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South African Journal of Childhood Education

On-line version ISSN 2223-7682
Print version ISSN 2223-7674

SAJCE vol.9 n.1 Johannesburg  2019 



Barriers and bridges between mother tongue and English as a second language in young children



Nora E. Saneka; Marike de Witt

Department of Psychology of Education, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa





BACKGROUND: Social and economic aspirations held by parents can reflect a desire for their children to learn English as a second language. Bilingual education has the potential for empowering traditionally disadvantaged groups, particularly through competence in English, a language that positions identity with power, privilege and status, thus being a political and an economic issue.
AIM: The aim was to look critically at the language development of young second-language learners within their social context
SETTING: An early childhood centre in Durban, South Africa.
METHODS: Methodologically, a qualitative praxeological framework was used. Parent partnership in sustaining the mother tongue was sought and explored in focus group interviews, using an action-reflection cycle to understand the dilemma of young second-language learners in South Africa. Ways of overcoming language barriers using the strengths of the child were explored using persona dolls. These methods helped to develop sustained, shared thinking between children, their parents and the researcher.
RESULTS: Young children found their own means of engaging in meaning-making processes both at home and at school. The issue of linguicism was tackled by encouraging parental participation in sustaining the mother tongue while children learned English as a second language
CONCLUSION: As long as English means access to improved economic opportunities, there will be a bias against those whose home language is not English. The dilemma of the young English language learner remains an issue of equity, access and redress for past injustices.

Keywords: parent participation; the young second-language learner; the right to participation; socio-constructivism; critical constructivism; praxeological research.




The purpose of this research was to look critically at the language development of young second-language learners within their social context, in relation to theory and practice (praxis). Language and communication are seen as fundamental to the child's right to participation, according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). Young children, seen as agents of their own life, find their own means to engage in meaning-making processes both at home and at school. In this research, different ways were explored to overcome language barriers using this strength of the child, in the process documenting the child's capabilities to share with the parents and in discussion with them, to build up an image of identity of each child. The research became a means of encouraging parent participation in sustaining the mother tongue while the child learned English as a second language, that is, additive bilingualism.

Social and economic aspirations held by parents for their children can reflect a desire for their children to learn English as a second or additional language. Robb (1995:19) argues that bilingual education has the potential for empowering traditionally disadvantaged groups, particularly through competence in English, a language that positions identity in relation to power, privilege and status. Therefore, it is not just a political issue but also an economic issue.

The dilemma of the young English language learner from a lower socio-economic environment is that additive bilingualism means more; however, the mother tongue tends to be subtracted in favour of English. This results in what is known as subtractive bilingualism - to the detriment of the young child. Additive bilingualism can add complexity of thought; the young child can think conceptually beyond the restrictions of the one right word to multiple perspectives. Added vocabulary can also add a richness and complexity to thought. However, this type of intellectual development, mediated through more than one language and culture, is seen in elite bilingualism as additive bilingualism. Elite bilingualism develops within higher socio-economic classes where families provide books in both languages and have the leisure time to support the mother tongue as well as the additional language(s). In such families, high levels of conceptual skills are encouraged in both English and the mother tongue. However, children from lower socio-economic communities tend to have parents who are faced with many challenges including a lack of formal education, the low social status of their mother tongue and a lack of time if they work long hours away from their children. Their mother tongue may also not have a value within the formal education system or the economy. Common bilingualism as subtractive bilingualism or semilingualism tends to develop (Toukomaa 2000:215). The child may have acquired basic interpersonal communication skills in the second or additional language of English, but finds difficulty with cognitive academic language proficiency (Cummins 1979). This is the dilemma of the young second or additional language learner.

Children can also develop an arrogance when they use English because language use reveals social positioning. This can manifest in what has been termed 'linguicism' (Phillipson 2007). When children become more schooled than their parents or grandparents (in South Africa this schooling would be in English), this can lead to an intergenerational breakdown in communication. Wong Fillmore (1991:323-346) describes the resulting lack of respect of children for their older family members and loss of traditional family values or the wisdom of the elders.

Therefore, linguicism refers to the hegemony of language, the language spoken by the dominant social class. In South Africa, this tends to be English, possibly left over from the colonial era, where English has become a language seen as holding status and power. A family's mother tongue does not have this advantage. In spite of the Constitution, not much happens at grassroots level to enforce indigenous language use in South Africa. Children become aware of subtle social cues and see the power in language from their parents and are aware of non-dominant languages. Language ties in with race, ethnicity and social class which in turn reflect unequal access to resources in terms of job opportunities, social status and political power. English has its power in being the language of global communication.

Active collaboration between school and home becomes important, especially when the teachers do not speak the home language(s) or mother tongue. The early years are a vital period of time, but in this research the English language learner was already showing a choice to speak English in preference to the home language(s) or mother tongue. It was also seen that some parents encouraged their children to speak English as a home language even when their own spoken English was very limited (Saneka 2014:128).

Similar results have been found from research in other countries: ' they may refuse to use their home language anymore as it is difficult to use both, and English may have greater status in the children's eyes' (Gordon & Browne 2008:490). Wong Fillmore (1991) went so far as to suggest that learning a second language means losing the first.

The Republic of South Africa's (1997) language-in-education policy is that of additive bilingualism. The particular pre-primary school used in this research has been registered under the South African Department of Basic Education. It follows the curriculum and has both Zulu- and Xhosa-speaking teachers as well as English-, French- and Afrikaans-speaking teachers. However, as there is a need for children to be prepared for English-medium primary school education, English is the language of learning and teaching. Therefore, English is spoken by the teachers and English is the language the children are encouraged to use in response. The children are also free to converse with each other during free play in whichever language they prefer.

Issues arise for the mother tongue, particularly for children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is especially the case when, according to Heugh (1995:179), the young English language learner receives such a strong, positive message about English in contrast to that of his or her mother tongue. Therefore, this research sought ways of encouraging the parents of young children to sustain mother tongue practice in the home while their child learned English as a second language in an early childhood centre situated in a lower socio-economic area.


Research methods and design

The setting for this study was an early childhood centre in a lower socio-economic area in Durban, South Africa. At the time of this research, 90 children within the age range 2-6 years old attended this centre and were educated at Grade 000, 00 and 0 (or R, the reception year) levels in preparation for entering school at the Grade 1 level. In terms of the nature of the research approach used, these children together with their parents and five teachers formed an inclusive purposive sample.

The researcher as a practitioner in the early childhood centre used a participatory action research methodology within a praxeological conceptual framework, using a socio-cultural and critical theoretical framework to examine practice (praxis). She used this methodology to explore the interface between the role players, the socio-cultural language context and interventions which could affirm the importance of sustaining the mother tongue of the young child while he or she was learning English as a second language. Parent partnership in sustaining the mother tongue was sought and explored in focus group interviews, with an action-reflection cycle used to understand the dilemma of the young second-language learner in South Africa. While participation was open to all parents, there were 16 who participated in the first round of focus group interviews and 8 in the second round 5 months later.

The inclusion of children as participants was motivated by the right to participate (United Nations General Assembly 1989), where participation was seen as a lens through which to critically examine values and beliefs. As Carla Rinaldi (2006:101) says: 'It is the value of research, but also the search for values'. Aims (reflecting our values) and methods (pedagogical practice) can be conceived of as closely interlinked. These aims and methods are socio-cultural in nature and therefore reflect how the norms and values of language practice are shaped and developed within a social and historical context.

In working with the children and their teachers, different methods were used in the research process to explore ways of overcoming language barriers using the strengths of the child. These methods, as '100 ways of listening to children' (Clark 2007:77) ultimately helped to develop 'sustained, shared thinking' between the children, their parents and the researcher and co-construction of knowledge around language practices (Siraj-Blatchford et al. 2002:10). Specifically, for this research, persona dolls were used (Saneka 2014):

Persona dolls are used as a 'tool' for the implementation of anti-bias education and are a means to 'narrate and create' the persona doll's life-story, in dialogue with the children. Each doll has its own 'persona', family history and individual identity. This is seen as a non-threatening way to include issues of language, identity, culture, race, class, and other anti-bias issues. The story of each doll is recorded in their 'I.D. Book' which can also be a type of 'journal' of the events in that doll's life as it is a record of the dialogue between the doll and the insights of the children. Children's participation (the dialogue between the 'persona doll' and the children) enables the story of the doll's life-situation to unfold in terms of how she/he (the persona doll) reacts and responds to the events in his/her life, with questions, suggestions and advice from the children. Each time he or she visits the children and 'chats' to them, the persona doll gives the children a 'voice' to express their thoughts and fears, hopes and struggles, leading the children from interpersonal awareness to intrapersonal awareness. The doll can become a 'mirror' to reflect the children's life-situation back to them, in order for them to reach a deeper understanding of their own thoughts and feelings and learn to empathize with the feelings of others, including the persona doll. (pp. 110-111)

Data were obtained from observing the behaviour of the children when interacting with the persona dolls. A picture of the persona dolls may be seen in Figure 1.



The research followed a praxeological methodology to discern the principle of the best interests of the child in relation to the right to participation and language practice at home and school (United Nations General Assembly 1989). Praxeology can lead to critical reflection on practice, particularly when using dialogue with others on subjective perceptions and values in relation to knowledge and experience (Pascal & Bertram 2012:480-486). According to Saugstad (2002:380-381), the Aristotelian description of knowledge is not just episteme ('factual knowledge' or 'universal, certain, eternal, general, non-contextual and abstract knowledge') but knowledge developed through praxis, incorporating values and ethics. Phronesis, through 'knowledge of political, social and ethical practice' becomes 'an ability to act morally correctly on the basis of the correct deliberations' (Saugstad 2002:380-381). Similarly, Pascal and Bertram (2012:486) outlined six principles for praxeological research, namely that it is ethical, democratic, critical, subjective, systematic and action based. These can all be seen as relevant to research on language practice, as the research could then explain the social and cultural context within which meaning-making develops, as well as provide the means of enquiring into the dilemma of the young second-language learner, with a view to transformative action to motivate and support parents.

Ethical considerations

This research received ethical clearance from the University of South Africa College of Education Research Ethics Committee (Reference Number 2013 MAY 4056485/CSLR).



There were four broad sets of results, namely observations from interaction with the teachers, the first focus group interview, the second focus group interview and observations from the use of the persona doll. These findings are presented briefly here and explored in more depth in the discussion.

The interaction with the teachers is provided as anecdotal and used for background purposes as the teachers did not sign consent for participation in this research at this stage. There were weekly review meetings to discuss concerns and plan interventions. Concerns raised included observations that languages have different dialects, with Zulu being no exception. With its different dialects, the question of what pure Zulu is was raised. Some dialects can sound like slang. Thus, the purity of the mother tongue was challenged. Further challenges were noted where parents chose not to speak their mother tongue to their children, as well as children opting to speak English in preference to their mother tongue.

The first focus group interview with 16 parents was able to identify the advantages of English easily. It was argued that English is a universal language and makes it easy to communicate throughout the world. They also felt that English was necessary in education, particularly at tertiary level, as concepts are not easily translatable. Furthermore, they noted that there are not enough books available in the mother tongue. Additionally, the mother tongue became problematic when trying to communicate with their children on a number of levels - it was useful for discussing problems when children were younger than 4 years old, but older children would respond in English. The breakdown of communication also became intergenerational - when children went back home to the rural areas, they could not communicate with their grandparents who now saw their grandchildren as having a 'white' education and the grandparents doubted the value of this. Children would be labelled terms like 'coconut' (black on the outside and white on the inside). The parents noted that their children understood their mother tongue but refused to speak it to parents because of the school environment with much exposure to English. Finally, the parents were concerned about their children being isolated and bullied if they spoke only one language against a majority who spoke another language. They felt one language alone was incomplete and another was needed for better understanding.

There was a conceptual shift in the second focus group interview with 8 parents which took place 5 months later. It was noted that children isolated themselves from other Zulu-speaking children in the townships and would not play with them. English became the language of choice even if they were spoken to in an indigenous language such as Zulu. As the children were attending the centre in a lower socio-economic area, there was also the issue of exposure to 'street English' where the language usage would come across as rudeness and was seen as a culturally unacceptable way of speaking, for example, swearing. Thus, English was seen as not all good, especially when sounding disrespectful. It was necessary to promote the mother tongue home language, such as in having more story books available in other languages. It was difficult to reprimand in the second language as children could ignore their own language or block it out. Therefore, it was important to hold on to identity and family values, and language was tied to identity and power.

The use of the persona dolls with the children was a useful way to dialogue with them where they could identify on common ground, develop empathy and develop friendship, thus being able to discuss problems and situations. Thus, the dolls gave the children a chance to be heard, thereby also helping parents to communicate with their children, and the children would not be excluded by language. Specific instances of persona doll interactions are explored in depth in the next section.



Children reached out intentionally to others seeking information and through gesture and language, used different modes and means of expression. They showed their curiosity: they investigated, expressed their ideas and feelings and wanted to be taken seriously (United Nations General Assembly 1989, Article 12). Some of the modes and means of expression in the research included painting and drawing, wooden block construction and outdoor play with water and sand. They also took their own photographs to show what their likes and dislikes were in their school environment. The research broadened the idea of participation from mere consultation to ways of listening to children for adults to understand their point of view. As Lansdown (2005) points out, a culture of listening to children is not generally the norm for adults (cited in Morrow & Richards 1996:97).

A central concern in the research was that children who are learning in a second or additional language can be silenced in many ways. This is why using the right to participation and children's rights as a lens for critical reflection on the research process emphasised the right to seek, receive and impart information, share experiences and ideas (United Nations General Assembly 1989, Article 13) and hold one's own opinion on matters (United Nations General Assembly 1989, Article 14). Of course, these rights are dependent on respectful and inclusive adult support and guidance (Lansdown 2004:5), as well as taking into account the evolving capacities of the child, as discerned by the adults (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child 2005:42). The challenge for adults was to take account of the abilities, strengths and ways children expressed their own ideas, including the culture of childhood. In actualising these rights, we are informed that we have a duty to consider 'the best interests of the child as a primary concern' (Organization of African Unity (OAU) 1990, Article 3, (1) and Article 4; United Nations General Assembly 1989). However, there may be differing cultural and social perspectives on the value of the mother tongue or home language(s) in relation to English - a language of power. Therefore, the 'best interests' principle can become a matter of interpretation, contestation and debate between parents, children and teachers. In the post-apartheid situation, additive bilingualism is also a political question of equity and access.

Language as co-construction of meaning, but also of self-expression or identity, is shaped by the socio-cultural context. Affirming the child's emotions in the mother tongue as well, English becomes an important way for the child to develop empathy with others (Saneka 2014:131): 'Through others, we become ourselves' (Vygotsky 1931). This resonates with the deep African philosophical value of uBuntu, showing humanity, expressed as 'umuntu, ngumuntu, ngabantu'. This is translated as 'a person is a person because of other people'. In Africa this can be seen as expressing both humaneness as care or empathy for the other, and social solidarity. This can challenge us to ask the question about what kind of society we want and how our actions realise the values of that society. Many of the children in this research were enrolled in the early childhood centre to learn English because of the perceived social and economic advantage, but could become 'an English-speaking someone' which would cause a barrier between themselves and their friends at home (Saneka 2014:283).

The results of the research in the second focus group discussion revealed a perceived powerlessness experienced by the parents in the face of what seemed to be this choice or option for English made by their children, even when they spoke the mother tongue to them (Saneka 2014:159), and, in the case of one child, when he had had a Zulu-speaking teacher for the past 2 years (Saneka 2014:162). However, by the end of the research both the parents and the teachers were more aware of the issues in relation to language, power and identity. At the second focus group discussion, which concluded the research, a parent stated emphatically: 'The children must not lose their identity, but cling onto it and carry on with everything else. They must plant that one tree, then grab whatever they can, from everything else!' (Saneka 2014:294). Article 29 (c) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (AOU 1989) stipulates the critical importance of:

the development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own. (p. 9)

The sense of belonging, which can come through interactions with peers, family or their teachers, is said to be a way to create 'a caring community of learners' (NAEYC 2009:16). A sense of belonging is essential for an infant to thrive and later for the well-being of the young child, as seen in attachment theory (Richter 2004:15). However, those who are perceived as not belonging may experience discrimination, bullying or teasing and the child may feel forced to conform to peer pressure, including in language practices.

The problem of linguicism

A crucial factor in the child's language development is the child's attitude towards the second or additional language(s), the value given to these languages by the parents and motivation to use the mother tongue. As an illustration, in the research process a newly enrolled Zulu-speaking child was observed by teachers in the fantasy play area, which they said was like a 'mother tongue nest', playing silently on the old computer while the other children were chatting to each other in their mother tongue, Zulu. In going through what has been termed the initial silent period while learning English, she was silent even in the midst of this busy hive of activity, surrounded by children speaking her mother tongue. Over the next couple of months at her school, single words in English and Zulu slowly started emerging and she proved to be highly verbal.

Some of the parents from the Congo were also choosing to speak English to their children at home, rather than their own mother tongue or French, another international language, even though their own proficiency in English was limited. Their children were identified as 'inventing imaginary words' or 'using formulaic speech to fill the gap' (Saneka 2014:128, 238).

Children were also seen to get the message that a way of speaking, an accent or certain language including English but not limited to English, is of higher prestige than others. However, this can create a barrier. For example, some of the teachers who spoke the mother tongue or home language(s) tended to use it for the discipline or correction of the child (Saneka 2014:129) and not for 'sustained shared thinking' (Siraj-Blatchford et al. 2002:10). Interactive conversation, playful exchanges of ideas, storytelling and other teaching situations were all in English, which seemed to reinforce the authority of English with the authority of the teacher (Saneka 2014:285). A parent also reported reprimanding his son in the mother tongue, before switching to English (Saneka 2014:279). Therefore, this encouraged a negative association with the mother tongue or home language(s). However, a parent also reported that her son only listened to her if she reprimanded him in English, instead of the mother tongue (Saneka 2014:286), '[b]ecause it's about power, and children love power' as the parent explained.

In one example, which was discussed by a parent at the first focus group discussion, his child had started testing adult attitudes to social norms of communication, in order to see how his parent would respond. The parent experienced difficulties with the child's lack of cooperation, especially when his child showed defiance. He was upset when his child shouted at him: 'No, no!', as that was interpreted as showing disrespect as it went against his social norms and values (Saneka 2014:268). Some of the other children also tested the limits by deliberately blocking out words in the home language with white noise, and one parent reported her child as saying 'Blah, blah, blah' while she attempted to talk to her (Saneka 2014:282) and showed selective hearing to avoid responding to her parent. Language use also revealed insiders and outsiders and a type of power play between the children as a form of linguicism (Saneka 2014:261).

The following two examples from the research are illustrative of this linguicism (Saneka 2014:151-154):

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From active joining to child-led participation: A new approach to examine participation in teaching practice



Reetta NiemiI, II

IViikki Teacher Training School, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
IICentre for Education Practice Research, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa





BACKGROUND: The new core curriculum for basic education in Finland emphasises the interrelation between learners' participation and multidisciplinary learning. Each learner must be provided with an opportunity to join at least one multidisciplinary learning module each year. Hence, student teachers also implement a multidisciplinary learning module as part of their teaching practice at the University of Helsinki
AIM: In this article, I describe how two multidisciplinary learning modules were implemented by four third-year student teachers in a teacher training school and how they were educated to analyse the different forms of participation in their teaching.
SETTING: The research question of this article is as follows: How do different teaching practices used in multidisciplinary learning modules support learners' participation?
METHODS: The data of this study consist of two documentation forms: two semi-structured group interviews and a field note diary
RESULTS: The results showed that most of the practices used in multidisciplinary learning modules supported an active joining form of participation and a collaborative form of participation. In the multidisciplinary learning modules, a child-oriented form of participation was supported through practices that related to creating artistic learning outcomes; however, no practices supported a child-led form of participation
CONCLUSION: In this study, the student teachers learned to analyse the different forms of participation in their teaching. Nevertheless, more data about the workability of the mentoring method in other contexts are needed.

Keywords: learners' participation; multidisciplinary learning modules; teaching practice; teacher training; practitioner research; teacher professional development.




In the 21st century, Finland has become famous for its educational system. Because of its reputation, there has been considerable international interest in Finland's implementation of the new national curriculum that took place in 2016. Some of the main changes in the Finnish national core curriculum for basic education (Finnish National Board of Education [FNBE] 2014) are connected to two interrelated elements: pupils' participation and multidisciplinary learning modules.

Firstly, pupils' participation is one mission in basic education in Finland. The Finnish national core curriculum states that basic education should reinforce the pupils' positive identities as human beings, learners and community members and promote participation, a sustainable way of living and growth into active citizens who use their democratic rights and freedoms responsibly. It also states that participating in civic activity is a basic precondition for an effective democracy. Skills in participation and involvement as well as a responsible attitude towards the future may only be learned by practising (FNBE 2014:19-25). In Finland, schoolwork should be based on learners' participation by ensuring that they are heard. The learners' involvement in planning their own schoolwork and group activities is also seen as a natural way of reinforcing participation (FNBE 2014:37).

All of these aspects of participation given in the core curriculum apply to the political and social dimensions of participation defined in educational literature. Political participation means making an impact, influencing the community, taking part in decision-making and taking responsibility. In schools, the political dimension usually means working with the school councils and mimicking the political structures of adult society. Social participation is concerned with the sense of community, belonging, membership and positive social interdependence. A learner has to be a member of the group or the community; one has to be able to act in a group and feel accepted as part of the group (Kiilakoski, Gretschel & Nivala 2012; Niia et al. 2015; Thomas 2007). I agree with Bae (2009), who points out that the phenomenon of learners' participation is too often reduced to mean learners' role in decision-making and that the social dimension of participation receives less emphasis.

In order to support pupils' participation, the current national curriculum emphasises the role of multidisciplinary learning modules. It states that to safeguard learners' opportunities to examine wholes and engage in exploratory work that is of interest to learners, they must be provided with opportunities to join a multidisciplinary learning module at least once during a school year. The curriculum also clarifies that the duration of the learning modules must be long enough to give pupils time to focus on the contents of the module and work in a goal-oriented and versatile manner over the long term. It also states the importance of strengthening the learners' participation through learning modules by offering learners opportunities for involvement in the planning of the objectives, contents and methods of the studies and ways to raise issues that they find meaningful (FNBE 2014:23-33). Despite being from the compulsory role of multidisciplinary learning modules, the national core curriculum has always supported and still supports subject-based teaching through subject-based goals. That has confused many teachers as they wonder how to come up with a holistic multidisciplinary module while at the same time ensuring that the requirements of the subject-based curriculum are met.

In this article, I focus on two problems. I describe how two multidisciplinary learning modules were implemented by four student teachers in the Viikki Teacher Training School from September to December 2017 by connecting subject-based goals and pupils' participatory role in planning, implementing and evaluating the module. I also describe how the model of the four forms of participation was used in teaching practice in promoting student teachers' skills to reflect different forms and dimensions of participation. My research question is: How do different teaching practices used in multidisciplinary learning modules support learners' participation?

In the next section, I draw a picture from previous models of participation and present a new approach to analysing participation in teaching. After that, I describe my method, data collection, analysis and results. I also discuss some ethical problems related to this study. In the conclusion, I look ahead and suggest how the results of this study could be applied in teacher education.

Models of participation

As participation practice has grown, so has the number of guides and models to support the practice (e.g. Hart 1992; Landsdown 2001, 2010; Lundy 2007; Reddy & Ratna 2002; Shier 2001; Treseder 1997). One of the most influential models has been Hart's (1992) ladder of participation, in which he presents an eight-step model that begins with non-participation: (1) manipulation, (2) decoration and (3) tokenism. The model ends with degrees of participation: (4) assigned but informed; (5) consulted and informed; (6) adult-initiated, shared decisions with children; (7) child-initiated and directed and (8) child-initiated, shared decisions with adults.

Hart's model has also been substantially critiqued. It has been said that it implies a necessary sequence to children's developing competence in participation (Kirby & Woodhead 2003:243; Reddy & Ratna 2002:28). It has also been questioned whether one should even mention different levels of participation. Jensen (2000) has suggested that the rungs of the ladder can be described as different forms rather than different levels of participation.

In his later work, Hart (2008) pointed out that the ladder of participation addresses only a rather narrow range of ways in which most children in the world participate in their communities. It focuses on programmes or projects rather than on children's everyday informal participation in their communities. The ladders focus instead on describing the varying roles adults play in relation to children's participation. In fact, the ladder is primarily about the degree to which adults and institutions afford or enable children's participation.

Landsdown (2010) suggested that the importance of finding key indicators to evaluate evidence of cultural climate in which the right of children to be heard and taken seriously is established. She also emphasised that it is necessary to be able to measure the extent, quality and impact of actual participation in which children are engaged. From her point of view, children should even be able to participate in evaluating what participation is taking place.

Landsdown (2010) classified children's participation on three levels: consultative, collaborative and child-led. Firstly, consultative participation is a level on which adults seek children's views to build knowledge together. The actions are adult-led and managed and children do not join the decision-making. Secondly, collaborative participation provides a greater degree of partnership between adults and children. On this level, children can be involved in designing and undertaking research, showing representations on boards and committees. Collaborative participation provides an opportunity for shared decision-making with adults. Thirdly, child-led participation occurs when children are afforded the space and opportunity to identify issues of concern, initiate activities and advocate for themselves. The role of adults is to act as facilitators to enable children to pursue their own objectives through provision of information, advice and support.

According to Sinclair (2004), children's participation in decision-making is complex: it is undertaken for different purposes and is reflected in different levels of involvement, contexts and activities. Different contexts constitute a different form of participation. Participation as a group phenomenon is different from personally experienced participation. What is crucial is that those involved understand these complexities so that they can match appropriately the nature of their activity to its purpose and to the decision-making context and the appropriate level of power-sharing. Sinclair (2004) points out that only when the adults have thought this through will they be able to engage effectively with children.

Similarly, in schools one can find different contexts in which participation has different purposes. Learners' participation in breaks, lessons, school councils and special school events can look different. In the literature, it is common that examples related to learners' participation in schools are organised around specific projects, which often are activities that are 'added on' to normal classroom practices (Malone & Hartung 2010:32), instead of a focus on lessons and teaching practices. In this study, my concern relates to learners' participation in actual lessons in different school practices.

My ideas of participation follow the four aspects defined by Kiilakoski et al. (2012). Firstly, participation is a relational phenomenon that, secondly, involves a formal and informal recognised position as an agent. Thirdly, participation should manifest in physical, oral and verbal events and actions and, fourthly, it should produce a feeling of participation. In the next section, I draw a four-form approach to be used as a tool to see how teachers as representatives of a school institution can support different forms of participation through their teaching practices.

Four forms of participation in classroom practices

After the new core curriculum (FNBE 2014) was launched in Finland, the concept of participation has spread everywhere, but it has also caused problems. The concept has been repeated as a canonical script without being analysed and explained. It has also been considered as a phenomenon that either exists or does not (Tammi & Hohti 2017). Because previous models of participation relate rather to contexts in which learners work with adults in programmes and committees than on lessons, my colleagues and I developed the model of the four forms of participation suitable for use in classroom practice (Niemi, Kumpulainen & Lipponen 2018). We use the concept of form instead of level, because we think that each form is important and we do not want to promote one form as better than another. In the original model, we focused on learners' role in decision-making on lessons. In this article, I continue to develop these forms by placing a stronger emphasis on the social dimension of participation.

The first form of participation is called active joining. This form relates to Hart's Levels 3-4 and to Landsdown's ideas of consultative participation but it also relates to the social dimension of participation. In this form, a teacher creates learning activities in which a learner can work actively, bring out knowledge and thoughts from the content and work as a teacher's assistant. However, all activities are led by a teacher and learners do not share power, but these activities often support learners' everyday communication and relatedness to others.

The second form of participation is called collaborative participation. This form has adopted features from Hart's Levels 5-6 and from Landsdown's ideas of collaborative participation. In this form, a teacher is the one who makes the first input by choosing topics for the lessons defined in the curriculum. After that, in a shared discussion between learners and teacher, the lesson finds its format. Learners' previous knowledge, thoughts and ideas together form the direction of the lesson in collaboration with a teacher. In this form, learners have an impact on decision-making, but this form strongly emphasises the social dimension of participation.

Child-oriented participation is connected to Hart's Levels 7-8 and to Landsdown's level of child-led participation. In this form, learning situations are based on learners' own ideas and wishes and a teacher's role is to work as assistant and facilitator, who helps learners to accomplish their ideas. In this form, a teacher's role is continually present by setting timetables, helping group work and giving suggestions to improve learning outcomes. In this form, learners have a recognised role as agents who are able to influence decision-making in terms of their own learning and take responsibility for their own learning.

In both Hart's (1992) and Landsdown's (2010) models all the levels are connected to adults' existence and adults' role in children's actions. That aspect has been critiqued by asking whether it is possible that children can act without adults (Kirby & Woodhead 2003). In our approach, the form of child-led participation refer to those situations that happen without adult interference. Those situations may occur in play that begins, continues and ends according to children's own will. By child-led participation we also mean situations in which a learner takes a lead from a classroom activity and shares his or her expertise on behalf of the classroom community. This form of participation highlights learners' independent role in decision-making.


Methodology of the study and data collection

This study is practitioner research that has elements from action research and design-based research. Practitioner research can be seen as an umbrella of different approaches that focus on an intentional and systematic study of one's own practice (Dinkelman 2003:8; see also Heikkinen, De Jong & Vanderlinde 2016). In education, practitioner research can be seen as any research carried out by teachers and other education professionals into aspects of their work (McLaughlin 2011).

In this study, I conducted a small-scale intervention in the functioning of the school setting and examined the effects of this intervention. There are features that are context-specific, participatory and collaborative. These elements are characteristic of action research (Carr & Kemmis 1986; Cohen & Manion 1994:186). However, I have also attempted to create a model for teacher education to educate student teachers to understand the different forms of participation. My attempt to design a method to mentor student teachers that is not dependent on context gives this study features from design-based research (Cohen & Manion 1994:186; Van den Akker et al. 2006).

The study took place in a teacher training school in the city of Helsinki, Finland. The participants in the study were third-year student teachers (three women and one man) who conducted their second teaching practice during the study. By the time of the research, the pupils (13 girls and 12 boys) of the classroom were in the third grade (approximately 9 years old). The classroom had several multicultural pupils, five of whom did not speak Finnish as a first language. In this study, I have a triple role: I am a teacher to the learners, a mentor to the student teachers and a researcher.

Data collection took place from September to December 2017. All data were collected during a 50-lesson teaching practice. Each teaching practice took 1 week for planning and 5 weeks for teaching. During the teaching practice, student teachers taught five different subjects and conducted a multidisciplinary learning module from the contents. Table 1 describes the multidisciplinary learning modules that were produced in teaching practices. The data consisted of two forms that document the student teachers' reflections from teaching methods, two group interviews and my field note diary. Student teachers' plans for multidisciplinary module sessions (n = 20) have also been included in the writing process to verify the order of sequence during multidisciplinary learning modules.



The student teachers completed a documentation form after each week, after approximately 10-12 lessons. The documenting began with reflecting on all the different teaching practices the student teachers had used and then they filled out the form in (Figure 1) according to their experiences. After the teaching practice, I interviewed the student teachers.



Ethical considerations

In practitioner research, a researcher always has an impact on the results (Heikkinen et al. 2016). In this study, I am one of the authors behind the four forms of participation (Niemi, Kumpulainen & Lipponen 2018) that were used as a theoretical starting point. Because I am the one who taught the meaning of each form to student teachers, my interpretations have had an impact on student teachers' thinking, which should be considered when interpreting the results of this study. In practitioner research, ethical issues are always to be considered carefully. Ethically it was important that I did not have an official power relationship to the student teachers through grading (in Finland there is no grading in teaching practice), but they were free to express their opinions without fearing an effect on their studies; however, my role as their mentor may still have had an impact on the results. There is always a possibility that they may have had some criticism that they did not want to share because they knew me. That is something to admit, not deny (see also Heikkinen et al. 2016). To increase the validity of this article, the student teachers were invited to read this article and correct my interpretations before sending the article to a journal for publication. I have also obtained permission to do this study from the leading principle of the school.



How do different teaching practices used in multidisciplinary learning modules support learners' participation?

In the interviews, the student teachers viewed highly structured practices like answering teachers' questions, doing study book tasks, filling in forms and notebook work as practices that require pupils' active joining but do not give learners any opportunities to join power-sharing or support communication. In these multidisciplinary learning modules, there were not many of these practices and their purpose was to strengthen pupils' skills through repetition. The student teachers also noticed that these practices were easy to spot on this form, because there was no variation between learners' actions in these practices.

In those two multidisciplinary learning modules, the learners were able to join many kinds of learning games and play. They were also shown different videos during the modules. The student teachers also classified these practices to the form of active joining. In the learning modules, there were also many practices in which the learners completed scientific-based research and made observations from tests created by the student teachers. In those practices, pupils worked actively and communicated with their peers but they did not join in the decision-making. In the literature, there are many studies that have shown how much learners appreciate doing scientific research and joining games or play (e.g. Hopkins 2008; Niemi, Kumpulainen & Lipponen 2015a, 2015b; Niemi et al. 2015). Even though these activities do not give learners a chance to join power-sharing, they still give learners a chance to experience a social dimension of participation through everyday communication (see also, Bae 2009). When solving problems and playing games, learners can be heard and communicate freely with classmates and feel a sense of relatedness to others.

The student teachers viewed investigative learning practices as a collaborative form of participation. In these two learning modules pupils developed their own research questions from a topic set in the curriculum. In these investigative practices, the learners also worked in expert groups and were co-teachers to each other. The practices, which student teachers considered as a collaborative form of participation, related to activities in which they built knowledge together in dialogic form. For example, doing a Venn diagram together with learners and building up lessons according to learners' preknowledge were considered as practices in which learners were involved in designing and undertaking different kind of actions together with teachers (see also Landsdown 2010). In the second learning module, pupils also conducted a self-evaluation of their own work. The learners joined an assessment discussion with student teachers according to their self-evaluations. The student teachers saw this practice as a collaborative form of participation, because input was provided by the student teachers but the learners had a significant role in setting goals for themselves for future projects. Even the student teachers had input into these practices; the learners had a recognised and active role in each practice. They were not only teacher's assistants (see Landsdown 2010) but they also had a role as active members of the classroom community who had an impact on the lesson's direction.

In the interviews, the student teachers mentioned that at the beginning of the multidisciplinary learning module, when they built conceptual knowledge and reached the subject-based goals set in the curriculum, the practices often supported an active joining form of participation or collaborative form of participation. After the teachers created the conceptual ground for the learners, the learners had a chance to plan how to express their learning and they were able to implement their learning in various ways, often artistically.

In these two multidisciplinary learning modules, the practices that supported a child-oriented form of participation related to processes of creating learning outcomes; writing a video script; filming a video; writing a letter to a representative of a city council; creating a scene of a play and composing a song. In these practices, learners were able to make decisions and the teacher's role was only to help learners if they were confronted with problems. These practices also forced learners to take responsibility for their own learning.

However, the student teachers pointed out that in this part of the learning module there were also learners who did not reach a child-oriented form of participation and who needed continual structure to guide their work. This result is similar to that of previous research; the form of participation is in relation to learners' capacities to participate (Hart 1992; Landsdown 2010; Sinclair 2004). In interviews the student teachers also revealed that in many cases it was easy to place a certain practice in a certain box on a documentation form. However, there were practices that began with one form and during the lesson evolved into another form of participation. Furthermore, learners' different capacities to join practices sometimes made it impossible to place a certain practice into a certain box. This critique clearly reveals the difficult aspects of participation. Researchers and teachers can try to understand different forms of participation but it is challenging to capture the phenomenon as whole. As Sinclair (2004) has said, participation as a group phenomenon is different from personally experienced participation. I still claim that if teachers understand these complexities, they can also appropriately match different practices to its purpose and to the decision-making context and the appropriate level of power-sharing (see also Sinclair 2004).

In this study, there was no single practice that was considered to support a child-led form of participation. However, when learners worked in groups, there were single moments that could be seen as a child-led form of participation. For example, in one group learners decided themselves to solve a problem through voting. The voting was implemented without the interference of the student teachers. Similarly, Hart (2008) has reported that children can reach the child-led form of participation only in play. In an interview, the student teachers mentioned that in this classroom there was one practice that supported a child-led form of participation; the learners can use one break per day for practising their own plays. On Fridays there is a lesson in which the learners present these performances. The programme of the lesson is made by learners and the lesson is guided by them. This lesson was not part of student teachers' multidisciplinary learning module, but because it was a major part of the class culture, it was revealed in the interviews. Table 2 presents the previous results by using the model of documentation form used in this study.




In Finland, achieving learners' participation is one mission of basic education. To promote learners' participation, each learner must be provided with an opportunity to join at least one multidisciplinary learning module per year. This practice has also caused questions: What do we mean by 'participation in learning'? How is it possible to create holistic multidisciplinary modules while at the same time ensuring that the requirements of the subject-based curriculum are met? Because of the compulsory nature of multidisciplinary learning modules, student teachers must also implement a multidisciplinary learning module as part of their teaching practice.

In this article, I have described the model of four forms of participation. In the study, I used that model as a tool in mentoring the student teachers to analyse their own work and to understand how different teaching practices promoted different forms of participation. At the beginning of each multidisciplinary learning module, when the conceptual base of the topic was built and when the work was based on reaching subject-based goals set in the curriculum, the practices mainly promoted an active joining form of participation and a collaborative form of participation. When the multidisciplinary learning module went further and when the learners began to plan and implement their learning outcomes, the practices used supported a child-oriented form of participation. In the multidisciplinary learning modules, there were not any practices that supported a child-led form of participation. In this study, the student teachers also revealed the difficult essence of participation. We can try to understand different forms of participation, but it is challenging to capture the phenomenon, because participation as a group phenomenon is different from personally experienced participation (see also Sinclair 2004). It is crucial that the teachers involved understand these complexities so that they can match appropriately different practices to its purpose and to the decision-making context and the appropriate level of power-sharing (see also Sinclair 2004).

In this study, the student teachers experienced the model used in mentoring as beneficial in terms of their professional development. It also worked well in connecting the theory of participation to practice. When I look at the method through the lense of design-based research (e.g. Cohen & Manion 1994:186; Van den Akker et al. 2006), I think that this method can be transferred to other contexts. It did not require any financial resources and all events occurred during an ordinary school day as part of everyday mentoring. I also think that in teacher education this method could be used in connecting other theories besides participation to practice. Even though the results were promising, this research has to be considered a minor-scale study. There is a need to do more research about the workability of this method in other contexts. However, I hope that this minor research provides the educational community with some new aspects of learners' participation in learning and inspires other practitioner researchers to try this method.

As Landsdown (2010) put it, it is necessary to be able to measure the extent, quality and impact of actual participation in which children are engaged. In this study, I was able to capture student teachers' reflection of different forms of participation that were promoted by the teaching practices used. According to Landsdown (2010), learners should join in the process of evaluating the processes in which they have participated. In this research, the method used focused only on student teachers' reflection and it did not include learners' voices. I give that critique to my own work but I also see that as a future challenge and a goal on which to focus in future studies.

My results are contextual but the issue of promoting learners' participation is global. I claim that Finland's educational system (see, e.g., Lanas & Kiilakoski 2013), where primary school is decentralised, no teacher evaluation exists and the national curriculum offers teachers substantial pedagogical freedom, gives teachers the possibility of supporting learners' participation. In Finland, teachers' autonomy and trust in teachers' strong model of professionalism allow teachers to choose teaching practices that are appropriate for the particular learners and determine creative ways to implement learning. I believe that by supporting the autonomy of teachers, teachers can enhance the autonomy of learners also in other educational contexts. I hope that my article also raises discussion on that important issue.



Competing interests

The author declares that she has no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced her in writing this article.



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Reetta Niemi

Received: 20 May 2018
Accepted: 11 Oct. 2018
Published: 23 Apr. 2019

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Vulnerable masculinities: Implications of gender socialisation in three rural Swazi primary schools



Ncamsile D. MotsaI; Pholoho J. MorojeleII

ICollege of Humanities, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
IIGender and Social Justice Education Department, School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa





BACKGROUND: This article draws on social constructionism to explore vulnerable boys' constructions of gender within three primary schools in Swaziland.
OBJECTIVES: It seeks to understand the ways in which vulnerable boys make meaning of masculinities and the implications of these on their social and academic well-being in schools.
METHOD: The study adopted a qualitative narrative inquiry methodology, utilising individual and focus group semi-structured interviews and a participatory photovoice technique as its methods of data generation. The participants comprised 15 purposively selected vulnerable boys - orphaned boys, those from child-headed households and from poor socio-economic backgrounds, aged between 11 and 16 years.
RESULTS: The findings denote that vulnerable boys constructed their masculinities through heterosexuality where the normative discourse was that they provide for girls in heterosexual relationships. The vulnerable boys' socio-economic status rendered them unable to fulfil these obligations. Failure to fulfil the provider role predisposed vulnerable boys to ridicule and humiliation. However, some vulnerable boys adopted caring attitudes as they constructed alternative masculinities.
CONCLUSION: The study recommends the need to affirm and promote alternative masculinities as a strategy for enhancing gender-inclusive and equitable schooling experiences for vulnerable boys.

Keywords: gender equality; masculinities; poverty; vulnerable boys; schooling; Swaziland.




One of the devastating effects of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in Swaziland is the escalating number of vulnerable children (Mkhatshwa 2017). In a population of approximately 1.1 million (Braithwaite, Djima & Pickmans 2013), the country presently has more than 150 000 vulnerable boys and girls in the primary school system (Simelane 2016). According to the country's education system, vulnerable children are those who are orphaned, those from child-headed households and those from destitute family situations (Mkhatshwa 2017). After introducing free primary education in 2010 to cater for the educational needs of vulnerable children, the government of Swaziland through the Ministry of Education and Training committed itself to providing 'disadvantaged groups [in the country] special attention in respect of equity, access, equality and protection - particularly from stigma and discrimination' (The Ministry of Education and Training 2011). The Swaziland education sector policy says disadvantaged groups 'may include rural dwellers, girls and women, persons with disabilities and the poor [they] have little or no influence over their own education or welfare' (The Ministry of Education and Training 2011:xi). However, the list excludes vulnerable groups as a social group in school contexts. Practically, such definition gives more prominence to the needs of vulnerable girls over those of vulnerable boys. No wonder, therefore, that for almost a decade now, girls have performed exceptionally well in the Swaziland Primary Certificate examinations (The Examinations Council of Swaziland 2017) and boys are struggling with their education and are lagging behind. Simelane, Thwala and Mamba (2013) reveal that boys in Swazi schools repeat classes and drop out of school and their progress is not as smooth as that of girls. Mkhatshwa (2017) found that a large number of the boys who drop out of school are those affected by vulnerability. The questions that arise are as follows: Is the Ministry of Education and Training missing something in the schooling experiences of boys as compared to girls? Have the programmes aimed at enhancing gender equity in school contexts (SWAGAA 2013) disregarded the lived experiences of boys and made girls the only subjects of gender equity discourse in the country (Clowes 2013)? This is a cause for concern and a reason to invest in understanding vulnerable boys' lived experiences. In light of this, Anderson (2009) called for research to investigate the complexity of changing formations of masculinity. Focussing on gender dynamics through the ways in which they construct their masculinities would therefore be one way to understand and comprehend vulnerable boys' daily challenges.

West and Zimmerman (2009) define masculinity as an act of 'doing boy'. This is mainly governed, constructed and defined by societies and institutions through their dominant structures and discourses (Messerschmidt & Messner 2018). Rather than being a natural attribute for all boys and men, masculinity is a shared gender identity which is both time-specific and meaningful within a particular context (Morrell 1998). Schools as social contexts too construct masculinities in diverse ways. Hence, researchers have found various ways in which boys in school contexts express masculinity. Swain (2006) found that idealised masculinities were competitive, rough, had no respect for girls and also subordinated weak boys. Renold (2001) says boys in the school context constructed masculinity through football and feminine disassociation. In Lesotho, Morojele (2011) found that hegemonic masculinities were rough, physically strong, uncaring, competitive and assertive, and in South Africa, Mayeza (2015) found that boys expressed their masculinities through bullying and violence, especially in football games, while, also in South Africa, Tucker and Govender (2017) found that dominant boys showed resilience and toughness, indeed proving that in every social context there are different patterns of masculinities drawn from the diverse cultural and traditional resources available (Swain 2006).

Swazi masculinities

The Swazi people's close-knit relationships are tied in maintaining, conforming and preserving their conservative and traditional way of life (Nxumalo, Okeke & Mammen 2014) founded on Christianity and patriarchy (Fielding-Miller et al. 2016). In the Swazi nation, masculinity is viewed as a natural attribute possessed by all boys (Mkhatshwa 2017), even at a young age. Hence, families are excited at the birth of a boy because that guarantees continuity of the family lineage; thus, boys are given names such as 'Vusumuzi (meaning revive the family name) or Gcinumuzi (meaning keep the family)' (Nyawo 2014:121). For example, a woman does not attain the status of Inkhosikati [real woman] in her marital home and community until she bears a male child - an heir (Nyawo 2014). Swazi boys are encouraged to show real manhood through heterosexuality and promiscuity even at a young age (Nxumalo et al. 2014). Maleness is associated with intelligence and inventiveness (Nyawo 2014); hence, boys and men are valuable members of the nation responsible for all household and national decisions. Swazi masculinity is constructed as ferocious, inventive and having the ability to take up the providing role well even at a young age (Fielding-Miller et al. 2016). Furthermore, masculinities possess dominant powers in all aspects of life. Mamba (1997) says Swazi boys should:

show the strength of an elephant, as their ultimate duty was to be victorious warriors able to continue the tradition established by the early king Mswati I. [It is] this male identity [therefore] that sharpens the boy's determination to succeed in his venture. (p. 66)

The boys are expected to remain powerful and show great strength. Hence, all boys in school contexts are expected to use their inventiveness to navigate their life situations (Mkhatshwa 2017), unlike the girls who are not only regarded as fragile but also as needing special treatment and support from all educational stakeholders (SWAGAA 2013). Indeed, the Swazi concept of masculinity is framed within a heteronormative conception of gender that ignores difference and exclusion within the gender category - masculinities (Connell & Messerschmidt 2005). Therefore, vulnerable boys' masculinities are constructed through the lens of hegemonic masculinity, and thus, like all boys, they are expected to be independent and self-reliant (Mkhatshwa 2017). Within the Swazi dominant discourses, therefore, masculine failure is not accepted. Failure to uphold dominant discourses of masculinities is always a source of embarrassment and ridicule (Morojele 2011). A man who fails to conform and live up to his responsibilities as a 'real man' is viewed with disdain and considered lazy or weak (Mamba 1997). Such perception of masculinity falsifies and obscures the real experiences of vulnerable boys in the country (Mkhatshwa 2017) who by virtue of their social status do not fit in the dominant group of masculinities. Connell (2008:244) says applying the concept of masculinity 'as a static character type' ignores the dynamics within the social group - masculinities. Therefore, to understand vulnerable boys' masculinities, it is imperative to understand the gender systems in which they are defined and constructed (Raza 2017).

