Printer Friendly

From the Berg to the Karoo--families are reading!


Concern continues to be expressed over the low levels of literacy in preschool, primary and even secondary school children. One approach to addressing this concern is family literacy. This paper will describe the work of the Family Literacy Project in KwaZulu-Natal and detail how this approach has been adapted to a range of situations, from a government programme in Namibia to an arts centre in the Karoo.

The project has been evaluated over the years and valuable lessons have been learnt about how to encourage adults to take up their rightful position as first educators of their children--a role for which many women felt they were not adequately "qualified". The paper will include examples of how this confidence building has been approached and how children have benefited from, and enjoyed, the highlighting of books and reading within their daily lives.


Children need books--beautiful, exciting books that draw them into worlds that are familiar as well as taking them on adventures that broaden their horizons. They need books that help them understand their environment. They need books that help them understand themselves. Without books what will children read? However if we want children in South Africa to read, we will have to do more than produce exciting books in a range of languages. The reason for this is that if children cannot read, or find it difficult to read, it will not matter how many books there are available.

In South Africa there are many well-documented stories and statistics that worry us about the status of reading and writing skills in both adults and children, for example:

From statistics released by the national Department of Education it was "found that the average South African Grade 3 child was able to score only 39% on the Reading Comprehension and Writing assessment." (Valentine 2007:2)

A recent survey by the SA Book Development Council found that 54% of South African homes do not own a leisure book.

The General Household Survey in 2005 found that 1 million children live in households where there is no literate adult.

From this information, it is clear that both schools and families need support if the reading habits and skills of children are going to improve.

The small, but well-regarded, Family Literacy Project (FLP) in KwaZulu-Natal was established to provide support to parents (adult caregivers). The work of this nongovernment organization (NGO) is based on the belief that, if a firm family literacy foundation is provided in homes, these children will approach reading and writing with enthusiasm and interest.

The slogan of the project is "Making literacy a shared pleasure and a valuable skill" and it was intended that "pleasure" come before "skill" to emphasize that learning takes place best when people are relaxed and enjoying themselves.

As Kvalsvig (2003:2) states, "There is considerable evidence in the educational literature which supports the view that an early acquisition of literacy enhances children's later reading comprehension (for example, Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997), and that this is best commenced in the home with the parents as mediators in a shared experience".

The project draws strength from the aspirations of parents who want a better life for their children:

"Children of parents who think that education is important and who expect them to succeed at school are more likely to do well than children whose parents show little interest. The attitude and the amount and quality of parent-child interactions are more important in helping children do well than the material circumstances of the family." (Desmond 2004:350)

Since 2000, the Family Literacy Project has worked with families in the southern Drakensberg area of KwaZulu-Natal and more recently has run courses for families in Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo. Other courses have been run in Southern Africa but the focus of this article will be on interviews conducted with women in these two sites.

The women interviewed are not group members; they are all facilitators of the family literacy approach. The reason for highlighting their stories is that, if they believe in the importance of providing early literacy support to their own children, they will speak from experience and with conviction in the groups they lead.

The facilitators are local to their projects which range from deeply rural sites in KwaZulu-Natal to the more peri-urban Karoosites. When these women started as facilitators none of them had formal qualifications and some had not completed their own schooling. All had been chosen by their communities to be facilitators in family literacy work.

Prior to the family literacy intervention, most of the families reached had few, if any, books in their homes. They, like the group members, fall into the 54% of South African households where there is no leisure book.


Early in the life of the FLP, in 2001, the director interviewed two facilitators and followed this up with interviews in 2007. The facilitators from the Karoo-based project were interviewed in 2007 when they had completed an introductory course in family literacy. The director of the FLP ran that course and interviewed the women on how they viewed early literacy and how this view had changed, if at all, since they were introduced to developing literacy skills in the home.

The interviews were conducted in English although the facilitators were either mother-tongue Zulu or Afrikaans speakers. All the facilitators speak English so no translation was necessary.

Comments from other facilitators are included to provide more detail.

A brief description of the family literacy work is provided before each set of interviews, as the approach in KwaZulu-Natal is different from that in the Karoo, although the latter draws upon the former. Some discussion of the responses is included in the presentation of the interviews. A conclusion draws out points from the interviews and discussion.

