings of the complexities and possibilities of teaching in multilingual classrooms. This inquiry reveals that translanguaging practices allow for fluid movement between the home and school language. Instead of being dehumanised by traditional language practices, teachers and learners are encouraged to bring their languages to the classroom. In so doing, they are able to experience being human as social, thinking, transforming, individuals participating with others in the world they inhabit together.
... Research on children's literature throughout Africa includes mention of picture books, but is restricted to cultural and linguistic considerations, such as orality and identity (Khorana 1988). There is a substantial and growing body of contemporary research on language policy and literacy produced by the powerhouse research body of PRAESA 2 at the University of Cape Town (see Alexander 2000; Bloch 1996 Bloch , 2002 Bloch , 2004), as well as researchers from the University of South Africa (Arbuckle 2004; Carstens 2004). There is, however, little if any research that combines these topics which, as I argue, is necessary for any sort of visual or cultural analysis of isiXhosa picture books. ...
This thesis is a visual, sociolinguistic and cultural inquiry into the role of isiXhosa picture books in contemporary South Africa. From the standpoint of an illustrator, I examine several of these works arising out of a history that alienated many isiXhosa readers and writers from their language. I examine factors that influence the design, content and very notions of reading itself through the multiple languages offered by the picture book format. I argue that these books occupy a problematic space where production and consumption are affixed to paradigms of economics, language and literacy incongruent with the lives of many isiXhosa-speaking readers. My overall conclusion is that literacy and visual literacy are essential to developing an authentic 'reading culture'. Fostering a meaningful relationship with printed words and images is critical to both the emerging reader and the emerging illustrator. In producing illustrations for an isiXhosa narrative, I consider the shape of my own visual literacy through mediations with drawing and writing, relating my activities to those of a child learning to distinguish between pictures and words. The cross-over space where image/text distinctions blur potentially invites new narrative expressions. The picture book is a suitable format for expanding notions of vision and literacy, 'subverting' paradigms and revealing the richness of contemporary African tales. I rest my fundamental premise on an insistence for an increase of accessible, quality picture books in African languages that stimulate the artistic and intellectual development of all readers. Thesis (Mphil (Visual Arts. Illustration))--University of Stellenbosch, 2007.
It was observed that in all circles of discussion, Africans talk about decolonisation and turning away from systems that favour the West in disfavour of Africans. Thinkers like Molefi K. Asante, Chukwunyere, and others have approached this matter of decolonisation at an angle of Afrocentrism. They intend to present African views from an undiluted African perspective. However, within that struggle, it is quite noticeable that the African basic education system has not done sufficient work to decolonise the presentation of African thoughts. There is a noticeable overrating of foreign languages like English and Afrikaans in terms of subjects or modules taught in South African schools and tertiary institutions. As it is, Sciences national papers are delivered to schools written in two languages, which are not aboriginal in Africa, i.e. English and Afrikaans, regardless of the province where they are delivered to. Within that backdrop, it becomes questionable whether African language practitioners are incapable of producing tools to Africanize the language of learning or the colonial languages refuse to forsake the African educational system. This conceptual study is set forth to explore decoloniality in the education sector and argue for the use of African languages as a mode of instruction in learning and promoting them to be at the same level of honour as those overvalued western languages. In this study, analytic critical theory is used to apply criticality and rationality, which guided the researchers to be more inclined towards reason than emotionality over this dire issue.
This chapter provides accounts of Fiji’s geography to provide a sense of place and orientation to the broader physical context of our study; Fiji’s history to illuminate how Fiji’s people came to be in Fiji, and changes that have affected their lives and governance, including the lives of the study’s participants; Fiji’s people to provide the demographic context of the study and to situate the study’s participants in this broader context, including an account of what economically sustains Fiji as a nation of traditional and contemporary cultures situated in an increasingly global world; early childhood and school education in Fiji to acknowledge the nation’s educational context in which researchers were engaged with early childhood literacy education in children’s homes and communities; and the Pacific’s and Fiji’s languages and dialects to set the study’s linguistic scene in a broad national and regional context.
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This thesis deals with work I have undertaken on the theoretical issues and practical approaches that have contributed to the changes taking place in the early literacy field in South Africa, and, by extension, in some extent, other parts of Africa.
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