Masculinity and vulnerability

Connell (1995) argues that masculinities are heterogeneous, defined by their place in the hierarchal order of the society. To make sense of the hierarchy of masculinities within each context, Connell (1995) classifies masculinities as 'dominant, complicit, submissive and oppositional'. Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) describe the dominant kind of masculinities in any given context as hegemonic. Hegemonic masculinities are the more socially exalted and idealised form of masculinities (Connell 1996). They are associated with respect, authority, influence and social power (Messerschmidt & Messner 2018). Hegemonic masculinities mainly draw from culture and the diverse society's dominant discourses which determine what is normal and what is not normal masculine behaviour (Connell 1995). Connell and Messerchmidt point out that the subordinate modes of masculinity stand in direct contrast to hegemonic masculinities. Connell (1996) says subordinate masculinities are the socially marginalised masculinities in a given context. Swain (2006) points out that they are the repressed and dominated. Subordinate masculinities do not have resources for power and hence their expression of masculinity does not conform to the acclaimed masculine attribute (Connell 1995) that defines hegemonic masculinities. Morrell (1998) says subordinate masculinities are not only relegated as a differentiation logic from hegemonic masculinities but also subserviently positioned in the social masculine order. Raza (2017) agrees that when poverty intersects with masculinity, it gives birth to subordinate forms of masculinities, agreeing with Renold (2001) that poverty and vulnerability ascribe vulnerable boys (boys who are orphaned, boys from child-headed households and boys from poor socio-economic backgrounds) to subservient masculine positions. This is because their ability to conform to the normative masculine behaviours and norms is circumscribed by poverty and vulnerability (Izugbara 2015). This predisposes them to subordination and marginalisation in schools, mainly by boys who embody perceived hegemonic masculinities (Connell & Messerschmidt 2005).

In essence, vulnerable boys' poverty becomes sites for their subordination and suppression (Chowdhury 2017). Given that cultural, social, economic and intellectual status have some influence over identity construction, subordinate masculinities (vulnerable boys) therefore construct their masculinities in ways that are not only different from hegemonic masculinities (Connell 1995) but also strive to align with hegemonic masculinities. The different ways in which vulnerable boys seek to construct their masculinities seem to be harmful to their own well-being (Clowes 2013). For example, adherence to the orthodox provider role has become a basis for gender inequality between dominant and subordinate masculinities. This encourages vulnerable boys to perform masculinities in ways that compensate for the perceived lack of power. South African teenagers intentionally impregnate their girlfriends to claim ownership in the absence of economic power (Hendrikz, Swartz & Bhana 2010). This indicates that homogenising masculinities and looking at maleness through dominant discourses of masculinity, where boys have always been perceived as being strong and legatees of gender inequality in schools, have therefore overlapped problems faced by subordinate masculinities (Shefer, Kruger & Schepers 2015). Viewing masculinities through the lens of the broader social category - masculinity - perpetuates stereotypes and gender inequity and delays democratising gender relations and may not even fully represent the problems that vulnerable boys in the country face (Ratele 2013).

Against the backdrop of the Swazi (people of Swaziland) patriarchal society, the article focusses on what it means to be a vulnerable boy in the context of three rural primary schools in Swaziland. As a contribution to gender studies' debates, this article highlights how the intersection of poverty, vulnerability and expressions of hegemonic masculinities not only place the vulnerable boys in a subservient position (Raza 2017) but also predisposes them to gender inequity, humiliation and ridicule. In this article, we argue that vulnerable boys are profoundly affected by vulnerability as it affects any of the groups already classified by the education sector policy as disadvantaged (The Ministry of Education and Training 2011). The article is premised on the notion of gender equality as a desired ideal, equally relevant for both girls and boys (Clowes 2013). Using Elliott's (2015) caring masculinities, the article also shows how, by challenging the patriarchal masculine norms, vulnerable boys in the study developed caring modes of masculinities. By privileging the voice of vulnerable boys as the 'voice of experience' (Watkins 2000:40), the article adds a critical component in the equation, which education policy-makers could factor in, in their efforts and strategies for enhancing inclusive education and gender-equitable schooling experiences for the rising number of vulnerable boys and girls in the country (Simelane 2016). By doing so, they are affirming the country's efforts and commitment to gender equality in school contexts (UNESCO 2000).

The theoretical frameworks

The article draws on social constructionism to explore vulnerable boys' constructions of gender within the three primary schools in Swaziland. Social constructionism argues that reality is not just a product of natural creation, but claims to truth are customarily rooted in traditions, values and social relations within diverse societies (Gergen 2009). Likewise, masculinities are socially constructed formations of gender practice that are created through historically regulated and reinforced practices (Connell 2005a; Connell & Messerschmidt 2005). It is within individual society's discourses of masculinity and vulnerability therefore that vulnerable boys' constructions and experiences of masculinities are founded, governed and predicated (Gergen 2009). Gee (2011) saw discourse as a socially accepted association amongst ways of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing and acting that could be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group. Vulnerable boys' constructions and experience of masculinities therefore rely heavily on and are drawn from their individual society's discourses, traditional gender norms and ideologies (Ratele 2013), to which, as members of the society, vulnerable boys are made to subscribe to through complex and self-perpetuating processes of gender socialisation meant to prepare them to fit into a highly structured and hierarchic social gendered order (Connell 2005a).

Factoring in the gender socialisation and cultural influences on vulnerable boys' experiences and constructions of gender was, therefore, central to this article. Indeed, through vulnerable boys' narratives, the study highlighted various socio-cultural dynamics that informed their experiences and constructions of gender. This included how the realities of rurality, orphanage, poverty and living in child-headed households altered vulnerable boys' masculine prejudices and attitudes, which culminated in their gender performances and which did not signify hegemonic masculinities (Connell & Messerschmidt 2005). We further drew on Elliott's (2015) caring masculinities and their basic principles in trying to interpret our findings in relation to vulnerable boys' caring attitudes as they constructed alternative masculinities. Caring masculinities propose that when men and boys are immersed in care-work, they are capable of embracing traditionally perceived feminine performances of gender, such as expressing emotions, caring and nurturing without completely departing from or completely subverting traditional masculinity. For example, caring masculinities could view financial provision not only as a way of expressing hegemonic masculinity but also exhibiting and providing care for the people they love (Hanlon 2012). Elliot says boys who adopt ethics of care into their masculine identity are non-dominating, value life-affirming emotions and emphasise on principles of caring. Indeed, the findings revealed that when vulnerable boys adopted a caring attitude into their masculine identity, they realised high principles of gender equality (Lee & Lee 2016) and better and productive lives for the femininities they care about, including their sisters and friends (Connell 2005a).


Research design

Geographical and socio-economic context of the study

Swaziland consists of four geographically diverse regions - Lubombo, Shiselweni, Hhohho and Manzini. The study was conducted in three primary schools - Muntu primary school (a pseudonym) is located in the Lubombo region, about 42 km from the nearest town Siteki, which is about 104 km from the capital Mbabane. Lubombo is largely rural, and it is the poorest region in the country and the hardest hit by the effects of HIV and AIDS (UNICEF 2009). Hence, it has the highest number of vulnerable children in the country (Braithwaite et al. 2013). Mjikaphansi* primary school is located in the rural area of the Hhohho region, about 25 km from Mbabane. Both boys and girls are usually found roaming the dirty roads, imbibing in alcohol, with no prospects of learning beyond Form 5, and they end up working in pine tree plantations. Mazingela* primary school is located in the rural area of the Manzini region, about 13 km from both Manzini city and from Matsapha, which is known as the industrial town of the country. Most vulnerable children live in rented one-room squatter camps, made of both stick and mud or cement bricks. Most children here stay with single parents, usually women, who work in the textile industry.

Study methodology and data collection methods

The study used a qualitative, narrative approach as its methodological design. Qualitative research was aligned with this study for its ability to comprehend human phenomena in context (Creswell 2014). Through this approach, the study was able to examine vulnerable boys' individual and societal actions and perceptions of masculinities (Gergen 2009) in their context of vulnerability (McMillan & Schumacher 2010). Narrative inquiry was chosen based on the perspective that people are storytellers and their lives are full of stories (Connelly & Clandinin 1990). Through vulnerable boys' stories, the study could better comprehend their daily-lived experiences and meaning-making of gender. Fifteen purposively selected vulnerable boys - orphaned boys, those from child-headed households and those from poverty-stricken families, aged between 11 and 16 years - were selected to participate in the study. Individual and focus group semi-structured interviews and participatory photovoice techniques were utilised for data collection. For photovoice, each participant was given a camera with 27 frames and trained on how to use the cameras. They were then urged to capture salient spaces and places that held meaning to their real-life schooling experiences, guided by the theme of the study for a period of 3 days, after which the frames were developed and the photo imagery used during the interviews to act as ingress into their views, perspectives and lived experiences (Joubert 2012). Permission was sought from the participants to use a tape recorder to accurately record what they said, which in turn made up for data not recorded in the notes. Field notes were used to record the interviews, especially the participants' emotions and body language. All interviews were conducted in SiSwati so that all the participants could express themselves without any linguistic restrictions (McMillan & Schumacher 2010).

Data analysis procedures

All data were transcribed in English for easy analysis. An inductive process of analysis was followed to derive patterns and themes in the data (Creswell 2014). This necessitated listening and relistening to the recorded data while reading the transcripts for accurate interpretation (McMillan & Schumacher 2010). Data were then organised, linking pseudonyms with informants. This was followed by reading line by line and listening to the recordings again for familiarity with the data and to identify sub-emerging themes related to vulnerable boys' constructions of masculinities. Pictures from photovoice were selected and contextualised with assistance from the participants (Joubert 2012), guided by the objectives of the study. The tone and voice of the participants were also noted, especially in comprehending their emotions. The theoretically informed emergent themes from all the data (photovoice, individual and focus group interviews) were thereafter coded, discussed and analysed through the lens of social constructionism (Gergen 2009) and Elliott's (2015) caring masculinities.

Ethical considerations

Ethical issues were observed so that the rights of the participants were respected (Creswell 2014). Consent was sought from the Ministry through the director's office. Written permission was also obtained from the school principals stating the purpose of the study. Ethical clearance was then obtained from the University research office, after which letters of consent were sent to the parents or caregivers of vulnerable boys in SiSwati, elucidating the issues of confidentiality, privacy and voluntary participation. Letters of consent for vulnerable children who had neither parents nor guardians were sent to the umgcugcuteli [community caregiver]. As the study considers children to be competent human beings who can decide on issues that concern their lives, their consent was also sought. Trust and respect was maintained throughout the research process and with all the research participants. The participants were also informed of their right to withdraw from the study if and when they so desired without any undesirable consequences. For confidentiality, pseudonyms are used in this article to depict both the schools and participants.

Ethical clearance was obtained from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Protocol number HSS/1914/016D.


Findings and discussions

Without money we are useless masculinities as providers

The findings revealed that all boys in these schools (vulnerable boys included) constructed their masculinities through heterosexuality (see Figure 1). Attempts to forge heterosexual relationships in the case of vulnerable boys were not only compromising to their welfare but also an invitation for humiliation, subjugation and relegation to menial status. Without financial power to provide and maintain support, such relationships lead to distress, shame and ridicule for vulnerable boys (Morojele 2011), as this is not perceived as an accepted performance of masculinities. This logic emanated from the wider Swazi society's discourses that construed boys as natural providers (Fielding-Miller et al. 2016) and where financially stable and providing masculinities are exalted above all other forms of masculinities (Izugbara 2015). Statements by participants below illustrate this phenomenon:

'I do have a girlfriend, but I don't want to lie, it is stressful. But then I don't think I have an option. Otherwise these guys would think there is something wrong with me like I am sort of a fool and I am not man enough.' (Cavin, boy aged 15, from Mjikaphansi Primary: focus group interviews)

'These are the bosses of the school playing and talking happily behind the classrooms. One day my friend played cards with these boys [the boys seen behind the classrooms] but within twenty minutes they chased him away, calling him a school spy because he does not have a girlfriend. Every break time they get behind the classrooms, and all they talk about is girls.' (Cmash, boy aged 13, from Muntu Primary: focus group interviews)

'I am usually alone. In fact being with the other boys is like constantly reminding myself how useless I am. I remember one day, two grade 7 girls spent time with me during the lunch hour. In fact, I was helping them with Mathematics. After school a group of boys from the grade 7 class, waited for me along the way and said bad words [showing anger] and one of them told me to forget about girls and concentrate on my school work because I was not man enough to provide for them [the girls].' (Mzwethu, boy aged 15, from Mazingela Primary: individual interviews)

The dominant masculinities in these schools inscribed financial strength into their own masculine identity. Most central was their ability to maintain and provide for the girls in heterosexual relationships around which masculinities were regulated. Even though some vulnerable boys tried to perform their masculinities in ways that signified hegemonic masculinities, their destitute situations circumscribed their effort as they genuinely did not have the means to provide for the girls (Morojele 2011). Vulnerable boys' socio-economic status did not only place them at a menial status in the masculine social hierarchy but with poverty shaping their performance of masculinities (Raza 2017), their investment in heterosexual girlfriends failed to acquire them a space in the dominant masculine space because they could not provide for the girls. Mzwethu's narration illustrates the lonely life of a vulnerable boy prompted by societal gender expectations he could not fulfil. Mzwethu's inability to perform gender in ways that signified real manhood made him 'not man enough', hence subserviently positioning him in relation to the hegemonic masculinities (Connell 1996). For example, even though Mzwethu was good in Mathematics, but because he did not qualify as a real man, his social relationship with girls was monitored by the grade 7 boys, thus limiting his freedom to engage in equitable social relations in the school. Although the advice given to Mzwakhe that he 'forget about girls and concentrate on his school work' could be regarded as constructive, given the context, it could be viewed more as a discriminatory reminder of how useless he was.

Humiliation by girls also made up the daily experiences of vulnerable boys in the school. The girls had also devised cunning ways to ensure that they were provided for in heterosexual relationships. Failing to conform to the discourses of heterosexuality therefore meant that vulnerable boys lived in perpetual fear of being humiliated by both the dominant boys and the girls (Izugbara 2015). Statements by participants below depict the reality:

'The girls here love money. They either go for the boys who have money or the old men who work in the farms. As for us having a girlfriend is one of those miracles you would expect once in a while. One day I tried to talk [propose love] to a girl, she looked down at my torn school shoes, laughed at me and left. I just felt like the worst fool.' (Kwesta, boy aged 14, from Muntu Primary: individual interviews)

'Hehehe [laughing] these girls lie and tell you that they love you, yet all they need is your money. You give them the little you have, even sacrificing your money for food and even for pens. But once you do not have money they jump to the next available [one with money] boy. After that everyone would know you failed, and you become the talk of the school [pause] you just feel like the worst fool.' (Gcina, boy aged 13, from Mjikaphansi Primary: focus group interviews)

'When you do not have a girlfriend they say you are weak and make fun of you ok then you have one 1 2 3 days you fail to give her money then she leaves you and again they laugh at you. This is confusing and sad!' (Sihle, boy aged 12, from Muntu Primary: focus group interviews)

'The other day a boy called me a coward only because I do not have a girlfriend. It is sad, but the girls here want 'blessers' [a slang term that defines a rich man who financially provides for a younger woman which is usually in return for sex]. I do not have that money but as a man, I do want to have a girlfriend.' (Phathwa, boy aged 11, from Mazingela Primary: individual interviews)

The inability of vulnerable boys to live up to the girls' expectations was akin to failure and was met with disdain by both boys and girls in the schools. Hence, the girls rejected the boys who could not provide for them and that left vulnerable boys, as a social group, further dejected and embarrassed. The narratives reveal how intractable constructions of masculinities, like being preordained providers even in situations where it was not possible, did not only undermine gender equity in the schools but were harmful to vulnerable boys (Shefer et al. 2015). The girls' actions of 'jumping to the next available boy' (a boy's availability was determined by his ability to be a provider) challenged the socially constructed notions of femininities as docile and submissive (Korobov 2011). Instead, this displayed girls' active roles in policing and influencing vulnerable boys' conformity to hegemonic masculinities. Hence, vulnerable boys had to bear the double burden of being demeaned by boys who performed dominant masculinities as well as girls who financially benefitted from this.

Hence, while heterosexuality gave ascendancy to dominant boys because they were in a better position to be blessers (providers), it placed vulnerable boys at the lower stratum. Indeed, hegemonic gender discourses in these contexts placed vulnerable boys between the devil and the deep blue sea, so to speak. Here goes the irony, without involving themselves in heterosexual relationships, vulnerable boys were shamed, discriminated and alienated by other boys (Ratele 2013), as effeminate. Yet, vulnerable boys' inability to provide financial resources required to maintain these relationships was equally ridiculed as displaying lack of 'real manhood'. Heterosexuality, therefore, provided basis on which vulnerable boys' masculinities could be judged (Connell & Messerschmidt 2005) as real manhood was determined by one's financial strength and ability to maintain and provide for the girls in heterosexual relationships. This reveals how insistent pressure to perform gender in ways that uphold hegemonic masculinities, even in genuine situations where this is not possible, is detrimental and harmful to the social and academic well-being of vulnerable boys within schooling environments (Clowes 2013).

Rejection of heterosexuality life-affirming for vulnerable boys

Vulnerable boys' idealised masculinities were compliance with hegemonic masculinities and being involved in 'boyfriend-girlfriend' dynamics. Repudiating and renunciation of these relationships given vulnerable boys' inability to financially nurture these relationships was equally liberating and academically empowering for them in these schools (Clowes 2013). The following statements by participants are indicative of this fact:

'Here at school we compete on the number of girls you have and to get a girl you should be having money for us that is not possible so we then avoid the other boys. Myself I concentrate to my school work.' (Yikho, boy aged 12, from Mazingela Primary: individual interviews)

'I do not have a girlfriend because I cannot provide for her. These girls are too demanding. Other students think I am a fool and say I am a coward but I just do not mind that. I think I am okay without the stress of having a girlfriend. Without money, this boyfriend-girlfriend thing can be so annoying. So I do not want the stress and I think right now, I am okay.' (Kwesta, boy aged 14, from Muntu Primary: individual interviews)

Competing on the number of girlfriends emanated from the wider societal discourse that encouraged boys even at a young age to express their masculinities through heterosexual promiscuity (Nxumalo et al. 2014). Vulnerable boys like Yikho and Kwesta utilised their human capital not only to mitigate threats to their masculinities and privilege their education instead (Ungar, Russell & Connelly 2014) but also to reject masculine constructions that did not favour their social identities. To create gender-equitable school environments for vulnerable boys would therefore mean deconstructing societal and school discourses that give ascendancy to hegemonic masculinities and relegating vulnerable boys to subservience. A coordinated approach involving all educational stakeholders aimed at addressing the socio-economic challenges faced by vulnerable boys in these communities and schools could be a more sustainable way to alleviate the gender-based schooling plight experienced by vulnerable boys in these contexts. This is critically important, given that in Swaziland quality education and schooling experience are the only feasible means for vulnerable boys to transcend their life of poverty and vulnerability (Motsa & Morojele 2016). It also appears that social competiveness on which masculine hegemony was established in these schools was not based on level footing. Therefore, there is a need to establish and promote gendered social interactions and affinities that affirm human empathy (Watkins 2000) and masculine diversities, rather than masculine hegemonic power, as logic of enhancing gender equality in these schools.

Our families need us adopting feminine roles

The findings reveal that vulnerable boys had propensities to adopt traditionally feminine roles as expressions of alternative masculine performances. This revealed the fluidity of their masculine constructions as determined by their social contexts. Some of the responsibilities of vulnerable boys included doing household chores like cooking and collecting water as illustrated in Figure 2:

'I stay with my grandfather and two younger siblings. As the eldest child I should ensure that each day we have something to eat. So I usually spend about two hours of my time cooking then go play with friends. In fact our principal usually tells us to be responsible and help our elders even with cooking and collecting water.' (Sihle, boy aged 12, from Muntu Primary: focus group interviews)

'As a real man you should ensure that your family is well taken care of. I cook for my family and I'm okay with that. I'm not very sure how old I was, but with other boys in my neighbourhood we used to go to the Inkhundla centre to collect food parcels for our families and also cook. So there is nothing new or strange about cooking.' (Ngwemash, boy aged 12, from Muntu Primary: focus group interviews)

The data reveal that vulnerable boys' socio-economic status and family responsibilities had shaped their engagement and constructions of masculinities (Gergen 2009). Vulnerable boys seem to have crafted their own interpersonal scripts (Elliott 2015) to fit the context of their family and home situations, which required alternative performances of masculinities (West & Zimmermann 2009). The findings show that some of these vulnerable boys embraced what was generally regarded as feminine responsibilities, and they did so with meaning, passion and pride (Lee & Lee 2016), because for them 'it signified real manhood'. While vulnerable boys who cooked at Muntu Primary school were idealised (probably thanks to the principal of the school who encouraged vulnerable boys to be responsible and help elders with cooking and collecting water) and celebrated (Connell & Messerschmidt 2005), in the other schools, such masculine constructs were restricted by hegemonic constructs of masculinities (Medved 2016). Thus, vulnerable boys who cooked were predisposed to name calling, ridicule and stigmatisation. The following statements by participants would explain this phenomenon:

'Even though some of these clever boys [showing anger] call us 'young wives' but I just do not see anything wrong with boys cooking, in fact most boys in my class cook for their families. Your family should never go to bed hungry only because you are just lazy to cook. At home, I stay with my elder brother; he is 17 years old and works in town. My mother died when I was 7 years old and my father when I was 9 years. We are three and the youngest is a boy too. Every day I have to rush home to cook for the family.' (Sisanda, boy aged 14, from Mazingela Primary: individual interviews)

'We cook auntie but once these guys know that we cook, they make fun of us. They call us 'gogo Ntoza*' [gogo Ntoza was the school cook and boys who cooked were then given the name gogo Ntoza].' (Mbuso, boy aged 13, from Mjikaphansi Primary: focus group interviews)

The name calling of vulnerable boys who cooked was highly derogatory and demeaning. Viewing cooking and fetching water as gender-neutral responsibilities was therefore a powerful way through which vulnerable boys navigated their dilemma of having to cook and fetch water for their families, the name calling and the hurtful discourse from the dominant masculinities. They perceived the two (cooking and fetching water) not as feminine roles, but as falling under their jurisdiction of providing for their families, hence signifying real manhood (Hunter, Riggs & Augoustinos 2017; Lee & Lee 2016). The authoritative manner in which Sisanda says 'I just do not see anything wrong with boys cooking', denoted how he distanced himself and undermined the hegemonic gender discourses that considered cooking as effeminate (Campbell et al. 2016). This points to the fragility and fallacious nature of hegemonic masculinities, especially when they are rooted in expectations that are not relevant to vulnerable boys' social lives and responsibilities. Notwithstanding, the versatility of vulnerable boys' strategies for alternative masculine performances amidst a highly patriarchal schooling context indicates the critical contributions they (vulnerable boys) are ready to make in informing policy and practice. Aimed at promoting gender equality in these schools, vulnerable boys' logic of gender equality is not to ascribe certain chores and responsibilities as feminine or masculine. All children should therefore freely express their human abilities to assist and provide for their families without fear of being ridiculed as effeminate or otherwise.

Recasting of traditional masculine identities - Masculinities as caring

Vulnerable boys further constructed alternative masculinities established on the perceived feminine caring discourse, in ways that were astounding considering their age. Some vulnerable boys had responsibilities that went beyond being mere breadwinners to being caregivers and nurturers for their siblings in the absence of parents or elders. Owing to the fact that masculinity is perceived through hegemonic forms of masculinity (Connell & Messerschmidt 2005), vulnerable boys therefore had to construct their masculinity in ways that would embrace both expectations (Hunter et al. 2017), that is, embracing the traditional masculine provider identity and caregiving.

Mbuso, a boy aged 13, from Mjikaphansi primary provided this picture (Figure 3) to illustrate the caring responsibilities that he had. The following statements illustrate this fact:

'This is my younger sister, Sno*. I have literally become her parent and she loves me (very wide smile). In my family there are three girls and a boy (me) and presently my mother is very sick and she has been sick for a number of years now. As for my father eish I don't even know what happened to him. But we are okay without him. I am old enough to take care of my mother and siblings, the youngest (seen in the picture) is 4 years and she attends the crèche just before the church building. I ensure that she is well taken care of her uniform is clean she has something to eat, etc.' (Mbuso, boy aged 13, from Mjikaphansi Primary: individual group interviews)

'Both my parents are dead and I am the eldest so I take care of my sisters. One of them is old enough to be at school but without a birth certificate it is hard. I asked my cousin to help us and she promised that she would do it next year because it was already late for this year.' (Listo, boy aged 16, from Muntu Primary: individual interviews)

Vulnerable boys in this study seem to have effectively embraced the nurturing role into their performance of masculinities (West & Zimmerman 2009). Contrary to the stereotyped belief that perceived nurturing and housekeeping as effeminate, it appears that these vulnerable boys rejected the traditional norms of masculinity that construed masculinities as distant and detached (Elliott 2015). Instead, they adopted more life-affirming and valuable masculine identities that served not only their identity and responsibilities but also masculinities that were more compassionate and nurturing. For Mbuso, the caring masculine identity enabled him to take care for his sister, his family and also nurse his sick mother as a 'real man' would. Mbuso construes himself as 'old enough' to not only protect and provide but also to care for his family. This emanates from the wider societal discourse that constructs boys as never too young to be the men in the family, budvodza abukhulelwa. Mbuso, therefore, had to man up in this situation; hence, he believed they 'are okay without him [the father] because he [Mbuso] could be a man himself'. Caring for his family for Mbuso was therefore part of his duties as a 'man'. From this, we learn that vulnerable boys' resilience to care for their siblings needs to be supported and nurtured by family and supported by community and school for a more balanced lifestyle that would not compromise their educational success (Theron 2012). Again, being a primary caregiver might have socialised Mbuso to have a mutual and caring relationship with girls in the school (Lee & Lee 2016), which is a cornerstone for educational success and gender equity. The following statement is indicative of this phenomenon:

'Ahh girls yoooo (laughs) I no longer love her auntie but I'm worried about hurting her feelings. She has been through so much and in me she has found a friend, we share so much. So even though she annoys me at times but I can't leave her it would break her heart. I have to protect her too from other boys who would want to take advantage of her. I think boys have to protect and not hurt girls.' (Mbuso, boy aged 11, from Mjikaphansi Primary: focus group interviews)

Mbuso's narration challenges the myths of 'pathologically narcissistic' (Watkins 2000:70) masculinities, as his constructions of masculinities are rooted in expressions of emotionality and the ethics of good care (Medved 2016). Mbuso is empathic and is 'worried about hurting her [the girlfriend's] feelings'. In ways that subverted the hegemonic masculine identity of being emotionally distant, uncaring (Morojele 2011) and without respect for girls (Swain 2006), vulnerable boys tend to reject patriarchal ideologies and embrace values of care and equitability, in ways that may foster sustainable positive social change for masculinities and improved gender relations (Elliott 2015). Caregiving seems to have sensitised vulnerable boys to the perceived feminine discourse of caregiving and nurturing (Hanlon 2012). Advancing Elliott's (2015) assertion that, when masculinities are immersed in care-work, they develop feminine perceived caring and nurturing attitudes. Such alternative masculine constructions could be harnessed to enhance gender-equitable spaces in the schools, where all boys, vulnerable boys inclusive, can perform gender in more positive ways (Clowes 2013), beyond the limiting prescripts of hegemonic masculinities, thus opening up possibilities for gender-equitable spaces, where the very same boys would become advocates for gender equality (Lee & Lee 2016). As socialised by their family situations (Gergen 2009), which required caring modes of masculinities, inculcating caring masculinities as part of children's gender socialisation does indeed have a greater potential to widen boundaries for permissible gender behaviours, where multiple forms of masculinities can peacefully co-exist (Campbell et al. 2016). Vulnerable boys' voices have evoked possibilities for gender flexibilities, which the school gender equality policy and practice reformists could harness and inculcate. Noting that the societal inability to accept the fluidities and non-essentialist constructions of gender is a functional source of gender inequalities, they concomitantly thwarted gender relations, gender-based violence and all sorts of such social ills. Vulnerable boys in this study exercised their creative human agency to adopt alternative masculinities best fitting to their contexts and life experiences.


The study has revealed the need for these schools to provide resilient affirmation resources to vulnerable boys so as to allow them to transcend experiences where they feel pressured to conform to prevailing discourses which are harmful to their well-being. To support initiatives aimed at supporting inclusive school spaces and addressing gender inequalities in these primary schools, the schools should adopt coordinated strategies to encourage the liberation and expression of alternative forms of masculinities. This could be in the form of programmes in schools that would inculcate vulnerable boys with self-efficacy skills and confidence to deal with their lived experiences the same way girl programmes are operated in the country's schools. Noting that adopting caring attitudes sustains masculinities in physical and emotive ways (Elliott 2015; Lee & Lee 2016), vulnerable boys whose expression of masculinity is established on ethics of care should therefore be encouraged and supported by the broader society rather than be shamed and ridiculed, as that compromises efforts towards gender equality.



Social constructionism provided analytical insights to understand the complex processes of gender socialisation that tends to exalt hegemonic masculinities at the expense of downgrading vulnerable boys to subservience. Vulnerability and poverty formed structural contexts for vulnerable boys' constructions of masculinity. The article has shown how the intersecting of poverty, vulnerability and gender places vulnerable boys at a subservient social position in the hierarchy of masculinities in the schools. Financial strength and heterosexuality featured strongly as bases around which the dominant masculinities were predicated. Being orthodox providers was therefore one social pressure and obligation confronting vulnerable boys. In ways that were antithetical to vulnerable boys' abilities; they could not financially sustain heterosexual relationships because of poverty. This actually placed them in a catch-22 situation - in which not engaging in heterosexual relationships was equally relegated, as engaging in heterosexual relationships but without the financial ability to support them. The result was resounding disgrace, ridicule and social exclusion. Indeed, the hegemonic notions associating masculinities with financial prowess deeply compromised vulnerable boys' ability to engage in meaningful social interactions with both boys and girls in the schools. For vulnerable boys who rejected traditional masculinity, the experiences were fulfilling and self-gratifying. Some vulnerable boys in the study embraced the orthodox feminine identity of being nurturers as they constructed alternative masculinities and navigated their spaces of vulnerability and poverty. Lending support to Elliott's (2015) caring masculinities, being immersed in situations where vulnerable children were forced to provide care for their siblings enabled them to develop masculinities with caring attitudes, indeed agreeing with Connell (2005b:24) that vulnerable boys in the schools could be inculcated with information on the importance of 'contradiction, distancing, negotiation and sometimes rejection of old patterns, which allows new historical possibilities to emerge', with life-sustaining possibilities and better schooling and lived experiences.



Competing interests

The authors declare no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

Authors' contributions

N.D.M. performed all fieldwork, preliminary data analysis and write-ups. P.J.M. was the project leader and made conceptual and analytical contributions.



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Ncamsile Motsa

Received: 22 Aug. 2017
Accepted: 01 Sept. 2018
Published: 24 Apr. 2019




Home as a primary space: Exploring out-of-school literacy practices in early childhood education in a township in South Africa



Rockie SibandaI; Leila KajeeII

IDepartment of Languages, Cultural Studies and Applied Linguistics, University of Johannesburg, Auckland Park, South Africa
IIDepartment of Education and Curriculum Studies (Educational Linguistics), University of Johannesburg, Auckland Park, South Africa





BACKGROUND: Early childhood education is essential in bridging home and school literacy practices; however, recognising the home as a literacy space remains a challenge to educators in South African schools.
AIM: The aim of this article was to explore children's literacy practices, often through play, and the potential implications this might hold for their future careers as readers and writers. The article conceptualises home as the primary domain where literacy develops
SETTING: The study was conducted in a multilingual township in South Africa.
METHODS: We engage with key theories in sociocultural studies and new literacy studies, as well as key ideas from young children's learning experiences with family members and peers during play. Methodologically, we undertook a case study in which we conducted interviews with parents, guardians and educators, as well as conducting home observations of the children's literacy practices.
RESULTS: We confirmed that children's out-of-school practices have the potential to support literacy development in school, and we concluded that children interact with multiple discourses during their everyday practices and play.
CONCLUSION: Although there is a general lack of knowledge and understanding of these discourses by educators, these interactions have the potential to enhance schooled literacies.

Keywords: new literacy studies; literacy practices; children's play; township; school; South Africa.




Children, when provided with support to develop their literacy skills through play and other activities in the home, develop positive views of expression (Saracho & Spodek 2006; Tsao 2008). Early childhood educators as well as parents and guardians play an important role in developing these skills. In South Africa, some 24.35% (StatsSA 2011) of the population live in townships - the often underdeveloped segregated urban areas that were reserved for non-white people, namely Indians, Africans and people of mixed race, during the apartheid era (Huchzermeyer 2011). Among key issues challenging township dwellers are education, healthcare, employability and housing. Township schools include those supported by government as non-fee-paying schools, as well as those subscribing to the National School Nutrition Programme, which feeds millions of schoolchildren every day. Government is targeting improvements in the infrastructure of poorer schools such as libraries, laboratories and sports fields, in addition to literacy and numeracy initiatives. However, even with positive transformations, these improvements have not necessarily been accompanied by a better distribution of education. Former white Model C schools still uniformly produce better results and their governing bodies are able to raise substantial private funds used to access resources that are unreachable by rural and township schools.

Post-1994, the democratic South African Government was not only concerned with the desegregation of the education system, but also with addressing poor literacy levels, specifically in primary schools (Bloch 2009). Of concern, South Africa still produces learners with very low literacy and numeracy levels (Fleisch 2008; Howie et al. 2012; Spaull 2013). Reports on educational achievement in South Africa demonstrate that far too many children in primary schools are performing poorly, often failing to acquire functional numeracy and literacy skills. They are classified as not only among the worst in the Southern African region and in Africa as a whole, but also among the worst in the world (Lancaster & Kirklady 2010). Over the past decade, there has been growing concern that a substantial number of South African schoolchildren are one or more years below acceptable achievement levels, particularly in key subjects such as English First Additional Language and Mathematics (NEEDU 2013; Spaull & Kotze 2015). Spaull and Kotze (2015) argue that schoolchildren who lag behind the academically acceptable levels of performance in the Foundation Phase are likely to fall further behind their counterparts.

It is certainly time for a review of literacy efforts countrywide, given reported shortcomings in schools. Debates persist about the value of the contribution of the home and out-of-school settings with regard to literacy. According to Rowsell and Pahl (2015:1), literacy exists in homes in the varied ways that people live, speak and practise every day. For Haneda (2006:337), too, in order to help children develop the literacy competences required for success at school, it is important to recognise and draw on the repertoires of literacy practices that learners develop outside school. However, several studies on literacy have shown incongruity between home and school literacy practices. This article is derived from a larger study of township children's literacy practices. In this article, the focus is not only on the home as a powerful primary literacy space, but also as a distinct means of bridging the worlds of home and school (Hull & Schultz 2002). We argue that literacy learning is fundamentally associated with the social practices of people in their everyday activities. Drawing on the early works of Barton and Hamilton (2000), we argue that experiences outside formal classrooms are equally important for literacy learning. The focus of this article is to examine ways in which out-of-school literacy practices can be viewed as significant (or not) to the practices of formal schooling. The article sets out to also illustrate the distinct ways, such as play, in which young children negotiate their home landscapes. The study is prompted by the following questions: How can the out-of-school literacy practices of young children be mapped at home? What are the implications of children's encounters with literacy at home for their school literacies, or their careers as readers and writers?

Theoretical framework and literature review

New literacy studies

This article is located within new literacy studies (NLS), exemplified in the work of Street (1994), and Barton and Hamilton (1998), which addresses literacy from a sociocultural perspective and as a social practice (Street 1985). The framework conceptualises literacy in terms of what people do with reading, writing and texts in real-world contexts, and why they do it (Perry 2012:54). However, practices involve more than actions with texts; practices connect to, and are shaped by, values, attitudes, feelings and social relations (Barton & Hamilton 2000). In this regard, social relationships are crucial, as 'literacy practices are more usefully understood as existing in the relationships between people, within groups and communities, rather than as a set of properties residing in individuals' (Barton & Hamilton 2000:8). New Literacy Studies theorists have illustrated that as children are socialised into particular literacy practices, they are simultaneously socialised into discourses that position them ideologically within the larger social milieu (Gee 2001). Sociocultural theorists have further illustrated how the social organisation of learning in out-of-school settings can promote language and literacy development (Hull & Schultz 2002; Vasquez 2003). The contexts of interest for NLS extend beyond formal teaching environments and include the practices that typify children and adults' everyday literacy lives (Sefton-Green et al. 2016). In her studies, Dyson (2003) shows how children from a variety of social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds can draw deeply upon their out-of-school knowledge of non-academic social worlds to negotiate their entry into school literacy. Dyson (2003) advocates a curriculum where educators can draw children into understanding and using symbols and resources from their experiences, in school-like ways. Purcell-Gates (2007) presents a similar observation based on her research of literacy in community settings. She argues that if the curriculum does not relate to learners' lives outside of school, their education will be meaningless. For children more likely to learn better, she advises educators to make literacy instruction more relevant to learners' lives, by tapping into their out-of-school literacy practices.

Out-of-school literacy practices

Out-of-school literacy practices are not always restricted to the physical spaces outside school but can occur within the physical school boundaries outside the formal classroom context. In her study on in-school and out-of-school literacy practices, Maybin (2007) illustrates the heterogeneous configuration of a classroom space where formal (linked with school setting) and informal (linked with home or vernacular setting) literacy practices swap roles, interact with one another and even run parallel to each other. Lenters (2007) also shows how literacy practices extend from the family at home to peers at school, such as discussing novels read at home with other learners. A growing body of research aimed at bridging the gap between out-of-school literacies and classroom practices (Hull & Schultz 2002; Street 2005) and recent research from New Zealand suggest that some children may be placed at a disadvantage when they go to school, if their early literacy experiences are not closely matched to the pedagogy and practice of school (McLachlan 2006:33). When home literacy practices differ substantially from primary school literacy practices, children could experience difficulties in learning. Often emergent or early literacy develops in social contexts rather than through formal instruction. Other research advises educators to tap into 'funds of knowledge' from children's communities, in order to enrich and transform these learners' classroom experience (González, Moll & Amanti 2005). Literacy that occurs outside a school context can become a community resource and in such instances 'families, local communities and organisations regulate and are regulated by literacy practices' (Barton & Hamilton 1998:13). A key social practice that most children engage in is play. As we unpack the concept of play and creativity, we gain insight into how children navigate their social space in different play activities.

Play as a literacy activity

Vygotsky's (1978) work is highly influential in early childhood research, as a factor in child development. Vygotsky (1978) views play as crucial to cognitive development and a leading activity that leads children towards the acquisition of new skills and/or knowledge and understanding. His belief is that play facilitates the development of cognitive processes linked to creativity, such as problem-solving, and is fundamental to some of the child's greatest achievements. Play has also been reported to enhance creative practice in a range of areas such as numeracy, literacy and the arts (Holmes & Geiger 2002; Wood & Attfield 2005). Play is a practice that enables children to learn, innovate and reflect on resources available to them from multiple social domains. From the emergent literacy perspective, play is considered an integral aspect of literacy development as it occurs in both in-school and out-of-school activities. In this study, we present play as a central rhetoric in childhood literacies (Banaji, Burn & Buckingham 2010). Play in this context can be viewed as a phenomenon that, drawing from play theorists such as Wood and Attfield (2005), can be defined in numerous ways but must be seen as an activity that is complex, multifaceted and context-dependent.

Creativity is children's everyday productive acts across a diverse range of domains (Marsh 2010). Children use and adapt media scripts in their play, such as characters from television programmes; they parody advertisements and programmes and draw on language taken from media in rhymes and songs (Griffiths & Machin 2003; Grugeon 2005). Children's play frequently draws on media sources in imaginative and fantasy play, in which they take on the role of media characters such as superheroes, acting out scenarios observed in everyday life. This type of play is frequently criticised as being imitative rather than creative (Linn 2008), as it is assumed to be replicative and mimicked. Numerous studies outline the originality that underlines this type of play, however, with children adapting characters, storylines and settings in imaginative and creative ways (Wohlwend 2009). As Gee (2006) points out, the games children play have a greater potential to build new learning systems than learning in the school setting.


Research approach and methodology


This study is part of a larger study of township children's literacy practices. The research site was a township in the western part of Gauteng province in South Africa. The children participating in the study attended Kutlwano (pseudonym for ethical reasons), a local primary school. All learners and teachers at this school are African. Although the school population reflects the diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds of isiXhosa, Xitsonga, Tshivenda, isiZulu, Sesotho and Setswana, only Setswana and isiZulu are the languages of teaching and learning (LoLT) in the Foundation Phase (Grades R-3). In the Intersen Phase (Grades 4-7) Setswana and isiZulu are offered as first languages, although the LoLT is English. Literacy instruction has been an area of emphasis at Kutlwano Primary School because of a strategic move made by the school to meet the Annual National Assessment standardised assessment benchmark. Kutlwano is also a 'no-fee' primary school, which means that learners are not compelled to pay any tuition fees.

Research design and methods of inquiry

This study aims to understand the home as the primary space for literacy development through utilising a qualitative case study approach to explore children's literacy practices. The case study is one of the most frequently used qualitative research methodologies (Yin 2011). Case studies are designed to gain deep understanding of situations and meaning for those involved. They are in-depth, descriptive pieces of research that focus on bounded instances (Yin 2011). The interest is in the process rather than outcomes, in context rather than a specific variable, in discovery rather than confirmation. We also draw on Candappa's (2017) justification for the case study, which lies in its potential for learning and its explanatory power.

Sampling of the research site and participants in this study was by way of purposive sampling (Merriam 2009). Three of the children from the larger case study were learners selected to participate in the study. They were in Grade 3 at Kutlwano Primary School. Their ages ranged from 8 to 9 years old. They were chosen as participants in the study because they had spent 2 years in the Foundation Phase and were likely to be a viable source of data for this study. Sampling of all children was based on their parents' or guardians' consent and willingness to also participate in this study. The three educators who participated in the study were selected because they were teaching Grade 3, which is the Foundation Phase on which this study is based. They were also teaching the learners who participated in this study. All participants involved in the study and the school have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities.

The data were collected from non-participant observations in the homes in Kagiso township. The children were closely observed with the aim of uncovering the literacy practices that they engaged in at home. The second data collection was through interviews with educators and parents or guardians of the learners. Interviewing is regarded as one of the most powerful ways to understand human behaviour. It is the most commonly used method of collecting data in educational research, essential in picking up non-verbal cues, including facial expressions as interviewees 'speak in their own voice and express their own thoughts and feelings' (Berg 2007: 96).

Data presentation, analysis and interpretation

We present pen portraits of three of the children and vignettes as illustrative of their literacy practices. Key themes emerging from the data are as follows: home as the primary space for literacy mediation and play as a literacy activity.

Pen portrait 1: Thandi the designer

A three-room Rural Development Programme house is home to Thandi, one of the learners participating in this study. Note that all names used are pseudonyms, for ethical reasons. Thandi is an orphan who lives with her aunt and grandmother. There is a television set in Thandi's home and the family only watches programmes of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) because her guardians cannot afford Digital Satellite Television (DSTV). Thandi likes watching cartoons and educational programmes, which she says teach her a lot of things. She finds the children's drama Dora the Explorer entertaining and educational, which she says teaches her to solve life problems. When playing, Thandi and her friends mimic lines from any TV drama they find interesting. Thandi is also an ardent follower of the local TV talk show Three Talk with Noeleen, hosted by Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu. When the researcher asked her what she learns from the show, she indicated that 'many people such as celebrities come to talk to Noeleen's show so we learn a lot from them'. She says she learns how the guests on Noeleen's show achieved their success and the subjects that they did at school. What is interesting is that the programmes that Thandi likes are in English. She is able to understand the content without an interpreter. Thandi's literacy practices are interesting because they seem to bridge the gap between reality and school knowledge. They also suggest incongruence between home and school learning as she identifies a gap in school knowledge, which seemingly does not prepare children for life after school at the level she is at. This suggests that Thandi acquires knowledge on possible career paths from the media. She is even made aware of the subjects that are prerequisite to pursuing different careers. Thandi is passionate about drawing and aspires to be a fashion designer. Thandi's passion to become a fashion designer stems from her exposure to the works of famous South African designers such as Nkhensani Nkosi and David Tlale, whose works are profiled on local television and in magazines. Thandi also reveals that she likes Takalani Sesame, an award-winning South African children's programme. According to Thandi, Takalani Sesame:

'teaches us through storytelling. This storytelling teaches us about child abuse, crime and rural life that we town kids don't know. Takalani Sesame is story reading time they call people to come and play with them.' (Thandi, female, 9 years old)

Thandi's comment highlights social problems such as child abuse that are prevalent in Thandi's community, which Takalani Sesame mirrors. From this programme, urban children like Thandi learn about rural life. Above all, the programme is in storytelling form, which helps child viewers to identify themes and messages in the story and also learn how to narrate their own stories. Although Thandi does not have a mobile phone of her own, she has access to her uncle's phone. The researcher observes Thandi playing games on the mobile phone with her cousin Mpho. Thandi informs me that her favourite game is Teenage Girls. She complains that Mpho likes cheating as she chooses games that are complicated. When I ask how the games are complicated, Thandi says the instructions are in 'difficult English', which Mpho understands better because she is in Grade 6. Thandi is in Grade 3, in a Setswana-medium class although her home language is isiZulu. When Thandi encounters problems with Setswana homework she is assisted by her uncle's girlfriend, who is Setswana-speaking. Literacy seems to be valued in Thandi's home: her aunt has completed an auxiliary nursing course, and her grandmother has also attended an Adult Basic Education and Training course on literacy. Thandi reads books that she obtains from her school library. During weekends she does her homework in the 'outside room'.1 When she is done with reading books she turns to magazines and cuts out pictures that she pastes in her book. If she is not at school she spends most of her time playing with her friends.

Pen portrait 2: Lindi, the 'Zulu girl'

Lindi is affectionately called the 'Zulu girl' by the other children in her class. She is originally from KwaZulu-Natal, which is a predominantly isiZulu-speaking province. Lindi and her twin sister, Linda, live with their grandmother in a 'back room' that they share with two young cousins and one older cousin who is a learners at a Further Education and Training college. After the death of their parents, Lindi and her sister moved from KwaZulu-Natal to come and live in Gauteng with their isiXhosa-speaking maternal grandmother, who is originally from the Eastern Cape. A devoted member of the Twelve Apostles Church, Lindi reads the Bible aloud to the congregation in her church during service. This makes her the focus of admiration of her grandmother who remarked, 'Lengane inesiphiwo sokufunda ibhayibheli' [This child has a gift in Bible reading]. Lindi is one of the few young people in her church who help the 'uneducated' adults with Bible reading. Besides reading the Bible, Lindi always reads an isiZulu newspaper, Isolezwe. She indicates that she likes reading the isiZulu newspaper because she finds the way stories are written very interesting. In school, she is in an isiZulu first-language class. As an isiZulu first-language speaker, her isiZulu accent and pronunciation of isiZulu is considered 'standard' by her educator. From earlier observations of her classroom, it is evident that Lindi is very outspoken and usually dominates most isiZulu class discussions. Lindi and her sister, Linda, seem to be admired by their classmates for their eloquent isiZulu. Their educator always asks them to read most of the isiZulu texts during lessons. The educator emphasises that the class should pay attention to the way Lindi and Linda pronounce isiZulu words. Lindi's encounter with everyday literacy practices is exemplified in the following interaction with her grandmother, recorded at Lindi's home on a Friday morning. It is a busy day and Lindi's grandmother has to submit her pension forms to the Social Development office. Lindi's 2-year-old cousin also has to go to the clinic for immunisations.

Vignette 1:

Gogo: Molo tisha. [Greetings, teacher.]

Researcher: Ewe gogo, ninjani? [Greetings, Granny, how are you?]

Gogo: Ndisaphilile ngane yam, ndingazi kuwe.

[I'm fine, thank you, my son, and how are you?]