Stories of four mothers from the southern Drakensberg

Family Literacy Project facilitators were chosen from and by the community. This happened in October 2000, six months after the first monthly family literacy workshops had been run by the director who was at the time the only staff member. These monthly workshops run by the director were held for local women in deeply rural sites in the southern Drakensberg area around the small villages of Creighton and Himeville. The workshops were set up with the help of local creche teachers and were aimed at helping the participants to discover more about their role as "first educators" of their children.

The focus of each workshop was on one or other way in which parents could support early literacy development. Sessions ranged from book making, storytelling, looking at or reading books, household activities that support early literacy skills, such as sequencing, vocabulary, repetition and recall.

The women who attended the groups were, at the start, convinced that they had little to offer their children in the way of support for early literacy development, as they themselves could barely read or write. It was by providing activities and through discussion that they became more aware that in their own daily chores lay opportunities for building vocabulary, sequencing, repetition and recall and other skills, like fine muscle control. A favorite example was that of going to fetch water with a young child--the mother can plan, she can talk to her child about what they see on the way, and when home they can recall the sequence of events and tell a story that has a beginning, middle and end.

In October of that first year, a decision was taken to look at how the project was progressing and what direction it should take. To conduct a Participatory Rural Appraisal seemed to be a good approach but Zulu-speaking facilitators were needed in order to run this with any benefit or understanding. Each group where the director had been running sessions was asked to choose a woman who had matriculated but was not employed. She should speak English as well as Zulu.

Now each FLP group has a facilitator chosen from the community and trained in, among other things, adult literacy, early literacy and participatory approaches to development. Baynham (1995:39) refers to people in this position as "mediators of literacy" and our FLP facilitators have always been very important in the development of the project. Archer (2005:31), based on the study of successful adult literacy programmes, states that "any adult literacy programme will only be as good as the facilitators it can attract, train and retain."

Archer goes on to note that, in the adult literacy programmes studied, most facilitators came from the community in which they worked, as the FLP facilitators do. They live close to their work, which is vital in the rural areas where there is little transport available. It is also important because they know and understand the women in their groups so well and want to help them improve themselves.

The first FLP facilitators came to join the project with no promise of payment for their work. After the initial PRA exercise, there was funding to pay them; but it is important to remember that they came without expecting payment and because they wanted to help their communities.

The following stories are those of two of the original FLP facilitators. (names have been changed)


Thembi and her eight-year-old son, Sipho, live with her extended family in a traditional Zulu homestead reached by means of a poorly maintained dirt road that becomes almost impassable on rainy days. Her home has no piped water and no electricity, but since Thembi started working with the FLP it does have books!

Sipho and Thembi spend time every evening reading--Sipho reads the books he has borrowed from the community library and Thembi studies for her honors degree by distance education. It has been a long journey to get to this point. In her 2007 interview, Thembi said she never thought she would one day travel around and beyond the borders of South Africa to speak about the benefits of family literacy. In 2007 alone, she travelled to Namibia and Mozambique, as well as attending international conferences in Johannesburg and Durban.

There is no doubt that Thembi's son Sipho enjoys reading. When Thembi was away for a week-long FLP training session, Sipho found the key to the community library and with the son of one of Thembi's colleagues let himself in to the library so that he could exchange his books. Thembi says that if she is tired and wants to go straight to bed, Sipho complains and insists that they sit and "study together".

When interviewed in 2001, Thembi had started working as an FLP facilitator and had already attended a course on early literacy run by the project. She said then that parents should read to their pre-school child because she felt that children understand parents better than they understand a teacher. When asked for her suggestions on how to extend a conversation between a parent and child, she said "when they start to tell you what they do outside you can start telling stories and help encourage them to talk."

In answer to a question about how a mother knows when a child wants to listen to a story, she said she thought that when a child wants to talk about things she has seen this would be an opportunity that the mother could use as a starting point for a story.

Thembi said that the most important thing she learnt on the initial adult literacy course that she attended was that if parents are literate they could advise their children well, as they will consider education to be important. Her experience in her family literacy group has proved to her that, although this is true, there are also women who are not literate who will make a great effort to help their children to develop a love of reading.

Thembi has supported women in their seventies who know how to look at a book with children by discussing pictures and turning pages carefully. These older women, who still cannot read and write well, visit their neighbors armed with books from the community library to read to the young children. One of these women has recently been widowed and, according to tradition, cannot leave her home for a year. It is very encouraging to note that a habit of reading has been established and that, even though the older woman cannot support this child for the next year, the child she had been visiting continues to come to the community library to look for her and to borrow books.

