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The ABC's of literacy and learning: a case study of preschooling in Gaborone, Botswana.

Background to preschool education in Botswana

The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Program was recognized as essential in the preparation of children for basic education in the Revised National Policy on Education (RNPE, 1994) in Botswana. The Department of Primary Education in the Ministry of Education was tasked with the duties of monitoring, evaluating the program as recommended by the Revised National Policy on Education. According to RNPE, the centers' should be registered, supervised, curriculum be developed, teachers trained in emergent literacy and standards set. However, according to the Education Statistics Unit (ESU) of the Central Statistics office in the Ministry of Education, almost 98% of the teachers in the pre-schools are untrained in Botswana. The number of untrained teachers in preschools is on the rise, which is contrary to the expectation on quality education at all level s on trained teachers (Education Report, 2006). The RNPE promotes access education at the pre-primary and primary levels, quality and relevant education. The purpose of this exercise, according to RNPE, 1994, is to prepare Batswana for the transition from a traditional agro-based economy to the industrial economy that would be able to compete with other countries globally.

Purpose of the study

The purpose of this study is to And out the extent of teacher and caregiver interaction involving print in children's literacy and language in a preschool in Gaborone, Botswana. Literacy and learning is a process that begins or should begin in the home and school as early as possible. The following research questions informed the study:

1) To what extent do teachers in the preschool interact with children to scaffold them in their literacy development?

2) What activities (if any) do teachers engages and interacts with children?

3) How do teachers interact with children?

4) What activities do children engage in amongst themselves? Theoretical framework

The theoretical framework that informs this study is that of Vygosky (1978). According to Vygosky, childrens interaction with adults is prime to their literacy and learning development. Vygosky's notion of zone proximity development posits "children are seen as internalizing the process practiced through participation with adults to advance their individual skills" (Vygosky, 1978:p. 383). This participation scaffolds children's individual literacy development. Vygosky talks about 'social construction' (p. 383) as a key element in children's' literacy development. According to Vygotsky, learning is a process and talk is at the heart of it.

Literature review

Despite efforts by United States of America (USA) federal government, school boards and educators, differences still very much exists in the literacy instruction between preschool programs and teacher experiences. Hence, inadequacy in literacy instruction is the norm not only in US schools but, in Botswana as well. Schickedanz (2003) blamed inadequate reading, less time reading to children and inconsistencies in writing as some of the things that are lacking in literacy instruction. The International Reading Association (IRA) is very transparent in its position regarding children's reading and writing. It states that "the ability to read and write does not develop naturally, without carefully planning and instruction" (IRA/National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1988, p.6). Reading and learning to read is a skill that should consciously and thoughtfully be taught. Invernizzi (2003) states that "to learn to read, children need to be aware of the structures of both spoken and written language at the word, phrase and sentence levels" (p. 140). Letters, games, words and sentences have to be taught for children's literacy to develop. Games, rhythms and puzzles add color and interest to this vibrant learning process.

Story telling is another powerful literacy activity that is important in developing children's language and literacy (Smolkin & Conlon, 1989). Through story reading, children do not only learn about the stories read to them but, they also learn social skills such as listening, being attentive and critical thinking. As a caregiver and parent reads the story, it is important to also make the child an active part of the story by using strategies such as retellings, predictions and connections.

Repeated readings, read aloud and group readings assist children in becoming better readers. Gonzalez, Moll & Amanti (2001) in their Funds of Knowledge are of the view that children however young contribute to their learning. Cooper (2000) posits that shared reading especially provides very strong support for learners. Also, according to Cooper, variety is an important key to motivation: story books, poems and online reading are some of the genres that teachers should employ in instruction. Instruction should be done in an informal and playful manner. However, teachers and parents need to go beyond storybook telling and sharing and engage in other literacy activities such as groceries and paying bills (Anderson & Stokes, 1984). "Thus, a family's influence in children's literacy learning involves far more than the provision of books or leisure time reading: it involves the development through shared activities of ways to handle day-to-day print events which work concurrently to enhance children's learning about written language" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 383).