Researcher: Nami ndisaphilile makhulu. Akukho nto. Iphi'ntombi yami?

[I am also well, Gran. Where is my girl?]

Gogo: Ikhona apha endlini. We ngane! Nangu utisha wenu usefikile.

[She's here in the house. Hey, child! (calling). Your teacher is here (referring to the researcher).]

Lindi: Ndivasa uNono. Andithi uyahamba naye eklinika.

[I'm bathing, Nono. Isn't she also going to the clinic?]

Gogo: Tixo wami. Besendikhohliwe. Khawulezani nami ndiyakuhambisa izi-formu zami zepentsheni.

[Oh my God, I'd forgotten. Hurry up, I will also submit my pension forms].

Lindi: Kanti ezethu izifomu zegrant uzihambisa nini?

[In fact, when are you submitting our grant forms?] (She emphatically reminds her gran.)

Gogo: Zizawumela umalume wakho azigcwalise.

[We will wait for your uncle to complete them.]

Lindi: Kodwa makhulu ama-birth ethu akhona nje. Uzakubhala i-ID zethu qha!

[But Gran, our birth certificates are there. You will only write our ID numbers.]

Gogo: Nawe Lindi musukundenza isibhanxa mna. Zininzi into abazifunayo. Andinayo imali yokwehla ndenyuka mna. Uyazi leza ntombazana zasemawovisi ukuthi zichwensa kanjani uma ndingazigcwalisanga kakuhle. Bazovese bandiphonsele zona.

[You, Lindi, don't make me a fool. There's a lot of information that they need. I've no money to be travelling up and down. You know how arrogant those girls who work in the offices are. They will just throw the forms at me if they are not filled out properly.]

Lindi: Manje makhulu uzosithengela ngani impahla ze-Christmas? Mina ndifuna i-skinny jean noNono ufuna i-tight.

[So, Gran, how are you going to buy us Christmas clothes? I want a skinny jean and Nono wants tights.]

Gogo: Ndiyakuyifumanaphi mna imali. Phela lezinto ziyabiza.

[Where will I get such kind of money? These things are expensive, as you know.]

Lindi: Azibizi gogo. Khumbila leziya catalogue zase Checkers ne Pick n Pay ebisizifunda bezinazo i-tight ne-skinny jean ezi-cheap. Futhi ndibone i-advert zakhona u TV.

[They're not expensive, Gran. Remember those Checkers and Pick n Pay catalogues had cheap tights and skinny jeans. And I saw their advert on TV.]

This extract highlights how Lindi helps her grandmother with household chores such as bathing her little cousin. Lindi is also aware of the everyday literacy practices with which her grandmother has to engage. She asks her grandmother when she is going to submit their 'grant' forms (the state child support grant for destitute children). She also displays knowledge of the literacy practices involved in completing the forms. Mentioning the writing of identity numbers in the forms suggests that Lindi is exposed to everyday literacy practices in the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) (grant) forms. Lindi's grandmother reveals that Lindi's uncle will complete the forms as the knowledgeable other. Lindi uses multimedia sources of information, the catalogues and television advertisements.

Pen portrait 3: Tumelo, the girl from the North West Province

Tumelo is a Setswana-speaking girl from Rustenburg. It is her first year at Kutlwano Primary School. She lives in a two-room shack with her parents, two young brothers aged 7 and 2 years old and her 22-year-old aunt, who has recently moved from Mafikeng, North West Province, to look for a job in Gauteng. Tumelo is the eldest of the three children in her family. Her mother, who is employed as a call centre agent, works long hours and is barely at home. Tumelo and her sibling who is in Grade 2 are looked after by their aunt while the 2-year-old is taken to an informal crèche nearby. Whenever she is at home, the aunt devotes much of her time to household chores. She uses whatever remaining time to do her studies for her distance-learning course in Education. Tumelo's father is a general worker in a factory at the local industrial area. He is seldom home as he has to leave for work very early to get to work on time. Although Tumelo's father works long hours, he actively participates in the affairs of Tumelo's school as the School Governing Body chairperson. He is also doing distance-learning studies in Theology at the University of South Africa. Tumelo's mother is pursuing her studies in Teaching at the same institution. Tumelo is a reserved but intelligent girl. Her peers always chuckle when she speaks Setswana, which sounds different from the township Setswana 'lingua franca' spoken by most of her classmates. Whenever the class is given Setswana vocabulary work, her peers seek her assistance with difficult words.

Children's world: Play as a literacy activity

Vignette 2 - Thandi and her friends' play event: The observation of Thandi at play with her friends Lebo and Mandy took place on a Sunday afternoon in their yard. Thandi had just returned from church with her aunt. Usually on Sunday her aunt does not like having Thandi and her friends play in the house as she says they make the house dirty.

Thandi: Wena Tshidi uya-cheater. Uhlala uba-first.

[Tshidi, you're cheating. You're always the first.]

Lebo: I started first. Mina ngingu Noluntu. Indoda yami nguPhenyo.

[I'm Noluntu and my husband is Phenyo.]

Mandy: Mina nginguMawande umama kaNoluntu.

[I'm Mawande, Noluntu's mother].

Thandi: But uPhenyo uyabora. U-cheater u-Dineo ngo Noluntu.

[But Phenyo is boring. He cheats Dineo with Noluntu.]

Lebo: Umama wami akafuni siyibheke i-Generations. Uthi eyabantu abadala!

[My mother doesn't want us to watch Generations. She says it's for adults.]

Mandy: Mina ngiyibuka uma umama wami engekho. Ugogo aka-mayindi!

[I watch it if my mother is not around. My grandmother doesn't mind!]

Thandi: Asidlaleni iskolo. Mina ngingu-Principal!

[Let's play school. I'm the principal.]

Mandy: I'm teacher and wena (you), Tumi, you're a parent!

Thandi: Yah ungumama kaThemba lowo o-naughty!

[You're the naughty Themba's mother!]

Thandi: Your child doesn't do homework, why?

Mandy: He play a lot, principal, with his friend. They play Play Station whole day.

Lebo: He does not do his homework. Does not write spelling!

Thandi: He must get detention!

Mandy: He does not read aloud in class.

Thandi: Teacher, you must give him a book every day to read home. Mother must help him.

In the above extract, Thandi and her friends' play initially focuses on their recollection of some scenes from a local television soapie, Generations.2 They illustrate how they design their literacy event along the storyline of the soapie as they identify with its characters. They reveal that they follow the storyline as they claim that one of the main characters, Phenyo, is cheating on his wife, Dineo, with Noluntu. An interesting aspect of this play activity is the children's critical engagement with social issues, such as infidelity, as they reveal that Phenyo is cheating on his wife. This suggests that they are critical of the contents of the soapie. Although the soapie has an age restriction of 13 years, these children indicate that they 'sneak' to watch it without their parents' knowledge. During the same play activity, the children's focus shifts to school-like dramatisation. In this part, they emulate school literacy practices as they dramatise a school disciplinary proceeding. They portray how a troublesome learner is disciplined by the educator and the principal. They play different roles such as those of parent, educator and principal. It is apparent that they are probably aware of what happens in disciplinary events when a child does not do their homework. They even suggest that a parent should mediate their child's reading process at home. In this regard, Thandi and her friends emulate the roles of their educators, parents and school principal. In this play activity there is evidence of bilingualism and code switching. The children switch comfortably between isiZulu and English.

Vignette - Tumelo and friends 'play hospital': The following excerpt describes a play event at Tumelo's home on a Saturday afternoon. Tumelo is playing with her friends Mashudu and Lindi. Because it is a very hot day, the girls are playing in the shade.

Lindi: Yah, we are going to play hospital!

Mashudu: No, Leratong Hospital is so boring when my grandmother goes there for her sugar she spends the whole day

Tumelo: The nurses are rude. My dad reported them to Health Department last year.

Mashudu: My mum takes me to the doctor at Randfontein.

Tumelo: Eish akere (isn't it) your mother has money.

Mashudu: We just give the doctor mum's medical aid and they treat me free. OK, Lindi. I am doctor.

Tumelo: Doctor, I have BP.

Mashudu: I cough, doctor!

Lindi: I give you injection, all of you!

Mashudu: My doctor give me a letter I will buy at chemist.

Lindi: And you, Tumelo, I book you for operation come for operation at theatre on Monday.

Mashudu: I am afraid of operation. My mother have operation when she give birth for my baby brother

Lindi: Ah Mashu my grandmother say you must not speak strong language.

The above extract describes Lindi and her friends at play. This event reveals the different discourses that the children are exposed to in their environment. The children bring a variety of sociocultural perspectives to this literacy event. This play setting becomes a meeting place for these children's experiences, such as the visit to a doctor. The play event draws from the discourse of medicine as illustrated in the children's use of medical terms such as 'book for operation' and 'injection'. Although Mashudu might not know or could have forgotten the word 'prescription' she knows that some medication can be purchased from a pharmacy if one has a doctor's prescription note. Mashudu has experience of using medical aid as she indicates that her mother produces her medical aid card when they visit a doctor. Mashudu, however, is not aware that her mother actually pays for the medical aid and brags about the doctor treating her without charge. Lindi also knows hospital discourse, as she is aware that one has to book an operation. She even mentions that the operation is done in 'theatre', meaning the operation theatre. Tumelo refers to hypertension as 'BP', which is common South African township lingua when people refer to 'high blood pressure' as 'BP'. Mashudu also demonstrates a knowledge of the Caesarean operation performed to deliver babies. In this play event, the children describe the unsatisfactory state of the South African health system. The children move from describing the appalling situation in state hospitals, a long waiting period before one gets treatment (she spends the whole day) and the staff being rude to patients. Mashudu in particular makes meaning of the medical context and transforms it into dramatic play.

Ethical considerations

Ethical procedures were observed throughout the study, according to ethical standards stipulated by the Faculty of Education, University of Johannesburg Ethics Committee. Ethics clearance number: 2013-038.



Parents and guardians mediating schooled literacy

The discussion centres on the data on the home as a primary space and role of play. The extracts suggest extensive out-of-school literacy practices in which the children engage, dominated by play. Drawing on the three pen portraits reveals that the children's families engage in different out-of-school literacy practices. At Thandi's home, the adults facilitate the learning process by assisting her with school-related activities. Her uncle's girlfriend is a 'literacy broker' (Papen 2012), who helps Thandi with her Setswana homework. As Papen (2012:79) explains, we are living in 'highly textually mediated social worlds' where asking someone else to act as literacy mediator with particular genres and texts is a common practice. On the other hand, Thandi's interaction with different materials in her home portray her own literacy world. She reads magazines, plays games on a tablet and watches television. In Tumelo's family, they engage in shared reading of Setswana school texts and her mother asks her to read on her own. She later asks Tumelo to explain what she has read. Tumelo's family literacy account demonstrates that the process of learning to read involves children sharing in the reading process. Tumelo's mother also reveals that she also benefits from assisting her daughter with her homework. Research on parents and children has also reflected their interaction as a mutual exchange of knowledge, for instance Duran's (2001) work that reveals how United States (US) Hispanic parents learn from their children when helping them with English homework.

Interacting with everyday literacy

Ever since Denny Taylor coined the term 'family literacy' in 1986, to refer to the ways young children and their parents interact around texts, the term 'family literacy' has generally been applied to the practices that occur in homes to support young children as they become readers and writers. In this study, family literacy practices feature as literacy events that promote the development of children's literacy. In Lindi's home, they engage in everyday literacies that have to do with official documents such as social grant application forms. Lindi is conversant with the contents of the social grant forms for which her grandmother has to seek her son's assistance. From the conversation between Lindi and her grandmother, it can be deduced that the officials at the SASSA offices are not very helpful towards their clients. Lindi and her family also refer to brochures from local retail outlets such as Shoprite, Checkers and Pick n Pay, where they not only study prices but compare them, demonstrating their economic literacy.

The vignettes illustrate children constructing meaning of their world through play. In Thandi's and Lindi's environments, play holds an important role in their literacy development. When these children engage in play, they draw on activities from different discourses. Their play activity displays knowledge of the medical field, for instance, around which their play is modelled. Through exposure to social problems in their environment, the children are able to enact sociodramatic play, depicting their interpretation of those social issues.

Implications for teaching and learning

Children's encounters with literacy at home: Family and siblings as literacy mediators

Children's encounters with literacy at home hold multiple implications for their careers as readers and writers. What is crucial in all the children's encounters with literacy are the mediators of literacy (Williams 2004). Analysis of the child participants' experience with literacy is framed by the theory of language learning as socially constructed knowledge and understanding that develops through interactions with more experienced members of the community (Rogoff 2003). These more experienced members of the community are significantly important, given that practices such as mediation and scaffolding are regarded as critical to effective learning (Rogoff 2003). Kelly (2004) argues that as children come to school, they bring different experiences of how to act and interact during literacy events and may hold different values and beliefs about the nature of literacy. For some children, these experiences and understandings will match those sanctioned by the school; for others, there will be significant differences. In the following extract, Ms Dube, an educator in Thandi's school, reveals how parents in her community prepared children for school:

'Isn't it at home we were taught how to count in our language? We were taught colours in our language they would just prepare you for the language which they knew was used at school. According to me, the environment also prepares the child for school.' (Ms Dube, female, educator)

Ms Dube reiterates that children's formal literacy encounters are not confined to school. Learners are exposed to discourses when parents and guardians expose them to counting and colours in the home language. According to Ms Dube, older siblings also play a valuable role:

'In the past there were no Grade R schools. You would leave home school-ready. Children older than us they would read the stories and poems to us and we would cram them. I think it means when a child is able to comprehend a story and narrate it in his own way or illustrate by drawing a picture, she shows that she understands the concept. She can write a paragraph to show that she understands the story.' (Ms Dube, female, educator)

Older children socialised the younger ones into school literacies so that they would start school 'school-ready'. They read stories and poems to the younger ones, which the younger ones would 'cram'. Older children would then ask the younger children to demonstrate their comprehension of the story by narrating it in their own way or through drawing pictures. In their ethnographic study, Gregory (2001), too, highlighted the importance of siblings in bilingual learning. In addition, children who have been exposed to reading before entering school are more likely to succeed in learning to read (Mol & Bus 2011). Providing children with books and writing materials and talking to them about letters and writing encourages their development in print awareness and the importance of written language (Roberts 2008; Sénéchal 2006). It has also become increasingly evident that children whose families are involved in their education are more successful in school (Dearing et al. 2006). It is within their communities that children interact with peers and siblings in developing and acquiring different literacies. Children's social worlds change as they move beyond their families and interact with peers in organised play groups and preschools. In our study, Ms Dube also highlights the importance of home-language teaching. She reveals that in her community, children learnt from their parents and siblings before they even started formal schooling. She supports the perception that the home environment should play a key role in the child's performance in school.

Family plays a vital role in children's literacy development (Kelly 2004). In a nuclear family context, the mediation role is often taken on by older siblings. In a family context, children can practise their emerging skills freely and rehearse, display and experiment with language capacities and cognitive skills with their siblings well before they do so with older people (Weisner 2002). These language interactions positively impact the child's language and literacy development. Mrs Miya, a parent interviewed in this study, described how her reserved daughter, Tumelo, becomes talkative when interacting with her friends. The observations made on the visits to the homes of the three focal learners and the interviews that were conducted with their parents and educators reinforce the important role played by the family. We found that in most cases parents are not able to spend much time with their children. From our work, it emerged that mothers or female guardians and siblings participate more in children's literacy practices. In the townships of Johannesburg there is an acute shortage of accommodation, as a result of massive rural-urban migration and migrants from other provinces hoping to earn a living in Johannesburg, which is considered South Africa's economic hub. All the educators interviewed in the study expressed the need for the parents or guardians to play an active role in the education of their children. As Ms Dube says:

'Parents are supposed to extend what has been done at school. They are supposed to help their children to supervise their children with their homework and to encourage them too because here OK we help them with all that but there is a limitation for each things that are supposed to be done, akere (isn't it). The day is not long enough. We do sometimes give ourselves extra time to help the children but sometimes other learners need more than that.' (Ms Dube, female, educator)

Ms Dube's argument is that although educators mediate the learning process, the school day is not long enough to enable educators to adequately reach out to all the learners. She appeals to parents to enhance what the children would have learnt in school and mediate learning by helping their children with their homework. Interestingly, a counterargument is presented by Tumelo's parents, Mr and Mrs Miya. Mrs Miya complains that, like most working-class families in South Africa, she does not have time to assist her child with homework:

'Honestly, we don't have time for homework. We come home tired and don't have time to assist our child with homework. Most of the work they do is too difficult for me as a parent - what more a small kid.' (Mrs Miya, female, parent)

The same concern of time constraints is reiterated by Mr Miya:

'When I come home, sifika ngo 6 [we arrive at 6]. We only have 2 hours before the kids go to sleep. When we leave, we leave here at 5, when they are asleep. When they wake up, we are not here. We're gone long gone. Probably when they leave for school we are already at work.' (Mr Miya, male, parent)

The comments highlight the fact that Tumelo's parents do not have as much time as they would like to assist her with homework. Mrs Miya complains that she finds the work given to her child beyond her ability. Tumelo's father, Mr Miya, vocalised his opinion that teachers' expectations are unrealistic: 'How can I help in the teaching of the children? I'm not a teacher and don't know any methods of teaching.'

Children's play

The implications of play in learning and development are proposed by Vygotsky (1978), who says that such processes occur in the children's social interactions in which more competent members of the culture engage with less competent members who are unable to engage in such activities alone. According to Vygotsky (1978), such encounters permit learning to take place in the zone of proximal development (ZPD).3 The children in this study exploited the ZPD during collaborative dramatic play with their friends and siblings. Vygotsky sees symbolic or dramatic play as central to a child's emotional and cognitive development (Williams & Rask 2003). In the play event of Mashudu and her friends, we see how their capabilities were extended as they shared knowledge of different discourses. In addition, play can be a self-help tool, permitting children to 'create their own scaffold, stretching themselves in such areas as self-control, cooperation with others, memory, language use and literacy' (Roskos & Carroll 2001:4). During the activities of play discussed in this study, the children were able to participate in imaginary events. In the present study, media and school formed the basis of the play activities. There is widespread evidence that children's daily encounters with media culture inform their play (Marsh 2010). Play is not confined to adapting to media but also engaging with media. In this study, the children developed their own play rules on how the 'play-event' should be conducted and the role each participant was to play. The sociodramatic play events cited in this article were complex socioemotional scripts incorporating insights into relationships and emotions such as the imaginary disciplinary proceeding in which a parent is called to the principal's office to discuss the progress of their child (Marsh 2010). In play, children move easily between the real and imaginative worlds as they reproduce the cultural knowledge they have acquired in the formal and informal contexts of the home, school and community (Wood & Attfield 2005). Thus, during play, children interweave elements of real life and fantasy as they attempt to make sense of the world and construct meaning outside the boundaries of reality.



The aim of this article was to explore children's literacy practices in a multilingual township in South Africa through researchers' observations of children's interactions at home during informal play, as well as through interviews with teachers and parents or caregivers. The findings indicate that children's home interactions and play activities are potentially beneficial for learning. The findings suggest that children encounter a myriad of literacy experiences at home through family mediation and during play. In the study it was found that children engaged in different literacy practices at home, despite parents having little time to support their practices. In their play activities, children related to television programmes and soap operas. Further, the study established the fact that parental involvement in literacy activities such as homework mediation can yield positive results when learners are extensively assisted by a knowledgeable other - siblings or other family members. Schools would benefit from recognising everyday knowledge that learners bring to the learning process. Because emergent or early literacy is a social practice that develops in social contexts, not only through formal instruction, early childhood educators would benefit from drawing on home and community literacy practices in their teaching.



The authors are grateful for the support of the National Research Foundation - Thutuka (NRF-TTK) grant for the 'Children's Literacy and Learning in-and-out-of-Schools' (grant # 93967) project.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors' contributions

R.S. has completed his PhD under the supervision of L.K. R.S. designed the initial draft and collected and analysed the data. Both authors worked together in completing the article. L.K. helped in compiling the article to meet the requirements of SAJCE. L.K. was the project leader.



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Leila Kajee

Received: 08 Aug. 2018
Accepted: 12 Oct. 2018
Published: 24 Apr. 2019



1 . A cottage-like corrugated iron structure built at the back of the yard.
2 . A local soap opera aired on SABC.
3 . The ZPD is the difference between what a learner can do with help and what they can do without help.

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A socially inclusive teaching strategy for fourth grade English (second) language learners in a South African school



Mots'elisi L. MalebeseI; Moeketsi F. TlaliII; Sechaba MahlomaholoIII

ICommunity-Based Educational Research (COMBER), North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa
IISchool of Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Technology Education, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa
IIITeaching and Learning, University of Zululand, Richards Bay, South Africa





BACKGROUND: Learners from predominantly less priviledged South African schools encounter English as a language of teaching and learning for the first time in Grade 4. The transition from the use of home language to second language, namely English first additional language, is complexly related to the learners' inability to read text meaningfully. This complexity is traceable to the reading materials, actual teaching practices and learners' cultural underpinnings. Learners' inability to read text meaningfully impacts negatively their academic performance in general.
AIM: This article demonstrates how a socially inclusive teaching strategy is used to enhance the teaching of reading in a second additional language to Grade 4 learners.
SETTING: A one-teacher public school situated on a remote private property with bad access roads. Learners from neighbouring farms walked long distances to school. The teacher's administrative work and workshops often clashed with teaching and learning that received very limited support.
METHODS: The principles of the free attitude interview technique and critical discourse analysis were used to generate and analyse the data. Socially inclusive teaching strategy that is participatory action research-oriented and underpinned by critical emancipatory research principles guided the study.
RESULTS: The use of socially inclusive teaching strategy helped improve reading of English text significantly.
CONCLUSION: Socially inclusive teaching strategy can help improve learning and teaching support materials, teacher support and learning.

Keywords: socially inclusive teaching strategy; critical emancipatory paradigm; English First Additional Language; critical discourse analysis; public farm school.




Global research proved that transitioning from a home language to a second additional language impacts learning adversely. According to the literature, this is exacerbated when learners are not adequately prepared in their respective home languages (Madiba 2013:4; UNESCO 2012:2; Wetere 2009:3). In the context of South Africa (SA), the second language is known as English First Additional Language (EFAL) and it is also one of the languages of teaching and learning (LoTL). This means that learners from the transitioning grade - Grade 4 - are taught subjects such as mathematics, natural science and life orientation in English. Learners in rural public farm schools, similar to their urban counterparts, are taught in English and are expected to learn to read using similar books. This aspect is worsened by the fact that the learners from rural public schools (as is the case in this study) are expected to read books that predominantly depict urban content and context. Learners with rural backgrounds find no tangible value in books with urban content and are therefore reluctant to engage in reading.

The studies regarding learners' literacy competency indicate that Grade 4 learners, especially in rural settings and learning using the SA curriculum, are unable to read text meaningfully (Department of Basic Education [DBE] 2011:45, 2014:8; Ofulue 2011:12; UNESCO 2012:2; Wetere 2009:3). The problems they encounter include synthesising information, making informed decisions and communicating effectively (Alberta Education 2010:1; DBE 2011:45; Taylor 2016:11). The inability to hear and differentiate between different sounds means learners are unable to pronounce words correctly, and they lack the ability to express themselves logically and fluently. In short, learners in Grade 4 are unable to adapt fully to EFAL (DBE 2009:40, 2011:7, 2014:20; Kirby, Griffiths & Smith 2014:108; Scharer 2012:2). This has a ripple effect on their performance in other subjects, which may be attested to the relatively high failure rates. As such, the majority of learners are progressed to the next grades as a result of age or number of years in a grade instead of actual competences in the respective subjects (Bruwer, Hartell & Steyn 2014; Weybright et al. 2017).

The learners' perceived inability to adapt fully to EFAL may well mean that they are not adequately prepared in their home language. During the investigation, the authors found that the teachers play a significant role in these situations, which deserved deeper scrutiny. The study was conducted at a primary public farm school with an enrolment of 36 learners in grades 1-6. Only one teacher has to teach all the learners; thus, she has to apply multigrade teaching strategies to teach subjects such as home language (Sesotho), second language, namely EFAL, numeracy and mathematics, life orientation and natural science. Six of these learners were in Grade 4, which was the focus of this study. Two of these Grade 4 learners did not meet the minimum progression requirements in Grade 3. They were progressed to Grade 4 in accordance with the policy requirement that learners may not repeat a grade more than twice (Corcoran 2010). Four out of 11 learners in Grade 5 were progressed to Grade 5 because of the above-mentioned policy instead of their actual performance and competence. What may have worsened the learning process is that EFAL classes were missed because of the teachers' other administrative and training engagements. These reduced the teaching and learning time and affected it adversely.

In addition, the teacher may have applied her teaching strategies in a manner that rendered them ineffective and may not have provided much assistance when teaching EFAL reading. As a result, the study also accommodated four Grade 5 learners; thus, the research sample consisted of 10 learners. Several strategies used in an attempt to respond to the challenges related to teaching of reading seem to have been ineffective because the learners' reading problems persisted. The majority of these strategies encouraged rote learning, regarded the teacher as the only knowledgeable source and were teacher-centred teaching (Vygotsky 1978:1). The context painted above suggested the need for a unique way of responding to these challenges. As a result, the authors considered using social inclusive teaching strategies (SITS) to enhance the teaching of EFAL in the Grade 4 class under research. The research question was the following: 'how can SITS be used to enhance the teaching of reading EFAL to Grade 4 learners at a public farm school?' The question addressed the need to respond to learners' inability to read text meaningfully and fluently, and to address their difficulty in writing or expressing themselves logically in EFAL.


Socially inclusive teaching strategy

Social inclusive teaching strategies are based on the principles of critical emancipatory research (Mahlomaholo 2013:2), which evolved from critical theory within the transformative paradigm (Mertens & Yamashita 2010:48). Thus, SITS stem from and are informed by the ontological and epistemological stances of the transformative paradigm. SITS contend that reality is contextual and knowledge is socially created (Mertens & Yamashita 2010:48).

In this case, reality refers to the contextual challenges experienced by Grade 4 EFAL teachers in rural settings (a school situated in rural area). These challenges may not be generalised to all contexts. Epistemologically, SITS posit that residents in the affected rural area have a wealth of knowledge originating from their culture, which they can contribute to enhance the teaching of EFAL to Grade 4 learners. Thus, SITS are amenable to the application of various teaching approaches relating to the diverse backgrounds of the stakeholders involved. SITS consider the learning needs of learners from different backgrounds, as well as their learning styles and capabilities (Armstrong 2011:52). Furthermore, SITS are sensitive to the prevalence and abuse of power. By adopting the values of mutual respect and care (Malebese 2016:82), they insistently work to level differential ideological and power realities and accommodate diversity.

In this way, SITS have the potential to facilitate the creation of sustainable learning environments in which learners feel equally valued and in which their reading and writing skills are improved. In this way they are given hope that they could access quality education as envisioned by policy and public mandates (Devereaux 2013:1). Thus, SITS promote social cohesion (Department of Education 2005:98; Faulker 2011:19). They encourage learners and teachers to talk to one another about real-life situations, and position language to serve the purpose of communicating real ideas and solutions to real-life problems (Mahlomaholo 2013:2). In this sense, the aim of SITS is to create a classroom environment that can include all learners, and allow them to voice their views freely (Shepherd 2012:1; Woolfolk 2007:47). Shepherd (2012:1) maintains that knowledge is conveyed and accomplished through collaborative work. Therefore, providing access to resources and services will provide additional support to school staff, learners and learners' families, and will contribute to the development and implementation of healthy school initiatives (Das & Kattumuri 2011:4; Desforges & Abouchaar 2003:78; Eggen & Kauchak 2008:331; Pedretti & Nazir 2011:4).

Social inclusive teaching strategies help us to pursue our in-depth understanding of the actual teaching practices of EFAL in the context of the learners' experiences and backgrounds. They also assist in interrogating EFAL reading material with a view to integrate the community's wealth of cultural participants (Yosso 2005). These issues influenced the design significantly.



This article relates to a need for an in-depth understanding of the teaching of reading in the second language, namely EFAL, of learners who encounter second language for the first time (Grade 4) as LoTL. The uniqueness of this case lies inter alia in the following: a one teacher school, situated on a privately owned property (farm) where community members have little or no role to play in support of the teaching of reading in particular. This case was complex and thus warranted the involvement of other stakeholders and community members for comprehension. It (case) needed to be deconstructed in order to reconstruct alternative views and understanding relating to the teaching of reading in EFAL (Thomson, Hall & Jones 2013).

Thus, the authors worked as a team, comprising four members, in order to share the load while learning from experiences to enhance the teaching of reading in EFAL. The authors participated in the study because they felt obliged to find ways to improve the teaching of reading in EFAL in Grade 4 (Kemmis & McTaggart 2007). This was done without disturbing or causing conflict with the study's basic interests and commitments. Participation in the study and the team was open to other participants depending on their interests and the contribution they could make (Burnes & Cooke 2013:411). The efforts and activities were coordinated by the study coordinator (the first author hereto). The other two members were unemployed youth who served as teacher's aides. They had both passed Grade 12 the year before this study was undertaken. The key role of the teacher's aides was to help the teacher with teaching learners to read in EFAL, in line with the aim of this study. The EFAL teacher was the fourth member and was responsible for all the classroom activities.

Ethical considerations were central to the establishment of the team (Henning, Van Rensburg & Smith., 2004). The participants were informed about permission sought from and given by the university and the school. The participants' consent and learners' assent were also requested. Prospective participants' rights to confidentiality and withdrawal from the project were also explained so that participants could make informed decisions.


Data generation

The authors used the principles of free attitude interview (FAI) as the technique to generate data (Meulenberg-Buskens 1996). This technique enabled them to interview the two main sources of data pertaining to the main question. The two data sets were the depth of Grade 4 reading material that engendered reading in EFAL as well as the teachers' related teaching practices and strategies for teaching reading in EFAL. The interviews entailed robust engagement through questioning, clarity seeking and follow-up questions that culminated in summaries of information pertaining to the data set under consideration. The summarised versions of these specific issues served as data, because they essentially represented team members' consensus. The person who summarised each aspect would, for instance, solicit confirmation of statements from others by asking, 'do we agree that ' or 'so, what are we saying? are we saying that ' Where necessary, further confirmation was derived during the iterative and inter-subjective reflection sessions. The transcripts of the voice-recorded engagements further eased ratification of the data.

The initial questions and/or thought-provoking statements were based on the following:

  • The (contextual) specific realities/issues relating to learners' EFAL readers (reading material). A question that was asked is: 'in what ways do learners' EFAL readers ease and promote the teaching of reading in EFAL?' The team first ensured that everyone understood the question and/or the statement well before providing responses. This was achieved by giving examples, alternative statements and/or rephrasing questions.

  • Actual teaching of reading in EFAL experiences and practices. In the same way as with the first source of data, data were generated through robust questioning of the actual teaching. The team sought to establish the extent to which the usual teaching of reading in EFAL contributed towards learners' difficulties of reading in EFAL. To this extent, the following question was asked: 'how does the "usual" teaching of EFAL contribute to the learners' reading difficulties?'

Van Dijk's critical discourse analysis was used to analyse the data in order to make sense of the discourses (Van Dijk 2009:256). The discourses were traced from textual, through cognitive, to social structural levels (Van Dijk 2003:256). These levels of analysis are consistent with the analytical, interpretive and educative stages of critical emancipatory research that helped conceptualise SITS (Chomsky & Foucault 2006:17; Kincheloe & Steinberg 1998; Mahlomaholo 2013). By applying critical discourse analysis, the constructs and priorities pertaining to each of the two sources of data (data sets) were unearthed.


Analysis and discussion of findings

The data analysed below were generated during the iterative, reflective and participatory action research-oriented engagements.

Reading workbooks

Stories in the Grade 4 EFAL readers that promote the enhancement of teaching reading in EFAL consider that Grade 4 learners encounter EFAL as a subject and LoTL for the first time (Ehri 2005; Feiman-Nemser 2001; Gentry 2010; Nel & Müller 2010). This means that their immediate background and socio-cultural experiences dominate their knowledge base more than the remote and foreign environments. Thus, the organisation, content and its sequencing in the story are consistent with this principle. Stories are organised and content sequenced progressively 'from the known to the unknown' and from 'the concrete to the complex' (Christie, Enz & Vukelich 2011; Jarman et al. 2012). The identification of letters and sounds in isolation and in words, the ability to spell and pronounce words correctly and fluently, as well as the understanding of the meaning[s] of words are basic to teaching reading.

Stories that encourage the teaching of reading provide brief and clear headings that guide the readers' anticipation of the text. Following the heading is the pictorial depiction of the story to cater for visual learners' learning style and to provide detailed information about the story. Another aspect of these kinds of stories is the identification of important words that appear in the story. These words serve to build and enrich learners' vocabulary. They motivate learning how to spell words correctly and pronounce them fluently. In addition to fully understand the meaning of words, one has to associate and integrate them with, and in, one's prior knowledge and experiences of similar meanings from one's background and home language. In so doing, the relevance and meaningfulness of the words are realised.

The authors traced the progression discussed immediately above from the stories in the Grade 4 learners' readers. They focussed on the three learners' readers (reading materials) that were available at the school at the time of this study. The stories in the learners' readers appeared to be limited with regard to progressive organisation of content and sequencing as shown in Figures 1 and 2.





The story in Figure 1 was from a reader that is not prescribed for Grade 4. It was mainly used by the teacher's aides during afternoon classes to help learners who were found to be slow in reading. The prescribed readers were only used during normal school hours and learners were not allowed to take them home. This may have denied learners opportunities to learn how to read from relatively better-organised and meaningful content. Figure 2 contains a story from the second reader and seems to be similar to the one in Figure 1 in many respects.

The stories depicted in the figures above are arguably logical and understandable. There are, however, the following discrepancies that formed the basis of the engagement. Even though the first story's title is not depicted on the figure, it appears on the page before. The pictures in Figure 1 seem to follow the story sequentially, from the time when the 'hen' meets her friends to ask for help to the point when she does the work alone after her friends had turned down her request. However, the same could not be said about the sequence of the picture in the second story. The hippo is seeing and watching the crabs having fun, the two birds are said to love each other, and even the turtle is having fun with her two friends on her back. The animals and birds referred to are not shown in the picture in the sequence given in the text. The team considered this matter and agreed that the inclusion of the respective pictures in the sequence given in the text would have eased the teaching and the learners' ability to identify and associate the words (Bouma & Bouwhuis 1979), such as crabs, birds and turtles, with the respective animals. Instead, the picture in Figure 2 shows a hippo and an elephant in the water (river). This story seems to have taken for granted that learners already knew the hippo and the elephant from their previous experiences.

The team contested this notion in light of the learners' rural farm background where there were no such animals. A further contestation was brought about by the lack of clarity whether the elephant was the friend that the hippo was missing, especially seeing that the elephant seemed to be visiting the hippo in the water. Another view was that the elephant was only crossing the river and the hippo asked the elephant whether he or she has not seen the hippo's friend. These and other considerations were also apparent among the learners. During the teaching of reading using this story, learners contested and aired their views, but in their home language, raising their scepticisms about the friendship between the elephant and the hippo. For instance, the four Grade 4 learners, namely Pelaelo, Hlokomelang, Thuso and Kgothatso, conversed about possible information they perceived to be presented by the picture (Figure 2) as follows (Learners conversed in their home language. The translated versions are given):

' there is no way an elephant can be a friend to a hippo.' (Pelaelo, Grade 4 learner, age 10)

' animals cannot feel lonely ' (Hlokomelang, Grade 4 learner, age 11)

animals are always together, like doves always in two or three ' (Thuso, Grade 4 learner, age 10)

' doves do not fly together with other birds they (doves) do not stay with other birds in their nests ' (Kgothatso, Grade 4 learner, age 10)

The conversation above formed part of the many sessions of reflection by the team. Team members noted the following issues from the learners' conversation: that learners related the story about the hippo and elephant they did not know with those of the animals they knew, as if the hippo and the elephant would behave in the same way as other animals do. This is evident from Kgothatso's considerations that suggested that only birds (animals) of the same species flock together. Hlokomelang's view seems to disregard the view that animals have 'feelings' like human beings. The question to the team was if 'birds of the same feather that flock together' do so because they have feelings? What are instincts? Our conversations evolved in complexity and we also ended up confused. It was at such junctures of confusion that the study leader enquired from us: 'what more about the confusion we subject our learners to, is this not supposed to be a simple story that helps learners to read fluently and with understanding?', she asked.

Instead of responding to the study leader's question, the first teacher's aide, Thusang, added in frustration that 'the pictures in both stories mystify reality because animals and birds cannot speak a human language (EFAL) and do not dress in human clothes' as the picture suggests. The second teacher's aide, Tshediso, also added that the 'learners' backgrounds are inadequately depicted in the pictures'. He suggested that it would have been helpful if instead of animals, the stories highlighted the plight and experiences of learners and their friendships. Upon further engagement, we realised that the items indicated above have the potential to promote and ease reading in that they render reading systematic and structured in ways that are consistent with the basic principle of teaching and learning, namely, teaching from concrete to abstract, from the known to the unknown (Jarman et al. 2012). Thus, the absence of these priorities or issues seems to contribute towards learners' inability to read fluently and with understanding. This absence is arguably an indication of exclusion and disrespect of learners' backgrounds, experiences and mystification of reality, which in turn render reading irrelevant and meaningless.

The authors subsequently agreed that some stories may actually contribute towards rendering the teaching of reading meaningless and as such adding to the production of underprepared Grade 4 learners. They further agreed that it was unfair and unjust and had the potential to deny learners from schools in rural settings the right to equitable access to quality learning through teaching of reading in EFAL.

Analysing the teaching of reading

It was imperative to observe how teaching to read progressed from the recognition of letters in words (spelling) to pronunciation and meanings of words in the learners' context (i.e. backgrounds, experiences and home language) (Greer & Erickson 2018; Stanley, Petscher & Catts 2018). This had epistemological imperatives on effective teaching of reading in EFAL to Grade 4 learners. For this purpose, the EFAL teacher conducted her normal reading lesson while the other members of the team observed her. The following ensued after all the learners had taken and opened their reading workbooks to the pages as instructed by the teacher:

'Nthabeleng, read the first three lines ' (Teacher, female)

Nthabeleng was supposed to read the following lines:

Now who do you think should come visiting, but the friends the Cat, the Rat and the Dog.

Nthabeleng: (read with difficulty while she apparently struggled to recognise letters and words, as she read some in her home language)

'No-w w-ho do yo-u thi-nk sho-u-l-d co-me vi-si-ti-ng bu-t the f-rie-n-d-s the c-a-t bu-t the Ra-t a-nd the Do-g.' (Nthabeleng, Grade 4 learner, female)

Teacher: ' (with deep voice and a bored facial expression)

'Ok, Nthabeleng thank you. Next, Seutloadi read !' (Teacher, female)

(before Nthabeleng could even finish reading her three lines)

Seutloali: He read in the same manner as Nthabeleng. He read the lines:

'Will you help me cut my corn?' asked the little red hen ' (Seutloali, Grade 4 learner, male)

and he read as follows, as though reading letters separately in his home language:

'will y-o-u he-l-p me c-u-t m-y c-o-r-n as-ked the lit-tle red hen ' (Seutloali, Grade 4 learner, male)

The data above suggest that Nthabeleng and later Seutloali read with difficulty and took a long time to complete their reading to the satisfaction of the teacher. This explains why the teacher did not allow them to read all their allocated sentences. This was apparent from the teacher's non-verbal communication of a 'deep voice' and 'bored facial expression'. What was also of concern was the reading of English words in Sesotho (the learners' home language). For instance, the word 'little', read in two sounds, 'lit' and 'tle', both of which were meaningless in both Sesotho and English, seemed to have negatively influenced the learners' understanding of the word 'little'.

It became evident that the learners were not familiar with the language as they pronounced letters in their home language. The '-' sign between letters indicates how they broke the word into letters (vowels and consonants) in a manner that was consistent with how it would be used in their home language. Albeit from the fact that the teacher did not help the learners as they struggled to spell the words correctly, it became apparent that it was important to consider teaching word recognition, meaning and pronunciation before proceeding with the reading of the sentences.

Good readers recognise words by identifying the component letters, while for fluent readers this is not a conscious process. The converse applies for writing: to form words, writers need to be able to turn the sounds they wish to convey into letters (Stanley et al. 2018). This was necessitated by the observations and findings of the second activity where learners were asked to identify the following words from the flash cards that were pasted on the board:

Cat, cut, rat, red, said, set, sad, rain, but, bat, bed, grain, tired, ripe

All six Grade 4 learners identified cat for cut, red for rat, set for said and bat for but. The reason for these choices seemed to have been influenced by their home language (Sesotho). The 'u' in cut is pronounced with an 'a' sound; similarly, the 'aid' sound in said sounds like the 'e' sound in set or at best closer to the 'a' sound in the word sad. This convinced the participants that the influence of home language on the learning and therefore teaching of reading in EFAL was inescapable. It, therefore, became paramount that the teaching of second additional language (EFAL) should take cognisance (Abongdia & Mpiti 2015) of the possible effect of the home language. Furthermore, this meant that the teacher should consider the teaching of home language sympathetically, as she teaches grades 1-3 since the school is in a rural setting where multigrade teaching is the norm.

Post-class reflection

The team reflected on the reading lesson to determine from the teacher (lesson presenter) what she thought progressed well or not so well, and how to address the areas of weakness. In the same manner, the other members responded to the three issues as per their respective observations. For purposes of this argument, the team focussed on the issue of the lesson plan and its implementation, as it appeared to be a dominant concern for the team. In her response to how she had planned to teach learners on that particular day, the teacher responded:

' there is no way I can have a lesson plan for teaching reading, writing and language ' (Teacher, female)

The team sought to understand the reason why that was the case, and she added:

' the work is just too much from Grade 1 to 6, for six subjects impossible ' (Teacher, female)

That the teacher has much work and as a result does not plan her lessons was cause for concern for the team. This was in view of the positive influence that a good lesson plan has on teaching. The team agreed that by implementing a good lesson plan(s), learners' actual learning can be tracked; inadequacies can also be traced and appropriately responded to. For instance, clear objectives, which inform the choice and use of learning support materials and resources, compel the teacher to ensure their use and the assessment of the extent to which the objectives are achieved (DBE 2011). This seems to explain why the teacher did not use the resources available and did not intervene in order to provide the necessary support. She did not have a plan. A serious concern was the apparent deprivation of learners' opportunities to learn how to read. Furthermore, the absence of a lesson plan in a multigrade class of a one-teacher school, where there was 'no way ' the only teacher 'can have a lesson plan ' was a serious concern for the team. They viewed the act as unfortunate and socially unjust, as it had the capacity to render the school an institution where learning was not important. The team found that written lesson plans were fundamental, especially under the circumstances outlined above. It has the potential to transform the teaching of reading, especially if learners' backgrounds, experiences and culture inform their learning.



The findings that are presented with the analysis of data above demonstrate and justify the suitability of SITS where the teaching of reading, EFAL in this case, is to be enhanced. SITS proved to have an impact where there are limitations or challenges with respect to the following:

  • Teacher support: in this case, teaching of reading to ease the workload of the only teacher at the school, who had administrative, management and leadership roles while focussing on attainment of actual teaching and learning outcomes.

  • Learning needs: the transition from home language to second language, in this case from Sesotho to EFAL, offers opportune moments for the application of SITS. The inclusion of learners' backgrounds and experiences, coupled with the involvement of parents and youth from the community in the process of enhancing learning environments through SITS, is phenomenal.

  • Learning and teaching support material (LTSM): the transition from home language to second language also tends to lean towards the development and production of LTSM that lean towards urban environments. The need to develop LTSMs that are relevant and meaningful by reflecting indigenous knowledge systems embedded in the rural and farm settings, and which demystify reality, is inevitable.


The team members tried out the following recommendations in the area of the study and presented them on the basis that they were realisable (are implementable). They recommend:

  • Team work for the teaching of reading in the second additional language (EFAL) to multigrade classes, in particular in one-teacher schools in rural settings. The team should comprise parents, members of community development organisations and other people with vested interests in combating potentially socially unjust acts of depriving learners an opportunity to learn. The roles of members should be jointly determined and be aligned to their interests and other responsibilities as far as practicable. Team members should be involved from the conception of the reading project, through the development of the project plan, the implementation, and the reflective engagements that seek to improve immanent shortcomings that manifest throughout the process.

  • The team should conduct a situational analysis as their first activity. The purpose should be to determine the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) that are inherent in the area of the project (i.e. EFAL reading project). The political, economic, research and technological (PERT) aspects of the situation, whether internal or external to the project, should be kept in mind. This analysis process should help the team to develop a plan according to which the teaching of reading in EFAL is conducted. Among the items to be subjected to this rigorous process are the reading material, the actual teaching process and the post-lesson presentation reflections. For each of these items, the team should be clear about the criteria which should consistently explain the execution of the plan. It is also imperative to be aware that the criteria must be open to critique for purposes of further enhancement.

  • Developing enhancing measures and mechanisms for teaching reading by the team. Among these mechanisms the following are instructive:

Planning the lesson together (as a team) and making decisions about, among others, the structure of the lesson plan, critical items that are to be included in the lesson plan, resources and methods of teaching, the learners' activities, as well as the roles of the team members during actual teaching of reading.

Collaborative decision-making with respect to consensus on inter alia, who to present the lesson and the roles of the other participants during the actual delivery of the lesson plan.

Development of learning support material that is relevant to rural backgrounds and consistent with learners' experiences and cultural backgrounds. These issues need to be sensitive not to mystify reality to the extent of influencing learning negatively.



I would like to thank my supervisor for his undivided attention and the institution for creating a conducive research environment and for funding my research work.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors' contributions

M.L.M. contributed to the formulation of the article, retrieved from her PhD study of which S.M. was her PhD study leader; therefore, M.L.M. felt she has to acknowledge her promoter. M.F.T. became M.L.M.'s supervisor while holding a postdoctoral fellowship position, and his contribution was to help in addressing the second round reviewer's comments. Together with M.L.M., M.F.T. restructured the article according to the reviewer's suggestions.



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Mots'elisi Malebese

Received: 28 Oct. 2016
Accepted: 01 Sept. 2018
Published: 25 Apr. 2019

^rND^sAbongdia^nJ.F.A.^rND^sMpiti^nT.^rND^sBouma^nH.^rND^sBouwhuis^nD.^rND^sBruwer^nM.^rND^sHartell^nC.^rND^sSteyn^nM.^rND^sBurnes^nB.^rND^sCooke^nB.^rND^sEhri^nL.^rND^sFeiman-Nemser^nS.^rND^sGreer^nC.W.^rND^sErickson^nK.A.^rND^sJarman^nR.^rND^sMcClune^nB.^rND^sPyle^nE.^rND^sBraband^nG.^rND^sKirby^nS.^rND^sGriffiths^nT.^rND^sSmith^nK.^rND^sNel^nN.^rND^sMüller^nH.^rND^sOfulue^nC.I.^rND^sPedretti^nE.^rND^sNazir^nJ.^rND^sStanley^nC.T.^rND^sPetscher^nY.^rND^sCatts^nH.^rND^sTaylor^nN.^rND^sThomson^nP.^rND^sHall^nC.^rND^sJones^nK.^rND^sWeybright^nE.H.^rND^sCaldwell^nL.L.^rND^sXie^nH.^rND^sWegner^nL.^rND^sSmith^nE.A.^rND^sYosso^nT.J.^rND^1A01^nFaith K.^sKimathi^rND^1A01^nCarol A.^sBertram^rND^1A01^nFaith K.^sKimathi^rND^1A01^nCarol A.^sBertram^rND^1A01^nFaith K^sKimathi^rND^1A01^nCarol A^sBertram



How a professional development programme changes early grades teachers' literacy pedagogy



Faith K. Kimathi; Carol A. Bertram

School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa





BACKGROUND: Research on teacher professional learning which supports teaching of reading and writing at the foundation phase (FP) is limited in developing countries, including South Africa
AIM: This article examines the ways in which three Foundation Phase teachers changed their practice during 18 months of learning from a formal university programme, the Advanced Certificate in Teaching (ACT).
SETTING: The ACT was offered by the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
METHODS: The principles of teaching English as a First Additional Language (EFAL) were used as an instrument for describing change in practice. Using nine principles of teaching EFAL, derived from the ACT literacy learning guide as indicators, six video-recorded lessons (per teacher) were analysed and corroborated with interviews and field notes.
RESULTS: The findings indicate a shift in teachers' practice in diverse ways. Two of the three teachers completed the programme having developed a deeper understanding of the natural approaches of acquiring EFAL according to Krashen's model. However, the third teacher did not change her practice.
CONCLUSION: We argue that the findings support the research claim that teacher learning is influenced not only by the nature of the professional development activity but also by teachers' personal motivation to learn, and the school context in which they teach.