Over the years, Thembi's understanding of the development of young children has grown from the view that "early literacy (is) the education before children come to school or creche" to encompassing "the whole development of the child. This is good when it is started early rather than when you are old."

As Thembi's view of early childhood was broadening, so was her view of adults--as the response to the question of what she understood by "adult literacy" shows. Initially she said that "this is the education for the people who are the adults who have not been going to school and those who have been half at school". A year later she said that adult literacy is "the added development of people. The person knows many things without reading and writing."

After working for two years in the project, Thembi felt that she had been quite successful in bringing adult and early literacy issues together, although there were some problems. One problem she encountered was that some adults were not aware that young children should attend creche. In line with the family literacy approach, Thembi encouraged her group members to help children at home and said that she noticed that parents were taking to heart her advice that, when a child needed help, they should not say they were too busy.

Thembi now runsa community library at her site and facilitates family literacy groups for adults, teenagers and primary school children.


Dudu became a family literacy facilitator at the same time as Thembi. Dudu is married and has two young sons who she said were not at all interested in reading when she first tried to introduce them to books. As her work in FLP made her more aware of the importance of reading with her children, she tried to encourage them and sometimes even insisted forcefully that they read. In the 2001 interview, she said she believed that from five years old a child would listen to a story. She said that to help a young child to concentrate they should be shown pictures and should be engaged in activities related to the story.

Gradually her persistence paid off and, in her interview in 2007, she said that her children now enjoyed reading and looking at books with her. Dudu spends a lot of time in her mother's house and, as her mother has joined the family literacy project, there are more books in her home. The whole family--Dudu, her children, her mother and her nephews--often read together as a family in the evenings.

The first group Dudu started was made up of farm workers who were mainly men. She struggled with the farmer's indifference to and his, at times, interference in the group sessions. Dudu also found that working with men who didn't live with their children was difficult because they did not have the opportunity to read with their children and, in some cases, did not see the need to do this. The farmer refused to provide transport for his workers to the sessions and after a while they found the walk from the farm too exhausting after a day in the fields. In addition, there were fears based on rumors of a group of people in the area murdering for body parts. The group stopped but it is interesting to note that, four years later, the farmer has had a change of heart and has requested that a family literacy group be run on his farm.

Dudu has become the facilitator within the FLP who runs the introduction to family literacy course for those in other organizations. She is able to provide examples from her own family to illustrate points about reading with children and also extending conversations within families. While facilitating a course recently, she was quite open about how her sons resisted her early efforts to get them to listen to stories or look at books with her. This honesty created a bond with women who were not at all sure that their own children would enjoy reading and books. Dudu was able to convince them that with the right attitude, and by making reading a special time for mother and child, books and reading would become a pleasure in their homes.

Comments from other FLP facilitators

As the 2007 interviews were conducted on the same day as a team meeting, other FLP facilitators made comments on their family's experiences around reading and books.

Florence said that her two sons ask her to bring books from the FLP book box as they enjoy reading. She feels that her encouragement of reading at home has helped her eleven-year-old son, as he brings books from school and asks her to read with him. He is doing so well that his teachers said he might be able to move up a class.

Fiselani says that, when she goes to the library where she runs a teenage group, her children ask her if they can come too and read with her. They then borrow books to take home. Her son was the companion of Sipho (mentioned above) when the two young children found their own way into the community library to exchange their books rather than waiting for their mothers to return home after a week away.

Joyce looks after a number of children who have lost their parents. She said that some of these children have asked her to move them to the school that is adjacent to the FLP community library so that they can get books more easily.

From the Karoo

In 2005 the FLP organized a workshop in the Eastern Cape for anyone interested in family literacy. Those organizations who were already implementing family literacy programmes were joined by those who came to find out more about this approach. Three members of the Bethesda Arts Centre (BAC) in the Karoo were told about the meeting and drove for six hours to attend it. One of those who attended, Maria, was so excited by this approach that she persuaded the director of the BAC to arrange a course on family literacy.

The FLP developed this course to suit the BAC. As this is an arts project, where local women come daily to work on fabric wall hangings, it was decided that the course would be offered during their working day in two-hour slots over twelve weeks. The women had to be committed as they were giving up time during which they could be generating income through their sewing.