In congruence with Vygotsky's (1978) concept of literacy learning as a social process, talk is very important too in building children's literacy development. Barone & Marrow (2003) advise teachers and parents to mimic children's talk in the teaching of letters and sounds. Doing this, they posit, aids in vocabulary instruction. Teachers and caregivers should pay attention to classroom oral language and activities that contribute to early literacy by exposing children to texts rich in vocabulary. In addition, teachers need to help children with decoding difficult words in reading as a way to improve comprehension and aid fluency. For struggling readers, echo reading is important (McKenna & Stahl, 2003).

Dickinson & Tabors (2001) take the concept of talk further. They reason that during the preschool and kindergarten years, children benefit a lot by increased interaction with caregivers. This concurs with the "labeling, scaffolding and contingent responsibility" (p. 384) identified by Wood (1986). As caregivers and parents point at and label objects, children learn. According to Neuman (2001) this scaffolds childrens' dialogue. Snow (1983) reasons that as children are exposed to adult speech more and more, their own speech improves significantly. As children start talking, reading better, they will also write better.

The concept of care is critical in scaffolding children's literacy and learning (Barone & Marrow, 2003). This helps in assisting young children feel safe and relaxed. Even if the best literacy practices are employed, if the element of care is missing, a lot of damage can be done. Children can feel vulnerable and not free in a learning environment. Care is particularly very important for children who come from troubled homes as they need to know that what they experience at home is not the norm (Snow, 2003). It is important then, for caregivers and teachers to be aware of children's home backgrounds so that they interact with them accordingly.

Patience and understanding also go a long way in helping children become better people in all respects. This understanding also involves the knowledge that children are different and each child is unique in his/her own special way. Hence, children learn differently and at varied paces. Taberski (2000) is of the view that teachers should use different and varied genres in the classroom as a way of catering to the special needs that each child has. In this way, social skills will be reinforced as children share stories and activities and learn from one another. Increased interaction of children with one another and caregivers also results in increased self-esteem and inadvertedly, the shy children are drawn out.

Planning is important in successful literacy environments (Taberski, 2000). A conducive literacy classroom needs tables, a library, big books, wall charts, and literature circles, among other things. As part of this planning, technology then should not be ignored as we live in a very techno-literate world. Children need to be exposed to the uses and benefits of technology at a very young age. Without simple technology, children can be vastly disadvantaged.

Teachers and caregivers need to be role models to the children in their care. This will communicate love, care and trust to children and scaffold their literacy acquisition and learning. When the right atmosphere is in motion, then learning should be as simple as A, B, C.


Design: We found the qualitative method to be an excellent inquiry for this study as it will highlight what happens during the teacher, caregiver and student interactions. Chilisa & Preece (2005), posit "Qualitative research refers to the type of inquiry in which the researcher carries out research about people's experiences, in natural settings, using a variety of techniques such as interviews and observations, and reports findings in words rather than statistics" (p. 44).

Site: Our research site was very much influenced by its proximity to our place of work, the University of Botswana. We got the approval of the Director of Young Children's Learning Centre (pseudonym) and the Head of the preschool to carry research. All the data for this study was collected in the school.

Participants: The participants in the study were made up of one teacher, one caregiver, the head of the preschool who from time to time assumed the role of a teacher and twelve children aged 4-6.

Methods of data collection: The study used observations and interviews to explore the importance of teacher interaction with children in developing their print literacy and language in a pre-school located near the center of Gaborone.