Keywords: teacher learning; literacy practice; teacher change; foundation phase; South Africa.




This article focuses on the impacts of professional learning of three selected foundation phase (FP) teachers who had enrolled on the Advanced Certificate in Teaching (ACT) programme in 2014/2015. The ACT programme was offered part-time to practicing FP teachers by the School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and 173 teachers were enrolled in 2014/2015. This article explores how the ACT programme influenced the teachers' classroom practices in teaching English as a First Additional Language (EFAL). Studies on how formal professional development (PD) impacts teachers' literacy knowledge for teaching reading and writing at the elementary level (FP in South Africa) is extensive in Australia and the United States (Carlisle, Cortina & Katz 2011; Piasta et al. 2009). However, there is limited research in this field in South Africa and other developing countries (Brown, Wilmot & Ash 2015; Meyer & Abel 2015).

The issue of what teachers learn from PD programmes is not only a research concern but also a growing national concern as it impacts on the quality of the schooling system in South Africa. A great deal of state funds has been spent on upgrading teacher qualifications and increasing the PD activities for the teachers in the last three decades. However, findings on learner achievement indicate that PD seems to have little or no impact on learner achievement (Meyer & Abel 2015; Murris & Verbeek 2014; Taylor & Taylor 2013). This may be because learning from formal PD programmes does not meaningfully contribute to the teachers' knowledge base, competences and/or practice (Green et al. 2011; Verbeek 2014). However, apart from classroom-based factors such as a weak knowledge base, the teachers' failure to organise effective practices (Hoadley 2013) and the sudden change to English as a medium of instruction in Grade 4 (Hoadley 2012; Prinsloo et al. 2015), there are other factors that contribute to the existing poor performance in schools, such as socio-economic issues like unemployment, poverty and malnutrition (Fleisch 2008) and the education legacy left by the apartheid regime (Spaull & Hoadley 2017).

To describe the relationship that might exist between teacher learning from the ACT programme and change in teacher practice, this study explored how three Grade 2 teachers' learning from the ACT programme impacted on their practice of teaching EFAL. This study illuminates how three teachers' practice changed over 18 months, from when they enrolled on the programme in January 2014 to when they completed it in November 2015. Data from the video-recorded lessons corroborated with interviews and field notes which were analysed for insights. The implications of the findings contribute to our knowledge about PD for practicing teachers and how it impacts on the classroom practices at the FP (Grade R-3).

Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme

Since 2000, the Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) and now the ACT programme has been offered to teachers who have a National Professional Diploma in Education (NPDE), as a way of deepening their knowledge base on the subjects they already teach, or to teachers who are specialising in a new content area or phase. This programme was perceived by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) as an opportunity for the teachers to improve their competences in teaching mathematics and literacy and obtain a higher qualification.

The ACT programme offered by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) School of Education consisted of eight modules with 16 credits per module. Each of the modules had a learning guide and student guide with a reading pack for self-study. The learning guide provided the content and learning activities. The student guide contained the structure of the programme and outlined the assessment requirements. These modules were systematically delivered over 2 years through mixed mode delivery, which included face-to-face teaching sessions on Saturdays and during school holidays, interactive materials and classroom-based assignments (Verbeek 2013). In semester 1, the students covered two modules: Module 1 was based on conceptual knowledge about child development; Module 2 was entitled Teaching and learning at the FP. Module 3 focused on mathematics content, whereas Module 4 related to teaching reading and writing in a home language (HL) in semester 2 in the first year of their study. Mathematics education in the foundation phase 1 is the title of Module 5 together with Module 6, and Teaching EFAL is covered in semester 1 of the second year. In semester 2, the students study Module 7 Creative play in the FP and Module 8 Professional practice in the FP.

The main object of the programme was to deepen the teachers' content knowledge in mathematics and literacy and offer practical knowledge and skills for teaching at the early phase. The programme encouraged teachers' active contributions during the professional learning process, with the assumption that teachers would develop understanding of shifts in the FP curriculum and make use of frameworks of critical reasoning approaches to transform teaching and learning in their context (Hill & Khuboni 2013). However, there has not been a great deal of systematic research to track the kind of literacy knowledge teachers' gain from formal PD programmes and their influence on practice (Brown et al. 2015; Meyer & Abel 2015; van der Merwe & Nel 2012). This article aims to contribute to this field.

What does research say about teaching literacy at the foundation phase?

Classroom practices during apartheid tended to emphasise technical decoding skills where teachers used oral and drilling discourses in the teaching of reading at the FP. Learners were able to decode text within simple English words, but did not understand what they were reading, mostly among the disadvantaged school contexts (Spaull & Hoadley 2017). These dispositions were inherited in the post-apartheid era and are reflected in the current predominant literacy pedagogies. The first school curriculum in 1997 also did not provide a clear sequence for teaching phonics, reading and writing. Thus, many of the poorly trained FP teachers struggled not only with how to teach but also the implementation of Curriculum 2005. It is also well documented that many of the EFAL teachers in South African schools have limited English proficiency and have not been adequately trained in EFAL teaching methodologies (Green et al. 2011).

South African researchers have investigated the causes of continued poor performance in literacy and mathematics at the FP especially in the disadvantaged areas. According to the pre-PIRLS study of 2011, 58% of learners in South Africa cannot read fluently or decode texts in either their HL or First Additional Language (FAL) by the end of Grade 4 (Spaull & Hoadley 2017). Hoadley has conducted extensive literature reviews on the state of teaching and learning in the FP (Hoadley 2012, 2017; Spaull & Hoadley 2017). These reviews consistently reveal 'communalised pedagogy that are largely oral, and that worked below grade level' (Hoadley 2016:16). The reviews correlate with the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) reports and other studies (Prinsloo et al. 2015). All classroom-based studies present similar prevalent literacy pedagogies which include rote learning that denies learners' opportunities to participate during the lesson, ineffective use of repetition and grouping approaches, and the use of everyday knowledge with limited focus on conceptual understanding. Reading lessons consist of chorus chants with limited individual reading. Learners have few opportunities to engage with writing and vocabulary activities. The focus on reading has been on isolated words, rather than reading connected text not to mention the struggle most learners must endure when learning EFAL which is not their HL. According to the inter-province research study, most of the FP practices in the Gauteng and Limpopo provinces portrayed safe-talk tendencies. 'This means that both teachers and learners find comfort in keeping within the known content' (Prinsloo et al. 2015:XV). Such interactions would be interpreted as forms of inadequate teaching which lead to minimum learning opportunities.

However, Hoadley in one of the studies offers exemplars of what she calls 'good to moderate' classroom practices where higher levels of individualised learning are commonly characterised by 'ability grouping and a decrease in the collective chanting'. In some cases, 'teachers listen to individual learners reading, give more work at grade level [and] a greater proportion of text-based activity in classrooms and time on task had increased' (Hoadley 2017:16). She attributed these shifts to both the Foundations for Learning initiative and the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) which provides a clear structure for teachers to follow.

Principles of First Additional Language supported by the school curriculum and Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme

The current South African school curriculum, CAPS, explicitly adopts the notion of teaching four main content areas of literacy at the FP (Department of Basic Education 2011), namely: listening and speaking, reading and phonics; writing and handwriting in accordance with the emergent literacy. The conceptual knowledge about these core learning areas is privileged in the ACT-intended curriculum although the modules seem to engage more on the practical aspects of teaching (Christiansen, Bertram & Mukeredzi 2018; Kimathi 2017). Thus, the ACT programme seems to promote diverse strategies of teaching the research-based components that are reinforced by the emergent literacy paradigm.

The current school curriculum employs additive bilingualism as a language acquisition approach to enhance multilingualism principles. In support of the approach, ACT Module 6 argues that children come to school with pre-literate behaviour which they acquire through interaction with older children, adults and everyday social routines which help them to develop necessary pre-literate knowledge, skills and attitudes. Therefore, children's literacy development should be nurtured formally in school using the HL of the learners and gradually introduce the additional language(s). The assumption here is that learners can automatically and progressively transfer many literacy skills from their HL literacy knowledge to learn EFAL and later use these languages for future learning. To nurture the children's literacy development process, the ACT modules emphasise the importance of networking with parents and teachers to find diverse ways to link children's knowledge from home with the school knowledge or literacy activities in school.

The school curriculum and ACT modules support the teaching of five components of reading, namely: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension (DBE 2011). However, the modules do not explicitly teach theoretical aspects on the components of reading. According to CAPS, specific times are set every day for reading and writing at the FP where learners are actively engaged with the content and subsequently writing activities as stipulated for each grade. The CAPS writing requirements to enable progressive literacy development among the young learners are: Grade 1 - writing short sentences, Grade 2 - writing paragraphs and Grade 3 - extended passages (DBE 2011). At Grade 2, the curriculum recommends that learners engage with writing activities four times a week, including one extended piece of writing (NEEDU 2013). However, teachers with inadequate knowledge may not be able to teach reading and writing to the standards set by the school curriculum. The challenge is even greater where the teachers have large classes with learners of mixed abilities, limited resources and support (Ebrahim, Verbeek & Mashiya 2011; Hoadley 2016).

The ACT literacy modules encourage teachers to use both a formal approach and meaningful teaching activities such as rigorous simple spoken English and reading stories to enhance learners' EFAL competence. Teaching grammatically correct sentences and correct language use is viewed as key to effecting EFAL teaching. Similarly, CAPS support integration of the traditional approaches and Krashen's natural approach to acquisition of EFAL. According to the natural approach, it is not necessary to teach language structures or strict grammar rules to the learners of EFAL at FP. Learners of EFAL might learn sufficiently to do a once-off exercise correctly, but they may not be able to retrieve it from their working memory (Krashen 2009).

Reading-teaching theory privileged in CAPS includes: phonics, whole language and balanced approaches together with specified reading strategies such as shared reading (including shared writing); group-guided reading and paired or independent reading to support the literacy development (DBE 2011).

The ACT literacy curriculum supports these reading techniques and encourages teachers to be aware of the past as well as the current debates. Teachers need to explore three approaches, because some learners do well with direct instruction of phonics elements, while others progress better when a teacher takes the 'whole words' approach in a natural setting and break them into syllables and phonemes (Hill & Khuboni 2013). The balanced approach tries to reconcile the whole language and synthetic phonics approaches to early reading and writing. Although the module supports the phonics-based and whole language approaches in teaching how to read, more emphasis is put on balanced approaches. However, according to several studies, many FP teachers have not been adequately trained to use these approaches (Murris & Verbeek 2014). Overall, the ACT programme's literacy content supports the principles in the school curriculum, namely emergent literacy, language acquisition approaches, reading components, reading approaches and strategies.


The methodology of the study

The research approach is a case study of professional learning from the ACT programme and how the process contributes to practice changes. The qualitative case study researchers' focal objective is to generate rich, in-depth descriptions and analysis, which is only feasible with a small sample (Bassey 1999; Yin 2009). Thus, convenience and purposive sampling were used to select three Grade 2 teachers from the large group of FP teachers who had enrolled on the ACT programme in the 2014/2015 course period. Data were generated in three phases, namely at the beginning, middle and end of the 2-year ACT programme. Data were generated from selected EFAL video-recorded lessons corroborated with field notes. Six lessons were observed per teacher over the period of 18 months and were analysed using the nine principles of teaching FAL derived from the ACT Module 6 Learning Guide: Teaching English as an additional language in the FP.

Three black African female teachers participated in this study. Anne and Lisa completed their Matric in the 1990s. All three studied the NPDE qualification on a part-time basis at UKZN. Anne was in her late 40s with 15 years of experience as an FP teacher. She taught Grade R for 13 years and from 2013 has taught Grade 2. Anne had 44 learners in her class in 2014 and 36 in 2015. Anne claimed to have attended two PD workshops about teaching literacy in 2011-2013. Her school (school 1) is an urban school with moderate resources and facilities within a low-income residential area, located approximately 8 km from the Pietermaritzburg Central Business District (CBD), in the uMgungundlovu municipality. This is a quintile 4 school and parents pay fees of R1200.The language of learning and teaching (LoLT) in school 1 is English although almost all of the learners speak isiZulu as their HL.

Lisa was in her mid-forties teaching in a township school with 13 years of experience as an FP teacher in school 2. Lisa started as a Grade 3 teacher and taught at this level for 10 years before joining Grade 2. Her class (in 2015) has 44 learners and the previous year (2014), there were 42 learners. After completing the NPDE, Lisa enrolled and completed the ACE Life Orientation certificate with the University of South Africa in 2010. Lisa claimed to have attended several training workshops (more than five times) about teaching literacy in 2011-2013. School 2 is a quintile 3 township school with adequate resources, 65 km from Pietermaritzburg. Parents pay R100.00 in fees annually and are encouraged to pack a snack for their children.

Jane is in her mid-fifties and has taught many grades within her long period of teaching. She seemed uncomfortable talking about her qualifications and schooling. Jane claimed to have attended one training workshop about teaching literacy in 2011. Her current 2015 Grade 2 class has 52 learners and 54 learners in the previous year, 2014. School 3 is a rural junior primary school (Grade R-3), 105 km away from Pietermaritzburg. Learners do not pay school fees and heavily depend on the school feeding programme for their daily meals. It is categorised as quintile 2. The LoLT in schools 2 and 3 is isiZulu.

Classroom data analysis using principles of teaching English as a First Additional Language

The main goal of this study was to establish what the three teachers learnt about teaching EFAL from the ACT programme and how this learning impacted on their practice. Observed lessons were analysed to explore any kind of shift in their classroom practices. To measure these changes, a set of principles of teaching FAL espoused in Module 6 was adopted and generated a set of concepts and indicators to describe teacher's change in practice.

The principles of teaching FAL formed an appropriate lens for several reasons. Firstly, the principles are specifically endorsed in three modules: Module 4 (teaching, reading and writing in HL), Module 6 (teaching EFAL) and Module 7 (creative play in the FP) as theories and conceptual knowledge which teachers should acquire from the ACT programme to enable effective teaching of literacy. Secondly, these principles of teaching EFAL are also endorsed by CAPS to enhance literacy teaching at the FP. Thirdly, English is offered as FAL in the three schools and used as LoLT in one of the schools. Lastly, these principles are in line with the global emergent literacy principles and literature (Moats 2014; Piasta et al. 2009)

We summarised the major principles of teaching EFAL in Module 6 (pp. 1-24) and then created a set of indicators to look for in the classroom data. The five major FAL principles were elaborated into nine indicators or aspects of the principles numbered as 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B, 4A, 4B and 5.0 in column 2 of Table 1.

As a first step to analysis, I (first author) organised and generated a description of each of the 18 video transcripts (six video-recorded lessons × three teachers) organised into episodes. To analyse the video transcripts, the second step was to develop a set of criteria and indicators to 'speak' to the classroom data devised from the nine descriptions of the principles of teaching EFAL (see Table 1). A strong presentation of any of the aspects of teaching EFAL in the lesson was coded as 4, while a very weak presentation of the principle was coded as 1. The indicators of the aspects of the principles of teaching English as FAL were numbered from 1A to 5.0 in Table 1. An exemplar for the bilingualism principle numbered 1A and 1B is presented as a sample used in Table 2.

The third step of this analysis involved a careful reading of each episode of the 18 lesson descriptions several times, searching for statements which correlated with the principles of teaching EFAL (see Tables 1 and 2). For instance, using Table 2, a lesson episode was coded 1, 2, 3 or 4, for the principles of bilingualism (in both sub-categories coded as 1A and 1B). The sub-category of the principles of teaching EFAL was vital to increase the accuracy level, as much as possible. Lastly, tables (see Tables 3, 4 and 5) were created for each of the six lessons per teacher which present a rich summative description of the classroom data analysis, for each to illustrate how the teachers' literacy pedagogies changed within the 18 months of learning. This kind of analysis creates a rich, in-depth description of specific aspects of the classrooms where the teacher, learners, resources, tasks, incidences and the subject knowledge are clearly understood (Ensor & Hoadley 2004).

The findings of this study

The findings presented in this section illuminate the pedagogic changes for the three teachers. Detailed descriptions of the three teachers are offered under the methodology section. The findings reflect the analysis using the principles of teaching EFAL as offered in the ACT programme. Therefore, the article does not include an account of all principles of teaching EFAL or any other second language. This article does not allow for a detailed engagement of how these codes were arrived at; see Kimathi (2017) for a detailed analysis and findings. Firstly, we describe how Anne's pedagogic practices changed during her learning process in relation to the ACT-intended curriculum.

Findings on Teacher Anne's English as First Additional Language pedagogic practices in school 1

In February 2014, Anne enrolled for the ACT programme with the notion that the teachers' role in an ideal EFAL is to facilitate and monitor the progress of every learner, which is based on her experiences. Teaching in an urban school as described in the methodology section, Anne claimed that the teacher's core duty 'is to make sure the primary resources such as textbooks, chalk board and appropriate learning activities are available for a good lesson and the learners must respect, listen and respond' (Anne, teacher, female) to instructions given. This personal belief was confirmed by the well-sequenced teacher-centred lessons which were observed on two consecutive days in February 2014.

Table 3 presents a summary of how Anne's classroom practices changed during the professional learning process from the ACT programme.

In Table 3 the first column shows the nine aspects derived from the principles of teaching EFAL with the columns L1 (Lesson 1) to L6 (Lesson 6) showing the codes of the observed lessons. According to the criteria used, the possible total score was 4 × 9 = 36 for a lesson, where a score of 36 was 'ideal' and a score of 9 was recognised as weak presentation of all criteria. Column L4 shows the EFAL lesson with the highest score, while 1A on Development of bilingualism represents the aspect which scored very low. Lastly, 5 on 'Print rich environment' shows that the criterion of print-rich environment scored highly in all the lessons.

Anne's practice at the beginning of the Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme (February 2014)

At the beginning of professional learning in 2014, the two lessons that were observed illuminated a moderate presentation in relation to receptivity to acquiring FAL, explicit use of natural approaches to acquiring FAL and provided moderate opportunities or strategies for children to build new vocabulary, supported meaningful reading, writing and a print-rich classroom environment. Thus, Anne was already teaching according to many of the principles of EFAL. She started both lessons in the same systematic manner: peer-guided reading (2 minutes) an ice breaking activity (2 min), followed guided 'Big book' reading, phonics, spelling, and lastly, the learners' activity or homework. When asked about this sequencing of the lessons during the last interview in October 2015, Anne replied, 'it is recommended [by CAPS] and I think it is a good one'. (Anne, teacher, female) She used isiZulu occasionally to explain confusing concepts to the learners. The learners were fluent in English and authentic communication in English was evidenced during the teachers' talks in all episodes. Occasionally, a few learners repeated guided reading or words depicting little comprehension significant of the story, verbs or prepositions. Children were free to talk and were praised occasionally but the teacher seemed disappointed with learners' misconceptions. Anne accurately and systematically read and explained each sentence before proceeding to the next. Individual errors were corrected in the whole class and the text was at the level of the learners. Reading from the big book, the teacher engaged the learners into a conversion through the questioning technique but did not make use of the displayed prints. She scored 2 in three aspects: the development of bilingualism (both lessons), strategies of developing listening and speaking skills (lesson 1) and opportunities or strategies used to develop meaningful writing (lesson 1). These three principles of FAL were not strongly present in her practice when she enrolled for the ACT programme.

During the Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme (August 2014)

During the professional learning process, the two video-recorded lessons in August 2014 show a slight shift in most of the FAL principles. Apart from developing bilingualism which remained weak (score of 2), all other areas of presentation were mainly at moderate and strong levels. The total score for lesson 3 was 26.5 for the nine principles coded, whereas lesson 4 presented the score of 32 in all the principles, as shown in Table 3. The teacher selected and sequenced the content in a systematic manner, focusing on the vocabulary and sentence constructions using adjectives. The learners were actively involved and happy as individuals answered the teacher's questions and pasted the correct adjective using the sight words. Most of the learners applied their prior knowledge with ease and engaged with the teacher during the different episodes. The majority of the learners completed copying sentences on time. The teacher encouraged them and was very patient with the slow learners and applauded every correct response. Generally, the exercise of identifying an adjective and constructing a sentence orally seemed easy for most of the learners.

At the end of the Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme (October 2015)

By October 2015, the teachers had covered the entire ACT-intended curriculum (eight modules). Lessons 5 and 6 show an insignificant change (score dropped by 5), in relation to the previous lesson observation in February 2014 and August 2015. However, moderate presentations of the FAL principles were observed, apart from the development of bilingualism and the strategies used to support meaningful reading and writing. There was a clear indication that Anne's practices made a slight shift in terms of using the resources displayed because she already had a large quantity of displays in almost every free space in the class. For example, learners who finished their activities were supposed to pick reading books from the reading corner, giving the teacher an opportunity to monitor the task, and mark or help the struggling learners. The teacher also made references to the posters or the learners' work that was distinctive from the classroom observations in February 2014. With regard to the development of bilingualism, this did not show any change over the 18 months. Anne did not use the code-switching technique during the first observation, nor did she do so at the end of the ACT programme. Anne's focus on developing English proficiency was at the expense of the learners' HL, isiZulu. This is attributed to the fact that the LoLT in school 1 is English, and thus, Anne's practice reflects the school policy, which was to emphasise the use of English at the expense of isiZulu, because English is the LoLT from Grade 1.

Findings on Lisa's English as First Additional Language pedagogic practices in school 2

Table 4 presents a summary of the findings on how Lisa's classroom practices changed during learning from the professional programme.

Table 4 shows that many of the principles started with a weak presentation in February 2014 and showed a change in practice by end of the programme with the most improved aspects at 1B, 2A and 2B. Lesson 5 (L5) presents the highest overall score of 33. Rows 3B on 'building vocabulary' and 4B on 'opportunities to support meaningful writing' highlight an unpredictable presentation of both principles across the six lessons. Lisa showed the most significant change in practice of the three teachers.

Lisa's practice at the beginning of the Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme (February 2014)

At the beginning of her professional learning on the ACT programme, Lisa started the observed lesson by writing the letter s and t on a mini board and explained how the two sounds combine to form a new sound st. She was fluent in English but used isiZulu language as LoLT. Learners wrote the sound s, t and st on their mini boards and flashed the boards up for the teacher. It seemed that the learners were familiar with the activity and the teacher praised the class for the well-done work. The teacher read the sentences on the chalkboard and focused on the phonic aspects which the learners repeated several times. The learners copied the sentences in their exercise books as the teachers monitored their work. The learners' interaction with the teacher and their peers was in isiZulu. Feedback in English was limited to the chanting of single words or answering low-order questions with a 'yes' or 'no'. Lisa did not give the children time to manipulate the words in a meaningful manner to establish patterns in the words nor did she use the written resources which were available in class. The two lessons provided limited writing for the learners. According to the EFAL principles, Lisa scored a moderate representation of 23 and 20 for two observed lessons for lessons with an average score of 2 in almost all the principles (Table 4). This means that most of the principles of EFAL were not strongly present in her practice when she enrolled for the ACT programme.

During the Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme (August 2014)

The observed lessons in August 2015 indicated a great shift of practices as she improved in all the principles. Lesson 3 was practical, and the teacher distributed mini boards, chalks, small dusters and a set of cards to each child. She introduced the lesson in English and repeated this in isiZulu to explicitly explain the phonics. Lisa engaged with the CAPS work-books during lesson 4 but in both cases at oral level which consisted of simple questions and chants of the words using the daily knowledge discourses. Lisa still scored a weak representation on two principles during lesson 4. She did not offer learners any opportunity to support writing and did not explicitly build vocabulary. According to CAPS, writing in EFAL should receive more focussed support at Grade 2, and learners are expected to write a simple set of instructions and a personal recount (DBE 2011).

At the end of the Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme (October 2015)

By October 2015, Lisa showed an impressive improvement in most of the EFAL practices. She scored highly, with strong and moderate representations in most of the principles (Table 4). Lesson 5 was different, and learners were settled down when Lisa surprisingly uncovered a self-drawn picture of a child playing at a local beach (Durban) mounted on the wooden stand. This created suspense and joy among the children. Lisa engaged the learners which stimulated a classroom conversation. The next episodes were more interactive with writing and drawing opportunities created using a more detailed and colourful poster about leisure activities of a typical coastal resort. The posters and displays in the classroom had gradually changed to a stronger print-rich environment from the previous observations. Learners were able to learn letter sounds and use phonic resources which were piled in the classroom during lesson 6. However, there were still minimum opportunities to engage learners with writing and print reading during this lesson.

These data suggest that Lisa presented practices of an FP teacher who acquired new knowledge and skills in most aspects from the ACT programme and was able to apply these skills in her classroom. This implies that during her enrolment on the ACT, Lisa changed her classroom practices according to some of the FAL principles.

Findings on Jane's English as First Additional Language pedagogies practice in School 3

Lastly, we present findings of Jane's six analysed EFAL lessons in Table 5:

Overall, Table 5 shows that there was very little change in Jane's practice over the 18 months. Jane's lesson 3 (L3) indicates the best lesson observed. The development of bilingualism (1A) shows an improvement across the 18 months. However, there was no improvement in the print-rich environment (5), nor in strategies to support meaningful writing and reading (4A and 4B).

Jane's practice at the beginning of the Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme (February 2014)

In the first lesson observed, Jane read a story and predominately used isiZulu to explain the English words and sentences. She seemed uncomfortable when speaking in English. Learners' interaction with the teacher and their peers was mostly in isiZulu. The teacher used simple questions, like 'what are you doing' most of the time and concentrated only on positive responses from a few active learners, whereas most learners seemed not to follow the lesson. Feedback in English was only a single-word answer or repeating what the teacher said. Choral reading and repeating sentences with little understanding or contextual application prevailed. The instructions given for the writing task were not explicit; thus, learners did not construct new sentences as the teacher expected. The dusty walls had a few old posters and charts from the DBE for isiZulu and English phonics, life orientation charts on hygiene and health, and numeracy charts on additions, subtraction and numbers. Learner's work books and a few textbooks were locked in a cupboard and only accessible to the teacher.

So, at the beginning of the professional learning with the ACT programme, Jane's lessons in relation to the nine FAL principles observed in February 2014 scored a total of 19 and 21 in the first and second lessons. The two lessons observed illuminate a weak presentation in almost all the principles of teaching English as FAL, with an exception of moderate presentation on formal approaches to learning FAL (both lessons), building vocabulary in FAL (lesson 2) and on opportunities or strategies offered to support reading and word study (lesson 2). This implies that prior to enrolling for the ACT programme, Jane's teaching practices were not in accordance with the principles of teaching FAL, as stipulated in Module 6. This correlates with a great deal of the South African empirical findings, which indicate that most of the FP teachers in the rural areas have limited teacher knowledge to enable efficient teaching of literacy and mathematics (Green et al. 2011).

During the Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme (August 2014)

After the first semester of the ACT, Jane's classroom practices observed in August 2015 present a similar pattern of weak presentations in relation to the FAL principles observed in February 2014. The marginal score was a weak presentation in almost all the principles and very weak in lesson 4 on the opportunities or strategies used to support meaningful writing, implying that there was no change of classroom practices even after learning on the ACT programme for one semester. Her total score was 23 (lesson 3) and 18 (lesson 4), as compared to 19 (lesson1) and 21 (lesson 2) in February 2014 when she started learning the programme.

At the end of the Advanced Certificate in Teaching programme (October 2015)

A similar representation was observed for Jane's scores at the end of the programme, with moderate presentation of most principles and a very weak score for opportunities offered to support meaningful writing. Opportunities and strategies to support reading and word study were also poorly presented in lesson 6 and, thus, coded as a very weak presentation. With regard to a print-rich classroom environment, there is a clear indication that this remained the same during the 18 months. She did not change or use prints on the class walls in an effort to promote a print-rich learning environment. Although she claimed to have improved the quality and quantities of the classroom display over time during the August 2015 interview session, poster and chart displays did not change. Overall, Jane seems to have made no significant changes in her classroom practices in relation to the nine principles of teaching FAL. She may have learnt some conceptual knowledge from the ACT programme, and may have understood the methodologies, but did not put them into practice during the 18 months.

Ethical considerations

The article originates from a broader study (PhD) from data which explored professional learning of three Grade 2 teachers and how they changed their EFAL lessons during the time of enrolment with the ACT programme at UKZN in South Africa. Data collected over 18 months consisted of six classroom observations or videos, interviews and field notes (in February 2014, August 2014, October 2015). Participants consented to participate in the research by signing a consent form and permission was granted by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Basic Education (Ref 1/102/2014). The UKZN Higher Degrees and Ethics Committee awarded the ethical clearance (Ref. HSS/0098/014D).


Discussion of the findings

The overall findings show that by the end of the programme in October 2015, the three FP teachers, although they completed the same course, changed their classroom practices in different ways. When Anne and Lisa completed the programme, they seemed to have developed a deeper understanding of EFAL teaching strategies according to the nine principles of teaching FAL and a shift in their practice in this regard. However, Jane seems not to have engaged with the principles of FAL teaching by the end of the programme. This does not necessarily mean that Jane did not acquire any conceptual knowledge from the ACT programme but seemed unable to use it in her practice.

Anne was already practicing many of the EFAL principles when she enrolled in the ACT programme, and thus she displayed only a slight shift in practice. Anne was a self-motivated person with over 10 years' experience at school 1. Her school charged an annual fee of R1300 with moderate teaching resources and infrastructure compared to school 2 and 3 contexts. In addition, parental choice of English as LoLT means some of the children speak English at home and have access to other language learning opportunities apart from school. There was less for her to learn from the ACT programme, and thus her practice did not change that much.

Lisa was in the same career phase and age bracket as Anne. She seemed to be an enthusiastic learner with good conceptual understanding who showed a much stronger learning curve than Anne. She also had more professional learning opportunities from a non-governmental organisation called Soul City which supported the teaching of phonics with resources and classroom support in her school. This must have also made an impact to her classroom practices. Lisa made positive, consistent changes and displayed adequate principles of EFAL teaching within the period of their enrolment. In contrast, Jane was an older teacher, close to retirement, in a rural school environment and with limited English proficiency and subject knowledge. According to Day and Gu (2007), the teachers' career phase and personal identities influence their motivation for professional learning. Jane may have lacked self-motivation because she was near retirement age. Other underlying mechanisms which contributed to the minimal practice changes include contextual challenges such as inadequate learners' textbooks, teacher's guides and basic teaching resources and the fact that children have no other access to English apart from the school. The socio-economic context was poor, and the school entirely relied on DBE for learning resources, infrastructure, water supply and feeding programme. However, Jane claimed that the ACT programme had enabled her to gain confidence in teaching EFAL and proficiency in English. The struggles and challenges faced by Jane concur with other classroom-based studies and reviews of FP practices (Hoadley 2016; Prinsloo et al. 2015; Spaull & Hoadley 2017).

These findings echo most of the small-scale studies about the differences in the teacher's take-up from PD activities and their impacts to the classroom discourses (Adler & Reed 2000; Blease & Condy 2014; Brown et al. 2015; Meyer & Abel 2015). Professional learning is a complex process situated in practice, which cannot be separated from systems, structures, teachers' histories and school context (Battey & Franke 2008; Opfer & Pedder 2011). According to this socio-cultural insight, teachers' identities and contexts bring variation to what teachers' take-up from the professional activities and how they enact the new ideas in their classrooms.


Concluding remarks

Anne and Lisa benefitted most from the ACT programme. This may be because they taught in schools with more favourable conditions, and were more self-motivated, unlike Jane, who was close to retirement and teaching under more challenging conditions, where English is essentially a foreign language for both learners and teachers. The learning experiences of the three FP teachers suggest that a formal programme like the ACT will not necessarily bring about effective and sustainable improvements in teaching and learning for all teachers who enrol. Other factors such as the teachers' enthusiasm, career phase, the teachers' participation in other PD activities and the school context (both resourcing and collegial support for teacher learning) are crucial aspects that can support or hinder the teacher's professional learning from the formal programme.



This research has been developed through the University of KwaZulu-Natal's postdoctoral scholarship offered to F.K.K. and hosted by C.A.B. at UKZN, School of Education, Pietermaritzburg Campus.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors contributions

F.K.K. is the primary researcher who is reporting on her PhD study. She is the primary writer of the article. C.A.B. was the supervisor of the study and has contributed to the article by providing guidance regarding focus and structure.



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Faith Kimathi

Received: 16 June 2017
Accepted: 19 Jan. 2019
Published: 30 Apr. 2019

^rND^sAdler^nJ.^rND^sReed^nY.^rND^sBattey^nD.^rND^sFranke^nM.L.^rND^sBlease^nB.^rND^sCondy^nJ.^rND^sBrown^nB.^rND^sWilmot^nD.^rND^sAsh^nM.P.^rND^sCarlisle^nF.J.^rND^sCortina^nS.K.^rND^sKatz^nA.L.^rND^sChristiansen^nI.M.^rND^sBertram^nC.^rND^sMukeredzi^nT.^rND^sDay^nC.^rND^sGu^nQ.^rND^sEbrahim^nH.B.^rND^sVerbeek^nD.C.^rND^sMashiya^nJ.N.^rND^sEnsor^nP.^rND^sHoadley^nU.^rND^sGreen^nW.^rND^sParker^nD.^rND^sDeacon^nR.^rND^sHall^nG.^rND^sHoadley^nU.^rND^sHoadley^nU.^rND^sMeyer^nS.^rND^sAbel^nL.^rND^sMoats^nL.C.^rND^sMurris^nK.^rND^sVerbeek^nC.^rND^sOpfer^nV.D.^rND^sPedder^nD.^rND^sPiasta^nS.B.^rND^sConnor^nC.M.^rND^sFishman^nJ.^rND^sMorrison^nF.^rND^sVan Der Merwe^nZ.^rND^sNel^nC.^rND^sVerbeek^nC.^rND^1A01^nAzwihangwisi E.^sMuthivhi^rND^1A01^nSamantha^sKriger^rND^1A01^nAzwihangwisi E.^sMuthivhi^rND^1A01^nSamantha^sKriger^rND^1A01^nAzwihangwisi E^sMuthivhi^rND^1A01^nSamantha^sKriger



Music instruction and reading performance: Conceptual transfer in learning and development



Azwihangwisi E. Muthivhi; Samantha Kriger

School of Education, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa





BACKGROUND: This article reported on the developmental consequences of music instruction in Foundation Phase level of South African school context, specifically in relation to learners' learning and acquisition of early reading abilities. Against the background of the recent upsurge in research interest on the subject of conceptual and skills transfer among primary school learners in South Africa, the article uses contemporary advances in theory to interrogate empirical research on the benefits of music instruction for successful acquisition of reading abilities.
AIM: The study aimed to interrogate the question - and resuscitate debate about - how conceptual skills in one subject discipline could transfer to benefit the learning and development of related conceptual skills in a different but related subject discipline.
SETTING: The setting for the research was a boys-only public primary school located in a middle-class suburb of Cape Town, South Africa.
METHODS: Document analysis and observation of reading activities and the performance records of Foundation Phase learners was carried out by the first author, and the performance of a group that was part of the school's music instruction programme was compared with that of a group that was not part of that programme.
RESULTS: The results suggested that participation in school music instruction might benefit primary school learners' development of early reading abilities.
CONCLUSION: This is especially so when instructional activities are purposefully structured to benefit cognate conceptual skills, with crucial implications for policy development and the organisation of subject matter content knowledge in primary schooling in contemporary South Africa.

Keywords: education; educational psychology and pedagogy; child development; psychology of music education; primary school learning and teaching.




In South Africa, few studies have examined the beneficial relationship that music instruction may have on elementary Foundation Phase learners' acquisition and development of reading ability. This unique area of research is particularly crucial and relevant to contemporary South African schooling, considering the significance of early reading ability on learners' overall school performance and learning efficacy. The question of whether school instruction in specific critical subject disciplines benefits children's learning and conceptual development in related subjects has a long and contentious history in developmental psychology and education. Van der Veer (1994) argues that Vygotsky and his collaborators believed that learning in specific school subjects has a generalising effect on learners' thinking and concept development, and that such learning results in conceptual transfer. That is, conceptual skills acquired in one subject discipline, such as mathematics, could benefit students' learning performance in related subject matter such as physics or linguistics. For example, the learning of Latin was assumed, within Vygotsky's research framework, to have a beneficial effect for - and hence potential for conceptual transfer to - learning within associated school subject disciplines such as mathematics.

Although the Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) policy framework - following immediately after the dawn of democratic dispensation in South Africa - was organised around principles of cross-disciplinary content knowledge termed 'learning areas', unfortunately this approach subsequently was found to be problematic and was deemed to be responsible for the persistence of poor schooling performance. It was argued, therefore, that teachers in South Africa were not ready for the advanced instructional methodologies the approach espoused. It was further argued that the cross-disciplinary orientation to teaching and learning demanded by the multidisciplinary organisation of subject matter knowledge inadvertently rendered teachers less effective, as South African teachers had not been trained in the requisite methods for cross-disciplinary and cross-curricula pedagogy. Instead, it was argued, the schooling system needed a return to 'the basics' of content-based and disciplinary-oriented instructional framework, organised around careful specification of subject matter disciplines and their associated methodologies (Chisholm et al. 2000; Department of Basic Education 2009).

To this effect, the committee that recommended the abandonment of OBE-related cross-disciplinary orientation, and the adoption of the new framework, namely, Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) in 2009, stated (Department of Basic Education 2009) that:

The new Curriculum and Assessment Policy documents must consist of curriculum and assessment statements which are clear, succinct, unambiguous, measurable, and based on essential learning as represented by subject disciplines. Design features of OBE, especially learning outcomes and assessment standards, should not be featured in the Curriculum and Assessment Policy documents, and should become part of the General Aims of the curriculum, similar to the Critical and Developmental Outcomes. The documents should be organized around the knowledge (content, concepts and skills) to be learnt, recommended texts, recommended pedagogical approaches and assessment requirements. The latter will specify the level at which content, concepts and skills are to be taught, and how and when they should be assessed. (p. 49)

However, specific learning areas such as Life Orientation, which could possibly not easily be reduced to separate disciplines without unwittingly overloading the curriculum, continued - perhaps purely for pragmatic reasons - to retain their multidisciplinary orientation. Life Orientation, which was then referred to as Life Skills, also assumed the new nomenclature of 'subject' like all the others, and was conceptualised from the beginning as multidisciplinary, comprising sub-disciplines framed as Beginning Knowledge, Arts and Crafts, Physical Education and Health Education (Department of Basic Education 2009). The fundamental organisational principle within the current South African CAPS curriculum could be viewed, therefore, as firmly grounded on the assumption of the integrity of the subject discipline and its inherent methodologies, which, in turn, are assumed to reflect the internal logic of the discipline, espoused through the doctrine of 'conceptual progression'. Curriculum policy statements specifying disciplinary content knowledge are expressed in their clear relationship with the assessment procedures, and these statements are distinctively couched in categorical terms such as 'succinct, unambiguous, measurable, and based on essential learning as represented by subject disciplines' (Department of Basic Education 2009:49).

Although contemporary South African instructional policy framework does not seem to encourage cross-disciplinary approach in teaching, there perhaps remain good theoretical and pedagogical reasons for teachers to be aware of and encourage cross-disciplinary conceptual development on the part of their learners (Gallimore & Tharp 1991; Hedegaard 2002; van der Veer 1994). In the specific case of foundational learners' music and reading instruction, an awareness on the part of teachers, and an orientation to cross-disciplinary approach, could especially be crucial considering that children's spontaneous concepts - potentially derived from their music performances during play activities - should be useful, and may provide ready motivational grounding for mastery and acquisition of both literacy and music concepts (St. John 2006; Tomlinson 2013).

Children in South Africa - as generally in all African cultural contexts - participate in rich heritage of musical traditions from an early age (Blacking 1995; Campbell 1999). Although the nature and forms of such participation may be changing with time, the rich repertoires of musical tradition and skilled performances that ensue from their community musical practices could have beneficial effects on their learning and development if these were appropriately acknowledged and utilised within their schooling. Meanwhile, music seems to have an inherent potential for contributing towards improved reading efficacy, considering its natural connection to children's everyday spontaneous performance-related activities.

The question of how conceptual skills in one subject discipline could transfer to benefit the learning and development of related conceptual skills in different but related disciplines has long been part of debates in psychology and education, not least in research on South Africa's schooling.


Contemporary South African studies on conceptual and skills transfer

The question about transfer of cognitive and conceptual skills acquired in one domain of activity to the other, and how these skills could be exploited by teachers to benefit school learning in general, as well as conceptual skills transference from one subject area to the next, has relevance in contemporary research endeavours in South Africa's scholarships. One such study - Cockroft (2015) - explored children's ability for temporary storage and manipulation of information and how this skill - termed 'short-term memory' or 'working memory' - as well as its various components, such as verbal and visual memory aspects, could be nurtured through classroom teaching and learning processes.

Cockroft (2015) argues that reliance on working memory is a feature of early childhood cognitive processes, as the child at this stage has not yet acquired automatised skills such as alphabetic and numerical knowledge. The author further argues that working memory or short-term memory is most noticeable by the increase in the quantity of information that can be retained, increasing steadily over time with maturation until the age of about 16 years old, and that it is typically assessed through span-like tasks in which participants engage in immediate processing while simultaneously retaining information for instant or later recall.

Difficulties with working memory, according to Cockroft (2015:9), often manifest as attention problems. Children with working memory problems, faced with challenging cognitive tasks, for example, may 'mentally wonder from the task' or struggle to cope with tasks that 'have many simultaneous processing demands'. Cockroft (2015) argues that these children could be assisted through deliberate management of working memory loads, which may involve, firstly, determining the task demands on working memory, and then breaking down the task into its smaller components, also including simplification, appropriate timing and allowing for repetition in the specific instructions relating to the task demands.

Although problems with working memory, according to Cockroft (2015), are likely to compound over time and interfere with the child's prospects of learning success, these problems can fortunately be reversed, with much of the training to improve working memory focussing on developing the 'executive control processes' to improve on capacity and prevent degradation. In conclusion, Cockroft (2015) argues that considerable evidence suggests that variability in training working memory can potentially foster greater flexibility and likelihood for transfer, specifically with regard to the transfer of skills to related tasks that require instructions in, for example, non-verbal reasoning, mathematical problem-solving and tasks involving attentional control processes.

This study clearly points to the significance of the subject of cognitive or conceptual skills transfer in South African research literature, with important implications for contemporary schooling, especially with regard to the organisation of curriculum content and subject matter knowledge. Henning (2015), nonetheless, cautions that:

Some critics see approaches such as Cockroft's as too 'cognitive', reductionist or even 'positivist' [sic!], they fail to realize that it is complementary, rather than an oppositional approach to sociocultural paradigm to understanding child development and learning. Cockroft's suggestions can be located neatly within a sociocultural perspective, as they focus on the cognitive tools or skills that teachers or knowledgeable others can mediate to children to ensure that they are well equipped to engage with the world as active learners. (p. ii).

Cloete and Delport's (2015) study provides another - and more pertinent - South African research endeavour that is particularly relevant to the present research. This study addresses, as part of its interest, the question regarding possibilities for conceptual transfer of music skills and concepts to related subject disciplines such as reading and numeracy acquisition at foundational levels of young children's schooling. The authors worked with primary school teachers who wanted guidance 'with regard to the integration of music with numeracy and literary development in their young learners'. Among the skills this intervention research sought to inculcate on the part of the primary school teachers included the ability 'to use music to reinforce numeracy concepts' (Cloete & Delport 2015:92).

It is clear from the above discussion that there is significant research interest in contemporary South African scholarship regarding the subject of conceptual and cognitive skills transfer at the foundational level of formal schooling. However, research on the subject of conceptual transfer in children's school learning and cognitive or conceptual development in South Africa has not clearly and explicitly articulated a coherent conceptual and methodological framework that guides and informs its empirical research endeavour. Furthermore, the implications that these studies have on the organisation of policy and its consequent instructional practices remain scarcely explicated. The nature of the conceptual relations as well as the specific process through which the concepts are, in fact, related also remain vaguely specified. The current study is, therefore, an attempt at using a coherent framework to demonstrate possibilities for conceptual transfer across subject disciplines, modelled through music instructional activities and a pedagogic approach that sought to foster reading efficacy on the part of learners enrolled within the school's music curriculum.


The question of transfer in Vygotsky's sociocultural (or cultural-historical) research

The question of transfer is itself fundamental in Vygotsky's framework, and it runs through his cultural historical approach to human development. For example, human thought processes, including language and concept acquisition, originate from sociocultural practices and are mastered through the process of internalisation or transformation of processes into the personal plane of mental functioning. Therefore, the doctrine of transfer is understood within a system that explains possibilities for developmental acquisition of culturally derived forms of knowledge and skills. This position contradicts the cognitivist assumption that mental functions, concepts and skills are inherent in, and unfolding from within subjects. The concept of transfer, therefore, refers to both the social organisation of knowledge, such as the one involved in the internal logic of one subject discipline, and its associated developmental consequences ensuing from learning and mastery of the discipline's fundamental conceptual relations, as well as the transferability of the conceptual relations to benefit the demands of learning in separate but related subject discipline.

The formalisation of learning through schooling transforms the relations the child has to the world and to him or herself and brings about a world of conceptual relations which simultaneously establish continuity of conceptual relations between subject disciplines, which are grounded on the scientific nature of formal knowledge. At the same time, a discontinuity is introduced between everyday, spontaneous knowledge and concepts and the formal, scientific concepts of school. It is in this relational process of learning and concept acquisition in the course of the child's development that possibilities for conceptual transfer are realised by the child. To this end, Vygotsky referred to literacy practice as a 'particular system of symbols and signs whose mastery heralds a critical turning point in the cultural development of the child'. The process of literacy acquisition for a child, therefore, involves what Vygotsky termed 'second-order symbolism', comprising a system of graphic signs that designate verbal sounds and words that comprise spoken language. In this view, the child would relate differently to the words and sounds comprising spoken language as opposed to written text because the two forms of symbolism arise from different forms of learning and developmental activities in which the child participates (Vygotsky 1978:106).

Music learning during schooling potentially brings the spontaneous repertoires of children's everyday musical performance to their formally organised and systematic learning process within formal schooling, that is, bringing children's music activities into their conscious awareness. Consequently, children begin to learn music - within school instruction - with awareness of the rhythmic structure and melodic patterns that characterise the spontaneous songs and dances which they bring into formal learning from their everyday community participation. At the same time, reading instruction and the various forms of literacy activities in which children begin to participate introduce the written form of language with its specific peculiarities, providing a unique system of graphic representation of the spoken word and its rhythmic and melodic patterns that are simultaneously constitutive of musical expressions (St. John 2006; Tomlinson 2013).