Four women from the BAC, including Maria, were chosen to be trained as facilitators. The local Reception Year teacher was also invited to attend the course. After the week-long facilitator training course, the five women were to work together to run the twelve sessions for three different groups from the community. Susan and Maria, whose interviews are presented here, ran the course for the BAC members. Two other women ran a course for young mothers in the community; the Reception Year teacher has not yet run a full course.

This introductory course on family literacy included time for the women to look at their own community and homes and discuss how much printed material was available and how much time their families spent reading and writing together. Storytelling, making books, reading stories, making puzzles and puppets were activities that made up the next part of the course. The conclusion was, in part, an evaluation of the course, as participants were asked again when and where families spent time reading and writing together. This list was then compared to that made at the start of the course. Differences and additions were noted and were discussed to see what changes had occurred in their lives as a result of what they learnt on the course.

The interviews were conducted after the newly-trained facilitators had run the twelve sessions. The interviews were done during the second training, which encompassed a follow-up course for the parents who attended the first course.


Susan lives with her partner and they have a seven-year-old son and a daughter of one. She said that, before she attended the family literacy course, she didn't know how to work with her children and didn't understand their problems. After the very first session of the course, she felt that she could go home and try things out with her children.

During the 2007 interview, which was several months after that first course, she said she felt that she had become a better mother as she realized the importance of spending time with her children and making sure that the home they grow up in is a happy one.

Susan said that she now reads with her seven-year-old son and asks him to talk about anything he finds difficult when reading at school. If he does have difficulty, she tries to help him by asking him to write down words that they then discuss.

Along with the other women in the group, Susan says that an important lesson she gained from the course is that she does not need to shout at her children and that punishments can be quite light and still achieve the behavior change that she hopes for in her child. She says that this has been a useful lesson for her as it has made life at home easier.

Susan decided not to tell her partner what she learnt on the course but she says she finds that he is watching her and now does things more patiently with the children and also provides opportunities for them to learn things. When their one-year-old daughter was repeatedly opening and closing a kitchen cupboard, Susan was about to intervene when her partner said she should not, as their daughter was learning how things around the house worked.

After the course, Susan started facilitating the short course on family literacy. The group members were local women. She says that she really enjoys being a facilitator, as she feels she is helping other mothers find out about different ways to be a mother.

One of her group members told her"I wanted to slap the child and I remember that I must talk to the child and then she was opening up." This echoes what Susan herself has found out about working with children in a supportive way.

Susan said one of the good things she learnt from the course was that as a mother you should try to "surprise" your child every day with something enjoyable for him to do.


Maria has a son of five and a young baby not yet a year old. She was the young woman who attended the FLP workshop on family literacy. She was convinced that the women at the Bethesda Arts Centre needed to hear about this approach and persuaded the BAC director to organize training by FLP.

During that first course she tried each activity described and practiced in the sessions, at home with her son. On each following morning she came in and discussed how the activity had worked or what problems she experienced. Her son was very pleased with the book she made for him during the course. He demanded that she make more books for him. Maria was so pleased with his reaction to the book that she brought him to the course session so that she could demonstrate how the two of them enjoyed the home-made book.

During the 2007 interview, she said she no longer had much time to spend with her son now that she had the baby. However, she said she did try to find time to ask about his day at school. Other activities she fitted into her day included singing songs and reading at least one book a week with him. They also watched television whenever she could spare the time from her household duties.

Maria said she enjoyed being with the other women from the BAC on the course she facilitated because she heard how they were struggling with the same problems. She said she learnt that "you don't have to be perfect". She believes that many of the women in her area want to do something for their children and enjoy hearing that they are their child's first teacher.

Both Susan and Maria presented the comments made by the women on the course they facilitated. These included the following statements:

I learnt how to talk to a child. That even if you are a mother you can still listen to a child. How to make learning fun. How to be a good parent. How you are the child's first teacher. How if "they show how much they love their children that child will grow into a lovely and wonderful person." I used to get cross if a child could not do something. Learning about how to have self-respect. How to sing and play with children. How to read a book together with children without stressing or hitting if he can't say a word correctly.

Other facilitators

Christelene has three children aged 12, 8, and 3. She said that, since attending the course, her behavior has changed from shouting and sometimes even smacking the children to helping them when they do something wrong. With the two older children away at boarding school, it is a disappointment to note that Christelene says she only reads to her 3year-old when all the children are at home, never when there are only the two of them.

