Like the learners at Badimong Primary School, Leketi Makalela experienced poverty as a child and went to a school where resources were scarce and teachers poorly trained.
He chanted or, as he calls it now, “barked” text he didn’t understand, moving his finger and his head as he followed the words on the page.
But despite ineffective teaching methods, he miraculously managed to learn. Now, with a doctorate in English, linguistics and education from Michigan State University, he teaches teachers.
Makalela, a professor of language and literacy at the Wits School of Education, is an example of the talented young people who were the subject of the university’s symposium on high potential youth from marginalised communities.
The symposium was organised by the Office of the Vice chancellor and the Faculty of Humanities. It featured current and future research projects which might provide solutions to some of the problems which prevent South Africa’s young people from fully realising their potential.
At the symposium, Makalela presented a report on the bilingual literacy project he recently concluded at Badimong.
A simple but effective intervention
Over the period of a year, Makalela and his three assistants helped 30 high potential grades 4-6 learners improve their reading comprehension scores from about 25% to about 75% in both Sepedi and English.
He did this through a simple intervention. He provided the learners with culturally-relevant Sepedi storybooks which he asked them to read to their parents for 15 minutes every day. For the first three months of the project, Makalela visited the families of the 30 children, a few every weekend, to monitor the learners’ progress.
Makalela also conducted interventions which benefited the other 300 children in grades 4 to 6.
Making reading less painful
He worked with them to change their reading techniques, which he said made reading “so painful a task”.
Makoma Makgoba, a grade 4 social science and grade 5 Sepedi teacher, told Wits Vuvuzela about the reading skills of the children before Makalela’s intervention.
“The sitting posture can hinder how they read. They move their head, as if they are conducting a choir.”
She said Makalela taught the learners to avoid following the words with their fingers and moving their heads and mouths as they read.
Enriching the classroom environment
Makalela conducted workshops with the teachers, encouraging them to enrich what he described as a “barren classroom environment with no visual support to provide opportunities for incidental reading”.
He solved the problem of a lack of money for posters by asking the children to read stories in Sepedi and then rewrite them in English or vice versa. The children then illustrated their versions and put them up in a colourful “literacy corner”.
This technique also achieved Makalela’s objective of encouraging learners to see their home language as valuable.
Makalela said he wanted to prevent the children from becoming “academic monolinguals”.
“It’s like driving on one wheel. You need both wheels to get to your destination.”
Makalela will expand his project to three more schools in Giyani, Polokwane and Thohoyandou (Limpopo) and one in Soweto.