There is, therefore, a history behind the learner's early learning and acquisition of the formal, scientific discipline, which is in the everyday, spontaneous activities that prepare the learner for formal learning during schooling. This happens, for example, when the learner overcomes impulsive and egocentric inclinations of pre-school years and begins to subject his or her will to others, and to the rules that regulate activities that are enacted during school learning (De la Riva & Ryan 2014; Harrison & Muthivhi 2013). It is the transformation of the rules that govern everyday, spontaneous activities into means for the regulation of own activities that naturally lead into the development and mastery of both social knowledge and knowledge of self. Vygotsky (1978) posited this relationship, firstly, as explaining learning and development broadly during spontaneous activities and, secondly, as explaining learning and development within specific context of formal schooling. The transformative relations between everyday, spontaneous knowledge and concepts and the scientific knowledge and concepts within formal schooling are explained through the innovative concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). As stated by Vygotsky (1978):

Each school subject has its own specific relation to the course of child development, a relation that varies as the child goes from one stage to another. This leads us directly to a re-examination of the problem of formal discipline, that is, to the significance of each particular subject from the viewpoint of overall mental development. Clearly, the problem cannot be solved by using any one formula; extensive and highly diverse concrete research based on the concept of the zone of proximal development is necessary to resolve the issue. (p. 91)


The zone of proximal development in music instruction and reading acquisition

The concept of the ZPD can be conceptualised in two different but related ways. Firstly, it can be conceptualised through the relationship that underpins the child's participation in everyday, spontaneous activities involving role-play activities, including spontaneous forms of musical performances, on the one hand, and the child's participation in formal school activities that characterise serious learning during school years on the other hand. Secondly, the ZPD would define relationships that characterise the subject matter's conceptual organisation, including the concepts' dissemination through teaching on the one hand, and the child's progression in the acquisition and internalisation of the concepts on the other hand. The two processes should be understood as interrelated and mutually complementary - an essential point in understanding the multilayered functioning of the concept of the ZPD.

The ZPD is multilayered in that it is essentially created by the teacher's pedagogy through which he or she confronts the learner's psychological functioning (Chaiklin 2003; Gallimore & Tharp 1991; Hedegaard 1990, 1996, 2002; Wertsch 1984). The concept of ZPD can be understood as generally comprising multiple developmental trajectories in specific cultural traditions of learning and development within different societies and therefore as providing what Gallimore and Tharp (1991) have termed 'cultural zones' of development, while it can also be understood in its specific sense of application to the child's learning within formal school context as Vygotsky has, in fact, emphasised. Vygotsky defined the ZPD as:

[T]he distance between the actual developmental level as determined by the independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Vygotsky 1978:86, emphasis in the original)

This conceptual development, according to Vygotsky, is propelled by the guidance of the more capable other, such as teacher or peer, but it is conceived as happening in the proximal distance between the child's own level of functioning vis-a-vis the level at which guidance through collaborative activities of pedagogical relations happens. Here is in fact the proposition for a contextual and cultural situatedness of pedagogy (cf. Lave & Wenger 1991), in its relation to psychological development and functioning within classroom teaching and learning. Meanwhile, Vygotsky's concept of the ZPD essentially connects pedagogy with the child's psychological functioning and establishes their fundamental unity, where one relies on the other in a relationship that is uniquely qualitative and transformative (Chaiklin 2003; Hedegaard 1990; Wertsch 1984).

Furthermore, and more crucially, the conceptual relations posited through the concept of the ZPD are based on the consideration of the fundamental distinction that characterises the activities that define the child's learning and development in spontaneous, everyday contexts, vis-a-vis the child's learning and development within a formal school context. Vygotsky posited these conceptual relations through what he aptly termed everyday, spontaneous concepts on the one hand, and formal, scientific concepts on the other hand (Karpov 2003).

Vygotsky (1978, 1981) identified concepts that comprise all formal subject matter disciplines as 'scientific concepts', specifically to denote the special qualities that these concepts constitute, as opposed to their counterparts which he identified as everyday, spontaneous concepts. While spontaneous concepts are acquired through spontaneous activities in everyday life situations, the scientific concepts are acquired through the activities of systematic and formal learning process that characterise schooling. Furthermore, scientific concepts are considered scientific not necessarily because they constitute concepts in natural science disciplines, but, importantly, because they are organised systematically through rational, scholastic forms of engagement with knowledge and are repositories of human scholastic heritage - although, of course, presently often dominated by Western cultural traditions of scholarship. For Vygotsky, these concepts are naturally distinguishable from everyday concepts because of their systematic organisation and their specific concern with forms, generalisations and abstractions, rather than with content, specificities, immediacy and concrete situations as do the spontaneous concepts.

Today, this cultural heritage - of predominantly Western traditions of knowledge and conceptual systems - is an almost universal reality of formal schooling in many African contexts of schooling, and specifically in contemporary South Africa. Therefore, the cultural tools - in the form of the scientific concepts embedded and manifested in the social practice of school teaching and learning - would need to be made more explicit to learners through teachers' deliberate pedagogical approaches that articulate with learners' everyday concepts to create a new ZPD that sets learners on a new path of conceptual development, propelled by unique and specific conceptual relations that underpin the structural organisation of school and scientific concepts.

The significance of children's acquisition of scientific concepts during formal schooling, mediated in their ZPD, which the teacher creates through instructional activities pitched at the right levels that connect to learners' situational needs and interests, has important significance for learners' developmental trajectory. As Vygotsky has pointed out, learners' developmental path is fundamentally transformed in ways that otherwise would not be possible without formal school learning. Learners' progressive acquisition of the conceptual relations that underpin classroom instructional activities come to be driven by, and through, the conceptual relations of formal school scientific concepts which transcend contextual and empirical specificities that often characterise many traditional, content-oriented approaches to teaching-learning and instructional policy development procedures that still dominate today's schooling. That is, the conceptual relations that underpin the scientific concepts introduce new learning and developmental orientation on the part of learners, characterised by abstract, conceptual and theoretical approach to knowledge and problem-solving procedures (cf. Hedegaard 1990, 2002). The latter orientation to classroom instruction could have enormous benefits to learners in that it is oriented solely towards the mere passing of tests and scoring higher marks. Crucially, it is oriented towards the inculcation of developmentally oriented forms of learning, underpinned by the values and attitudes that naturally accrue from the unique and specific quality of engagement with, and acquisition of, abstract and theoretical concepts that characterise the specific subject matter knowledge domain.

This emphasis on the developmentally oriented form of teaching often runs, unfortunately, in contradistinction to many educational practices in the world today, including the prevailing South African instructional policy framework that gives precedence to strongly specified subject matter content knowledge and teachers' definitive role as disseminators of this knowledge, largely under the prescripts contained in the prescribed textbooks. The associated forms of assessing learners' learning and mastery of the subject matter through administration of tests and associated standardised assessment procedures have effectively resulted in the prevailing practice of 'teaching to the test'. In a statement, apparently intended to clarify the shift away from the constructivist model that was part of the organisational principles of the OBE framework that preceded the prevailing CAPS framework. The review committee proposed a model is essentially driven by, and based on, subject matter content knowledge organised on the basis of knowledge disciplines, with learners' creative and constructive activities inhering in discipline-based content knowledge (Department of Basic Education 2009):

The intention of the National Curriculum Statement was to move towards greater emphasis on discipline-based subjects, the logic of which is derived from the subject discipline. Though all learners do engage in the construction of knowledge in terms of coming to understand certain concepts, skills and content, it has generally been accepted that these aspects inhere within the subject, and not in the minds of learners in the first place. (p. 24)

This approach in South Africa's policy framework, emphasising subject matter content knowledge and its transmission through discipline-based methodologies, may be viewed as privileging the transmission of tradition and heritage ingrained in the disciplinary concepts and knowledge, rather than the creative potential which learners' engagement with concepts is likely to produce. The policy conception of teaching and learning through discipline-based subject matter content knowledge inevitably produces teacher transmission form of classroom pedagogy, and its associated passive mode of knowledge assimilation by learners who simultaneously learn to acquire knowledge and concepts without actively transforming these into personal knowledge repertoires. This approach to knowledge organisation and classroom teaching and learning stands in stark contradistinction with Vygotsky inspired developmentally oriented approaches that ground pedagogical processes on active engagement with subject matter content and its transformation into subjective knowledge, essentially connected to learners' evolving repertoires of personal conceptual and motivational dispositions (cf. Arievich & Stetsenko 2000).

The present, theoretically inspired and developmentally oriented approach to teaching subject matter content knowledge and its associated conceptual system foregrounds active engagement and relational practices of classroom instruction, oriented towards a transcendental or transformative learning and development (Hedegaard 1990; Vygotsky 1978). Therefore, the activities that characterise children's acquisition of musical performances in everyday life situations - such as during songs and dances in their communities - are viewed as providing them with grounded knowledge of culturally shaped, spontaneous forms of knowledge and learning that is part of their heritage. The teacher uses children's skills and knowledge repertoires acquired through their participation in everyday music learning activities to mediate their acquisition of formal conceptual structures and skills embedded in the activities of music instruction, thus transforming learners' spontaneous knowledge and concepts - as well as their learning and knowledge acquisition procedure - through formal instruction in school music lessons. Therefore, consistent with the original theoretical conception of the formal, scientific concepts, the nature of the conceptual structures that should underlie disciplinary content knowledge could be understood as deeply systematic and extensively generalisable, extending across the specificities of disciplinary boundaries and, therefore, establishing the internal, cross-disciplinary interconnectedness of phenomena, beyond artificial perceptual limitations (cf. Hedegaard 1990).


Joyful music versus serious reading

Reading ability imposes on learners the cognitive demands to hold two or more categories constant, namely letter-sound configurations or phonemic aspect of reading, at the same time that they keep up with the semiotic or interpretive and meaning-making aspect of reading activity. These demands should even be more extensive and potentially achieved with greater efforts on the part of foreign or additional language learners who, at the same time, may have to grapple with equivalent and even contradictory demands regarding the phonemic and semiotic (or meaningfulness) linguistic aspects related to and inherent in their first or home language; mastery of which they already would have acquired or are in the process of acquisition, at the same time that they are confronted with additional or second language learning.

Folk music, considered against the background of Vygotsky's framework - as well as the emerging field of music education inspired by this framework (see Barrett 2010) - could be viewed as a form of culturally shaped musical practice that simultaneously functions to support children's language development and mastery of the social world. As with play activities, music in everyday spontaneous activities is performed with a goal of deriving the pleasure and self-gratification that comes naturally to children in the course of their development. However, beyond self-gratification that children derive from these pleasurable activities, music contributes to children's development of language skills and social consciousness, for example.

Therefore, unlike the formal learning of reading and writing - which have the inherent potential to extend the child's knowledge of his or her language abilities at the same time that the child is introduced to the system of the formal concepts of school literacy, music instruction has the inherent potential to extend the pleasure aspect of everyday, spontaneous music performance activities at the same time that the serious formal learning and acquisition of formal concepts take place. When introduced appropriately, where meaningful connections between the spontaneous and formal aspects of music learning and development could be sustained, music instruction may potentially hold the key to the mysteries of learning motivation. The subject of motivation in and through learning is central in education and psychology today, and this also resonates with practical challenges of schooling in many parts of the world. This is especially relevant in South Africa, where the challenge of congruency between the cultural traditions and practices on the one hand, and the practices of formal school learning on the other hand, continues to stunt educational achievement and learning success.

As a result, music instruction in school may serve the critical role of connecting formal learning, on the one hand, to children's spontaneous musical performance and knowledge repertoires, on the other hand. Music could be understood as generally having an intrinsic and unique connection to the pleasure-driven motive, and as capable of producing activity that naturally leads to self-gratification normally associated with role-play activity, because both forms of children's activities have the capacity to serve as means, therefore enabling children to enter the world of adults and live in it on their own terms. In addition to its close connection to children's motives for self-gratification through pleasurable activities - a situation most pronounced in African childhood experiences - music activities generally have the advantage of readily invoking children's interests and motivation. Music instruction in school, therefore, has greater potential to promote learners' conscious awareness of the formal structure of the rhythmic and melodic structure of performance more readily than reading instruction would achieve, and hence, enabling efficient mastery of meanings embodied by and underpinned in the symbolic structure of the notation system.

The present analysis, therefore, examines not just the inherent capacity of school music, in itself, to promote conceptual generalisation, but, and more crucially, considers the consequences of the teacher's intentional organisation of classroom instructional activities, and her teaching of music concepts and skills in ways that benefit learners' related learning and conceptual acquisition of reading and literacy skills. As a result, the current research contributes to an ongoing exploration of, and engagement with, the debate about possibilities for transfer of equivalent conceptual skills between and among related subject areas and disciplinary orientations. This research holds significant implications, not only with regard to expanding theoretical knowledge and debates about the subject of conceptual transfer across disciplines, but also with regard to the immediate problems and challenges of how to teach learners in ways that are congruent with the inherent nature of the conceptual relations that underpin children's development on the one hand, and formal school learning on the other hand.


Research process

The research process involved document review, comprising the collection of data from records of 32 learners in a boys-only school aged between 6 and 9 years. Data comprised assessment reports of learners as well as music and reading lessons in which learners had participated over a period, from Grade 1 to Grade 3. The data were obtained from two groups of 16 learners each, differentiated by participation and non-participation in the school's music instruction curriculum. The research group participated in music lessons, while the comparative group did not participate in the school's music curriculum. Both groups participated in the reading instruction curriculum, and their performance scores in reading were compared to establish possible comparative performance levels between the music learners and non-music learners.

All music learners would normally have two half-hour music lessons per week, and they were all exposed to Western classical music. The music curriculum also included playing a musical instrument, which only started from the second grade, singing in the school choir, which started halfway through the first grade, as well as being involved in all other musical activities in class. All learners were English speaking,1 although other languages were also spoken either as home language or additional language.

Analysis of documents, including the learner performance reports and portfolio files, was aimed at identifying improvements in learners' reading ability across Grade 1, Grade 2 and Grade 3. Performance areas for literacy development and reading ability were specifically analysed, while class teachers' records in learners' portfolios, documenting any area of concern regarding learner progress in reading, and the support recommended to be provided by the 'learning support teacher', also provided crucial data for the analysis process.

Permission to conduct research was obtained from the local school authorities, whereas informed consent was obtained from parents and guardians of learners who participated in the research. Ethics approval was duly obtained from the institution within which the research was undertaken.

Reading instruction activities

Document analysis was conducted by the second author, and this involved analysing learners' reading activities comprising the reading instructional periods of 90 min per session. The observation focussed on determining the amount of reading covered during the lessons, and the organisation of instructional activities such as whole class or group teaching. Reading activities happened every school day and learners were encouraged to read aloud in groups while others listened attentively. Each learner had their own reader. During guided reading sessions, learners were grouped on the basis of ability levels. Guided reading sessions would normally last between 15 min and 25 min, with the teacher working with one group while other groups would be engaged in organised writing activities.

Shared reading involved the teacher reading text together with the learners and the teaching assistant often taking a session to model shared 'reading behaviours'. This normally happened during the early stages of reading activities when learners are still learning basic skills such as listening and responding within group reading context. By modelling how to pay attention, making eye-contact, joining in with the reading and responding to questions, for example, the teaching assistant contributed towards building basic reading skills that underpinned the actual reading activities.

Learners' basic reading skills were also facilitated through what was termed 'listening lab' stories, where they were encouraged to listen to pre-recorded readings of various stories in a special reading laboratory. Very often learners were asked basic questions after each listening activity. These questions, in the case of Grade 1 learners, were asked orally and learners were required to write down the answers to the questions as they progressed through the grades.

Reading policy for Foundation Phase learners, Grade 1 to Grade 3, specified activities to be covered during reading instruction, including letter naming fluency, initial sound fluency, phoneme segmentation and nonsense word fluency. Table 1 outlines the policy specifications for Foundation Phase reading instruction.



The reading policy specified that formal recording of learner achievement was to be done against the learning outcomes every term, using the national coding system. This coding system used levels rating codes of 1-4, as illustrated in Table 2. The rating code of 1 was awarded to learners who obtained percentile marks of 1-34, and their reading performance was deemed not to have satisfied the requirements for the specific grade outcomes. The rating code of 2 was awarded to learners obtaining percentile marks of between 35 and 49 and deemed to have only partially satisfied the requirements of the learning outcomes for the specific grade. The rating code of 3 was awarded to learners obtaining between 50 and 69 percentile marks and these learners were deemed to have satisfied the requirements of the learning outcomes for the specific grade. Learners who scored 70-100 percentile marks were awarded a rating code of 4, which was deemed to be an excellent performance, and were deemed to have exceeded the requirements of the learning outcomes for the grade.



Although the rating codes have since been amended (to a 1-7 coding system in 2011), learners who formed part of the present study were actually assessed on the 2004 policy framework. Furthermore, four sets of assessment reports for each of the four school terms per year, over a 3-year period - from Grade 1 to Grade 3 - were analysed (Table 1).

Music instruction activities

Music instruction activities included participation in formal music, which involved learning to play instruments such as violin, recorder, piano, keyboard and trumpet. The type of instrument provided to a learner depended largely on its availability, that is, whether the school had the specific instrument to lease out to the learner, or whether a learner's parent could afford to purchase the instrument in question. The opportunity to learn certain instruments also depended on availability of expert teachers, that is, whether a competent teacher was available to teach the particular instrument of a learner's choice, and whether the teacher had space available in the school timetable to contribute to teaching in the music programme. Furthermore, the learners in this specific case also had to be of a particular body size and build to handle his or her chosen instrument.

Other performing arts areas, such as singing, choir involvement and general class music, also formed part of the music programme of the school, and learners participated fully in all the activities. Each Foundation Phase class received weekly music instruction for 30 min from the music teacher. Lesson activities were in line with policy guidelines on the training of Foundation Phase learners in the performing arts subject. Learners learned to sing songs in English and were also introduced to new songs from different South African musical traditions in isiXhosa and isiZulu languages. A traditional Hebrew song was also introduced as the school also had learners from Jewish family backgrounds.

Each grade's head-teacher supplied the music teacher with a list of themes which will be covered by their classes and these themes would be integrated into music lesson activities. Special songs for assembly, which took place every Monday morning, would be practiced for Monday's performances. Learners often performed familiar songs with a slight change so they sounded a little different, so as to develop awareness of sound families. Phonological and memory skills were also developed during these activities.

Music lesson activities also introduced learners to textual representation of music performance through graphic charts or musical scores, which consisted, for example, of dots that represented steady beat and squares, as well as rectangles to represent word rhythms, or lines to represent melodic contours. Textual lesson activities were particularly meant to foster learners' abilities to connect sounds to graphemes or letters, and to connect perceptions of rhythm and pitch to graphic shapes.

Body percussion was introduced before percussion instruments, while the tapping of basic rhythms to a particular song was meant to signal the start of rhythmic concepts. The tapping of basic rhythms was also used to help students remember pronunciation of specific words in the song. The music teacher would demonstrate the pronunciation first, and then have learners repeat after him or her. This was often done by clapping hands, while learners pronounced the specific words in the text. Body percussion was also intended to reinforce learners' perception of steady beat, word rhythms and concepts such as high, low, higher and lower pitches. Percussion instruments were used mainly to aid learners in building phonemic awareness. The percussion instruments that were used included rhythm sticks, claves, guiro, woodblock, shaker eggs, triangles, finger cymbals, hand chimes and song bells. Xylophones were introduced at a later stage to reinforce learners' perception of steady beat, word rhythms or melodic contour. Movement was added at a later stage, and it was intended to help learners organise their perceptions of musical sound in time and space.

Lastly, learners were introduced to music theory, where basic history of Western music was taught. Here, learners were introduced to various composers of classical music. They were also introduced to the various periods in musical history and the influence these composers had on the music of today. Excerpts from famous composers were listened to, and themes from their musical compositions highlighted and discussed.

Ethical considerations

Ethical clearance was obtained from the University of Cape Town, Faculty of Humanities in 2012 for the second author's research project.



The intricate relations between music instruction and reading performance

Does not the incessant pursuit of a more beautiful sound reveal paradigmatically that a main trait of human reality is to transcend itself? (Boesch 1997:183).

The results support the initial hypothesis that a strong correlation exists between learners' participation in music instruction on the one hand, and their improved performance levels in reading ability on the other hand. These results are inferred from the analysis of the performance scores of the learners who participated in the school's music curriculum, and their associated performance scores obtained during reading class assessment tasks, in comparison with the reading performance of an equivalent group of learners who were not part of the school's music curriculum (see Tables 3 and 4).

The four levels against which the assessment of learners' reading performance was scored, was based on South Africa's Department of Education's progression schedule (Table 2). This was the schedule which was in use at the time of the assessment of the performance of learners who participated in the study during the years 2010-2012 (Western Cape Education Department 2004).

The reading scores obtained from the majority of learners in the group that participated in music instruction were consistently higher at 'satisfactory' performance level (score of 3), while the reading scores for the majority of learners in the comparative group that did not participate in music lessons were at the lower rating score of 2, that is, 'partially satisfactory' performance level. The performance level for the music group was therefore at the average score of 3.2, significantly higher than the comparative average score of 2.7 for the group of learners that did not participate in music instruction classes.

Figure 1 represents the comparative performance levels across the two groups of music and non-music lessons learners, revealing the differential performance patterns between the two groups. The differential performance levels between the two groups is even more striking when we consider that only 8% of music group learners' reading performance was scored at the lower rating scores of 'not achieved' and 'partially achieved', while a significantly large figure of 32% of the non-music group was scored at the reading performance levels of 'not achieved' and 'partially achieved'.

Furthermore, over 32% of the performance of music group learners was scored at the highest performance level of 'excellent achievement', while only 8% of the rating scores of the non-music group was at the same level. Therefore, while Figure 1 reveals that around 60% of the learners' performance scores across the two groups was rated in the middle range of 'satisfactory achievement' level, their differential performance seems to be crucially manifest in, and potentially defined by, the significant shifts away from the lower level reading performance scores of 'unsatisfactory achievement', as well as the shifts towards higher level scores defining 'excellent achievement' in learners' reading performance. It is this shift, and the differential performance between the 'not achieving' and 'partially achieving', both categories overrepresented by the non-music group with 30% (as against a mere 8% in the music group), which should explain the performance differentials between the two comparative groups. Meanwhile, the shift towards excellent achievement by the music group, significantly surpassing the mere 'satisfactory achievement', with an average percentile score of 32% (as opposed to only 9% average percentile score by the non-music group) should similarly explain the performance differentials between the two comparative groups. Although learners in this elite, middle-class and historically white-only South African public school generally performed satisfactorily on average in their reading tasks performance (at the rating code of 3), the findings for the performance differentials, for the present analysis, suggests that it is the movement to a progressively higher levels of performance excellence, at the rating code of 4, that should in fact account for performance differences between the two comparative groups.



In conclusion, research on comparing possibilities for conceptual transfer between music learning on the one hand, and early learning and acquisition of reading ability on the other hand, should represent an innovative research trajectory in contemporary South African schooling. In this regard, the current research findings suggest that participation in music instruction could have beneficial effects on primary school learners' learning and acquisition of early reading skills. Although the relationship was established through a comparison of performance results across learners who participated in music instruction on the one hand, and learners who did not take part in music instruction on the other hand, this relationship is not understood in a mechanical sense.

In demonstrating the relationship between learners' successful learning and acquisition of conceptual structures in one subject area of music instruction, and their successful learning and mastery of related concepts in a related subject matter area of reading or literacy lessons, the present research reveals a need within contemporary South African schooling for a systematic investigation of the essential nature of the conceptual relationships that characterise the two subject disciplines. Consequently, the present research further revealed how instruction could potentially be organised in ways that benefit possibilities for conceptual transfer on the part of learners. For example, systematic investigation of how music instruction could contribute to the development of associated conceptual skills required for effective reading on the part of learners, could address such areas as regarding the awareness of sound families, phonological and memory skills, word rhythms, ability to connect sounds to graphemes or letters, and the ability to connect perceptions of rhythm and pitch to graphic shapes. Specifically, the question of how the conceptual relations inherent in associated subject disciplines could be revitalised and embodied in, and through, effective and developmentally oriented instructional activities, or how to organise music instruction effectively so as to contribute to the developmental acquisition of reading abilities and literacy skills on the part of learners, should remain the critical focus of further research on the subject.

As in the epigraph taken from Boesch (1997:183), posited at the beginning of the 'Results' section, the conceptual relationship between music instruction and reading performance suggested by the results of this research should be understood in a transformative sense, in that the potential, and not the actual, constitutes the fundamental goal of teaching and learning. Boesch's view of the human condition, with specific regard to the cultural processes by which we construct our reality, is generally consistent with Vygotsky's (1978) concept of the ZPD, whereby the goal of teaching and learning is essentially to guide learning activities through the path what we could term 'transformative pedagogy', formal, discipline-based subject matter content into subjective knowledge forms that simultaneously transform the self.



The authors wish to thank the learners in the school where the research was conducted and their teachers for the collaboration. This research would not have been possible without their participation.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors' contributions

A.E.M. was responsible for the writing of the article, its conceptualisation and final production. S.K. was responsible for the collection of the empirical data which became the basis of the present research article.



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Azwihangwisi Muthivhi

Received: 20 May 2017
Accepted: 11 Oct. 2018
Published: 22 May 2019



1 . Although South Africa has 11 official languages, formal schooling in the majority of schools essentially takes place through the medium of English or Afrikaans. Therefore, although the majority of learners in Cape Town's southern suburbs, where the research school was located, would speak English at home, there would still be a significant number of learners who spoke different languages such as Afrikaans or Xhosa at home.

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Mind the gaps: Professional perspectives of technology-based teaching and learning in the Foundation Phase



Donna Hannaway

Department of Early Childhood Education, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa





BACKGROUND: As technology today is pervasive, this study seeks to examine how technological changes influence Foundation Phase learners, specifically the impact of technology on teaching and learning.
AIM: This study establishes professional perspectives of technology-based teaching and learning (TBTL) in the Foundation Phase from the vantage point of two district officials from the Gauteng Department of Education.
SETTING: This study was set in a chosen district in the Gauteng province because the environment was identified as data rich, which implies that the participants were able to share information based on the large number of Foundation Phase schools that they service.
METHODS: Qualitative case study methods such as interviews, opinion pieces and field notes from district officials servicing Foundation Phase schools were examined through the theoretical lens of the Technological Pedagogical and Content Knowledge model.
RESULTS: The data gathered proved worthwhile in presenting the perspectives of TBTL in the Foundation Phase from one district in South Africa with regard to the benefits, barriers and gaps thereof.
CONCLUSION: Implications for technological infrastructure, a Foundation Phase TBTL policy framework, teacher preparation training and in-service training, and support in finding appropriate content were given.

Keywords: technology-based teaching and learning (TBTL); Foundation Phase Learners; district officials; Foundation Phase Teachers; Technological Pedagogical and Content Knowledge (TPACK).




The pervasive technology of today is impacting the way in which people live their lives, their work and their social activities (Kruger 2014). Therefore, education in South Africa has to continually evolve to meet the goals and requirements of the Department of Education, and the specific learning outcomes in this century. Unlike previous generations, today's youth have all sorts of knowledge available at their fingertips as a result of ubiquitous technology. Because of this global technology boom, young children are now born into a 'wired' or 'connected' world comprising of the Internet, social media (such as Facebook and Twitter), instant messaging (such as WhatsApp) and digital equipment which is always available (Codrington & Grant-Marshall 2011:86).

Therefore, it is of paramount importance to examine the effect of these technological innovations on learning, specifically how technological changes influence teaching and learning. The topic of technology-based teaching and learning (TBTL) in the Foundation Phase was explored through a qualitative study to identify the status thereof, as well as to highlight professional perspectives of TBTL. This study presents a bird's eye view of TBTL in the Foundation Phase from the perspective of two Gauteng district officials.

Benefits and barriers of technology-based teaching and learning

One of the main objectives of this study is to better understand TBTL and how it can support both teaching and learning. The importance of embracing TBTL in the Foundation Phase with the view to achieve educational aims is the rationale for this study.

According to the World Bank (1998), technology can increase knowledge gain, and for developing countries it can provide optimal conditions for furthering the world of education, policy and business. The many advantages of using technology in schools have been extensively studied (Bialobrzeska & Cohen 2005; Isaacs 2007; Laurillard et al. 2009; Mdlongwa 2012; National Council for Curriculum and Assessment [NCCA] 2004a; Tinio 2003). Tinio (2003) suggests that 'these tools have been touted as potentially powerful enabling tools for educational change and reform'. The E-Learning Africa Report (2012:47) posits that this is similar in Africa in that stakeholders 'hold high expectations about the ability of new technologies to scaffold progressive change at both institutional and system-wide levels'. According to Laurillard et al. (2009:290), incorporating digital technological innovations in education can transform pedagogy. Advantages of digital innovation include an increase in learner motivation, achievement of results, growth in higher order thinking and problem-solving, as well as learning to function in a collaborative manner (NCCA 2004a).

The E-Learning Africa Report (2012) and Mdlongwa (2011) both discuss the benefits of TBTL if it is implemented correctly. The use of technological innovation in schools increases motivation, enhances collaborative efforts and allows students to be connected to the global world of information. Additionally, the use of technology means that learners are co-collaborators in the production of knowledge, further serving to boost their self-esteem, and teaching them to be independent and responsible. Mdlongwa (2011) makes the point that there is increasing use of TBTL for administrative duties such as record-keeping and routine tasks, as well as facilitating communication between educators and students. According to Mdlongwa (2011), there are specific benefits when embracing TBTL; exposing learners to technology means such learners gain an advantage as the entire world of work depends on technology. Furthermore, learners can create their own knowledge and, as a result, 'cultivate a culture of personal information management, independent learning and working without supervision, communication skills, teamwork and study skills, which are highly valued in today's global workforce' (Mdlongwa 2012). In addition, if technology is integrated in the educational system, it leads to better teaching as technology helps the teacher to efficiently manage and administer his or her tasks and duties, and it also furthers communication (Bialobrzeska & Cohen 2005).

The Department of Basic Education's (DBE 2015) Action Plan to 2019 details the priorities discussed in the National Development Plan 2030 (2012) with the aim of ensuring and maintaining a high quality of schooling in South Africa. The priority goals (five of the 27 goals) in the Action Plan deal with Grade R, teacher development, learning materials, school management and support for district offices. It is clear that these priority goals can be better achieved with technological innovation. This applies specifically to Goal 16, dealing with teacher development, where it is stated, 'improve computer literacy of teachers throughout their entire careers' (DBE 2015:1).

All the goals of the Action Plan to 2019 can be supported and achieved by integrating technology in schools. The benefits of TBTL in the Foundation Phase in South Africa are well known (as mentioned above) and thus the challenges in embracing technology must not be overlooked. As the DBE (2015) highlights:

[M]any have pointed to weaknesses in the system when it comes to the adoption of new technologies to improve the administration of the schooling system and the teaching and learning process. This is an inherently difficult area, not just in South Africa. Yet we need to do better if we are to avoid a widening of the gap between South Africa and other countries, even other middle income countries. (p. 15)

This statement clearly points to a digital divide in the education system in South Africa regarding TBTL. The literature examined for this study clearly points out the benefits of implementing technology in schools so that learners can acquire the necessary coping skills and knowledge for this demanding 21st century. However, the point is not only to acquire necessary skills; it is paramount to use TBTL to mitigate this digital divide. As the NCCA (2004b) states, the digital divide clearly shows the disparity in acquiring necessary skills and knowledge between those learners who are able to access technology and those who cannot. Kalaš (2010:118) defines digital divide as the lacuna in the skills necessary to be a digital citizen and the physical means to access such technological resources. The digital divide comprises two distinct categories: one where there are unequal opportunities to access and use various types of technology and one where there are differences in the outcomes of direct or indirect use of technology (Selwyn 2004:351).

Ranie (2013), Director of the Pew Study Center's Internet Project, in his international study on the digital divide points out how variables such as age, household income, community type and educational attainment affect whether people can use technology or not. In addition, the digital divide is affected by the support of parents and the surrounding community using TBTL (NCCA 2004a); less than optimal literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills (OECD 2001); and disparities in the use of technology in school and outside of the school.

Prensky (2001) states that:

it is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. (p. 1)

Teachers currently involved with Foundation Phase learners have probably come from an era very different from that of their learners. Prensky (2005) deems those learners born into the era of digital technology 'digital natives', and older adults (such as parents or teachers) as 'digital immigrants'. The 'digital immigrants' can create barriers to the 'digital native's' progression by clinging to a world view predating this technology age.

It must be noted, however, that the terms 'digital native' and 'digital immigrant' have been criticised, and Prensky (2013) has responded to the false claim that everyone born before a certain age is ignorant when it comes to technology:

The Digital Natives/Digital Immigrants metaphor is NOT about what people know, or can do, with technology. Everyone has to learn in one way or another. It's more about culture and attitudes. (p. 1)

This statement points to the fact that a generation gap could be present, which would then make TBTL less than successful if the two generations do not learn from each other.

Laurillard et al. (2009:290) make it clear that any altering or remodelling of an education system must happen from within and cannot be done from the outside. Although technology in the form of computers, tablets and Internet connections is being implemented in many schools internationally, the curriculum and the skills of the teachers have not kept pace. While the benefits of using TBTL have been clearly articulated, the synergy between the benefits and the practice of education has not taken place (Conole et al. 2006).

In his comparative study in South Africa on information and communication technology (ICT) and enhanced learning, Mdlongwa (2011) discusses the challenges presented to both teachers and learners when attempting to integrate TBTL. Mdlongwa's (2012:4) findings are that learners' desire technology but language skills are now 'corrupted' by texting and social media; resources are lacking, especially with regard to Internet access; a shortage of teachers qualified in the use of technology exists; and there is restricted access to the necessary technology. In the South African educational arena, there is a further problem using TBTL, that is, the language barrier. Although English is used for 80% of computer software and the Internet (Tinio 2003), the majority of teachers and learners in South Africa use English only as their second language.

One of the key questions surrounding the challenges of ubiquitous technology therefore is 'who has access to what forms of technology and when and how it is used?' (Walker, Huddlestone & Pullen 2010:10). According to Ndlovu and Lawrence (2012:2), the PanAf Study Agenda (2008-2011) reveals the finding that the South African ICT policy is not being effectively implemented, specifically in cases where economic and social prejudice is the root cause of the digital divide. Negating this, the Department of Communications (2013) advocates that their approach towards ICT is being reviewed in a manner that does not intentionally entrench the digital divide; access to technology, infrastructure and quality communication should not be the exception but rather the right of all.

Theoretical framework

Recently, a conceptual framework in educational study has emerged: the technological pedagogical and content knowledge (TPACK) (see Figure 1). This model has been developed based on the perspective that, for a long time, technology in education has sought to reveal its theoretical foundations (McDougall & Jones 2006; Roblyer 2005; Roblyer & Knezek 2003). Various accounts for the battle to situate the study of education with theory deal with the increasing rate of technology change (Roblyer & Knezek 2003), the lack of substantiated methodological designs and the over-reliance of practical, rather than theoretical, issues (McDougall & Jones 2006; Roblyer 2005).



In 1986, Shulman posited the idea of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) going further than mere knowledge of subject matter and including knowledge about how the content could be delivered. Within the technology environment, Koehler and Mishra (2005) developed Shulman's (1986) views of PCK to showcase the notion of TPACK). The conceptual framework 'recognizes the unique and interactive roles that content, technology, and pedagogy play in authentic teaching and learning environments' (Baran, Chuang & Thompson 2011:370). For the purpose of this study, the TPACK framework was applied because of its potential in providing a foundation for study in TBTL, as well as providing theoretical guidance on the approach to TBTL according to district officials' views on the use of technology in the Foundation Phase. As Nyambane and Nzuki (2014) state, TBTL success is affected by various interconnected factors, and not by the presence (or lack thereof) of a single factor.

The TPACK's conceptual framework involves the synergy between three basic building blocks of knowledge - technology, pedagogy and content - and intersects with the fundamental assumption of the application of suitable teaching content with suitable pedagogical methods and technology (Koehler & Mishra 2008; Mishra & Koehler 2006). The seven components of the TPACK conceptual framework devolve from adding technology to include elements of Shulman's (1986) original PCK. An outline of the components of the framework is shown in Figure 1.

  • Technological knowledge (TK): Technological knowledge includes knowledge of the various technologies from low-tech pencil and paper to the interactive whiteboards, and digital technology such as the Internet and software.

  • Content knowledge (CK): Content knowledge means subject matter knowledge (Mishra & Koehler 2006). The content that teachers deliver, specifically how the knowledge is germane to its own content area, must be well understood by the teacher, such as Grade 1 Life Skills.

  • Pedagogical knowledge (PK): This pertains to all the strategies and techniques of teaching, as well as knowledge of lesson planning, assessment, teaching methods, learner learning and classroom management.

  • Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK): Pedagogical content knowledge infers content knowledge dealing with the process of teaching (Shulman 1986). As Howell (2012) explains, it is the way, or method, in which a subject can be made comprehensible to learners. Pedagogical content knowledge differs for individual content areas as it is a mixture of content and pedagogy with the aim of better developing teaching practices in the various areas of content.

  • Technological content knowledge (TCK): Technological content knowledge means how a specific area of content can be better presented using technology (Schmidt et al. 2009). This implies that teachers have to realise that the use of technology changes the way learners comprehend various concepts within a specific knowledge content area.

  • · Technological pedagogical knowledge (TPK): Technological pedagogical knowledge illustrates the application of various forms of technology which can be used in teaching, and also provides insight that the use of technology changes the manner in which teachers teach and learners learn.

  • · Technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK): Technological pedagogical content knowledge is allied to the knowledge that teachers need to have for technology and teaching to converge in any given knowledge content area. According to Schmidt et al. (2009:125), this particular level of knowledge means that teachers must have 'an intuitive understanding of the complex interplay between the three basic components of knowledge (CK, PK, TK) by teaching content using appropriate pedagogical methods and technologies'.

This framework is pertinent to the study as it organises the understanding of the ways in which we teach (i.e. the pedagogy) and the ways in which learners learn (i.e. content) with what we teach (i.e. technology).


Study methodology

Study design

I chose to use a qualitative case study as it explains the sequence of interpersonal events from the participants' accounts of technology in the Foundation Phase while discovering the key aspects of TBTL. This case study concentrated on the unit of analysis, namely, TBTL, and the case was bound in one district in the South African Foundation Phase context. Moreover, the case study was deliberately chosen 'to cover contextual conditions - believing that they might be highly pertinent to the phenomenon of study' (Yin 2003:13). The primary study site was a convenience sample of a chosen district in the Gauteng province because the environment was identified as data rich, which implies that the participants were able to share information based on the large number of Foundation Phase schools that they service.

Ethical considerations

As Flick (2009:36) notes, one can confront ethical issues at each stage of the study process and it is of paramount importance to apply various ethical measures to avoid maleficence to the participants. In this study, informed consent was obtained, the anonymity of participants was protected and confidentiality of information was provided. In addition, I ensured that no deception took place and all ethical guidelines were adhered to in the study (Laerd 2011). Ethical approval was obtained from the Ethics Committee at the institution of study, which involved a rigorous process of ethical scrutiny. The issues of informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality, deception and privacy were covered in the application for ethical clearance.

Data collection techniques

Qualitative study methods employ a naturalistic approach, seeking to understand phenomena in context-specific settings, such as the district officials in South African schools. This is an example of an existing context where the researcher does not have control over the phenomenon of interest (Patton 2002:39). I used qualitative data methods to collate and populate the data. Primary data were collected through semi-structured interviews, opinion pieces and field notes. An opinion piece might not be considered a qualitative data source of information, but it can reflect the participant's views and experiences of TBTL from their unique experience of being involved with the Foundation Phase. My personal observations, based on my study questions, were notated as field notes which I compiled during the semi-structured interviews.

Sample and study site

The study sample comprised two participants, both from a district in the Gauteng Department of Education. This district was chosen because these specialists in education were able to supply valuable information as they service a substantial number of Foundation Phase classes. They therefore could detail their experiences as well as provide the official view regarding TBTL in the Foundation Phase. These two district officials (participants D1 and D2) were able to provide the necessary data needed to investigate and explore the technological arena of the Foundation Phase. Table 1 presents some background information of the participants.

Background information of the case

The data collection commenced initially with four participants from one of the districts in the Department of Education, but in the end only two participants replied. The two district officials (participants D1 and D2) provided the data to investigate and describe the technological arena and TBTL in one district in the Gauteng province. The data collection process comprised a semi-structured interview with two district officials, who had extensive knowledge and experience of all types of schools in the South African Foundation Phase, that is, township schools, rural schools, inner city schools and independent schools.

Participant D1 is a 44-year-old female Foundation Phase senior education specialist, with a Diploma of Education (pre-primary), a higher Diploma of Education and a Bachelor of Education (honours) in Education Management. Her experience includes 4 years as a preschool teacher, and for the past 16 years she has been an education specialist in the Department of Education. The district where she works comprises 132 primary schools in the Foundation Phase, of which 26 fall in her area of responsibility. Participant D2 is a 47-year-old female Foundation Phase senior education specialist, with a Pre-Junior Higher Education Diploma, a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Education (honours) in Inclusive Education. This participant has some 24 years of experience in education, commencing as a Foundation Phase teacher, then as an Early Childhood Development/Foundation Phase head of department. At present she works for the Department of Education. In her district, there are 28 public primary schools, including one farm school, five inner city schools (also known as ex-model C) and 22 township schools.

South African schools are 'organised and categorised in a rather complex and overlapping manner' (Department of Education 2009). Data taken from field notes implied that school categories are based on their geographical location, socio-economic status and, lastly, performance. Firstly, the term 'township' refers to the areas where people of the same race, especially black people, were moved away from city centres by the apartheid government and clustered together according to their ethnic groups. Township schools are located in these areas. Secondly, 'rural school' refers to those schools on the periphery of cities and townships that are governed by the state. Rural provinces mainly tend to have proportionally more schools with fewer learners compared to more urbanised provinces that tend to have proportionally fewer schools with more learners (DBE 2015).Thirdly, inner city schools, also called former model C schools, are urban schools that are located in the cities and that are privileged with resources and funding from the state. Lastly, the independent schools are private schools, although registered with the Department of Education; they do not receive state support. Private schools serve more affluent communities and are well-resourced, well-managed and staffed with well-qualified educators. This is in stark contrast to the other categories of schools mentioned above.

The questions posed in the semi-structured interview were designed to investigate the participants' perceptions of current teachers' technological, content and pedagogical knowledge derived from the TPACK framework. Other questions pertained to the technological arena in general, and how technology is currently employed for teaching and learning in different types of schools. The two district officials were also requested to write down their views - these are the opinion pieces. The opinion piece questionnaire was based on the prompts: 'who has access to what forms of technology and when and how is it used' and 'based on the pros and cons of the educational landscape with regard to TBTL, what recommendations can be made?' to further understand their perspective of Foundation Phase teachers' and learners' experiences of TBTL. The next section comprises the data analysis from the interviews, participants' opinion pieces and my field notes (where applicable). This section is structured in line with the key themes that emerged from the data.

Data analysis

Schwandt (2007:7) states that the data analysis component of the study should be rigorous, disciplined and organised. When interpreting a case study, Rule and John (2011:75) note that data analysis allows the researcher to generate generous descriptions, establish themes, produce explanations, as well as attempt to create theory. According to Creswell (2012), there are six steps generally used in the analysis of qualitative data, which in this study comprised the analysis of the data gleaned from the semi-structured interviews and the opinion pieces provided by the district officials, as well as my field notes. The six steps are outlined below:

  • The data were first managed and organised (Creswell 2007:156), and then grouped by type, viz., interviews, opinion pieces and field notes. Subsequently, audio recordings from the two interviews were transcribed and formed part of the data collation.

  • The data were then categorised or classified. In this step, the data were reorganised after a further reading, and notes were made to capture my first impressions. Then the data were divided into topic categories so as to further provide meaning to the raw data (Creswell 2007, 2012).

  • Here various codes, as well as descriptions and subcategories, were formulated for the data. Creswell (2012:236) asks the following question: 'What in the responses of the participants' provide answers to my study questions?', which guided this step of the analysis.

  • As concrete findings emerged, they were devolved into in-depth descriptions of the data (Creswell 2007). In other words, the categorised responses from the participants regarding their descriptions and understanding of technology for teaching and learning were categorised according to the emerging themes.

  • This step followed data interpretation (Creswell 2007). I carefully examined the findings and cross-referenced them with the literature to elucidate meaning. This was done by summarising the themes and examining similarities and/or differences between the study findings and the extant literature.

  • In the final step, I used certain strategies to confirm the veracity of the findings of the themed data. Data were triangulated to confirm the accuracy of the findings. The data were also sent back to the participants to ensure that the responses had been accurately recorded and the correct meaning inferred regarding using technology for teaching and learning in the Foundation Phase.

Multiple themes emerged from the descriptions and experiences of the participants, opinion pieces and field notes. The data were purposefully arranged into themes, namely, Technological landscape of TBTL in the Foundation Phase, TBTL in the different school categories, barriers to TBTL and TPACK in TBTL, which are discussed below.



Technological landscape of technology-based teaching and learning in the Foundation Phase

Participant D1 explained that in her view technology comprises machines, laptops, computers, telephones, etc., which are designed to make life easier. Technology is well integrated into her everyday life and she notes that it 'assists you to get a job done faster and more effectively where ever you may be' (Participant D1, female, 44 years). She acknowledges the importance of TBTL in the Foundation Phase, adding that 'we encourage teachers to make use of ICT when they are teaching' (Participant D1, female, 44 years). However, as she states, technology is not always accessible, and in addition it is expensive and can be impersonal since 'you don't spend time with other people, because there are all kinds of machines you can use to do a job' (Participant D1, female, 44 years).

In the same manner, Participant D2 said using technology is 'practical; including digital products, technological processes, resources and electronics, as a tool for communication (teaching and learning)'. In contact daily with technology, she uses it for administrative tasks, communication and as a teaching and learning tool. She further states that technology is an advantage as 'it leverages "lifelong" learning, caters for the current environment and it creates exciting, diverse leaning environments' (Participant D2, female, 47 years). However, Participant D2 noted that 'not all individuals are adequately empowered to use various digital/technological equipment (tech-savvy)', and that 'digital/technological equipment is being developed at such a fast pace that much of it quickly becomes obsolete'. In addition, issues of safety and cost are disadvantages of TBTL. This information from the participants formed the starting point of the interviews conducted with Participants D1 and D2.

Technology-based teaching and learning is not pervasive in the Foundation Phase in South Africa, and thus I needed to elicit the participants' opinions as to whether or not technology should be used in this phase. Both participants confirmed, however, that TBTL is important in this phase. The reasons they gave include the fact that technology can be used to support the curriculum if it is used as a study tool. Furthermore, the inclusion of technology in the Foundation Phase can assist teachers with planning and preparation for this generation of screen children (PD2), but it is noted, however, that this does not always happen.

The use of technology-based teaching and learning in the various school categories within the Foundation Phase

Both participants noted that the use of TBTL is not widely practised in the Foundation Phase of township, rural and inner city school categories in their respective districts. However, because of independent schools having more financial resources, they have much more TBTL. In addition, some schools have various technological tools but they are often not employed in teaching or learning, or they are misused. It is encouraging to note, however, that a number of schools are setting a good example by gradually incorporating technology using resources from external funding drives. These few schools are models to show how TBTL can be employed, although many more such schools are needed.