Shirleen has two children aged 4 and 9 months. The changes she noticed in herself since the course were that now she knows that she is his first teacher. She now tries to teach her 4-year-old to read, and shows him different colors so that they can name them together. She says he loves it when she brings a book from the library and reads to him and always asks when she will change it and bring another one.

Cathlene has three children from 9 to 23 and is a pre-school teacher. Much of what she heard on the course was not that new to her, but she feels that she now listens to children a little more and helps them solve problems or answer questions in a more straightforward way, with more of a smile and a laugh than before.


The family literacy approach appears to give parents the confidence to take up their role as the first educators of their children. In the interviews, all the women talk about the changes they have seen in their children since introducing a reading time into their daily lives. They were excited about the changes they noticed, and how the children now asked them for books and to what lengths they were prepared to go in getting new books, as, for example, in the story of the two young children who made their own way to the library and opened it up themselves.

The women, in particular those from the Karoo, commented on the way children should be treated in the home. It was in this group that most emphasis was given to talking quietly and pleasantly to children rather than shouting or even hitting them. This was a change in behavior that was an unexpected outcome for the course designer. Household tasks and even furniture can be valued as ways to encourage language and learning.

The four women had young children when first interviewed and all have taken seriously the suggestion that babies enjoy conversations. Talking to children from an early age and communicating through smiles and gestures are important, as Wells states:

"... they provide a framework within which they can discover some of the fundamental principles upon which language in use is based--the reciprocal exchange of signals, the sequential patterning of turns, and the assumption of intentionality." (Wells 1988: 112)

As Wells continues, the "richest opportunities for talking and learning" are when adults and children do things together around the home. (Wells 1988:121)

These interviews demonstrate the changes in behavior and attitude in the women and underpin the idea that adults should participate actively in their children's development. The following quotation shows the benefit to both adults and children:

"Our conviction that teaching adults strategies to use with their children is productive in terms of the child's development is based on theories of adult mediation of children's learning following Vygotsky (1978) as well as various ethnographic studies of adult-child book reading (e.g. Cochran-Smith, 1984; Snow, 1983). Research showing reading gains for tutors as well as recipients of tutoring suggested that benefits in adult reading development would result from the parent-child interactions (Cohen, Kulik and Kulik, et al., 1982)" (Handel and Goldsmith 1994:152)

Family literacy is one approach to providing support to parents so that they in turn can provide support to their children. Without this support the question must be asked: "Will those South African children who are currently struggling to read be able to make progress and enjoy the books that many see it important to provide?" In the Family Literacy Project we believe that support for early literacy development must go hand in hand with the provision of books into the homes of all our children.


Archer, D. 2005. Writing the wrongs: international benchmarks on adult literacy. London: Action Aid International.

Baynham, M. (1995)Literacy practices: investigating literacy in social contexts. London: Longman. (Chap 2: Literacy practices)

Desmond, S. (2004) Literacy for now and for the future: Working with parents and children. Language Matters 35(2): 348-362.

General Household Survey (2005) Statistics South Africa Handel, R.D. and Goldsmith, E. 1994. Family reading--still got it: adults as learners, literacy resources, and actors in the world. In: Dickinson, D. K. Ed Bridges to literacy: children, families and schools. Oxford: Blackwell pp. 150-174.

Kvalsvig, JD; Qotyana, P; McLennan-Smith, G. (2003) Bringing literacy skills to young children: a qualitative evaluation. Child, Youth and Family Development, Human Sciences Research Council.

SA Book Development Council, Sunday Times 24 June 2007

Valentine, B. (2007). The Foundation 'Faze' Promoting early literacy and numeracy. Paper delivered at the 3rd Annual Early Childhood Development Conference July 2007 Cape Town.

Wells, G.(1988) Language and learning: an interactional perspective. In Cohen, A. and Cohen, L. Eds. Early Education: The pre-school years. London: Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd. pp 109-125.

Snoeks Desmond

Family Literacy Project

South Africa
COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of African Children's and Youth Literature
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Desmond, Snoeks
Publication:Journal of African Children's and Youth Literature
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Previous Article:New directions in Kenyan children's literature: individual stories as narratives of colonial invasion and decolonization.
Next Article:Cross-cultural relationships in America.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |