Wits projects help high potential youth


Wits professors are studying ways to help youth from marginalised communities to realise their potential. Photo: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A Wits Education project has helped 30 high-potential learners in the remote Limpopo village of Badimong to improve their reading comprehension from about 27% to scores in the region of 75%, Wits researchers heard last week.

The project report was presented by language and literacy professor Leketi Makalela at the High Potential Youth Symposium held at the Wits Club last week. The symposium was organised by the Office of the Vice Chancellor and the Faculty of Humanities.

Makelela described how he had helped the grade 4 to 6 learners to improve their Sepedi and English reading comprehension. Makalela will expand his research project, which focuses on bilingual literacy, to three more schools in Limpopo and a township school in Gauteng.

The projects presented at the symposium dealt with youth at different stages of their education.

Rhian Twine, the Community Liaison Officer at the Wits Rural Facility near Bushbuckridge, described her efforts to help marginalised secondary school learners navigate the complex and costly university application process.

She was joined by first year mining engineering student Nyiko Khoza, who told Wits Vuvuzela he was at the university because of Twine’s assistance.

Dr Jill Bradbury, who teaches cognitive and social psychology in the School of Human and Community Development, spoke about her Reaching for Excellent Achievement Programme (REAP), which started in the middle of 2011.

REAP focuses on Wits psychology students from disadvantaged backgrounds who “are doing well, but not yet excellently in the second year of study”.

Students who were getting about 60% despite difficult backgrounds, showed potential to excel, Bradbury said. “And potential means it’s not yet evident.”

Bradbury said REAP also aimed to increase diversity in the postgraduate psychology classes. She said REAP students had attended events like an international psychology conference in Cape Town  to get a taste of the kind of high-level discussions and activities they would participate in at postgraduate level.

“It’s creating spaces that would normally be postgraduate spaces and we’re saying: ‘Come and play here’,” said Bradbury, who added that “there has been considerable movement in the student’s grades” since the programme began.

Bradbury told Wits Vuvuzela she believes programmes focusing on high-potential youth are not elitist if they produce research which can be made available to educators everywhere.

“What we do must be more than just being kind to a small group of students or helping a particular school. It must deliver something that can help us to do education better in the long run for all other students.”

She said the university plans to compile the knowledge generated by the High Potential Youth research projects in a book.

Read more about Prof Makalela’s project at https://witsvuvuzela.com/2012/09/12/wits-professor-helps-limpopo-learners-to-read/

Wits professor helps Limpopo learners to read

Wits University professors are conducting several research projects to help high potential youth from marginalised communities to succeed. Photo: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.