Using these model schools as examples, I endeavoured to initiate a response from the participants when they answered questions pertaining to various elements of the theoretical framework. I asked questions to understand the depth of technological, pedagogical and content knowledge in the Foundation Phase. Regarding the availability of technology, it was clear that there are many support services in the open education domain, yet only some schools have computers and very few have tablets. Participant D2 mentioned that most schools, other than the independent schools, do not have access to the physical technology needed to embrace these support services:

'So some of the resources are there. You see, but that's why it's important for the schools to have the tools you know the physical technological tools to supplement them.' (Participant D2, female, 47 years)

Regarding township schools, Participant D2 provided an illustration of how the space, classroom and surrounding environment can be arranged to support TBTL, with technology being provided by the school governing body:

'They've got good security measures in place where they've got tablets; look, the principal motivated the teachers to purchase their own tablets and she had something going with the company that was providing it for them to do study in terms of their planning. And then the learners also have this where they bring technology into the classroom during their computer lessons. That is one of the very few schools ' (Participant D2, female, 47 years).

The participants stated that the majority of township schools do not have any technology devices but have a support centre for the teachers to access various technological resources. From the above example it is clear that technology in the township schools is very rare and mostly only for a specific lesson or short-term teacher study. It has not been incorporated into everyday teaching and learning. In addition, the participants also stated that this is also the situation with rural schools.

However, the inner city schools have better access to physical technology devices as these are independently supplied. It is to be noted that TBTL only takes places in either a single computer period or on an ad hoc occasion. Some model inner city schools have embraced the importance of TBTL, and there are efforts to integrate technology into the curriculum. Participant D1 stated the following:

'But what's currently happening now is that many of the schools, because they see the value of ICT, are starting to now purchase more and more tablets and you know, the monitors and everything, and they're starting to use, to plan in terms of CAPS1 you know, the implementation and alignment to the curriculum and they look at how can they then you know, bring in ICT in their planning.' (Participant D1, female, 44 years)

Challenges regarding integrating technology-based teaching and learning into the Foundation Phase

The barriers to integrating TBTL into the Foundation Phase were noted by the participants, which included the high cost of purchasing equipment, and the financial constraints pertaining to training teachers in technology and maintaining the continued use of technology. Participant D1 noted the following in her opinion piece:

'Using iPads or laptops or the Internet comes with planning. It cannot be a separate plan, but should become part and parcel of the curriculum that's being taught. Many teachers are not skilled enough to be able to know how to use ICT and this makes the financial burden even heavier on a school, because it's of no use having the equipment, but teachers are unable to use it. For this reason, teachers are then obliged to attend training on how to use ICT and the SGB2 ends up paying for this as well. This, I think, is also one of the main reasons why schools do not invest in purchasing equipment.' (Participant D1, female, 44 years)

It is clear that one of the major reasons that TBTL is not more readily embraced is the teacher. It is the attitude of the teacher that determines the success of the introduction of technology when it is available:

'Again, it's about teacher attitude And the willingness to want to use technology in the classroom.' (Participant D2, female, 47 years)

'From school visits it is evident that a large percentage of the teachers in the Foundation Phase are very 'senior' in years. Thus, there is a sense of 'fear' and 'inability' or lack of knowledge in using computers and programmes to assist with teaching and learning.' (Particpant D1, female, 44 years)

Further barriers to TBTL include lack of government support and financial resources required to obtain and implement technology on a sustained basis. During the interviews, and as reiterated in their opinion pieces, the participants stated that there are few examples of best practice, and where these exist, it is only because of funds obtained externally. Participant D1's opinion piece substantiates the state of TBTL currently:

'The use of ICT in schools is encouraged, but cannot be forced as the financial burden rests mainly on the parents. The department have not been able to provide schools with computers or iPads or even the human resource to be able to teach learners.' (Participant D1, female, 44 years)

Participant D2 concurs with Participant 1, stating that teachers, learners and district officials must have the requisite technology tools if TBTL is to be successful. Both participants concur that government resources are few and the sustainability of these resources is a problem. Specifically, they both make the point that often the first initial structures are not problematic, but maintaining support for them is a huge barrier to the success of TBTL;

'It's more the system is in place, or they're working on the system but now from there you, to be able to make use of the system you need to have the resource you know. You have to have the training, you need to have a laptop, you need to be able to know how to use it, which is a way that the department is trying to assist teachers in terms of their workload and planning and that kind of thing but it is just that it's taking very long you know.' (Participant D2, female, 47 years)

Further hindrances to TBTL comprise, inter alia, the workforce and the less than optimal distribution of both training and resources:

'Yes. So there needs to be manpower. With the manpower must come equipment and training. And budget obviously.' (Participant D2, female, 47 years)

In addition, because of high crime rates and pervasive theft, the participants stated that expensive technology equipment in the school is vulnerable.

Technological pedagogical and content knowledge in technology-based teaching and learning in the Foundation Phase

Although there are many barriers to TBTL, the participants noted that some schools have technology tools and show exemplary practice in TBTL. However, such schools are few and far between. The chalkboard is still used pervasively in most schools. When the participants detailed their personal experiences regarding the use of technology in the Foundation Phase, they highlighted that although TBTL is not pervasive in schools, it is possible to integrate it. Participant D2 explained that technology generally is used to supplement teaching in inner city, township and rural schools. The following quote, from Participant D2, pertains to an inner city school:

' presentations with the learners. If you go to computer classes, they learn to draw on the art program and they do the maths, they do some reading.' (Participant D2, female, 47 years)

'They do some language, Afrikaans ' (Participant D1, female, 44 years)

If and when technology is available, it seems that township and rural schools use it as an additional subject, rather than it being integrated into normal teaching. Thus, limited examples are found in all the school categories where technology is an enabler of pedagogy. The problem is that this state of affairs does not further the aims of integrating technology into teaching and learning. According to the participants, the focus is placed on the actual technology tools and the skills necessary to use them, rather than embracing technological content knowledge or technological pedagogical knowledge.

'Admitting, learners in both township and former Model C schools do have access to computer lessons, weekly. They are taught basic computer literacy such as learning the naming of the parts of the hardware and working on the MS Word and 'Paint'. What is a shortfall is that there is no real integration with any of the subjects that the teacher is currently teaching in her classroom.' (Participant D2, female, 47 years)

However, it must be noted that there is more teaching with regard to technology in schools in the inner city than in township and rural schools. In inner city schools, the management actively campaigns for the use of technology. Generally, technology is used by the teachers for their lesson planning, and in all too few occasions it is used to motivate their teaching. Participant D1 states the following:

'You can't just go and say 'we're going to ' You must have it ready. And that is where their teaching is informed by technology. The ICT informs what they're going to teach the learners. So it's like a link.' (Participant D1, female, 44 years)

Participant D2 stated that ideally either a technology advocate in the school or the school management needs to support TBTL so that it can be implemented and maintained, but sadly this is not normally the case. The participants agreed that the lack of technological pedagogical knowledge is because of two main reasons: the nature of the Foundation Phase teaching, and the curriculum and the assessment of the curriculum being highly prescriptive. The participants were asked if technology changes the manner in which teachers are teaching, and unfortunately this is not the case. As Participant D2 explains, teachers want to teach young children correctly, and the department workbook comprises the major resource for ensuring teaching and learning take place. Technological content knowledge remains unamended because of the prescriptive nature of the curriculum. It is evident that neither teachers nor learners (in all the school categories) use technology to develop new and unique content. It is interesting to note, however, that publishers are printing content which deals with technology in the curriculum.

The future of technology-based teaching and learning in the Foundation Phase

Because of the evident lack of TBTL in the Foundation Phase, the participants were requested to provide their views on how teachers and learners can benefit from technology in the South African Foundation Phase. These recommendations include altering the teachers' perspective on TBTL, ensuring resources are available for teacher preparation and engendering collaboration between stakeholders. It is clear that the attitudes of the teachers must be changed to embrace technology, and the necessary training in how to use technology for teaching must be provided. Any policy regarding the use of technology for teaching must be easily comprehensible. Furthermore, the participants expounded on the need for government to supply resources, as well as other stakeholders such as the department, parents and higher education institutions, to effect a technology collaboration.

Participant D1, in her opinion piece, summarised her view on the use of technology, strongly advocating that the relevant departments in the Department of Education need to form a collaborative initiative:

'The use of technology is incorporated in workshops that we present to teachers - we use technology to communicate and cascade information to teachers and schools. However, I must be candid in assuming that not all colleagues are 'au fait' with technology. The purpose is to motivate study of subject matter, cater for interactive teaching and learning and to empower teachers. Perhaps this needs to be a point of departure in identifying the gap in use of technology in curriculum delivery? Perhaps at District level, we should stop working in silos - implying that the Curriculum Unit and the E-learning unit should work together closely.' (Participant D1, female, 44 years)

The participants were asked to provide input on how learners can learn and how teachers can teach successfully if technology is embraced:

'Yes, that's where we have to come in now because it's all fair and well you know how to use a tablet, you know how to click a mouse but you now bring that into teaching successfully. Not just for the sake of using it you know, not just because I have a computer to put the screen up and say look, here is my computer, but To actually know exactly how are they going to integrate this? And to reinforce what you're teaching and how our children are learning with the technological tools that you have.' (Participant D2, female, 47 years)


Discussion and implications

In summary, the experiences of schools in TBTL that use minimal or no technology are completely different from the TBTL experience of teachers and learners in technology-rich schools. Moreover, the fractured nature of TBTL in the Foundation Phase was highlighted. The data analysis provided evidence of digital resources in the Foundation Phase. To what extent they are used and how they are used to achieve desirable educational outcomes still need to be further interrogated. The strengths and weaknesses of TBTL were reviewed in the literature and came to the fore in empirical study so that a comprehensive overview could be achieved before looking at the situation of TBTL in South Africa. Regarding the barriers or limitations to TBTL, the findings concur with extant literature noting the fact that people learn, live and function with technology (Kruger 2014) which is not the case in the South African school system. This is also the case regarding the potential of TBTL as the findings show that policy and practice are varied and fragmented, and the majority of teaching and learning in the South African Foundation Phase still takes place in the old traditional manner. Furthermore, delineating the parameters of TPACK, which involves the interrelation between technological and pedagogical content knowledge, is unsuitable with findings in the literature, as there is little or no TBTL taking place in the majority of schools.

Little to no TBTL is taking place because of the 'generational gap' between teachers and learners; disparities between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' in access to technology; no integration between technological, pedagogical and content knowledge; and a lack of communication between the stakeholders who deal with teaching and learning in the Foundation Phase. The most serious lacuna is the digital divide, with only a privileged few having access to technology, while the majority do not have the necessary financial resources. The generational gap, that is, differences in age between teacher and learners, severely compromises TBTL. Minimal or no technology is present in the Foundation Phase; therefore, it cannot be aligned with technological, pedagogical and content knowledge in the theoretical framework. In the few cases where there is technology in certain schools, it forms a discord with either teaching or learning. Discipline disparity has resulted from a lack of training opportunities in TBTL for teachers, learners and other relevant Foundation Phase stakeholders. Communication is also seen as a barrier because various educational departments, institutions and individuals work in their respective silos for TBTL initiatives and do not collaborate in the sharing and exchanging of technology knowledge and ideas.

In this study, the arena of technology and the official viewpoint regarding TBTL in the Foundation Phase were investigated and the findings strongly revealed massive disparities between schools where TBTL is implemented and those where it is not implemented. As a result of the findings, the following recommendations are made to ensure successful TBTL in the Foundation Phase in the future:

  • Firstly, government should ensure a technology infrastructure in the Foundation Phase.

  • Secondly, the Department of Education should formulate a specific policy framework for TBTL in the Foundation Phase.

  • Thirdly, teachers should be taught the necessary skills to enable them to learn about, use and embrace technology.

  • Fourthly, Foundation Phase teachers need to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning preparation programmes so that they can change the way they teach and implement TBTL. In addition, the professional development of teachers must be attended to in this technological 21st century to upgrade their skills.

  • Lastly, Foundation Phase learners need to be given access to the most appropriate content, and this content must be formed and supported by technology.



The significance of this study is that it prepares the way for an educational study perspective of teaching and learning in the Foundation Phase that is based on technology. Today's learners are socialised in a manner completely different from that of the previous generation in that we all now live in a 'wired' and connected global information society. In the beginning of the information era, the impact of technology was mainly concerned with the access to information or how it was disseminated, but now the pervasive use of technology should be extended to embrace the manner in which teachers teach (i.e. the pedagogy) and the manner in which learners learn. Knowledge content must be integrated with technology.



Competing interests

The author declares that she has no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced her in writing this article.

Authors' contributions

D.H. is the primary researcher and author of the manuscript.

Funding information

There were no sources of support in terms of grants, equipment, drugs and/or other support that facilitated the conduct of the work described in the article or the writing of the article itself.



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Donna Hannaway

Received: 23 June 2018
Accepted: 17 Jan. 2019
Published: 27 May 2019



1 . National Curriculum Statements of South Africa.
2 . School Governing Body.

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Profile of factors influencing academic motivation among grade 6 and 7 learners at a state school



Sarah I.N. YigaI; Lerato KhoaraiI; Thapelo KhosanaI; Rebonethato LesupiI; Joanah MduliI; Tamryn ShadwellI; Johan BotesI; Gina JoubertII

IDepartment of Family Medicine, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa
IIDepartment of Biostatistics, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa





BACKGROUND: Academic achievement is influenced by a system of internal and external stimuli. Internal stimuli include interest, willingness and academic motivation. In South Africa, efforts to improve the quality of education have mostly focused on the provision of physical resources rather than emotional resources.
AIM: The aim of this study was to determine the profile of four factors, namely, teacher style, role models, home environment and peer influence that can influence the academic motivation of grade 6 and 7 learners.
SETTING: A parallel-medium primary state school in an urban part of Bloemfontein, Free State.
METHODS: This was a cross-sectional observational study. Data were collected using an anonymous, self-administered questionnaire completed by the learners. The questions captured demographic data and measured the four categories of factors.
RESULTS: Overall, 115 out of 202 learners participated (response rate 56.9%). Almost all learners felt that their teachers encouraged them to do their best (96.5%), but 61.3% felt they could not confide in their teachers with personal problems. Most learners had a role model (93.8%), and 70.9% expressed that the role model's hard work was the reason for their admiration. Most learners felt that they were surrounded by supportive people (83.0%) and had a good study environment at home (80.5%). The majority of learners had a group of friends with whom they felt they belong (90.3%), and they could confide in their best friends with personal problems (61.6%).
CONCLUSION: Teacher style, peers and home environment scored high as important factors for academic motivation.

Keywords: academic motivation; factors; teacher; role model; home environment; peer.




Academic achievement is influenced by a complicated system of internal and external stimuli. All these factors interplay, and the weight of their individual influences differs between countries, communities, demographic groups and individuals (Allison 2010; McCoy, Wolf & Godfrey 2014). Internal stimuli include academic motivation, interest in the subject matter and the learner's willingness to participate (Komarraju, Karau & Schmeck 2009; McCoy et al. 2014). The main external stimuli are the academic platform, teachers, parents and peers, and the expectations and attitude of the immediate community (Allison 2010; Chen 2008; McCoy et al. 2014; Schapps 2003).

Academic motivation can be described as the self-determination to succeed in learning. This is formed by the psychological and personality traits of the individual, which, in turn, is influenced by a number of external factors (Komarraju et al. 2009). Motivation, as a concept, consists of a spectrum with two poles called 'intrinsic motivation' and 'amotivation'. Internal and external factors stimulate the learner, and the position of the learner in the spectrum is determined by the way the learner reacts to these factors. A learner, who is internally self-determined to succeed, will be closer to the intrinsic pole. The more external influences are required, the closer the learner is to the middle of the spectrum (called 'extrinsic motivation'), while those who show no interest and cannot be influenced internally or externally are on the amotivation side (Komarraju et al. 2009).

We conducted a review of the literature in an attempt to find influencing factors that may play a role in the learner's academic motivation. The following list of possible factors was formulated: teacher style, role models, home environment and peer influence.

Most teachers aspire to offer an influential learning environment and the best possible opportunities for learners. Unfortunately, teachers face many obstacles in the form of standardised curricula, specifically set outcomes and limited resources provided by the school system (Allison 2010). Thoonen et al. (2011) investigated the correlation between the teacher's influence and learners' learning motivation. They found a definite positive effect in all aspects, except in process-orientated educating where learners showed a decrease in motivation. Schapps (2003) emphasised the importance of the school environment where learners become motivated when they feel safe and have a sense of belonging. When learners experience a positive environment, they eventually become part of the culture and contribute to the school and learning community.

Role models also play a part in motivation. Morgenroth, Ryan and Peters (2015) summarised a role model's functions as a model for behaviour, depiction of what could be achieved and as inspiration. This usually occurs when the person can identify with the role model in some manner and share similar goals. Lockwood, Jordan and Kunda (2002) explained that both positive and negative role models could positively guide a learner on how to - or not to - behave and be successful.

The home environment, especially parental figures, is an important factor in motivating learners to be successful academically. In fact, Harris and Goodall (2008) found that only if parents or guardians are more involved in the learning process, could a learner be expected to improve on his academic performance. Despite the busy lives of parents today, the learning process requires time and commitment for the child to be successful.

Peers could be a positive influence on learners' motivation, but could just as easily have a negative impact. The environment, culture and social interaction between peers could help a learner experience belonging and learning could be boosted, but a negative effect could occur if a learner struggles to adapt to the group dynamic (Chen 2008).

South Africa achieves excellent school enrolment of more than 98% for children between the ages of 7 and 15. However, only one in two learners enrolled in grade 1 will eventually pass matric (Modisaotsile 2012).

So far, efforts to improve the quality of education have focused strongly on the provision of physical resources rather than emotional resources or motivation. This approach is apparent in the Department of Basic Education's Strategic Plan 2011-2014 and their annual reports (Department of Basic Education [DBE] 2011). These documents emphasise the provision of textbooks on time, training more teachers, improving school infrastructure and developing a better curriculum (DBE 2011). These are all essential, but there is little focus on the learners' willingness to learn.

The aim of this study was to determine the profile of factors, namely, teacher style, role models, home environment and peer influence, that can influence the academic motivation of grade 6 and 7 learners at a primary state school in Bloemfontein, South Africa.


Research methods and design

Study design and setting

This was a cross-sectional observational study. A parallel-medium primary state school in an urban part of Bloemfontein was chosen as study site. This is a co-educational and fee-paying school with good physical resources.

Study population and sampling strategy

The study population consisted of all grade 6 and 7 learners enrolled at the school in 2013. All learners willing to participate in the study were included in the sample.

Data collection

An anonymous, self-administered questionnaire was designed by the authors. Mainly closed questions were formulated on the pre-selected factors according to the relevant literature. The questionnaire was available in English, Afrikaans and Sesotho. The learners could select the language in which they wanted to complete the questionnaire. The questions measured demographic data and the four categories of factors: teacher style, role models, home environment and peer influence. Home environment included questions on parents or guardians, physical environment and socio-economic status.

Questions were either Yes/No or multiple choices. Weights were pre-set for each possible answer, ranging from '1' given for a definite positive answer and '0' for no influence on their motivation. The teachers were asked to explain the questionnaire to the learners, but were asked not to be involved in the completion thereof. Grade 6 and 7 teachers handed out the questionnaires to the learners. The completed questionnaires were collected by the student researchers on two occasions.

Pilot study

The pilot study was conducted at another similar primary school in Bloemfontein on 20 grade 6 and 7 learners. The structuring of the questions and options provided in the questionnaire were adjusted according to feedback. Data from the pilot study were not included in the main study.

Data analysis

The data were analysed by the Department of Biostatistics, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Free State. Each answer had a unique numerical code, which was scored according to the memo, based on the literature. Each category was scored separately. If more than half of the questions in a category were answered, the score for that category was calculated using the completed questions. Based on these category marks, the learners were divided into three motivation strata (low: 0% - 33%, intermediate: 34% - 66% and high: 67% - 100%) for each of the four categories.

Ethical considerations

The study was approved by the Ethics Committee of the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Free State (STUD 28/2013). Permission to conduct the study was obtained from the Head of the Free State Department of Education and the Education District Director of the Motheo Region. Signed permission was obtained from the school principal, teachers, participating learners and their parents. All data were handled confidentially, and no identifiable information was recorded on the questionnaire.



Of the 202 learners invited to participate, 115 (response rate 56.9%) consented and participated. The vast majority (93.9%) of the participants completed their questionnaires in English, even though only 18.3% had English as their home language. The highest percentage (44.4%) of the learners indicated that they spoke Sesotho at home, 9.3% indicated Afrikaans, while other, mainly African languages, made up the remaining 27.8%. Boys were slightly in the majority (56.5%), most of the participants were in grade 6 (67.8%) and the median age was 12 years. The majority of the learners came to school by private car (60.9%) or public transport (20.0%). For 82.6% of the learners, travelling time to school was 30 min or less.

Teacher style

Participating learners stated that teachers created a comfortable environment for group work (81.4%). They felt teachers explained the incorrect answers sufficiently (88.5%), enough time was given to work independently (78.8%) and teachers were willing to be corrected when they were wrong (82.3%). Teachers encouraged the learners to do their best (96.5%), but 61.3% of the learners felt they could not confide in teachers with personal problems.

Role models

The majority of the learners had a role model (93.8%), and 70.9% of the learners expressed that hard work was the reason for their admiration. The learners stated that they were more influenced by a positive role model (83.2%) than a negative role model; though those who indicated they have a negative model (67.6%) felt there was still an opportunity to learn (92.0%).

Home environment

Most of the learners (80.5%) felt that they had a good study environment at home and were surrounded by supportive people (83.0%). Approximately all (93.8%) felt that hard work determines success, more so than background. Only 32.7% felt those from a wealthy background have more opportunities. The learners had someone at home to help with their homework (82.3%). They also had someone at home to talk to about what happened at school (76.6%) and encourage them to work hard (96.8%).

Peer influence

The majority of learners had a group of friends with whom they felt they belong (90.3%), and they could confide in their best friends with personal problems (61.6%). The learners indicated that they were willing to differ from their friends when their best friends disagreed with them about important decisions (60.0%). Regarding encouragement, 52.2% stated their friends motivated them when needed. When the best friend outperformed them, 68.1% felt encouraged to work harder.

In Table 1, the answers are categorised and scored to give an overview of the important factors influencing learning.



More than 60% of learners fell into the high motivational stratum for teacher style (61.4%), home environment (66.0%) and peer influence (71.1%). Only 20.0% of the learners scored high for motivation by role models. A greater percentage of girls scored high for motivation by their teacher (66.0%) and peers (74.0%), compared with the boys. Both boys (66.1%) and girls (66.0%) scored equally high in motivation for home environment.



Grade 6 and 7 learners at this Bloemfontein primary state school are motivated by their teachers and peers and have academically supportive home environments. The 'peers' category had the highest percentage of learners in the high motivational stratum, closely followed by home environment and teacher influence. Genders did not differ markedly. This study did not assess the association between these factors and learners' academic performance. However, this school outperformed national and provincial figures on Annual National Assessments: literacy 60.0% compared to 42.8% nationally and 52.2% provincial, and numeracy 48.0% compared to 26.7% national and 28.4% provincial.

Most learners at this primary state school responded positively regarding teacher aspects, despite the constraints mentioned by Allison (2010). Teachers' emotional support role was less well fulfilled. Just over a third of the learners would confide in their teacher.

Almost all learners had positive role models. Of these, most stated that the role model's hard work was the reason for their admiration. Two-thirds of learners indicated the presence of a negative role model in their lives. A negative role model is not necessarily an impediment to motivation (Lockwood et al. 2002). It is still an opportunity to learn. It is important to select positive characteristics to emulate. Admiration and independence should co-exist. Bricheno and Thornton (2007) found very little evidence of learners considering teachers as role models. Most learners had role models in the home environment, extended family or community, as was the case in this study as well.

Home environment plays an important role in the academic performance of learners, especially if there is an adult available for academic assistance and emotional support when needed (Chiu & Xihua 2008; Harris & Goodall 2008).

It is positive to see that almost all the learners felt they belonged to a group of friends. The learners felt positively influenced by their friends, and healthy competition between friends to perform academically was evident.

Study limitations

The response rate was low because of multiple consent levels required for participation. The validity of the questionnaire depended on the honesty of the learners' answers. Repeatability was not determined as the questionnaire was only administered once. The completed questionnaires were collected on two separate days in late 2013, 5 weeks apart. Ideally, the questionnaires should have been completed and collected on a single day to prevent the learners discussing them. Researchers were not present while the learners completed the questionnaire.

Being restricted to one school also meant we could not assess other variables, which could influence motivation and academic performance such as school type (urban, rural, farm, hospital), gender composition (co-educational or single sex) and level of affluence (private, public fee-paying and public no-fee).



This study has attempted to measure and quantify the factors that are described in the literature as important for academic motivation. At this parallel-medium co-educational fee-paying primary state school in an urban part of Bloemfontein, learners scored high on motivation by teacher style, peers and home environment. 'Role models' was the category in which the largest percentage of children scored low.


This project did not intend to provide representative data, but rather to open the discussion of possible influences from external factors on the learner's academic motivation. An association between these factors and learners' motivation, leading to actual academic performance, should be investigated in a range of schools covering different school types and socio-economic levels.



The authors thank Ms T. Mulder, medical editor, School of Medicine, University of the Free State, for technical and editorial preparation of the article.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors' contributions

L.K., T.K., R.L., J.M. and T.S. developed the protocol, performed the data collection and did the initial write-up of this study. S.I.N.Y. was the supervisor of this study; suggested the concept; and assisted with the protocol development, data collection and interpretation, and write-up of the study. J.B. assisted with the protocol submission, data interpretation and write-up of the article. G.J. assisted with the planning, performed data analysis and assisted with the interpretation and write-up of the article.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.


The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and not an official position of the institution or funder.



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Johan Botes

Received: 13 Feb. 2018
Accepted: 20 Mar. 2019
Published: 27 May 2019




A modified analytical framework for describing m-learning (as applied to early grade Mathematics)



Nicky Roberts; Garth Spencer-Smith

Centre for Education Practice Research, University of Johannesburg, Soweto, South Africa





BACKGROUND: There has been little Southern African research attention on the potentials of m-learning to support quality mathematics learning for young children and their caring adults. This article argues that m-learning research has shifted from claims of being promising to claims of effect in educational settings of both classrooms and homes. This is particularly the case in mathematics, where there is increasing evidence of positive (although modest) improvement in learning outcomes.
AIM: This article modifies an analytical framework for initial descriptions of m-learning interventions. Comparison between interventions in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) context is then possible.
SETTING: Three large-scale m-learning interventions focused on early grade mathematics in the SADC countries.
METHODS: Targeting the early grades and building on an existing framework for describing m-learning interventions, three large-scale m-learning interventions from within the SADC were purposively selected. The three interventions exemplify a possible way to describe the learning theory and pedagogical emphasis underlying the design of their mathematics programmes.
RESULTS: The cases themselves contribute to understanding the m-learning landscape and approaches to early grade mathematics in the SADC in more detail.
CONCLUSION: A modified analytical framework is offered as a means of describing m-learning in ways that attend to children's and caregivers' use of mobile devices, as well as the underlying learning theories.

Keywords: early grade; mathematics; m-learning; Africa; analytical framework; ICT.




A relatively recent (2016) special issue of the South African Journal of Childhood Education had early childhood care and education (birth to 9 years of age), in disadvantaged contexts, as its focus. It was motivated by an urgent need to overcome the numerous risks facing young children and their families in vulnerable circumstances. In their editorial, Ebrahim and Pascal (2016) argued that:

[t]he way forward lies in focusing on teachers and their instructional practices and abilities to deal with contextual realities to forge navigational maps to improve the lives of children in vulnerable circumstances. (p. 2)

However, none of the interventions included in this special issue are related to teachers (caring adults or parents) and their instructional practices for mathematics. Neither did any of the interventions consider the possibility of utilising mobile technologies in this quest. We share Ebrahim and Pascal's (2016:3) urgency relating to young children and their families. We offer a focus on mathematics and m-learning as contribution towards their call 'to continue knowledge production about early care and education in a disadvantaged context, especially from the Global South' (Ebrahim & Pascal 2016:3).

This article is based at the confluence of three educational premises relating to early education in the Global South: that improving mathematics and reading outcomes is a global priority; that early interventions are necessary to try and reduce the learning gap evident between children from wealthy and poor backgrounds; and that mobile learning is being looked to as a possible means for children and their caregivers to access better quality educational opportunities. Evidence supporting each premise is presented in brief.

Improving mathematics and reading outcomes is a global priority. The sustainable development goals articulate education as a global priority with 'Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all'. The recent United Nations report (2018) on progress towards these goals has highlighted the progress with regard to increasing access to education, but laments the poor quality of learning in schools, noting that (Guterres 2018):

617 million children and adolescents of primary and lower secondary school age worldwide - 58 per cent of that age group - are not achieving minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics. In 2016, an estimated 85 per cent of primary school teachers worldwide were trained; [where this is only] 61 per cent for sub-Saharan Africa. (p. 6)

The World Development Bank Development Report has echoed this concern, labelling it a 'global learning crisis' and reporting that 'schooling is not the same as learning', raising serious concerns about basic levels of literacy and numeracy which are most acute in lower income countries (World Bank 2018:45). Similarly, a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report on education in East and Southern Africa reports that '40 per cent of children in school do not reach the expected basic learning benchmarks in numeracy and literacy' (Friedman et al. 2016:6). This shifts the previous global priority on access to education towards improving learning outcomes for mathematics and reading.

Early interventions are necessary to try and reduce the learning gap evident between children from wealthy and poor backgrounds. The World Bank Development Report (2018) recognises that the shortfalls in learning occur early. It cites poor mathematics and reading outcomes that are evident already at Grade 2 level (World Bank 2018:5). The implications of this early learning gap in Southern Africa have been articulated clearly (Van der Berg 2015):

The policy message is simple and stark: for most children, learning deficits are already so substantial by the middle of primary school that many doors have already closed for them. Whilst efforts to ameliorate these deficits at higher levels are important and must continue for the sake of those who may still benefit from them, the greatest effort is required in the early school years, if not before. (p. 41)

Mobile learning is being looked to as a possible means for children and their caregivers to access better quality educational opportunities. There is a growing body of research directed to considering the educational benefits of m-learning. For example, several studies suggest that m-learning has the potential to extend education resources by opening access to disadvantaged peoples (e.g. women, homeless, offenders, disabled, sick and rural poor) and increase equity of access to education (e.g. Vosloo & Botha 2009; Deloitte GSMA 2012), while others point to the instructional benefits of mobile phones (e.g. Daher 2010; Johnson, Adams & Cummins 2012; Thomas & Orthober 2011). Chee et al. (2017) completed a meta-analysis of m-learning trends from 2010 to 2015 and noted its successful use in a variety of education subject areas, including science, mathematics, language, art, social science and engineering. Crompton and Burke (2015) undertook a systematic review of 36 studies involving m-learning in mathematics and concluded that most of the studies reported positive learning outcomes.

Despite the growing evidence of efficacy of m-learning intervention in general, and in mathematics in particular, one has to question this evidence in terms of at least four aspects: (1) the limited scale of the studies on which the efficacy claims are made; (2) the extent to which they are representative of learning across the globe; (3) the absence of analytical frameworks that allow for comparison between different m-learning interventions; and (4) the lack of detail on their underlying learning theories and pedagogic practices.

Firstly, the very limited scale of studies included in m-learning meta-analyses is a concern. By way of example, in a recent systematic review of mobile and ubiquitous learning practices (drawing from 50 studies), Wong (2018:56) found that 'studies of mobile and ubiquitous learning practices mostly focused on specific courses with less than 100 participants'. Small-scale interventions which adopt an experimental design that draws on quantitative methods (where effect sizes may be compared) are used to make very general claims about effect. Yet, the details of exactly what the interventions entailed - their particular use of m-learning, and their approach to mathematics - are not provided.

Secondly, in relation to representation across the world, most studies of m-learning are based on research in developed-world contexts, specifically in countries classed by the World Bank (2018) as high-income countries. Chee et al. (2017) completed a meta-analysis on m-learning at all levels from pre-school to higher education, where they analysed all articles on m-learning published in the SSCI database from 2010 to 2015 in six leading educational technology-based learning journals, such as Computers & Education and the British Journal of Educational Technology. They found that a total of 77.1% of all the m-learning articles included were from high-income countries, with 20.1% from upper middle-income countries, 2.8% from lower middle-income countries and none from researchers in low-income countries. The only African countries mentioned in this article which have relevant output in this field were Nigeria and South Africa. A review of mobiles for early grade mathematics (Spencer-Smith & Roberts 2014) has helped to address the lack of evidence from developing country contexts as it provides an overview of mathematics project interventions in low- to middle-income countries. These interventions are mapped to the four focus areas of mathematics instruction and teaching and learning materials, teachers' professional development, learning outcomes assessment, and parents and community involvement. However, the Spencer-Smith and Roberts' (2014) review fails to describe the underlying learning theories and pedagogic practices of the m-learning interventions considered.

Thirdly, perhaps because m-learning is a relatively new research domain, there are very few common data collection tools and analytical frameworks for describing such educational interventions. Researchers tend to frame their enquiry in relation to experimental designs where m-learning interventions are contrasted to 'traditional' teaching interventions. These studies are then included in meta-analysis studies or reviews and judgements are made on whether or not m-learning for mathematics 'works'. For example, Cheung and Slavin (2013) found that educational technology applications in mathematics education generally produced a positive, though modest, effect (effect size = +0.15) in comparison to traditional methods. By focusing on the new tool (mobile devices), the m-learning literature seems to ignore the history of educational theorising (where tools have long been used and have been evolving in educational settings and learning processes).

Finally, related to the above, studies on m-learning interventions may include a simple identification of the school subject which is in focus but seem to pay very little attention to orienting theories and underlying conceptualisations of how children learn in relation to that subject. The m-learning research does not sufficiently attend to what is (in our view) really of interest: the pedagogy underlying the intervention, how these m-learning tools have been utilised and what this reveals about the learning of young children.

This article makes a small contribution to starting to fill the gaps identified in m-learning research, particularly the paucity of evidence relating to m-learning in developing country contexts. It focuses on three large-scale (tens of thousands of learners), early grade (first 4 years of schooling) m-learning projects in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries1 and maps these to a modified analytical framework for describing m-learning interventions.


Research focus

This article uses a simple definition of m-learning, as 'learning through mobile devices (such as smart mobile phones and tablet PCs)' (Chee et al. 2017:114). With this definition, m-learning may be used independently, by an individual or in a group; and m-learning may be a subset of 'blended learning': the combining of online and face-to-face instruction (Bonk & Graham 2006:5). Notice that this does not refer to personal ownership of mobile devices, which is an alternative definition offered by Traxler (2009). We adopt the Chee et al. (2017) definition as personal ownership of mobile devices is not ubiquitous for young children or in most of the contexts in the Global South. In this context, where young children have access to mobile devices, this is often via parents, teachers or caring adults or via public institutions such as schools.

The purpose of this study is to refine a modified analytical framework that could be used to offer initial descriptions of m-learning interventions in similar contexts where the descriptions all attended to the same features.

This article answers the following research questions:

  • How can a modified analytical framework for m-learning configurations be easily and cheaply used to develop common descriptions of m-learning interventions in SADC countries which utilise m-learning to focus on mathematics in the early grades?

  • How can additional detail about the mathematical pedagogy underlying the interventions be easily and cheaply obtained from project coordinators?

In answering these questions, it was hoped that an analytical framework for describing m-learning interventions using a common set of spectra (defined in terms of m-learning configurations) would emerge.


Analytical framework

The analytical framework adopted for this study considers the m-learning configurations: the potential ways in which m-learning services are designed or intended for use by learners. We briefly describe each configuration in turn with reference to the literature informing them.

Strigel and Pouezevara (2012) identify three m-learning configurations: a learning spectrum which ranges from highly formal (in class, in school) to informal (learning for pleasure or entertainment); a kinetic spectrum which ranges from the learners being stationary to being mobile; and a collaborative spectrum (from individual to collaborative). Roberts et al. (2015) make use of these m-learning configurations to classify the Nokia Mobile Mathematics service which, although not an early grades intervention, still provides a useful SADC-based example to illustrate the way in which this m-learning configuration framework has been applied previously:

This [Nokia Mobile mathematics] mobile mathematics service was informal (used out-of-school) but supported formal learning (school mathematics) in terms of learning spectrum The service was towards the mobile end of the kinetic spectrum as the service could be used while the learners [were] moving , although this movement was not a requirement for engaging with the service. Finally, in terms of the collaborative spectrum, the service was nearer to the individual end of the spectrum [in that] individual learners typically worked independently on the service. However, the service included a limited collaborative aspect in that the learners' points (attainment and activity levels) were visible to each other in a community of mathematics learners, and learners could send messages to other learners from within the service. (Roberts et al. 2015:4)

Roberts et al. (2015) argue further that two additional spectra ought to be added to the m-learning configuration framework: an 'access and affordability' and a 'mathematical pedagogy' spectrum. They motivated for and explained the former spectrum (access and affordability) as follows:

In the resource-constrained context of South Africa, where consideration of m-learning interventions should focus on redress and equity; we consider this spectrum to be a fundamental consideration. We think that this ranges from free public access to suitable devices and free broadband data on one end, to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) access models and private individual data contracts for broadband data on the other. Subsidised data (by government or operators) and public investments into improved access to mobile devices fall somewhere on this spectrum. (Roberts et al. 2015:10-11)

In putting forward the mathematical pedagogy spectrum, Roberts et al. (2015) noted that none of the grey literature and documentation on m-learning projects made explicit their theory of learning or articulated their approach to mathematics teaching. This was considered a serious omission as the underlying approaches to how learning and teaching take place ought to significantly inform the programme design.

These arguments are made with specific reference to South Africa, but the concerns raised in this context are relevant to the SADC community, where other member countries are also resource constrained when compared to the Global North.

The modified analytical framework put forward in this article builds on the work of Strigel and Pouezevara (2012) and Roberts et al. (2015). The previously suggested access and affordability spectrum has been separated to distinguish access (to a suitable device) from affordability of using the service (considering subscription and data costs). The accessibility spectrum ranges from free public access to devices by individuals (e.g. through the roll-out of devices to a school or schools), to free access to devices to be shared by pairs or groups of learners and to a 'bring your own device' (BYOD) model. It is assumed that access to the device (hardware) includes the requisite access to the learning platform (software). Whether the devices are accessible in school or outside of school is another consideration, which links to the learning spectrum. The affordability spectrum ranges from the free provision of data or the zero-rating of a mobi-site to a subscription model where users or schools have to pay for their data usage. Zero-rating (or in some cases offering an education rate) may be negotiated with individual mobile operators or could be an explicit legislative requirement of mobile operating licenses.

In terms of the mathematics pedagogy spectrum, the proposed range is from unarticulated pedagogy to a detailed, coherent pedagogy. However, it is worth unpacking this further to get a deeper understanding of precisely what component(s) of mathematical pedagogy is or are being foregrounded in the mathematics of the intervention. We argue that the components based on the work of Kilpatrick, Swafford and Findell (2001) are useful starting points for engaging project coordinators in their underlying theoretical approaches. Kilpatrick et al. (2001) offer five strands that define mathematical proficiency:

1. Conceptual understanding: the integrated and functional grasp of mathematical ideas, to enable learners to learn new ideas by connecting those ideas to what they already know

2. Procedural fluency: the skill of carrying out procedures flexibly, accurately, efficiently and appropriately

3. Strategic competence: the ability to formulate, represent and solve mathematical problems

4. Adaptive reasoning: the capacity for logical thought, reflection, explanation and justification

5. Productive disposition: the inclination to see mathematics as sensible, useful and worthwhile, coupled with a belief in diligence and one's own efficacy

These strands (or slight variations on them) have been adopted in several international curricula - including Australia, the United States, Singapore and Malaysia (Groves 2012). They feature in South Africa's recently published Teaching and Learning Framework for Mathematics (DBE 2018).

The five strands are mutually supportive and interconnected (hence Kilpatrick et al. 2001 refer to them as strands in a rope). Yet, different mathematics interventions place different emphasis on particular strands. Focusing on these different levels of emphasis in relation to an approach to mathematics teaching and learning can be informative. As such, the relative emphasis placed on the five strands may be used to classify an m-learning intervention's articulated approach to mathematics.

Figure 1 summarises the m-learning configurations.



Consideration is also given to the relative importance placed on the five strands of mathematical proficiency.

These strands are not on a continuum as the categories are not in a sequence.



To select the cases for inclusion in this article, the authors drew on, and then extended, empirical research work initially collected for the Spencer-Smith and Roberts (2014) landscape review of m-learning interventions in resource-constrained contexts. This review excluded proprietary services where users were expected to pay for use of the service. Spencer-Smith and Roberts (2014) identified a total of 24 projects from 12 countries that met the four criteria of the study scope (m-learning, focused on mathematics or numeracy, and in early grades in low- to middle-income countries). Nine of these 24 projects were based in SADC countries, and three of these were selected to exemplify the modified m-learning analytical framework in this article.

The three projects were selected from the landscape review based on there being sufficient grey literature of their project documentation and support from the project coordinators to participate in the new research study. The three focal projects are: Mwabu in Zambia, Mathematics Curriculum Online in South Africa and Unlocking Talent in Malawi.

In 2016 and 2017, the project coordinators who participated in the Spencer-Smith and Roberts (2014) landscape review study were approached via email and requested to participate in this further phase of research. If they indicated willingness to participate, a draft updated synopsis of their intervention was presented to them (or their Chief Executive Officers) for further revision and refinement. All parties responded by providing feedback, which was used to update the project descriptions. Participation in the research was viewed in a positive light and the project coordinators welcomed the use of their names, and the project names, in a journal article. Inclusion was seen as a way of giving their project coverage in a peer-reviewed academic journal and academic exposure for their organisation, funders and others wanting to know about their initiative. As such, neither the projects nor the project coordinators have been anonymised.

Coding and analysis of the updated project data was then conducted making use of the modified analytical framework. For all the spectra (except the detailed considerations for mathematical pedagogy), the second author classified the project interventions against the analytical spectra. This was based on the project description and grey literature. This coding was blind-checked by the first author, and no changes in classification were made. The project coordinators were then presented with the way in which their intervention had been coded for each spectrum in the modified analytical framework. Once again, the project coordinators were invited to validate or change how their intervention had been coded. Some engagement was necessary over the 'learning spectrum', when interventions were in support of the formal school curriculum, but where use of the intervention took place outside of school time. The 'collaborative spectrum' also required some discussion, as in some cases the usual way of engaging with the content was individual although collaboration was possible (or vice versa).

For the mathematical pedagogy considerations, a different approach was required, as no descriptions of mathematical pedagogy were available in the grey literature. As such, the project coordinators were invited to respond to the following two questions via email:

  • Please describe, in 3-4 sentences, the mathematical pedagogy underlying your intervention/service (this aims to capture how you approach the teaching and learning related to the mathematics of the service).

  • Which two of Kilpatrick et al.'s (2001) five strands of mathematical proficiency2 do you feel that your service or intervention places more emphasis on? Please explain your answer.

While it was expected that all five strands may feature within a single project, how the project coordinators prioritised these was considered revealing of their emphasis and hence their pedagogic approach.

The purpose of this study was, however, to refine a modified analytical framework which could be used to offer initial descriptions of m-learning interventions in similar contexts where the descriptions all attended to the same features. Its intent was therefore limited to the project description level, and there was no intention to make evaluative comment on efficacy or impact (which would require far more empirical work). The data collection was limited to grey literature and direct engagement with the project coordinators.

Ethical considerations

This research drew on secondary sources available in the public domain to select possible case study projects. The project coordinators were then contacted via email and asked for their voluntary participation in the research. Upon their agreement, the case descriptions were circulated back to the project coordinators for validation (on three different occasions over time). No empirical data at the level of children were collected. As such, this research applied the ethical principles of voluntary, informed consent for research participants.



In this section, we offer a brief description of each of the three exemplar projects, followed by an application of the modified analytical framework.

Descriptions of the three cases

Mwabu (previously known as iSchool) began with a pilot study in Zambia in 2010 but continues to date reaching over 200 000 learners (this figure is for all primary grades and not specifically numeracy or mathematics) in more than 100 schools. Mwabu has created multimedia, interactive, localised eLearning content across the entire Zambian primary school curriculum. This is available on the fully-preloaded Mwabu tablet, designed to be a low-cost low-power device (which can be charged off solar power) that will work in any environment. Learning for all lower grades is in eight of the main local languages, as well as in English. Teachers have access to over 5000 lesson plans covering mathematics and all other subjects designed to help teachers provide detailed, interactive lesson plans covering every school day for every primary grade. In the future, content will be accessible via an application and via other non-proprietary tablets, both on Android and Microsoft operating systems. Mwabu is now also working in other SADC countries, such as South Africa and Lesotho (C. Rebe, Mwabu, pers. comm., 11 June 2018).

For the Mwabu project, learning takes place in school during mathematics lessons and supports the formal school curriculum.3 Learning takes place in classrooms while the learners are stationary. Engagement is primarily individual, although some face-to-face collaboration is possible. A device is provided to each learner; no data is required, and there are no subscription costs. The intervention prioritises conceptual understanding and procedural fluency.

Mathematics Curriculum Online (MCO) is a project implemented by Green Shoots in South Africa, targeting Grade 3 to 74 learners in Mathematics by means of an online resource that is device neutral. Mathematics Curriculum Online encompasses a structured, weekly programme of Mathematics exercises that cover the key concepts and assessment objectives of the Mathematics Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS), real-time feedback and customised data analysis to key stakeholders within the education system. Mathematics Curriculum Online started in 2012 with eight schools; by June 2018, there were 105 000 learners and 2300 teachers at over 277 schools registered to use it (J. Besford, MCO, pers. comm., 12 June 2018).

The Mathematics Curriculum Online project learning takes place in school time during mathematics lessons and supports the formal school curriculum. Learners are stationary while engaging with the mathematics content. Most of the interaction with the device is individual, although there is the potential for collaboration. Because of there being a limited number of devices per class, the weekly 'Brain Quests' are completed collaboratively (with two learners per device); however, the 'Formal Assessment Tasks' are completed individually. Schools use devices supplied by the provincial education department, by a donor or by the schools themselves. Data costs are paid by the school or as part of a Provincial Education Department initiative. There are annual subscription costs for Mathematics Curriculum Online that can be paid by the school or as part of a wider Provincial Education Department or donor programme (most are paid by Education Districts within the provinces as part of their mathematics curriculum programmes). The intervention prioritises procedural fluency and productive disposition.

The Unlocking Talent project, implemented by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) International in Malawi, began in late 2013 and is being scaled up. It is now operating in 50 schools in 9 districts, with secured funding to date for 128 schools in 15 districts. The current reach is approximately 20 000 Standard 1 and 2 learners, with a planned reach of more than 55 000. This project uses digital educational technology (the Apple iPad Mini locked to the Masamu app5) and numeracy content for Standards 1 and 2 that is aligned with the Ministry of Education curriculum. Learners use the technology in a solar-powered learning centre at the school, which houses the tablets (Pitchford 2014; V. Shimizu, Unlocking Talent, pers. comm., 04 November 2016).

For the Unlocking Talent project, learning takes place during formal schooling while learners are stationary. The learning centre where the devices are accessed is another classroom in the school. Most engagement happens individually, although there is opportunity to collaborate. Learners are provided with both a device and the data required to access the service. There are no subscription costs. The project prioritises conceptual understanding and procedural fluency.

