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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
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MIHAI, Maryke  and  VAN STADEN, Surette. Experiences, challenges and successes: Early-reading comprehension practices in resource-constrained settings with children from linguistically diverse backgrounds. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2019, vol.59, n.3, pp.436-450. ISSN 2224-7912.

Against a contextual background of deprivation, South Africa is constantly placed at the bottom of achievement when compared to participating countries in large-scale assessments of reading competency. In an attempt to address the reasons underlying such under-achievement, this paper seeks to provide evidence gleaned from selected Foundation Phase teacher focus group interviews about the reading practices that are employed when teaching reading in resource deprived environments to children from linguistically diverse backgrounds. Given South Africa's poor performance in reading assessments, the research questions focussed, firstly, on the challenges reported when working in resource-constrained settings, with the added complexity of linguistic diversity amongst learners; secondly, the reading strategies and the solutions teachers suggest when teaching these learners were observed and critically evaluated against a backdrop of national and international studies on reading. Focus group interviews were conducted at two resource constrained schools in township settings in the Gauteng province. Each focus group consisted of six Foundation Phase teachers, who are currently teaching students between Grades 1 and 3. The teachers varied in ages between 24 and 64. All the participating teachers were female and had previously received training as Foundation Phase teachers. Atlas.ti was used for the content analysis of the data and by means of open coding, we created codes, indicated by subtitles such as "Reading challenges", "Reading strategies" and "Solutions to problems". As each code was created, the programme used it to detect the relevant content in the interviews, which was then tagged with the code name. In this way, it was easy to determine what various participants had commented on different topics during the interviews in the data analysis. One of the most commonly mentioned reading-specific challenges occurs when learners are supposed to "read", since it would appear that they are not really reading, but rather relying on their memory. Sometimes learners even "read" without having any books in front of them. It is easy for the learners to memorise what they have read from the graded readers, since words and phrases are often repeated in these readers. Often learners are also "reading" the pictures, therefore reading what they think based on what is happening in the pictures. Furthermore, due to the absence of decoding skills, learners do not know how to construct sentences, and are therefore also experiencing problems with writing. The lesson plans provide ready made assessments where little effort or evidence of skill mastery is expected of learners. In terms of resource specific challenges, teachers paint a social context where many learners live in shacks without electricity, and are likely to come from abusive families where drugs and illegal gambling are commonplace. The two schools that participated in this study serve many families who come from different regions of the country or other countries like Malawi and Zimbabwe. Learners therefore find themselves in classrooms where the LoLT is mainly Sepedi or isiZulu, languages that many of them do not understand. Teachers described the lack of parental support in terms of parents who do not get involved in their children's schoolwork, who do not help children with their homework and where there is no culture of reading at home that could be cultivated, for example, by parents who themselves read or who buy books or newspapers. Class sizes posed another resource specific constraint. Teachers reported that their classes are too big to pay attention to all individuals while reading. The number of learners fluctuates between 35 and 46 students per class. Teachers indicated that when teaching reading, they mostly start a lesson with phonics, progress to using pictures, after which they then proceed to words, and thereafter sentences. Great emphasis is placed on the difference between the vowels and consonants. The teacher also breaks up the word in syllables and let students repeat those in order to enhance easier reading. Posters that accompany the textbooks are also used, specifically to teach tenses and plurals. Pictures seem to be the most important strategy, and are reportedly used by all the teachers. Teachers also emphasise that they frequently explain what they regard as difficult words, followed by questions on what should be prior knowledge. Only then the story is read and explained. Thereafter they let the class join in a reading chorus after which they ask them questions based on the story. Questioning is an important strategy, happening at any time during the reading process.The use of flashcards is widely practised and usually done when teachers put flashcards on the wall to aid with word recognition and learners reading all the words they did, for example, in the first term. The teachers start with words on flashcards on Monday and introduce more words every day. Questions are conducted orally, and any written work expected from students is postponed until Friday. Learners are required to answer questions about the stories in written format, and they have to write down what they have drawn if they had to draw a picture of the story. The reading lesson is concluded by doing corrections of the written work. Teachers were not able to provide any solutions to their classroom reading practice or reflect on alternative strategies where current strategies proved to be ineffective. No convincing evidence could be found where teachers ascertain whether learners have read with understanding by giving feedback on the strategies and skills that were used. In the examples that were provided, teachers merely asked learners to repeat what was read in a chorus, with little inquiry as to which strategies were used or how learners managed to arrive at understanding when reading independently. The significance of the current study lies in its presentation of existing literature about what is known about early grade reading instruction and evidence to the contrary from this study that shows that directed reading instruction is not done satisfactorily. The ineffectiveness of reading instruction may be due to teachers' lack of understanding of active reading components, as presented among other issues here. Reading specific challenges and resource specific challenges, as presented in this study, compound an already complex social context where learners come from varied linguistic backgrounds. Added to this complexity, teachers' inability to teach directed reading instruction successfully and with a wide repertoire of skills and strategies to monitor learners' reading progress puts learners at a double deficit - not only are they socially at a disadvantage in attempts to make academic progress, but they are also at an instructional disadvantage in being taught basic reading skills such as decoding ineffectively - skills that could have ensured early success and ultimately academic progress and achievement in later grades.

Keywords : focus group interviews; foundation phase; linguistic diversity; reading challenges; reading instruction; reading practices; reading resources; reading solutions; resource constrained environments; resource specific challenges.

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