Observation is important in qualitative research (Merriam, 1998). According to Emerson et al (1995) observation leads to an informed understanding of the lived experience more especially as the researcher is present. The researcher can follow hunches on site more closely when using qualitative method than when using any other method and this can lead to asking leading questions of the lived experiences. The presence of the researcher in qualitative study is crucial to the success of the study. Observation was at two levels:

An observation protocol instrument was constructed and used to facilitate the collection of data from a class of twelve preschoolers aged between 4 and 6. The observation zeroed in on the following key factors; how teachers selected books, what reading materials were used in class, the manner of using the types of games toys and puzzles used, facilitated interaction amongst leaner's, as well as teacher interaction; the level or extent of teacher interaction and the classroom environment in as far as to whether it sharpened children's literacy and language or not.

Observation of children's work already done unstructured in letters and drawings were between the teachers, caregivers and the researchers (ourselves).

Unstructured interviews are important as they are informal in nature (Chilisa & Preece, 2005). These were carried out on the teacher and the preschool head who volunteered to be interviewed. Unstructured interviews are an important form of data collection in qualitative research (Merriam, 1998) as they are informal and can be carried out anytime and anywhere, hence participants are more related and are able to consciously and unconsciously divulge a true picture of the teaching/learning situation and other related issues.

Data Analysis

Data was drawn from classroom observations of teacher and children interactions, informal interviews with teachers, the preschool head and documents of children's work. The data was analyzed in the following manner:

Interviews: The interviews were transcribed. According to Charmaz (2006) a transcription is a written representation of the interview. We were mainly interested in asking teachers questions on teacher background, curriculum, their selection of books for children, children background, school facilities, classroom environment, among others. We then coded the data and came up with themes and categories after carefully studying the data.

Observations: Notes were made from the setting. From these notes, we came up with common themes and categorized them into groups:

Student-teacher interraction

Student-student interaction

Teaching/ learning activities

Classroom environment and management

Discussion of findings

Letters, words and short sentences

From observations, interviews and documents of children's work, it was clear that letters, words and short sentences were taught by the teacher for the development of children's literacy. Children easily identified words, for example, their names. They could each point to their names which the teacher had put on the classroom wall. In addition, the teacher assisted children with their reading of words and pronunciations. For example, in one of the lessons, the teacher assisted one child with the correct preposition to use. According to Invernizzi (2003) children need to be aware of the structures of both spoken and written language at the word, phrase and sentence levels. Indeed, the teacher's role was vital in facilitating learning in the way she did.

Painting, puzzles and shapes

Children engaged in activities such as painting and puzzles. All the time, the teacher assisted as they worked either individually or in groups sharing tasks. For example, during one lesson observation, the teacher chose puzzle pieces of a girl for children for them to put the pieces together. After that, she asked them questions on the paintings and the puzzles. In one classroom activity (see picture below), children were asked to paint some dots of their choice on one side of the paper and then fold it. After, the individual class task, she asked some children to share with the class what they had painted. (See one boy's painting below)


Some of the children's responses were as follows:

"A place for a train to go!" said one boy.

"A beautiful flower!" was the response of one girl.

"A dot!" said another boy

Teacher: "A dot. What do you use it for?

Child 1: "Numbers"

Child 2: "Circle"

Child 3: "yellow!"

Child 4: "Painting!"

In a puzzle activity, the teacher quizzed one group on the puzzle they had made.

Teacher: "What is the girl in the picture doing?"

"Sweeping!" replied a little girl enthusiastically.

As some worked individually and some in groups, the children sought the assistance of the teacher and the teacher from time to time. Most of the time, they just wanted to show off their work to the teacher or seek her approval. They also shared the work amongst themselves excitedly. The teacher concluded by applauding each child. However, she failed to share with the rest of the group the correct answers for the class activity and most of the time limited interaction to individual and group levels.

The teacher also taught children different shapes (square, circle and triangle) by making use of a shape chart (see chart below).


Chart 1: Shapes

Children were asked by the teacher to select appropriate shapes and fit into the ones in the chart.