Reflections on the use of the analytical framework

The project descriptions included reference to the reach of the intervention in relation to the number of learners, geographic spread, technology used and implementation partners. Developing the project descriptions was not time-consuming, and there were only minor changes requested from project coordinators or managers. In one case, there was a name change and a new website to consult; in all cases, the reach of the project required updating.

The original coding of interventions to particular spectra was largely uncontested; however, the spectra were not binary, and finding middle ground to reflect combinations and their relative weighting required some further engagement. This was anticipated and was the motivation for referring to the dimensions under consideration as 'spectra': these were not expected to be binary 'either or' categories, but the contrasting poles were designed to solicit engagement about particular aspects of the mobile learning configuration. For example, the learning spectrum with support of formal schooling on one end and informal learning on the other required more detail. The Mwabu project had both a formal version for children to use in school and an informal version for their use at home with caring adults. The project was therefore described as 'out-of-school but formal' as in both cases the content aligned to and supported the formal school curriculum. Similarly, more nuance was sought in reflecting on the kinetic spectrum, where an initial coding of the Mwabu project as 'stationary' was contested:

This is not necessarily the case as many sessions require the children to do active things when working in their maths work (for example, making a market stall and 'playing markets' with pretend money). This is described as an activity to the teacher who then enables this to take place in the classroom. There are, however, also static learning elements on the tablet where a pair of children are working on a learning content with one tablet and are interacting with the learning through questions on screen. The children need to work to answer these quiz questions sometimes on the tablet and sometimes in their books. (C. Stead, Mwabu, pers. comm., 06 October 2016)

With this feedback, we noted that there were 'mobile moments' within the service design and requested an estimate of what percentage of the time spent on the service involved learners moving (and not just being at their desk). It was then explained that:

[T]he children will be counting using beans, or stones; so active but at their desks! This is encouraged a lot, so this level of doing is encouraged about 50% - 60% of tasks. However, the big active sessions are probably a lot less frequent. (C. Stead, Mwabu, pers. comm., 11 October 2016)

So, 'big active sessions' involving, for example, the market stall with teacher-initiated activity involving the children moving around were estimated at 'say, 10% of activities' (C. Stead, Mwabu, pers. comm., 11 October 2016).

In relation to the second research question about the mathematical pedagogy underlying the interventions, we provide the project coordinator responses to the two questions posed, in full.

For Mwabu, the project coordinator responded to the request for 3-4 sentences describing the mathematical pedagogy underlying their intervention or service as follows:

The mathematical pedagogy in our product is based on active, enquiry-based learning, where children are taught maths both as a set of skills, knowledge and understanding, but also as part of their wider learning. For example, in Year 4, when learning about 'the Island' as a topic, the children are asked to prepare plans to help the builder build a new school, they need to use length and measure to complete the tasks as well as area and perimeter. In year two, the children learn about the market, and during that topic, make a market stall and apply their newfound knowledge in money to running their pretend shop. (C. Stead, Mwabu, pers. comm., 04 October 2016)

The Mwabu project coordinator prioritised conceptual understanding and procedural fluency, although recognised that the other strands feature to some extent as well. This prioritisation was explained as follows:

Conceptual understanding is key. Without this, the children will not have understood the concepts being taught and will not be able to apply the learning to other areas of the curriculum or life. The second area which we most highlight would be procedural fluency, the knowledge of how to solve maths problems, [and] how to check their answers is key. We would however also encourage our teachers, as they develop their own skills to work on the strategic and adaptive reasoning as well. Ultimately, we want the children to have a productive disposition, but we would have to assume that many teachers were working towards the last three levels [of Kilpatrick et al.] at this stage. (C. Stead, Mwabu, pers. comm., 04 October 2016)

The MCO Director responded to the request for 3-4 sentences describing the mathematical pedagogy underlying their intervention or service as follows:

Maths Curriculum Online provides weekly consolidation exercises 'Brain Quests' that are exactly mapped to curriculum content for that week. The Brain Quests provide examples of multiple questions styles of increasing difficulty. This structure supports teachers to cover the entire curriculum at the correct pace and level and to the depth required. Assessment for learning is enabled through the real-time per learner, per question feedback summaries. Teachers are able to address barriers to learning or identify learners with specific issues within the same lesson or amend subsequent lessons. Learners can immediately assess their progress. The feedback provides learners a sense of achievement and this improved confidence is transferred back to paper-based Maths activities/assessments. The termly online assessment summary data encourages collaboration within a grade or a phase, as teachers work together to tackle common issues or share specific interventions that they have trialled. (J. Besford, MCO, pers. comm., 03 October 2016)

Here, tight alignment for curriculum structure that follows a tightly defined weekly 'curriculum pacing' is the main focus of attention, as well as assessment for learning that aligns to this policy framework. Of the five strands of mathematical proficiency, the Mathematics Curriculum Online coordinator prioritised procedural fluency and productive disposition. In relation to the former, they elaborated that:

The real-time, auto-marking allows learners to practice, check answers and the[n] immediately review their thinking if incorrect. Learners are exposed to many question styles that allow them to develop processes to apply their understanding to a range of situations. Auto-marking requires accuracy of answers (J. Besford, MCO, pers. comm., 03 October 2016).

With regard to prioritising productive disposition, they indicated:

Learners are encouraged to review their scores, look at where they struggle, seek assistance. For many it is the first time a personal, active participation in Maths is promoted. The use of technology to deliver activities coupled with the immediate feedback has encouraged a level of engagement and achievement that was not necessarily generated previously. (J. Besford, MCO, pers. comm., 03 October 2016)

The Unlocking Talent project coordinator responded to the request for 3-4 sentences describing the mathematical pedagogy underlying their intervention or service as follows:

In maths, concepts and skills build on each other, with increasing levels of difficulty. It is harder to count to 20 than to 10. It is harder to calculate 47 + 12 than 5 + 2. It is harder to subtract than to add. So, our approach is three-fold: (1) use familiar objects (fruit, flowers, cups, fish) to introduce concepts where possible; (2) build up the work slowly, at each stage showing the child 'how to' and (3) offer different approaches where feasible, for example number lines for addition. We also aim to make the activities engaging and fun. (V. Shimizu, Unlocking Talent, pers. comm., 05 November 2016)

In terms of the five strands of mathematical disposition, in the case of Unlocking Talent, conceptual understanding and procedural fluency were emphasised, with each being explained in detail:

Conceptual understanding. We begin very simply, using familiar objects to introduce concepts. We build each concept in stages, and revisit concepts at increasing levels of difficulty, as a classroom teacher would. For example, addition and subtraction are first introduced by simply adding and taking away items by touching the screen, and counting the resulting set, without the symbols +, -, and =. These are introduced in later units, with staged explanation. We move from concrete to abstract only when a concept is well established. We design with simplicity in mind. We cannot afford to leave the child confused, and particularly if there is nobody around to intervene and offer help. Most importantly, we use no text, except for very infrequent labels (e.g. on 2-D shapes). So, progress in reading is not an issue. All explanations and instructions are in audio, and we keep the audio simple and short. We try to put ourselves in the child's place and track the child's thought processes.

Factors that might interfere with understanding include screen layout and the amount of material on screen. We work to ensure that screens look legible and uncluttered. This is often quite a challenge, for example where we show an array of 100 items.

The technology itself is a wonderful aid to conceptual understanding. By simply touching the screen, the child can add an object to a set. By touching an object, the child can take it away. The child can drag a missing number into a sequence or move an object from one place to another.

We do our best to exploit what the technology offers. By means of the pointing hand - our little teacher's hand - and highlighting, and other colour changes, we draw attention to what is going on and help the child to focus closely. Other animations, and sound effects, help too.

Overall, the tablet can often offer more help in conceptual understanding than a busy teacher can - and especially a busy teacher with limited resources and a large class. For example, the teacher may have few objects to hand with which to explain subtraction. But on the tablet the child can subtract at the lightest touch, and from a wealth of objects. (V. Shimizu, Unlocking Talent, pers. comm., 05 November 2016)

The emphasis on procedural fluency was also elaborated upon in some detail:

Procedural fluency. For each new activity, we show 'how to', with the help of audio and the pointing hand, and other animation where appropriate. Instructions are kept simple and short, since lengthy audio instructions will be quickly forgotten. The work is usually scaffolded. We give instant feedback. We give sufficient repeats to ensure that the child has grasped the procedure. The modular structure of the software allows children to revisit topics and units as often as they wish. This is a further aid to procedural fluency. (V. Shimizu, Unlocking Talent, pers. comm., 05 November 2016)

It was of interest that the other three strands - although not the main emphasis of Unlocking Talent - were also commented upon:

Strategic competence. One could argue that all of the maths work is problem solving, including building models from 2-D shapes. We have examples of broader problem solving too, for example where the child must share food items equally between three hungry dragons. However, we formulate and represent the problems, not the child. We intend to build much more problem solving into future maths topics.

Adaptive reasoning. Our maths apps continually address 'the capacity for logical thought'. There is some scope for reflection, even if only in the brief pause after the positive or negative response to the child's input, and in the final audio summary of the work done in each unit. However, the child has no opportunity to explain and justify, unless another human intervenes.

Productive disposition. At these early stages, we do not explicitly promote maths as being sensible, useful and worthwhile. However, the child is likely to gradually become aware that maths makes sense. Its usefulness may become apparent particularly in the work on measurement (time, length, mass, capacity). The wealth of positive feedback - big ticks, congratulatory audio, the shooting-star finale at the end of each unit, the certificate at the end of each topic, and the final big banner - is likely to promote an inclination to see maths as worthwhile, and a belief in diligence and one's own efficacy. (V. Shimizu, Unlocking Talent, pers. comm., 05 November 2016)

We think that the above three descriptions from the project teams offer additional details about the approach to mathematics and the underlying learning theories guiding the content development. While how the technology is harnessed to support these learning approaches remains a consideration in most of the descriptions, we think that by asking for theories of learning, together with the prioritisation of particular strands of mathematical disposition, the identified gap - of an absence of attention to the mathematics and theoretical approaches to learning mathematics - was at least partially bridged. This was a relatively cost-effective and simple process, with the project teams willingly and timeously providing responses to our questions via email. We acknowledge that the above would require triangulation with other data sources (such as review of the content, analysis of uptake and usage data, and feedback from both teachers and learners) to be taken as accurate reflections of an actual approach to learning. Notwithstanding this limitation (as noted in the methodology), we consider the line of questioning to have been a useful undertaking in soliciting project team perceptions of underlying learning theories and approaches to mathematics.



This article illustrates a data collection technique and applies a modified analytical framework for describing and comparing m-learing inverventions. In this section, we therefore briefly discuss what we observe when reflecting across the three exemplar cases. These observations and conjectures would require additional research to establish the extent to which these reflect more general trends in the m-learning field in the SADC region.

How do these three exemplar Southern African Development Community projects map to the m-learning configurations?

Figure 2 summarises how the three exemplar projects map to the m-learning configurations, with a detailed analysis thereafter.



In terms of the learning spectrum, in all the interventions the content covered is directly related to the formal curriculum and utilised in school. Mwabu is also used out-of-school but with the formal curriculum. Funding for such interventions tends to be tightly connected to the improvement of learning outcomes as they pertain to formal public schooling. We conjecture that designing for informal learning (conducted for pleasure or entertainment) would not be done on a free public access with zero subscription and zero data costs basis. We thus link this finding to affordability and access.

In the case of the kinetic spectrum, despite the fact that all the interventions are mobile-based, all three projects use the online materials in a classroom setting; thus, the users are stationary. This finding is interesting, as in setting up the m-learning configurations spectra, the mobile aspect of mobile devices was considered a key design feature. Having a mobile device assumed that this opened up the possibility to be using the device while moving and using it in more than one location and that this aspect would be harnessed by designers. In our three exemplar cases, however, none of the projects deliberately sought to use the fact that children can move with their devices. We conjecture that the motivation to use mobile devices may not have been in relation to functionality (learners able to move) but rather was decided on the basis of cost. Mobile devices were more affordable than desktop or laptop devices, thereby increasing public access to the service. An interesting discussion about 'mobile moments' arose for Mwabu. Mobile moments refer to specific and explicit opportunity for children to move around in the classroom and work with concrete materials. While they were not moving with their devices, this movement and engagement is considered important for young children's learning.

With the collaborative spectrum, the materials provided in all the interventions have the potential to be used collaboratively but appear to more typically be utilised by individual users, though on occasions are used collaboratively (especially in the case with Mwabu). This is also of interest, as in the broader m-learning literature, the collaboration potential of mobile devices is considered a key configuration that allows for the creation of learning communities. However, in our three cases, the mobile device was not utilised for collaboration. In fact, when collaboration was encouraged, this was face-to-face within the class environment and not virtual. Collaboration (with two or more learners sharing one mobile device) was typically motivated by the access and affordability spectrum and not as a key design feature of mobile technologies. This is evident in the explanation provided about the collaboration aspect of Mathematics Curriculum Online: the weekly Brain Quests of the MCO project are usually collaborative - two to a device as a result of the limited number of devices. It was of interest that the project coordinator spontaneously commented that this collaboration has had 'very positive effects on the learning process'. Children of this age - certainly in resource-constrained contexts - do not commonly personally own a mobile device. They are therefore gaining access to the device during a scheduled time slot during a school day, or in the case of one project, after school. We think this means that different kinds of design constraints are introduced and that the collaboration aspects of other mobile interventions may be less prevalent with this age group and target population.

We discuss the access and affordability spectra in turn. We are aware of numerous early grade m-learning interventions which expect personal ownership of devices, or paid-for data use, or charge for application download and as a subscription. These paid-for services target middle-class families who can afford their services. It is therefore noteworthy that, in terms of the affordability spectrum, in all three exemplar projects learners do not need to supply their own data. Similarly, with respect to the accessibility spectrum, all the devices required to access the materials are provided by the interventions or the schools in which the intervention happens. So, in all three cases, access is given via supplied devices, and there is no requirement for personal data purchase to access the services.

In the case of the mathematics pedagogy spectrum, there was no explicit or articulated pedagogy or approach to mathematics learning for any of the projects. By asking the project teams to describe this in 3-4 sentences, more detail on their underlying theoretical frameworks was solicited. The most common of the Kilpatrick et al.'s (2001) five strands of mathematical proficiency focused on in the three exemplar projects was 'procedural fluency', mentioned by all. Conceptual understanding was mentioned by two of the projects and productive disposition once. We conjecture that these areas of focus are, at least in part, a result of what the mobile technology platforms offer: immediate feedback on closed questions.



We trust that this article makes a contribution towards filling at least two identified gaps. Firstly, by describing three exemplar examples of m-learning interventions from the SADC region, we contribute to the m-learning literature from this under-researched and under-documented geographical region. It offers examples of how teachers and caring adults can be supported via mobile technologies in 'their instructional practices [of mathematics] to improve the lives of children in vulnerable circumstances' (Ebrahim & Pascal 2016:2). Secondly, we put forward a modified analytical framework for describing m-learning interventions for critical review and application in other contexts.

In particular, we have distinguished the access from the affordability spectrum. The access spectrum includes more nuance with regard to shared access to devices, access to software and availability within or outside of school time. The affordability spectrum now considers various options for payment of data: by the individual; by the school, district or education department; or as a requirement of the national licensing conditions for mobile operators.

In addition, we have introduced a new spectrum relating to the mathematics pedagogy (making use of five strands of mathematical proficiency) in order to ensure that project descriptions relating to mathematics offer some information about their approach to mathematics and their theory of learning. In so doing, a process of refining robust approaches and tools for describing m-learning interventions is initiated.

We hope that the modified m-learning analytical framework will be used, adapted and improved, so that the m-learning field starts to have some common ways of approaching the descriptive component of m-learning work. We recognise that further research and contributions are required for the ongoing quest to have commonly-agreed metrics and approaches to measuring and reflecting on the efficacy of such interventions. Without broadly comparable descriptive details of exactly what each intervention entailed - how the m-learning was configured, the underlying pedagogy of the mathematics and then how the learners and their carers engaged with the m-learning intervention - lessons on how the promises of m-learning enhance or hinder educational outcomes will remain elusive.



Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors' contributions

N.R. developed the expanded analytical framework. G.S.-S. did the bulk of the data collection. Both authors contributed equally to the writing of the article.

Funding information

The earlier research study, Spencer-Smith and Roberts (2014), on which this article was built, was published in October 2014 by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) on behalf of and with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), as part of a series of landscape reviews published by members of the Mobile Education Alliance.



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Garth Spencer-Smith

Received: 30 Mar. 2017
Accepted: 17 Jan. 2019
Published: 28 May 2019



1 . The following 15 countries are members of this grouping (in alphabetical order): Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
2 . These were provided in full to each respondent as part of the question, but have been removed here as they have been explicated earlier in the article.
3 . However, there is also an informal version of Mwabu for home learning.
4 . Thus, their target learners are only partially in the early grades.
5 . These are mathematical apps provided by 'onebillion'.

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Learning through play in Grade R classrooms: Measuring practitioners' confidence, knowledge and practice



Shafika Isaacs; Nicky Roberts; Garth Spencer-Smith; Sonja Brink

Centre for Education Practice Research (CERP), University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa





BACKGROUND: This article reports on the evaluation of a professional development programme for underqualified Grade R practitioners, many of whom work under challenging conditions.
AIM: The study aimed to evaluate the practitioners' confidence, knowledge and practice of play.
SETTING: The programme involved a 5-week training programme for 1000 Grade R practitioners across three Eastern Cape districts.
METHODS: The study included three data sources: (1) self-reported shifts in confidence and practice solicited through closed Likert-type questions, (2) responses to open-ended questions on knowledge of play and (3) lesson observations of case study practitioners, using a lesson observation protocol to distil quantitative shifts in the practice of case study practitioners (n = 10), compared with control practitioners (n = 4
RESULTS: The evaluation found positive shifts in practitioners' self-reporting on their confidence and knowledge of play. However, evidence of their knowledge of play was mixed. Practitioners offered very general conceptions of play, with specific attention on the expected 'form' of play. The use of materials for play, and changed classroom practice from whole class to small groups, were most strongly evident. Because it was short course of 5 weeks, lesson observations of case study practitioners were less positive, with no significant difference between treatment and control lesson observations.
CONCLUSION: The study opens a window into the implementation of the 5-week professional development programme and the instrumentation used to reflect on practitioners' confidence, knowledge and practice of play. The discussion reflects critically on improving the instrumentation in future for measuring shifts in practitioner confidence, knowledge and practice of play.

Keywords: Grade R; play; play pedagogy; ECD; ECD practitioners; learning through play; teaching through play; professional development.




With the inclusion of Grade R into primary schools in South Africa, we now have the relatively unusual situation where unqualified teachers, who are often student teachers and referred to as 'practitioners,'1 are often solely responsible for large classes2 of 5-6-year-olds. Under these circumstances, how can Grade R practitioners become qualified Early Childhood Development (ECD) educators? How can their confidence, knowledge and practice of teaching through play be supported?

Learning through play enhances the disposition of children to learn, and enables their content knowledge and their cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. This has been well established, albeit widely contested, in scholarly literature for more than 100 years. Play scholarship has also been growing in recent years, particularly in the Science of Learning field, where new knowledge vistas are opening up with reference to neuroscience and digital play (Brooker, Blaise & Edwards 2014).

However, central to the successful development of cognitive, social and emotional competence in children through play is the role of ECD educators and their skills in integrating play-based pedagogies in their daily practice (Edwards 2017; Neha & Rule 2018). The extent and nature of ECD educator competencies in play-based pedagogies are inextricably tied to the systemic context within which the public provisioning of ECD services are located, particularly in disadvantaged, resource-challenged communities. However, as argued by Wood (2009), while there is substantial evidence on learning through play, where children are the focus, there is far less evidence on teaching through play (Wood 2009:27).

The South African Government has made various policy commitments since 1994 to promote the right of all children to play, which is underscored by a web of supportive ECD3 policies in education, health, welfare and infrastructure (Talbot & Thornton 2017). A comprehensive review of successes and challenges faced by the ECD sector in South Africa between 1994 and 2011 highlights significant achievements (Atmore 2013; Atmore, Niekerk & Ashley-Cooper 2012). Notable, among others, are the establishment of Grade R as a preschool reception year programme that forms part of primary schooling for children aged 5 years4; the availability of ECD subsidies for ECD sites and Grade R grants-in-aid across all nine provinces; and the availability of child support grants for 10.5 million children in 2011. The latter rose to 12 million children in 2017 (Hall 2017). Together, these provide an enabling context for the integration of play in South Africa's ECD curriculum, educator development and assessment.

However, existing policy does not make explicit the conceptual and operational frameworks on teaching through play, play curriculum, and educator professional development and practice of play. The focus of existing policy is more on the availability of play resources and infrastructure, developing safe play spaces, and facilitating parent education and capacity-development programmes on the importance of play (A Chance to Play Southern Africa 2017).

Moreover, in practice, existing literature confirms that ECD educators and practitioners do not have access to adequate training on play-based pedagogies and have limited knowledge and understanding of learning through play as a concept. Many are also not aware of strategies to integrate play-based learning in their classrooms. This is also an area that is significantly understudied, both in South Africa (Aronstam & Braund 2016; Neha & Rule 2018) and globally (Ryan & Northey-Berg 2014; Wood 2009).

In an attempt to contribute to new knowledge on the professional development and practice of ECD practitioners on learning and teaching through play, this article analyses the evaluation of findings of a play-based capacity-building programme called 'Play Well and Be Happy' (Play Well & Be Happy). Established by a partnership between the LEGO® Foundation, Sesame Workshop (and their South African counterpart Takalani Sesame), the Eastern Cape Department of Education and the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality (BCMM), Play Well & Be Happy involved an estimated 1000 Grade R practitioners in a 5-week training programme that spanned urban and rural settings in one of South Africa's most educationally challenged provinces, the Eastern Cape. Our focus in this article is our attempts at measuring shifts in the confidence, knowledge and practice of ECD practitioners in relation to learning and teaching through play, before and after the Play Well & Be Happy intervention.

Theoretical foundations

There is growing attention in global scholarship on play-based pedagogies. The most recent literature acknowledges how the idea of play among humans has emerged since Plato introduced the concept in 643 BC and that today the concept remains nebulous and complex (Brooker et al. 2014). Expanding on Brooker et al. (2014), whose volume on play and learning in early childhood provides a historical overview of the theoretical, conceptual and operational underpinnings of learning through play, Dowker et al. (2018) have shown how differences in the conceptualisation of play have led to definitional confusion. These range from the theoretical debates on play and learning between Vygotsky's (1967) demonstration that sociodramatic play enhances cognitive and social development based on their zone of proximal development in a given play situation to Piaget's (1962) view that children assimilate the external world through play. These debates also include disagreements based on whether play is viewed as that which has no purpose or goal; whether the child initiates and directs play; whether and how caring adults are engaged in activities to scaffold playful learning; whether the play activity is reflective of or separate from real life; and whether it is consistently joyful and stress-free.

In their attempt at providing a widely shared conceptual and operational definition, Zosh et al. (2018) propose that learning through play should be viewed as a spectrum ranging from free play at one end to directed instruction at the other. The criteria applied to categorise the nature of play across this spectrum is informed by whether the play activity has a clearly established goal; and whether it is initiated or directed by the child or by the adult educator or caregiver. For Zosh et al. (2018), free play at the one end of the spectrum draws on definitions supplied by Pellegrini (2009, 2010, 2012) and Weisberg et al. (2013), where play activity is voluntary, without a clear goal or purpose and initiated and directed by the child. This compares with guided play that is directed by the child with the guiding support of adults, whether they are parents, caregivers or educators. This model is demonstrated in Figure 1.

The interpretation of new ideas related to play informs how educators mediate their understanding and knowledge of play. Ryan and Northey-Berg (2014) also emphasise, however, that the settings within which educators are located, and their situated social, economic, political and cultural contexts, also inform their perceptions and understanding of play. Clarity on how educators perceive play provided the basis for the responsive design of the training curriculum.

In South Africa, a few studies have addressed educator perceptions of play. Aronstam and Braund (2016) explored the perceptions of play of 104 Grade R educators in 41 schools and ECD centres in the Western Cape. They found that educators had limited knowledge of the pedagogy of play and that their views, perceptions and knowledge of play should inform capacity-building programmes for ECD educators and practitioners. Ogunyemi and Ragpot (2015) reviewed educator and parent perceptions of play in South Africa and Nigeria and found that educators and parents with narrow views considered play to involve walking, clapping and singing outside classwork, whereas educators with a broader constructivist outlook considered play to be integral to the development of children. They make the case for a more supportive policy and procedural environment and for higher education institutions to provide programmes on play pedagogies. In South Africa, much of the literature on these higher education-based programmes focuses on the relationship between theory, practice and service learning (Gravett, Petersen & Petker 2014; Petker & Petersen 2014) and the need to understand child development (Henning 2014).

Ryan and Northey-Berg (2014) found, however, that while play as pedagogy is becoming more prominent in scholarly literature, few studies are based on what and how educators learn about play.

Context and background

The Eastern Cape, with 21.6% of all South Africa's schools, ranks among the largest, poorest and lowest-performing provinces in South Africa (Department of Basic Education 2018). During 2018, the Eastern Cape Department of Education reported that 20% of children in Grade 1 in 2016 (36 000 children) had failed the grade. This represented the highest Grade 1 failure rate in South Africa (Linden 2018). Importantly, too, the poor performance of children in the Foundation Phase5 has also drawn attention to challenges with supply, skills and knowledge levels of Foundation Phase teachers. Green, Adendorff and Mathebula (2012) provide a succinct analysis of the growth in the supply of Foundation Phase educators in South Africa, particularly since 2008, and show that this growth is insufficient to meet the demand. They also found that there were still large numbers of unqualified and underqualified Foundation Phase educators in the system. These educators, including those who may be qualified, generally lack adequate knowledge and skills to make optimal use of resources in their classrooms to support active learning through play. In the Eastern Cape, this challenge is particularly acute, with 5389 public schools and approximately 132 785 children enrolled in public Grade R classrooms in the Eastern Cape in 2017 (Department of Basic Education 2018).

Play Well & Be Happy thus responded to the need for a systemic intervention to grow a teaching practice based on learning and teaching through play among Grade R practitioners6 of 5-6-year-old children in primary schools and ECD centres in the Eastern Cape. In doing so, the programme situated the lack of play-based competencies among Grade R practitioners within their broader systemic challenges related to the low status of Grade R within the Foundation Phase: poor working conditions and job insecurity of Grade R practitioners; the lack of formal qualifications among the majority of Grade R practitioners; the continuing prevalence of corporal punishment in primary schools (reported by practitioners); overcrowded classrooms; and school management's lack of awareness and acknowledgement of the importance of Grade R practitioners (Isaacs, Spencer-Smith & Roberts 2018).

Play Well & Be Happy trained 966 Grade R and pre-primary practitioners and principals, which included 81 lead practitioners and facilitators, in 23 training sessions between 28 February and 30 November 2017. Across three districts in the Eastern Cape, it reached approximately 25 000 children aged 5-7 years and delivered Play Well & Be Happy kits to 966 classrooms.

The Play Well & Be Happy approach to play

This article does not elaborate on the design and rationale for the Play Well & Be Happy programme and its related theory of change. Rather, it focuses explicitly on its approach to play.

The spectrum model as presented by Zosh et al. (2018) was adapted and adopted by the Play Well & Be Happy programme to inform the design of the capacity-building programme for the Grade R practitioners. The following conceptual and operational definitions were applied by the programme (Takalani Sesame 2017):

  • Free play. This means that the children choose how they are going to play and what to play with. Here the educator does not provide help and encourages the children to play, finding their own challenges and solutions on their own while the teacher observes.

  • Guided play. This means that the teacher offers a challenge to the children, who structure their own play to solve the problem posed. The teacher observes, supports and guides the children as needed.

  • Instructional play. This means that the teacher structures the play environment with specific activities and instructions, based on specific learning goals, so that the children can learn something specific that the teacher has decided upon. (p. 5)

By applying this model, the programme designed the curriculum and capacity-building methodology that would be relevant for the immediate contexts of the Eastern Cape Grade R practitioners. The capacity-building model draws to some extent on the available literature, albeit limited and contested, on teaching through play. In reviewing the literature to date, Ryan and Northey-Berg (2014) found that there were two kinds: those that highlighted the perceptions and understanding of play and those that focused on ECD educator education and professional development.

For Play Well & Be Happy, play was conceptualised as a 'major method of active learning and creative problem-solving' for children (Takalani Sesame et al. 2017), which informed their quest to grow the repertoire of teaching through play skills, tools and strategies among an estimated 1000 Grade R practitioners. For Play Well & Be Happy, through play, young children would be given the opportunity of overcoming emotional and social limitations that could potentially impede their executive functioning, drawing on Blanco and Ray (2011). Play was conceptualised to help children make a connection between their concrete understandings, their experiences and abstract events such as thoughts and feelings, as reflected by Landreth, Ray and Bratton (2009). By growing their understanding of learning through play, practitioners and educators would learn how to teach using play-based pedagogies. Evidence of play-based pedagogy was considered in relation to the use of the Play Well & Be Happy resources in their classrooms and dividing children into play groups to allow the opportunity for play. In addition, four priority behaviours of practitioners were emphasised: (1) speak to children in calm tones, (2) bend down to their level during communications with children, (3) ask more open questions and (4) do not use aggressive language or tools to shame or punish children. In this way, it was hoped that practitioners would be encouraged to promote active learning through play that would enable the development of problem-solving skills, flexibility and the ability of the children to make connections to real-life situations (Partin et al. 2009).

The Play Well & Be Happy programme was delivered over four implementation phases by a core team of facilitators, supported by the lead practitioners in the Eastern Cape. Each phase was delivered in a different region in the Eastern Cape: Phases 1 and 2 in the urban areas of East London and Port Elizabeth, respectively; then Phase 3 in rural Lusikisiki; and Phase 4 in the BCMM. The selection of the four geographic areas was made by the provincial Department of Education, in consultation with the programme implementers and funders. While Phases 1 through 3 targeted Grade R practitioners in public schools, Phase 4 targeted practitioners in ECD centres.


Research methods and design

This article draws on the components of the data collected for a broader evaluation research study, which aimed to provide an independent yet engaged perspective on the design, implementation and outcomes of Play Well & Be Happy over the four successive implementation phases. The evaluation adopted design-based methods, and as such the programme design, as well as the instrumentation and ways of evaluating it, evolved with each successive implementation phase.

Research questions

The nature of the research questions of a study determines the research approach, which in turn determines the strategies used to collect and analyse data (Cresswell 2014). This article focuses on one aspect of the evaluation research data to answer the following questions:

  • whether practitioners shifted their level of confidence in their self-reflections

  • whether there was evidence of practitioner shifts in knowledge about learning through play

  • if so, how this accorded with analysis of their observed practice of learning through play.

Data collection methods

Both quantitative and qualitative data were collected. The use of multiple data sources, which enabled insights from a number of vantage points (Henning, Van Rensburg & Smit 2004), enhanced the validity of the study as proposed by Bryman (2006).

Data collection involved the methods shown in Figure 2.

Changes in confidence, knowledge and practice of play were determined based on three data sources:

  • Self-reported shifts in practitioners' confidence and knowledge practice (n = 882 matched questionnaires), solicited through a structured questionnaire at baseline and endline

  • An analysis of practitioners' responses to open-ended questions designed to reflect their understanding of learning through play

  • In-school lesson observations (n = 18) of case study Grade R practitioners in practice (in 14 'treatment' schools), where five case studies included lessons observed by the same practitioner (n = 10) at baseline and endline.7 These were compared to in-school lesson observations of Grade R practitioners in two 'control' schools.


Survey questionnaires

The survey questions at baseline and end line were largely matched in order to ascertain changes in practitioner opinions over time. Survey questions at baseline (n = 916) and end line (n = 882) included a combination of five-point Likert-scale questions that asked for opinions on various aspects of learning through play.

They also included three questions testing a practitioner's knowledge and understanding of aspects of play that required written responses:

  • What do you understand by learning through play?

  • What do children learn from learning through play?

  • How do you organise your classroom for learning through play?

When analysing the practitioners' responses to the knowledge-based questions, a simple framework for judging changes in the practitioner's knowledge was used. An individual's baseline response was compared to their end line response on the same question, as follows:

  • a positive shift (improved understanding from baseline to end line)

  • a negative shift (regression in understanding from baseline to end line)

  • no shift (no change in understanding from baseline to end line).

For Phases 3 and 4,8 a more detailed coding rubric was developed to analyse the matched open-ended questions, and the responses were blind-coded by two researchers. This included attention to three levels of possible shifts:

  • Level 1: attitudes and perceptions of play

  • Level 2: knowledge of play

  • Level 3: practice of play.

Moreover, the quality of responses were coded as 0 (incoherent or off-topic), 1 (basic understanding), 2 (intermediate understanding) and 3 (advanced understanding).

Table 1 shows the data analysis frameworks as applied to the survey questionnaire responses.

During Phase 3, evaluators coded a random sample of 20% of responses to the matched open-ended questions pertaining to knowledge of learning through play. In Phase 4, all responses to the open-ended questions were coded. The difference in total score from baseline to end line was a rough quantitative measure of change in understanding. This was useful to measure overall trends, in the absence of an assessment rubric.


Lesson observations at treatment and control schools

In applying a qualitative methodology, the case study method was selected because it provides an opportunity to highlight specific experiences (such as, in this case, the integration of play in classroom practice), bounded and informed by specific contexts (Merriam 1998). A purposive sampling strategy was employed. Treatment schools were selected in each district, such that the two schools came from separate administrative circuits;9 were different school quintiles;10 and used different languages of teaching and learning. Where possible, case study schools were visited at baseline and again at end line. The control schools were identified by the Eastern Cape Department of Education as being in the same district as the treatment schools (but not engaged in the Play Well & Be Happy programme).

The qualitative data collected through the school visits is not the focus of this article. Instead, we have presented the coding rubrics and ways in which the data was collated among the case study practitioners to offer a broad-brush measure of changes in practice. Classroom observations focused on how the Grade R practitioner facilitated active learning through play in general, and how they used the Play Well & Be Happy materials in particular. A lesson observation protocol, as shown in Table 2, was developed to aid the interpretation of our observations.

A total score out of 72 was awarded for the baseline and end line guided play lesson observation, which included a total of 48 for practitioner outcomes and 24 for outcomes displayed by children. These were converted to percentages and compared. Positive shifts, negative shifts or no change from baseline to end line were noted for each case study observation.

Ethical considerations

This research followed the United Nations International Children and Education Fund (UNICEF) ethical guidelines for conducting research involving children (UNICEF 2015). In so doing, several ethical approval processes have been obtained, namely ethical approval from the Ethics Committee of the University of Johannesburg's Faculty of Education (ethical clearance number 2017-015); research permission from the provincial Department of Basic Education (Eastern Cape); and voluntary informed consent to participate in the research from the teacher trainers and Grade R practitioners (in their surveys). Furthermore, all data collected were anonymised, and all participants had the right to withdraw from the research at any point in time. There was no harm foreseen as a result of being part of the research.



In this section we explain how practitioners self-reported on their confidence and knowledge. This is the augmented with how we analysed responses to survey questions, which were designed to solicit their understanding of learning through play. This is contrasted with the practice of play observed for the case study practitioners.

Practitioner reflections on changes in confidence (n = 882)

In all four phases there was a significant positive shift in the reported level of confidence with providing play experiences (moderate to large effect sizes), as shown in Table 3.



Practitioner reflections on changes in knowledge and practice (n = 882)

The practitioners also reported very positively on the materials, on their learning about planning and their promotion of active learning through play, as well as their children's ability to be organised into groups and the possibility of using guided play techniques.

As shown in Table 4, in all three phases, there was close to unanimous agreement that the LEGO® Duplo Bricks and Takalani materials had supported learning through play in the classroom. There was a bigger variation between phases on whether children knew how to be organised into play stations. The highest agreement levels were in the BCMM (91.7%) and the lowest in PE (78.3%).



In terms of the priority behaviours of the practitioners in their interaction with the children, the practitioners first self-reported on these. The practitioners in all phases but the first were asked to respond to four statements using a five-point Likert-scale. The results shown in Table 5 indicate that there was extensive agreement with all four statements. Thus, the practitioners felt that they asked more open-ended questions; spoke more calmly to the children; listened more to the children; bent down more to the children's level; and punished or shamed the children in front of the class less (compared with all cases before the training programme).



The results in Table 5 provide a glowing response to the extent to which the expectations of the programme were met: the practitioners were overwhelmingly positive. This at least demonstrates that they were aware of the behaviours expected of them after the short 5-week course.11

A slightly more nuanced view on the actual implementation of the hoped-for expectations was evident in their descriptions of the challenges that they faced when trying to enact the programme expectations. Table 6 highlights the main challenges that practitioners experienced during their attempts at teaching through play.



This provides a contrast to the overwhelmingly positive self-reporting on uptake of the programme expectations. It suggests that, while the practitioners were aware of what was expected, they nevertheless faced numerous challenges in enacting these expectations in their classrooms.

Practitioner knowledge of learning through play

In all phases, practitioners were asked, 'What is your understanding of learning through play?' and 'What do you think the children learn when you use "playful learning" in your classroom?'

Across all phases, participants reflected a basic understanding of learning through play, but there were modest and uneven shifts in understanding play from baseline to end line.

In Phase 1 (East London), 45.8% of practitioners showed an improvement in understanding from baseline to end line. In Phase 2 (Port Elizabeth), because they showed a good understanding of play at baseline, 28% of practitioners showed an improvement in understanding. In Phase 3 (Lusikisiki) and Phase 4 (Buffalo City), a more detailed coding protocol was applied, as shown in Table 7, which revealed that Lusikisiki practitioners showed a significant improvement in understanding from baseline to end line with moderate effect size, while Buffalo City practitioners showed a significant decrease in understanding with a moderate effect size.

In general, BCMM practitioners scored higher at baseline than at end line, thus showing a negative change with a moderate effect size. The reason for this may be attributable to less time being given to practitioners to answer the survey at end line compared to more time given when answering the baseline questionnaire. This is evident in the lower mean for the character counts at end line.

Observations of practitioners' practice of play

The following indicators of a practice of play were considered through the lesson observations: the use of play equipment, the running of play stations and the four explicit behaviours expected from the teachers (asking open questions, getting down to the children's level, not using aggressive gestures or tools and speaking with calm and gentle tones to the children).

Scores were allocated as per the lesson observation protocol for 'used available [play] equipment effectively' and 'set up and managed play stations in the classroom' and were then tallied. These scores are shown in Table 8.



Overall, the average total score increased from 10 points at baseline to 18 points at end line (which was a statistically significant difference).12

The average end line score is 56.3% of the total possible score for these two indicators. As a point of comparison, at seven control lesson observations, the average score obtained was 51.8%. Thus, the trained practitioners of Play Well & Be Happy obtained a slightly better score than those who were untrained (but this difference was not statistically significant).13

In the case of the observed lessons, scores for the practitioners' interactions with the children were allocated as per the lesson observation protocol for the five aspects indicated, which were then tallied (see Table 9).



Overall, the total score decreased from 48 points at baseline to 47 points at end line (but this difference was not significant).14

The average end line score is 58.8% of the total possible score for these five indicators. As a point of comparison, in the seven control lessons observed, the average score obtained was very similar, at 56.4% (and the difference between control and treatment schools was not significant).15

If one breaks down the overall score into individual aspects, it is clear that asking open-ended questions is a major omission across the board. Out of all seven lessons given by trained teachers of Play Well & Be Happy observed at end line,16 in only two did the practitioner receive a score of better than 0 ('never'): one received a 1 ('to a limited extent') and one a 2 ('somewhat'). On the other end of the spectrum, avoiding aggressive words and actions was positive throughout: out of the same seven lessons mentioned, in only two did the practitioner receive a score of less than 4 ('extensively'): two received a score of 3 ('most of the time').



We return now to reflect on our research questions before and after the Play Well & Be Happy intervention:

  • whether practitioners shifted their level of confidence in their self-reflections

  • whether there was evidence of practitioner shifts in knowledge about learning through play

  • if so, how this accorded with analysis of their observed practice of learning through play.

In all four phases there was a significant positive shift in the reported level of confidence with providing play experiences (moderate to large effect sizes). Similarly, there was enthusiastic positive self-reporting on their improved knowledge, utility and implementation of the changes in behaviour expected from the practitioners.

It is clear from the data that self-reported evidence (collected through the survey) is exceptionally positive, with practitioners reporting positively on desired attributes both before and after the intervention. While positive shifts were evident, this was from very high baseline levels. This was made worse in some cases by the skewed phrasing of questions included in the instrumentation, such as 'Do you agree or disagree that you now do X more than before?' As such, while the self-reporting may be interpreted to show practitioner enthusiasm and confidence in their approach to teaching through play, this seems to be of little substantive value.

There was more nuance and useful qualitative data obtained from the analysis of the open-ended questions included in the survey. Open questions like 'What do you understand by learning through play?' were posed, and the responses to these were coded in more detailed ways with each design cycle. This provided some written evidence of the practitioners' developing understanding of the main ideas.

Across all phases, participants reflected a basic understanding of learning through play but uneven shifts in understanding of play from baseline to end line. Initially a simple code of positive, negative or no shift in understanding was applied. By Phase 4, the responses were blind-coded using an agreed coding rubric. The type of activity undertaken as part of the evaluation research ought to be included in the assessment and feedback practices of the Play Well & Be Happy course in future.

The real test of changes in practice was only evident at the coalface, when practitioners were observed teaching in their classrooms. It is seldom that such site visits and lesson observations can be included within the available resources for a training intervention. In this case, careful selection of case studies allowed for 22 site visits to be included. However - as the data revealed - within the complexity of a challenging schooling system, only five cases included both pre- and post-intervention observations of the same practitioner in the same classroom. Table 10 offers a summary of this in relation to shifts from baseline to end line observations and then in comparison to the control schools.

This quantification of lesson observation data is crude, but suggests that there was evidence (at least among the five case study practitioners) that there was significant improvement in relation to teaching through play with the use of play equipment and play stations. We would describe these behaviours as the 'form' of what was expected from the Play Well & Be Happy programme: a shift from whole-class teaching without play equipment to managed play stations with play equipment.

This is perhaps not surprising in a South African policy context that places more emphasis on the availability of play resources and infrastructure, developing safe play spaces, and facilitating parent education and capacity-development programmes on the importance of play (A Chance to Play Southern Africa 2017). One has to be realistic about what is achievable in a short course. Achieving such a shifts towards better availability of play resources, great confidence and greater awareness of the importance of play, as well as the kinds of behaviours expected from practitioners in their classroom, are important steps in the right direction. They are perhaps all that can be expected from a short 5-week training intervention.

The evidence of any shifts in practice with regard to the 'hoped-for' practitioner behaviours was more elusive, with no significant difference observed from baseline to end line among the five case study practitioners. The positive shifts in confidence and knowledge did not yet accord with the practitioners' observed practice of learning through play. Practitioners demonstrated the clearest difficulties with understanding the practice of applying different play strategies, asking open questions and enabling children to manage their own play. This points to the need for a longer professional development intervention, which would provide more examples and clarity on the meaning of different play strategies and the appropriate conditions in which to apply each of them. It should be borne in mind that the lessons were being observed, which may have changed the normal practice of the practitioner. However, the data reveals at the very least that practitioners were more aware of what was expected of them in relation to their interactions with the children and were able to model this behaviour to the observer (other than in the case of asking more open-ended questions).

The inclusion of 'control schools' in the research design was exploratory. Their selection was made by the provincial Department of Education based on being in the same district as the treatment school being observed. However, after collecting the data it was clear that the control schools had not been adequately matched with the treatment schools (in terms of a whole range of socio-economic, infrastructure and practitioner qualification and experience indicators). The absence of this detailed matching - and preferably including standardised measures of learner outcomes - meant that the treatment and control baselines were not sufficiently comparable.



The Play Well & Be Happy research design made clear the complexity of designing, implementing and researching a large-scale intervention simultaneously. The four-phase design allowed for improvement in how the programme was conceptualised and reflected upon. However, by Phase 4 there still remained areas for improvement, with a particular need to include some formal assessment as part of the programme (via course materials or a written assignment), rather than being included as open questions in a research questionnaire. The coding and feedback of these responses needed to be integrated into the programme design.

Nevertheless, Play Well & Be Happy represents an important exploratory and systematic province-wide intervention on building Grade R and ECD practitioner capacity in learning and teaching through play in the Eastern Cape. The programme had wide-ranging positive effects on initial practitioner awareness of play, their levels of confidence and their understanding and practice of play, and it provided important joyful learning opportunities for the estimated 25 000 children who showed enthusiasm towards the LEGO® and Takalani materials that the programme provided.

The experience laid an important basis for a further improved systemic and sustainable intervention focused on growing the capabilities of practitioners and educators and deepening their practice of play. We believe that more formalised focus, funding and dedication to continuous professional development and training of practitioners in the Eastern Cape in terms of best practices in ECD in general, and specifically the role of play, will help strengthen the systemic capacity of the Eastern Cape Department of Education (DOE) for effective ECD delivery, thereby improving the lives of all the children in the province. This article contributes to ensuring that the Play Well & Be Happy experience and lessons are widely shared with the public, government, ECD non-government organisations and the research community.



This article is a product of the collective effort of a number of individuals and stakeholders. The authors thank the approximately 1000 Grade R and pre-primary practitioners and principals for their participation in the evaluation of the Play Well & Be Happy programme. The authors acknowledge the principals at five Early Childhood Development centres and nine primary schools who allowed them to conduct interviews and observe their practitioners and their practice of play.

The core implementation team, Ms Margaret Irvine, Dr Daisy Reddy, Ms Colleen Forsyth, Ms Cherrylyn MacMaster and the late Ms Busi Sokopo, supported the authors extensively with evaluation activities. Ms Koleka Lwana and Ms Glory Ndabeni played a central role in East London and Lusikisiki, respectively.

Meetings and conference calls with the Sesame Workshop team based in New York provided guidance on the design of the evaluation methodologies and ways in which the authors could improve the evaluation process. The authors thank Dr Jennifer Kotler (Head of Research and Evaluation), Ms Alyson Moskowitz (Project Manager) and Ms Nada Elattar (Director of Educational Programmes for the International Social Impact Department) for their warm support.

The authors also give special thanks to Mr Michael Renvillard (Initiatives Lead for South Africa), Dr Jill Popp and Mr Vincent Doyle (all from the LEGO® Foundation, who funded the Play Well & Be Happy programme). The authors acknowledge the Mai Family Foundation, who provided initial funding for the Takalani Sesame Eastern Cape outreach initiative, which served as an informative pilot for the PW&BH expansion initiative.

Finally, the authors thank the Kelello-University of Johannesburg research team: Ms Rene Weston (Project Coordinator), Mr Andile Mbali (Field Worker and Case Study Writer), Ms Pam Maxakato (Field Worker), Ms Koleka Ntantiso (Field Worker and Case Study Writer), Ms Yolisa Madolo (Translator), Ms Zola Thompson (Translator), Dr Kaya Tshabalala (Field Worker), Ms Gail Van Heerden (Data Capturer) and Ms Zahraa Parker (Data Capturer).

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors' contributions

S.I. coordinated the collaboration between the authors; conducted the literature review, which was integrated in the findings section; put the initial drafts together; and edited the final version. S.B. wrote the research methodology section. G.S.S. added the evaluation results in the findings section and provided edits to the article. N.R. wrote the abstract and discussion and edited the article.

Funding information

The PW&BH programme and the programme evaluation was funded by the LEGO® Foundation through their partnership with the Sesame Workshop, and their South African counterpart, Takalani Sesame which enjoys a partnership with the Eastern Cape Department of Education and the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality.