The preschool head always facilitated the storytelling sessions. Occasionally, she read to the children using motherese (mimicking children's talk) as she had explained in one interview session that she did so children could relate with the stories. She read to them stories such as Red Riding Hood and Aladdin and the twelve lamps. As she read, she would sometimes pause and ask children questions on the role played by certain characters in the story. At times, she would role play and act for the children amid squeals of laughter. The preschool head encouraged shared reading and individual reading among children. However, teachers need to go beyond storybook telling and engage in other literacy activities such as classroom discussion on the buying of groceries, paying bills, handling family photographs (Neuman & Gallagher, 1984).

Rogoff (1990, p. 383) expresses the same sentiments when he posits that, "a family's influence in children's literacy learning involves far more than the provision of books or leisure time reading: it involves the development through shared activities of ways to handle day-to-day print events..."

Classroom environment and management

Generally, the classroom environment was very conducive for learning. Colorful tables and chairs were neatly arranged and children sat in groups of four or Ave. From observation, it was clear that children felt safe and secure as the environment was loving and welcoming. One boy in particular kept coming to us and shared his work. Talking to the teachers revealed that they were aware of the children's family backgrounds and this showed that they cared about the children in and outside class. According to research, well-managed, productive, and focused classrooms are characterized by organized materials, clear expectations, well established routines and a caring environment (Noddings, 1992). In addition, such classrooms should recognize and applaud the efforts of each and every child.


Overall the study has shown that in order for children to acquire literacy and any particular language, teachers and caregivers need to interact closely with children. Interaction and participation scaffolds children's individual literacy and language development. The prerequisite to being able to interact with ease lies in the very basic and simple principle of feeling safe and secure at all times. Children should therefore feel safe in and out of the classrooms, without any intimidation or threats or any other related fear-inducing factors either by the teacher or the caregiver or other children, for ease of interaction between the teacher and leaner's or between learners themselves. In order for meaningful learning to take place at this level, it is pertinent that appropriate strategies and skills be taught in a fun and playful manner. Teaching/learning activities need to be varied in order to cater for the different pedagogic needs of children. Play is especially vital at this stage as it inter-alia, fosters social skills, cognitive and motor skills. All in all when the right atmosphere is in place, then learning should be as simple as A, B, C.


Child-centered reading strategies that actively involve children into the reading processes like dramatization, role play, picture interpretation by learners, should be used over and above the usual scenario where the teacher reads out a text to the children. Culturally appropriate reading materials that learners can relate to should form the basis of their reading material. Such materials that help to instill appropriate cultural practices in children at the same time helping them learn the particular language and develop cognitively should form the basis of their reading material.

Children also need to be exposed to other cultures in order to broaden their perception of the world as part of the learning. This therefore calls for the infusion of culturally diverse reading materials. Storytelling should be taught such that it imparts other skills in children, such as critical thinking and making connections with their immediate environment and the world. In addition, other innovative storytelling strategies such as predictions, retellings and story-mapping should be used in order to vividly take the child into the story.

Other literacy activities that relate to the children's immediate environment should be employed. Examples of these could be teacher facilitation of discussion of activities like: buying groceries, handling family photographs and any other topics that both the teacher and the children can come up with.

It is vital that pre-school teachers and caregivers recognize the importance of play in developing and strengthening children's development, problem-solving, negotiating and sequencing skills. More time should therefore be allocated for play. Teaching/learning strategies should be improved. When children work in groups it is necessary that the different group outcomes be shared within the whole class. This would benefit leaners in the learning and sharing of new ideas. Computers with relevant and appropriate software for children should be used. The use of computers would not only infuse variety in the teaching and learning process, but it would also avail children the opportunity to be introduced to Information Technology (IT), as well as enhance literacy learning. Playing computer games, reading stories, poems or plays online could be some of the activities that children can be engaged in, depending on the installed software.


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Ms. Kelebogile Sebina & Dr. Lone Ketsitlile, Communication and Study Skills Unit, University of Botswana,,
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Author:Sebina, Kelebogile; Ketsitlile, Lone
Publication:Nawa: journal of language and communication
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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