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Shafika Isaacs

Received: 05 Sept. 2018
Accepted: 18 Dec. 2018
Published: 29 May 2019



1 . We use the term 'practitioner' to denote those who are not yet qualified as ECD educators and the term 'educator' to refer to those who have a minimum of the National Qualifications Framework Level 4 qualification.
2 . 'Large classes' refers to class groups of 60-90 children.
3 . Department of Education 2001:7, refers to ECD as 'a comprehensive approach to policies and programmes for children from birth to 9 years with active participation of practitioners, their parents and other caregivers' and ECD is referred to as 'the process of emotional, cognitive, sensory, spiritual, moral, physical, social and communication development from birth to school-going age' (Chapter 6: Section 91:1).
4 . Grade R is a single-year preschool programme intended for children in the year before entering Grade 1, implemented in primary schools or community-based ECD sites.
5 . The Foundation Phase includes Grade R to Grade 3.
6 . 'Practitioners' refer to those who are not yet qualified as Grade R or ECD educators.
7 . The remaining nine sites had inconsistencies in observations either because the children were sent home at the last minute by the principal (Phase 1), because only baseline visits were conducted (Phase 2), because the class was taught by the principal at end line and practitioner at baseline (Phase 4) or because the evaluators discovered that the practitioner did not attend the training at all (Phase 4).
8 . In Phase 2 there was a lighter touch evaluation, to stay within the budget parameters, and as the urban context of Port Elizabeth was considered sufficiently similar to that of East London.
9 . Each school district in the Eastern Cape contains two administrative circuits.
10 . Schools in South Africa are categorised into quintiles according to the level of affluence of the community surrounding the schools. Quintile 1 schools are situated in the poorest communities, and Quintile 5 communities in the wealthiest. Quintiles 1 to 3 receive a higher government subsidy and do not usually charge school fees.
11 . In this case, the percentages shown are for disagree/strongly disagree, as this is a negatively-phrased statement.
12 . A two-tailed Wilcoxon signed-rank test was conducted on the pre- and post-training 'play' scores of the treatment school practitioners. The post-training scores (median = 2.5) were higher than the pre-training scores (median = 1), and the differences were significant (the test statistic = 3, which is less than the critical value of 4 at a 5% level).
13 . A two-tailed Mann-Whitney U test was conducted on the 'play' scores of the control school practitioners (Group A) and on those of the treatment school practitioners (Group B) at endline. The scores for treatment school practitioners (median = 2.5) were higher than for the control practitioners (median = 2, U = 48, p = 0.611); however, the difference is not significant at the 5% level.
14 . A two-tailed Wilcoxon signed-rank test was conducted on the pre- and post-training 'interaction with children' scores of the treatment school practitioners. The post-training scores (median = 2.5) were lower than the pre-training scores (median = 3), but the differences were not significant (the test statistic = 9, which is more than the critical value of 4 at a 5% level).
15 . A two-tailed Mann-Whitney U test was conducted on the 'interaction with children' scores of the control school practitioners (Group A) and on those of the treatment school practitioners (Group B) at end line. The scores for treatment school practitioners (median = 2.5) were higher than for the control practitioners (median = 2, U = 337.5, p = 0.834), but the difference is not significant at the 5% level.
16 . This includes the four practitioners observed at both baseline and end line and a further three observed only at end line.




The disempowerment of early childhood practitioners in impoverished and marginalised communities



Tilana KnafoI; Brigitte SmitII; Petro MaraisIII

IDepartment Foundation Phase Education, AROS Private Higher Institution, Pretoria, South Africa
IIDepartment of Educational Leadership and Management, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
IIIDepartment of Early Childhood Education, College of Education, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa





BACKGROUND: Quality early childhood programmes have proven to be highly cost-effective in reversing the detrimental consequences of poverty on children's development. However, these programmes can only influence developmental outcomes of poor children if their needs are considered
AIM: The purpose of this article was to inquire into the experiences of two early childhood development (ECD) practitioners working and living in impoverished and marginalised predominantly white communities where the involvement of volunteers from charity organisations was prominent. The researchers argued that the practitioners' experiences regarding their work should inform the kind of complementary volunteer aid and support sought for
SETTING: The research sites were two informal predominantly white settlements where unemployed residents lived in makeshift housing
METHODS: A narrative inquiry, nested in the social constructivist paradigm, was employed to explore the experiences of two practitioners. Data were collected from narrative interviews, observations, documents, photographs and artefacts
RESULTS: Both participants knew well that the needs of the children in their care differed significantly from those of their more affluent peers and believed that training would equip them better for their task. Although both centres (and communities) benefitted from volunteer support, this well-intended aid was often misguided as the volunteers were not qualified educators and did not understand the context
CONCLUSION: The volunteers did not empower the practitioners to use their insight and experience to deliver a quality programme fit for context. Instead, they left the practitioners with a sense of disempowerment by dictating the programmes and practices to be followed in the respective ECD centres, even though they were not qualified to do so

Keywords: early childhood development practitioners; impoverished and marginalised communities; informal settlements; narrative inquiry; volunteer support.




The United Nations stated the universal termination of poverty in all its forms as the first of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals identified by the organisation in 2015 (United Nations 2015). Also, Statistics South Africa (2015) regards the eradication of poverty as one of the most pressing issues to be addressed. Poverty is a complex chronic and debilitating condition. A plethora of literature since the 1960s has shown its negative impact on all aspects of a child's development (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan 1997; Jensen 2009; Mustard 2007; Shonkoff & Phillips 2000).

In spite of this bleak scenario, leading economists such as Heckman (2013), Bernanke (2012), Grunewald (2015) as well as the World Bank publication No Small Matter: The Impact of Poverty, Shocks, and Human Capital Investments in Early Childhood (Alderman 2011) regard quality early childhood development (ECD) programmes to be one of the most efficient ways to level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots. At the same time, Grunewald (2015) warns against poor quality of ECD programmes, which he believes creates excessive stress that is detrimental to the healthy development of children. Therefore, programmes catering for poor children should be tailored to address their needs to be developmentally appropriate and efficient (Azzi-Lessing 2010).

For this reason, ECD practitioners serving these children and their families need to be empowered to develop and present a suitable programme. Practitioners experience the needs of the children in their care on a daily basis. They also intimately understand the social conditions of their communities, which, in turn, influence the development of their children. Therefore, their experiences should be a primary consideration when designing a quality ECD programme for children from impoverished backgrounds. Regarding the empowerment of unqualified practitioners in township centres, Fourie (2013) recommends practitioner participation in the development of their skills and knowledge. In this regard, Fourie (2013:61) refers to 'teaching and learning experiences that are transactional'.

Some significant studies have been conducted on early childhood programmes in predominantly black informal settlements and impoverished rural areas (Dawes, Biersteker & Hendricks 2012; Ebrahim, Killian & Rule 2011; Van der Vyver 2012). Insights emanating from such studies contribute to a better understanding of the context and needs of ECD centres in these communities. However, no scholarly studies on ECD programmes in informal settlements of predominantly white people could be found. This observation was confirmed by Dr Danie Brink, executive director of Solidarity Helping Hand (a non-government organisation [NGO] whose focus is primarily on the plight of poor white people) during a personal communication in 2015.

This article is based on a study of the experiences of two ECD practitioners working and living in impoverished predominantly white informal settlements (Knafo 2016). The broader study was guided by four questions:

  • What are the experiences of the practitioners regarding the children in their care?

  • What are the experiences of the practitioners regarding the parents of the children in their care?

  • How do the practitioners' personal issues have an effect on their work?

  • How do the experiences of the practitioners regarding their contexts influence the quality of their work?

Although the practitioners were not qualified, they showed remarkable dedication and insight regarding their work. Yet, a sense of disempowerment in their lives and work emerged as an ever-present theme in the stories of the participants. The two centres were supported by various volunteers from charity organisations and churches in terms of material support, and also in organising and running the centres. This state of affairs informed the fourth question above. This article now focuses explicitly on the last question.

The research focus is therefore on the degree of empowerment as experienced by the practitioners as a result of the various external influences and their particular context to work ethics.

Theoretical framework

This study has been conducted within Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory (1979) as theoretical framework. He identified four spheres of influence in a person's ecological system: micro-, meso-, exo- and macrosystems. The microsystem is described by Bronfenbrenner as the most direct and immediate sphere of influence on a person. The exosystems are those settings which may influence a person, although the person is not directly involved in the settings. The overarching circle of the ecological system, the macrosystem, consists of the belief systems, customs, hazards, life-course options, lifestyles and material resources of a particular culture or sub-culture. Bronfenbrenner's theory is frequently used in studies on childhood poverty, for example, Brown, Ackerman and Moore (2013) and Martin, Gardner and Brooks-Gunn (2012), to conceptualise the proximal and distal influences on children's development. This article assumes the point of view that the practitioners' experiences are determined by the entire ecological system in which the practitioner and child live and develop. At the same time, their experiences are not viewed as objective truths 'out there', but are seen as constructions of the practitioners' lived and subjective experiences.

Literature review

To understand the experiences of the ECD practitioners working in poverty, the nature of poverty should first be explored. Poverty is not merely a lack of income, but a multi-faceted concept, experienced by the poor as deprivation in various domains of their lives (Statistics South Africa 2014). At the same time, it is evident from the literature on poverty that each domain of deprivation contributes to a sense of marginalisation experienced by those trapped in the poverty cycle.

Marginalisation as an aspect of poverty is defined as 'being in a marginal or peripheral position from the centre of the main development activities or decision-making processes' (Executive Secretariat of the Africa Forum 2010:10). John Tesha, executive secretary of the Africa Forum (pers. comm., 2015), describes multiple deprivation and marginalisation as two sides of the same coin. Each domain of deprivation adds to the marginalisation experienced by the poor.

From the literature on poverty, it is evident that the poor are socially and physically marginalised. Ridge (2011) identifies limited and unaffordable transport and low-quality housing as contributing to their isolation. Friends are reluctant to visit cold and cramped homes. As the poor are embarrassed about their poverty, they try to hide it which further isolates them (Solidarity Helping Hand 2010). They are pushed to the outskirts of their communities because of unemployment and job losses. This, in turn, leads to stigmatisation of their neighbourhoods. As their physical space is removed from economic activities, the poor are disconnected from employment prospects (Angélil & Siress 2012; Šabić et al. 2013). Šabić et al. (2013:72) refer to these settlements as the 'invisible part of the city'. It is an ugly face characterised by neglect, unhygienic conditions, lack of sanitation and electricity, hidden from the eyes of tourists and foreign visitors.

The potential research sites (impoverished communities of predominantly white people) considered for this study were on farms, on smallholdings or in derelict caravan parks far from job opportunities, thus being geographically marginalised. Social woes such as child neglect and abuse, abandoned newborn babies and teenage prostitution characterise these settlements (Solidarity Helping Hand 2010). People live in wooden huts, caravans, corrugated iron shacks, chicken pens, under bridges and plastic sheets (Solidarity Helping Hand 2010). Extreme poverty seems to have a marginalising effect on all its victims. During this investigation, we learnt that the white residents of informal settlements and the aid organisations active in these settlements believe that they also have unique challenges. The perception exists, correctly or incorrectly, that white people do not have access to state and other forms of support, even though affirmative action deprived them of job opportunities. Research conducted on behalf of the Umsobomvu Youth Fund by Robin Pharoah (2008) found that these communities have largely fallen through the cracks of the current system. For example, they do not know about programmes available to them and for this and various other reasons do not access these programmes. It is evident that not only their immediate environment (the microsystem) but also more distal influences (the view of the more affluent and socially healthy part of society regarding the poor) contribute to a sense of marginalisation of these communities. The belief of impoverished white people regarding the macrosystem (a socio-political dispensation that does not support them) further pushes them to the fringes of society.

As indicated in the Introduction, a quality ECD programme is a highly effective route out of the poverty cycle. Nevertheless, poor parents in marginalised communities cannot access traditional ECD facilities because of distance and their inability to pay school fees (Atmore, Van Niekerk & Ashley-Cooper 2012). Being socially, physically and economically segregated, an ECD centre in the community is the most logical arrangement to serve these families. However, the developmental needs and challenges of marginalised poor communities should play a crucial role in the design of ECD services (Fourie 2013). Therefore, Fourie (2013) emphasises that community members should participate in the design of a suitable programme. They are in the best position to give a realistic picture of everyday realities in the community. Accordingly, this article argues that the ECD practitioners working and living in impoverished and marginalised communities should play a central role in the design and presentation of a suitable programme. Yet, the literature shows that outsiders initiate, develop and manage these programmes (Fourie 2013). The approach of outside developers is described by Fourie (2013:61): 'Developers often think that they know best and therefore their prime function is to transfer knowledge to communities whom, by definition, know less'. Also, Kholowa and Rose (2007) point out that internationally accepted best practices might not be the most appropriate for every context. Early childhood development practitioners working in impoverished areas in Malawi indicated lack of training, limited resources and limited community contributions as daily challenges. However, a more fundamental challenge was parental expectation. Parents expected the ECD centre to prepare their children to study successfully to escape from poverty. This focus on academic skills is in contrast with a universal view of the holistic development of the young child. Yet, Kholowa and Rose (2007:458) believe that this parental perspective points to 'a greater awareness of local realities'.

Narrative inquiry was selected as a research design to explore the experiences of ECD practitioners working in these settlements, facilitating emotional responses from the research participants (Elliot 2005).


Research design and methodology

The study was concerned with the participants' understanding of the world in which they live and work. Creswell (2013) in this regard endorses that this view is shaped through their interaction with others. Therefore, it was necessary to understand the social context and complexities of the participants' experiences. Thus, the research approach was qualitative and narrative inquiry, nested in the social constructivist paradigm, was the design type. A narrative inquiry based on Dewey's (1938) notion of experience as research design was considered to be most appropriate, as 'experience' is the core of this study. Dewey explains that 'experience' creates social reality and from this ontological assumption, all inquiry follows (Clandinin & Rosiek 2007). Accordingly, Caine, Estefan and Clandinin (2013) speak about a relational ontology in this regard. The narrative inquirer studies the experiences of the participants through their storied lives. At the same time, the cultural, historical, social and institutional narratives within which individual experiences are shaped and developed are also considered an important source of knowledge and understanding (Clandinin & Rosiek 2007). For this study, the socio-political narratives regarding 'white squatter camps' within the broader South African context were explored. However, the experiences of the participants were the start and end points of the study.

A purposive sampling strategy was used to identify two practitioners (Rina and Thea, respectively)1 in impoverished and marginalised communities of predominantly white people, who were information-rich and knowledgeable about the phenomenon (McMillan & Schumacher 2010; Strydom & Delport 2011). Rina worked as a practitioner alongside another practitioner - a volunteer from a church group. She was responsible for the younger group, whereas the volunteer taught the older group. The centre was managed by this volunteer as well as other volunteers. Thea, on the other hand, was appointed as a principal as well as a Grade R teacher by a volunteer (Mia)1 who started the centre in this community and also managed the centre. A few members of the community were appointed by the volunteer to work as practitioners for the younger age groups. The sample size was limited by the small population size, the availability of information-rich cases and the narrative interview as primary data collection technique as an in-depth understanding of their experiences was relevant. Christensen, Johnson and Turner (2015) expound the aim of purposive sampling to gain insight into a phenomenon and not to generalise findings from a sample to a population.

Gaining access to these communities was incredibly daunting. We had to approach two NGOs active in these communities to introduce us as a 'friend' of the community, because the members were wary of outsiders. We explained the purpose of the study to the manager of one of the settlements and the owner of the farm where the second settlement was established. Letters requesting the participation of the community in the study were explained and signed by the manager and the owner of the respective settlements. Letters of informed consent were signed by the two prospective participants after the purpose of the study as well as the significance of their contribution had been explained. We also secured ethical clearance from the College of Education of the University of South Africa.

The focus of this study was the experiences of Rina and Thea of their daily life and work as ECD practitioners in impoverished and marginalised communities of mostly white people. Data were collected using a variety of methods which allowed for a composition of richly descriptive field texts of the experiences of the participants. These included narrative interviews and conversations with the participants, field notes of non-participant observations, photographs, documents and artefacts.

Jovchelovitch and Bauer (2000) define the narrative interview as an unstructured in-depth interview used in qualitative research. The participant in a narrative interview is a storyteller who constructs the story on his or her terms and can develop or change the focus of the narrative according to his or her agenda (Hollway & Jefferson 2008). The narrative interviews for this study were based on one question to the participants, to speak about their challenges and experiences regarding their work as ECD practitioners. This question elicited a response from the participants, but they owned the response. Their narratives were not only about their work but also about their settlement. They talked about their experiences not only with the children in the centre and their parents, but also with the community, their families and the outsiders and volunteers supporting the centre and the community. They talked about what they did before moving to the settlement, their present situation and their future plans.

The large volume of collected data was coded using 7 of the 32 coding techniques identified by Saldaña (2013). The steps recommended by Creswell (2013) and Butler-Kisber (2010) were followed to arrive at four themes, which became the major components of this study and write-up. Categories were constructed from the initial codes by comparing, combining, sorting and rearranging codes. These categories were then reduced and combined into four themes based on connections among the categories. The four themes were the practitioners' personal and social experiences, their experiences concerning place (their settlements), their experiences with camp leadership and their experiences concerning support infrastructure.

The data the participants provided the researchers to work with also left them vulnerable. The researchers therefore adhered to ethical measures such as informed consent, avoidance of harm, assurance of privacy, confidentiality, and anonymity and access to research texts. The researchers also tended to ethical issues specific to a narrative inquiry and dealt with these during the entire inquiry. Throughout the study, the researchers considered the observation of Elliot (2005) that the way a researcher analyses and interprets personal narratives may affect the participants. The researchers followed the recommendation by Berg (2009) to discuss the participants, their viewpoints, their settlements and their communities with sensitivity without compromising on honesty. The researchers followed Lieblich's advice (Clandinin & Murphy 2007) to listen emphatically without judgement or disbelief. During the interviews and conversations with the participants, it was emphasised that because the researchers had never worked in similar conditions, their opinions could not be judged and that the participants were the experts in their contexts.

At the same time, the researchers endeavoured to establish the trustworthiness of this study in various ways, for example, to spend extensive time in the field with the participants to build a relationship of trust and to observe them in their natural environments (Butler-Kisber 2010; Creswell 2013; Lincoln & Guba 1985; Schurink, Fouché & De Vos 2011); to record interviews electronically and to jot down detailed observations on the spot (Strydom 2011) and to use various forms of field texts and data collection strategies to create thick descriptions (Butler-Kisber 2010; Creswell 2013).As the focus of the study was the experiences of the participants, their voices were conspicuous throughout the study (Butler-Kisber 2010).

Ethical considerations

Ethical clearance was obtained from the University of South Africa (Ref no.: 2014/September//MC).



Although the two communities where the study was conducted were similar, they were also different in many respects. Both were communities of mostly unemployed homeless individuals who lost their jobs, who were too sick or unqualified to work and even people who fled from the law. Many of the residents suffered from social ills that often accompany a life of poverty, such as alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and physical and sexual abuse, as described by Azzi-Lessing (2010), Waldfogel, Craigie and Brooks-Gunn (2010), Solidarity Helping Hand (2010) and Jensen (2009).

Rina's settlement was a classic informal settlement, such as defined by Huchzermeyer and Karam (2006) as land illegally occupied as living space by the urban poor where any homeless person could squat. Thea's community, on the other hand, lived in a legal settlement on a privately-owned farm where the farmer erected wooden huts for unemployed and homeless families. Housing in both settlements was substandard and not conducive to the physical and social well-being of the residents. Although Rina's settlement was characterised by neglect and littering, the gardens in Thea's settlement were well tended to. Poverty and an accompanying sense of desperation compromised parents' capacity for positive parenting in both settlements.

The two participants came from vastly different backgrounds and had different histories that brought them to their respective settlements. Rina was a married woman with four children in her late 30s. She had completed her high school education and worked in an administrative position in a big city council until both she and her husband became unemployed and the family was evicted from their house for their inability to pay rent. The family ended up in the settlement. Rina desperately wanted to move away as she believed that settlement life was not a dignified way to raise her children. She doubted her abilities as a practitioner and was satisfied to do menial work. At the same time, the volunteers (without any teaching qualifications) acted as teachers of the children.

Thea, on the other hand, was an unmarried woman in her mid-40s. She had a BSc degree and used to have a work and an apartment. Nevertheless, she chose to resign and moved to live and work in an informal settlement as she believed this move to be a divine calling. She was confident about her professional skills and was appointed as a principal of the centre. Therefore, she was highly disappointed when her authority was disregarded by her colleagues and the volunteer who originally appointed her as a principal. However, both practitioners loved the children in their care and were devoted to their work. Both showed remarkable insight regarding the needs of the children in their respective centres and an understanding of the socio-economic conditions that hamper optimal growth and development of the children. They focused on the achievements of the children and not on their shortcomings. As Rina and Thea were the most qualified members of their respective communities, they also had to run an aftercare facility for the school children of their settlements to assist with homework.

In spite of different backgrounds, personal histories and unique personalities, four dominant themes common to the participants' narratives could be identified, including the practitioners' personal and social experiences, their experiences concerning place, their experiences with camp leadership and their experiences concerning support infrastructure. Butler-Kisber (2010:15) indicates that in qualitative research, because of the small number of participants and the contextualised nature of the research, one situation cannot be generalised to another. Therefore, the findings regarding the two participants' experiences are separately discussed.

At the same time, the various contextual systems of influence as defined by Bronfenbrenner (1979) are evident in the experiences of both Rina and Thea. From the themes that emerged from this study, it is evident that various microsystems were at play in Rina and Thea's experiences. These include the children they worked with and their colleagues with whom they interacted on a daily basis. The volunteers who established and maintained the centres and either worked as practitioner in the centre or assisted the practitioners were microsystems of the practitioners. The owner or camp manager of the two communities also served as microsystems of the practitioners. The mesosystem included the relationship between the children in the centre and the other practitioners (the colleagues of the two practitioners), between camp management and the volunteers and between their colleagues and the volunteers. From the identified themes, the parents of the children emerged as exosystem of the participants. The practitioners had to cope with the challenges of the children caused by problematic circumstances at home. The links between the volunteers and donors or sponsors were more examples of the practitioners' exosystem. Although the practitioners often did not know the donors or sponsors, they depended on their goodwill and aid to survive and to keep the doors of the centres open. The macrosystem of the participants included the deprived lifestyle of the communities and the social woes that usually accompany poverty as indicated in poverty literature, for example, Azzi-Lessing (2010), Waldfogel et al. (2010) and Jensen (2009).This, in turn, typically had an influence on the residents' parenting skills which, in turn, contributed to the behavioural problems of the children in the practitioners' care. The participant practitioners were also subject to the economic hardship of the community which affected their health and emotional well-being.

Rina's narrative

Experiences concerning place

Rina and her extended family lived in a makeshift house of corrugated iron and tents as an extension of the home. Rina was highly distressed about the fact that their house did not have electricity as she believed that this condition was to the detriment of her children. Rina and her husband regularly made plans to improve their lives. She had been working as a practitioner in the ECD centre for 4 years at the time and earned a negligible salary of R250.00 per month - a donation collected by the volunteers from a church group active in the community. Although Rina was initially very frustrated with the small size of her classroom, the room was eventually enlarged, painted and decorated by the volunteers. This resulted in the classroom being colourful, warm and inviting with overflowing toy boxes. The classroom and playground were well equipped, but the volunteer teaching the older group complained about a broken gate being a safety hazard. A child was injured when the gate fell on her. The volunteer had asked the self-appointed manager of the settlement to fix the gate but to no avail. She commented that he took the money donated to the centre by individuals and charities, but did nothing for the centre.

As Rina's community illegally occupied an abandoned caravan park, the sword of eviction was hanging over their heads for years. No long-term plans for the centre could thus be made.

Personal and social experiences

Rina openly expressed her love for the children in her care and demonstrated her affection towards them by hugging, kissing, carrying them and playing with them. The children had a trusting relationship with her and talked openly to her about upsetting incidents that happened at home. Rina experienced that both parents and children valued her, and she derived a sense of purpose from her work. At the same time, the work caused her distress. She talked about neglect and abuse of children and specifically remembered the severe beating of a 5-year-old by her mother. The mother believed that her daughter took her cellphone and came to the centre to beat the child. Rina helplessly stood by, not knowing how to handle the situation. She commented that if Child Welfare had been there that day, they would have removed the child from the mother's care. Rina was at a loss on how to prevent parental maltreatment of the centre's children, neither talking to the parents nor reporting the abuse to authorities although she found abuse and neglect profoundly upsetting. However, a parent guidance workshop was offered to the community, but the mothers who enrolled were not interested to complete the programme.

Welfare indeed removed three children from their mother, an incident Rina found highly traumatic. The one sibling, a toddler, clung to Rina, screaming and did not want to let go when the social worker tried to take her. Rina interpreted this as a plea for help and that she had let the child down. As she was particularly fond of the toddler, Rina experienced this as a personal loss. A few months later the baby sister who stayed behind with the mother died. Being a mother herself, Rina had empathy with the mother and found this experience difficult to handle emotionally: 'Daai stuk kan ek nie hanteer nie' [That part I cannot handle].

Experiences with camp leadership

The camp manager decided how the centre should be run, had control over the finances of the centre and appointed and dismissed staff at the centre on a whim, which left Rina highly distraught. Rina was desperate when the volunteer working as a practitioner was told not to return to the centre. Firstly, handling the centre on her own overwhelmed Rina. Secondly, the volunteer was instrumental in securing donations to the settlement and in particular to Rina and her children. The self-appointed manager's position was undisputed, and Rina did not stand up to him when he kept on swearing at her about an issue that was none of her doing. Furthermore, she believed without a doubt that the manager and his wife always acted in the best interest of the children.

Experiences concerning support infrastructure

A salient feature of the settlement was the constant flow of donors, volunteers, loads of donations arriving at the settlement and the active involvement of outsiders supporting the community and in particular the ECD centre on a daily basis. Groups of women from surrounding neighbourhoods visited on different days to present various activities. Especially the younger group (mostly toddlers) was subject to an ever-changing stream of different women performing age-inappropriate activities. For example, a social worker indicated that her task was to teach the children shapes and colours. The children had to sit passively at tables while she repeated the names of the shapes and colours. Afterwards, the children had to watch a video of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Bored toddlers who did not pay attention were reprimanded. Rina, their teacher, was relegated to minor cleaning work and supervision of outside play. Rina indicated that she would appreciate training to be a qualified teacher. Although the volunteers had promised to enrol her for a training course a number of times, this never materialised.

Other donor organisations included a well-known auditors' firm, a group of bikers, a pharmaceutical company, famous singers and celebrities, a youth organisation and church groups. The abundance of donations often included non-nutritional sweets and snacks. Food donations were also precarious. Rina explained that the camp manager's wife prepared meals for the community, but only when she had food to prepare: ' sy kan nie kosmaak as daar niks inkom nie' [ she cannot cook if no food comes in].

Thea's narrative

Experiences concerning place

Thea's settlement on a privately-owned farm looked well maintained and peaceful from the outside. The ECD centre was next to a dam complete with floating ducks. Thea pointed out that the playground was treacherous as the dam was a drowning hazard, the road next to the playground carried heavy trucks transporting tar and on the third side of the playground was the kitchen with a donkey boiler on the outside where children could get burnt. The fact that the toddlers were busy with potty-training made matters worse, as the toilets were far from the playgrounds and the toddlers needed an adult to accompany them to the toilet. Thea regularly counted the children on the playground to make sure everyone was still safe. She referred to the situation as ''n nagmerrie' [a nightmare]. Thea secured a donation to have the playground fenced in, but the owner refused the request, indicating that this would spoil the appearance of the gardens. The wooden hut that served as her house did not offer her enough protection against the elements in winter, and she became very sick. The fact that she had to walk some distance to get to a toilet or shower made matters worse during winter. She felt that some children were even more exposed and talked about a family where the children slept on the veranda with a makeshift roof of plastic sheets. The alternative was to have children sharing the same room as their parents which Thea felt was also not desirable.

Personal and social experiences

Thea explained how she tried to juggle her responsibilities as ECD practitioner and also supervising the aftercare. She cleaned the centre and toys afterhours and over weekends and washed dishes between activities at times when she did not have a cleaner. The volunteer who set up and managed the centre expected her to offer the children worksheets to complete. She copied the worksheets by hand in the evenings as she did not have access to a photocopier and the centre could not afford to buy workbooks. Although she received a salary of R200 per week from the volunteer, this money was suspended during weeks when she was off sick. Not having money to take care of personal needs, left Thea embarrassed. Already during our first interview, Thea complained about ill-health and exhaustion. She threatened to resign, but the volunteer and representative of the NGO supporting the settlement downplayed it as mere end-of-the-year exhaustion. Thea felt misunderstood as the volunteers could not see that she was overburdened. The social problems in the settlement caused Thea further undue stress, which exacerbated her ill-health.

She talked about mothers being busy with men while neglecting their children and the effect of a hostile home environment on children's learning and behaviour. The services of a social worker were suggested by Thea when asked during an interview how the centre should be managed. She realised that the community's children needed specialised social support more than educational activities. At the same time, the well-being of the settlement's children had been compromised to the extent that the removal of the children by the welfare was a real threat. She therefore advised as follows regarding the social worker: ' hoor hier, leer hier, kyk wat aangaan, maar moenie die kinders weg vat nie' [ listen here, see what is happening, but do not remove the children].

Parents were irresponsible in terms of their children's school attendance. Furthermore, they were impulsive, leaving the settlement because of minor altercations with the owner or fellow residents. Not only did they end up on the streets begging, but their children's schooling was interrupted. The families' high mobility had an effect on Thea's teaching and the learning objectives she planned for the children. Considering these challenges, Thea suggested that experts should be consulted to tailor teaching and learning objectives for the context. Notwithstanding, her work gave her a sense of purpose, and she referred to the centre as a child '(e)k het twee-en-'n-half jaar hierdie kleuterskool grootgemaak. En nou moet ek dit vir iemand gee wat niks omgee nie' [For two and a half years have I raised this preschool and now I have to give it to someone who doesn't care a bit].

Experiences with camp leadership

Thea's position in the centre, as well as the centre itself, fully depended on the goodwill of the owner. Thea specified that the proprietor was not confident about the centre because he believed that mothers should look after their children, which left Thea unsure about the future of the centre. At the same time, the centre was a source of income: 'Die kleuterskool bring indirek vir hulle geld van buite of in, want mense se harte word altyd sag as hulle'n klomp kinders bymekaar sien' [Indirectly the preschool brings money in from outside because people's hearts soften when they see a group of children together]. The centre and the well-being of the children were not always a priority for the owner. For example, Thea's concerns about the quality of the food prepared for the centre's children and her request that school children be provided with sandwiches for school were ignored by the owner. Thea was promised a larger classroom as she had all age groups in one room - a very unsatisfactory situation. This promise was not kept, and Thea expressed her disappointment. Thea only received her own classroom when the volunteer was prepared to pay R1300.00 per month towards rent for the wooden hut. After Thea had left the settlement, the owner terminated all volunteer involvement indicating that the community could run the centre themselves according to their religious beliefs.

The owner had absolute authority over the residents and decided who could stay on the farm and who had to leave. Residents did not dare to complain and were asked to leave if they were not happy with the conditions. When a mother reported that a fellow resident molested her daughter, no action was taken. Thea believed that the owner did not want to give up on the rent that the alleged perpetrator paid for his wooden hut. Parents also feared that their children might offend the owner, which could lead to expulsion. When Thea wanted to take action against alleged child abuse when a toddler was burnt by the cigarette of a practitioner, the owner asked her to leave the settlement. He indicated that she was bad for his settlement. She explained that for the owner, it was all about the donations made to the ECD centre. Therefore, he did not want to have child abuse at his settlement made public. At the same time, Thea was strangely loyal towards the proprietor. She indicated that he gave homeless people a roof over their heads, food and hot water. Therefore, they had to be grateful towards him.

Experiences concerning support infrastructure

The dominant narrative of poor white people, and even more so of organisations and individuals supporting them, is that they do not have access to public social and financial assistance, because of the colour of their skins (Kruger 2010). Nevertheless, NGOs, charity organisations, social groups, church groups and private individuals were found to be actively involved in poor communities of predominantly white people. A medical doctor offered her services to the settlement on a monthly basis and an NGO provided a parent guidance workshop to the parents of the community. However, Thea felt that the workshop did not have any impact on their parenting skills as she described gross parental neglect. Thea talked about an advertisement posted in the kitchen offering to train residents as fitters, electricians and mechanics free of charge. Also, Thea was promised a training course by Mia2, the volunteer who set up the ECD centre in the settlement and actively supported and managed the centre. The promised training never materialised, which left Thea frustrated and disappointed.

The abundant donations and handouts even disturbed the social balance in the settlement as everybody wanted to work where these donations were received and distributed. This position meant that the worker had first access to the donations and could take the best before the rest was circulated to the remainder of the community. This situation led to fighting and fawning among the residents, and the most aggressive usually won the position. Unfortunately, the ECD centre was the main delivery point for the donations. Because of this, those who occupied the position of ECD practitioner were often not the most suitable to work with children. Also, the volunteer's favours and gifts to the practitioners exacerbated the discord, not only in the staff corps, but also between the staff and the rest of the community. Thea explained:

'Die ander probleem is Mia, almal wil gatkruip by haar, almal wil haar regterhand wees, en almal wil in die kleuterskool bederf word. So almal baklei, en naamskending is een van die maniere om jou daar uit te kry, die pos te kry. So, ek dink nie Mia besef hoe groot invloed het dit op hulle nie.' [The other problem is Mia, everyone wants to win her favour, everyone wants to be her right-hand woman, and everybody wants to be spoilt in the preschool. Thus, everybody is fighting, and defamation is one of the ways to get a person out of there to get the position for oneself. I don't think Mia realises what significant influence she has on them.] (Thea, practitioner, female)

Despite being appointed as a principal, Thea was never consulted regarding best practices for the particular context. Thea found this most disturbing as she read extensively on all matters regarding education. She complained:

'En as jy, as jy'n skoolhoof het, moet jy daai skoolhoof se woord kan vat bo al die gemors-stories.' [And if you, if you have a principal, you should accept the principal's word above all the other rubbish stories.] (Thea, practitioner, female)



Rina and Thea came from different backgrounds with unique personalities and motivations for living and working in their settlements, which coloured their experiences and influenced their responses regarding their situations. Yet, a unifying thread in the four themes that emerged in the participants' narratives was that of a sense of disempowerment in the various domains of their lives and work. The participants were, for example, never enabled by the different role players active in the communities to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the children. Furthermore, they were not allowed by these role players to apply their skills, experience and insight in their daily work.

Disempowering experiences concerning place

As the practitioners were at the mercy of camp management, they had no authority to address safety hazards. However, these concerns caused undue stress as the practitioners were responsible for the children's well-being. Atmore et al. (2012) point out that safety issues are more prevalent at unregistered centres and specify the absence of secure fencing as a common safety concern.

Disempowering personal and social experiences

The high mobility of the families further disempowered the practitioners to make a significant impression on the learning and development of the children. Thea referred to children in her group who could not perform age-appropriate tasks even though they had attended pre-schools in the informal settlements where they came from, because there was no continuity in their learning. She felt that the high mobility of the community's families compromised children's school readiness, a view supported by the research findings of various scholars, for example, McCoy and Raver (2014), Brown et al. (2013) and Martin, Razza and Brooks-Gunn (2012). Children coming and going also disrupted her planning as she referred to the concert she planned for the group. Rumberger (in Porter & Edwards 2014) refers to the 'chaos factor' in this regard as the whole group (also those children staying behind) is affected by the high mobility among low-income families. Thea remembered her frustration when she tried to put a concert together:

'Maar ja, toe het ek net weer besef jy kan nie eers'n konsertjie deurvoer nie, want jy oefen twee maande aanmekaar vir 'n konsertjie en 'n week voor die tyd sit jy sonder kinders.' [But yes, then I realised once again one cannot even carry through a concert, because you practise for two months non-stop for a concert, and a week before the time you are stuck with no children.] (Thea, practitioner, female)

The parents were also never consulted regarding their needs, as volunteers decided on the most suitable parent guidance programme organised by an NGO for the parents of the respective communities. It seems that the social context and parental needs of the residents were not considered when this programme was presented. The writer talks in a vernacular not familiar to the residents about her happy, close-knit family and personal possessions such as a tumble dryer and her computer.

However, various international parent guidance programmes were successfully presented to low-income parents. These include Parenting through Change and the Family Care Curriculum (Perlman et al. 2012), the Pride in Parenting intervention (Katz et al. 2011) and the Hands-On Parent Empowerment programme (Leung et al. 2009, 2011). All of these programmes identified some principles to consider in order to ensure an efficient programme regarding improved parenting. These included active participation by all involved and consideration of family and social contexts with a focus on the specific needs of the community. While some middle-class parents indicated that they found the book, Kweek kinders met karakter [Cultivate Children with Character] by Hettie Brittz (2008), on which the programme was based, helpful, the content of the book and subsequent programme was not suitable for this community. Perlman et al. (2012:406) contend that 'a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting programs would be inappropriate'. To conclude, this was a lost opportunity to empower not only the parents but also the ECD practitioners of the two communities, as the volunteers decided on an ill-suited programme.

Disempowering experiences with camp leadership

Not only the children's safety but also food available to the centre's children depended fully on the goodwill of camp leadership. As the camp leader had absolute authority over the community and the centres, the practitioners did not dare to complain about irregularities and illegal acts such as child abuse. This rendered them powerless to act in the best interests of the children in their care.

Disempowering support infrastructure

It seems that the negation of practitioner insight and experience in the development of an ECD programme for poor communities is a common issue. Fourie (2013) explains:

Professionals often regard themselves as the sole owners of developing wisdom and as having the monopoly of solutions which consistently underrate and under-value that capacities of local people to make their own decisions as well as to determine their priorities. (p. 61)

The fact that both participants never received promised training left them frustrated. More importantly was that the potential of quality ECD experiences to moderate the effect of poverty on children's growth potential was largely diminished. Various scholars, for example, Aguilar-Crandall and Sutterby (2011) and Roberts et al. (2011), emphasise the importance of the quality and competence of practitioners, especially of those serving impoverished communities. Azzi-Lessing (2010) explains that quality ECD programmes can offer children raised in poverty a calm and predictable environment where they can be nurtured and stimulated, and where their parents are supported. However, the irony is that these centres lack the necessary resources to meet the high levels of need of vulnerable children and their families. Azzi-Lessing (2010) explains that low-income communities cannot afford higher school fees that would allow for expertise to meet the social and emotional needs of troubled children and to professionally support the practitioners who are often overwhelmed. Professional training was one way that the practitioners could have been empowered to address the manifold needs of the children in their care. Biersteker et al. (2016) propose teacher training, opportunities for professional development and good working conditions as indicators of quality.

Although the volunteers' assistance was misguided, they could render meaningful support. They coordinated food donations and volunteer services, for example, medical check-ups and screenings which contributed to the community's health and well-being. Sparks (2010) researched the impact of a food assistance programme for low-income pregnant women and mothers and young children and concluded that all low-income families could benefit from such a programme. Furthermore, the donations were delivered at the respective ECD centres, and the centres were used to provide medical services. Peterson et al. (2010) emphasise the role of an ECD centre in providing support services to families living in poverty. At the same time, these intervention strategies should be tailored for the context to be useful. For example, the volunteer at Rina's centre arranged a donation of R2000.00 for psychotherapy for a child. However, the number of therapy sessions was not enough and therefore did not deliver the desired results.

The involvement of the social worker in Rina's centre was yet another example of misplaced assistance. Instead of acting as a teacher for Rina's group, where she presented inappropriate activities, she could have supported parents in a context rife with social challenges. She could have provided the practitioners with moral support and practical guidance in dealing with children and families in highly taxing circumstances, both emotionally and socially. At the same time, protecting the children in their care against maltreatment and neglect is a grave predicament. The prospect of welfare intervention left the practitioners in both communities powerless. Therefore, Thea's recommendation of a collaboration between practitioners and academic experts is highly significant and should be considered.



This article aimed to shed light on the experiences of two ECD practitioners working and living in poor marginalised communities of predominantly white people. A more specific focus was their contexts as (dis)empowering agents based on practitioner narratives. The discourse about the marginalisation of the poor as discussed in the literature review played out in the work and lives of the two participants. They were marginalised in terms of any decision-making concerning the centres by the volunteers and camp leadership, notwithstanding their professional experience and insight. This, in turn, compromised the quality of the programmes. Furthermore, compromised parenting created challenges for the children which the practitioners were not empowered to handle. The volunteers who were qualified in this regard preferred to perform the teaching tasks of the practitioners. Fear of eviction also prevented the practitioners from addressing concerns regarding the well-being of the children.

We believe that this article can make a modest contribution towards gaining a better understanding of the nature of effective support to ECD centres in impoverished and marginalised communities. The empowerment of the practitioners in these communities is particularly relevant. The experiences of the practitioners in terms of contextual disempowerment might resonate with those of their colleagues in similar impoverished communities - not only in predominantly white communities.

In order for volunteers and benefactors to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the people they are serving, they should firstly acknowledge the input of key role players. Secondly, practitioners should be professionally empowered to deliver a quality service for their specific context. Thirdly, the practitioners' articulated needs and challenges should be addressed. Lastly, practitioners should be empowered in their personal lives by paying them a living wage and creating dignified working and living conditions for them.



Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors' contributions

T.K. is responsible for the research and writing of the manuscript. B.S. and P.M. supervised, gave guidance and support and edited the manuscript for final approval before submission.

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the authors.



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Brigitte Smit

Received: 19 Sept. 2017
Accepted: 23 Jan. 2019
Published: 19 June 2019



1 . The names used are pseudonyms.

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Towards quality early childhood development for refugee children: An exploratory study of a Grade R class in a Durban child care centre



Rasheedah O. Adams- OjugbeleI; Relebohile MoletsaneII

IDiscipline of Early Childhood Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Edgewood Campus, Pinetown, South Africa
IIDiscipline of Education and Development, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Edgewood Campus, Pinetown, South Africa





BACKGROUND: As populations of refugee children increase globally, strategies for providing quality and relevant educational experiences for this group of children has become a priority. This is because research suggests that refugee children tend to experience higher school dropout rates due to, among other factors, poverty, lack of shelter and inadequate nutrition.
AIM: This article reports on an exploratory study of Grade R teachers' interactions with refugee children in a child care centre in Durban and the ways in which these might contribute to the children's readiness for Grade 1 in mainstream schools.
SETTING: The study was located in a Grade R class in a Durban refugee child care centre catering for children from neighbouring African countries.
METHODS: The study adopted a qualitative ethnographic approach involving classroom and playground observations, as well as informal open-ended interviews with the Grade R teacher and her assistant
RESULTS: The findings suggest that several factors, including a high teacher-learner ratio (1:48), poor classroom management and pedagogical practices, inadequate and inappropriate resources and a lack of professional development opportunities for teachers influenced the nature of interactions between the refugee children and their teachers.
CONCLUSIONS: The findings have negative implications for the children's readiness for Grade 1 and beyond. The findings suggest that unless the provision of early childhood development and education (ECDE) in this centre is significantly improved, for example, by addressing the factors identified in the study, the refugee children in the facility will continue to be poorly prepared for mainstream schooling

Keywords: classroom interactions; early childhood education and development; refugee children; Grade R; school readiness.




The first eight (0-8) years of life of a child are crucial for the development of basic skills such as cognitive, physical and socio-emotional competencies needed for lifelong learning and effective functioning in later life (UNICEF 2012). Similarly, Garcia, Pence and Evans (2008) noted that children's attendance in early childhood education programmes has a positive influence on their academic achievement, the reduction in school dropout, the need for remedial programmes, and an increase in school participation and completion rates. Thus, children's early years are important, as they lay the foundation for later development (Essa 2013; Halle, Vick & Anderson 2010). Children from refugee and immigrant families constitute a growing population of deprived, excluded and vulnerable children because of the nature of the environment and experiences (Block et al. 2014; Vandenbroeck & Lazzari 2014). For example, in recent times, there has been an increase in the number of studies relating to immigrant children's experience in their host countries (Arzubiaga, Noguerón & Sullivan 2009; Grieshaber et al. 2010; Sidhu, Taylor & Christie 2011). In the United States, for example, Prior and Niesz (2013) note that refugee children in the early childhood classrooms find it difficult to adjust to their new environment at first, but later develop resilience that assists them to cope and integrate into their new school environment. Similarly, Shuayb et al. (2016) investigated the education provision and schooling experience of Syrian refugee children in Germany and Lebanon. The study found that refugee children were faced with a number of challenges related to coping and integration into the educational system in the host countries. The challenges experienced by children from refugee families, especially the lack of access to quality early childhood education in host countries, expose them to the risk of not achieving their developmental potential. To respond to the challenges of refugee children, most interventions targeting refugee and asylum-seeking children have been focused on children's post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Tyrer & Fazel 2014; Vostanis 2016); displacement, migration and acculturation (Hamilton et al. 2000); and psychological symptoms and markers of psychosocial adjustment (Geddes 2012). Interventions that targets educational programmes for these children have focused on their schooling and the different interventions that have been employed to support them in their host countries. These interventions include inclusive programmes that support and promote refugee children's adjustment and effective integration in school. Block et al. (2014) noted that an increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers across the globe continues to draw the attention of stakeholders to support educational programmes that create supportive and inclusive school environments to promote their school adjustment. In their conclusion, they posited that best practise must address the learning, emotional and social needs of students from the refugee backgrounds.

The majority of children in low socio-economic contexts, including those from refugee and immigrant families, are faced with different kinds of problems at school entry. These include a lack of readiness for formal learning, poor academic performance, inability to interact well with peers and adults, adjustment problems and inability to follow simple school routines in the formal school (Bradley & Corwyn 2002; Caro, McDonald & Willms 2009). The lack of access to a quality preschool experience has been cited as one of the major contributing factors. Bruwer, Hartell and Steyn (2014) and Bulotsky-Shearer, Dominguez and Bell (2012) noted that children from poor socio-economic backgrounds are most likely to enter school with limited school readiness skills or a lack thereof, because of their lack of access to quality early childhood development programmes. They observed that these children often struggle to cope and adapt to the formal school routines and activities. In line with the above, research suggests that the nature and quality of stimulation and experiences children are exposed to in the early years influence the trajectory of their future development and learning outcomes (Britto, Yoshikawa & Boller 2011; Whitebread & Coltman 2008). Studies have shown that providing varied opportunities and materials for children to interact with has important implications for the development of social and cognitive skills (Cabell et al. 2013). Further, a study by Bruwer et al. (2014), which investigated South African teachers' views on the influence of inadequate school readiness on the teaching and learning process, found that children who are classified as not ready for school did not have access to a good quality preschool.

One of the key indicators of a quality early childhood education is the nature of interactions that children engaged in learning activities. A study by Curby, Rimm-Kaufman and Ponitz (2009) observed that the quality and nature of teacher-child interaction in the preschool have been shown to directly influence children's academic performance and positive school outcomes, especially for children at risk of academic failure (Curby et al. 2009). Similarly, Tu and Hsiao (2008) posited that preschool children learn best in an environment that exposes them to direct interactions with objects, peers and adults in their immediate environment. In their study on preschool teachers' interactions with learners in science teaching, the authors found that both verbal and non-verbal interactions in the classroom promoted skills like curiosity, spirit of inquiry and development of cognition which in turn led to the overall development of the children. In other words, children who are exposed to quality interactions in the early years develop positive interactive skills, cognitive skills, behavioural skills, emotional skills and academic skills that prepare them for success in school and future life (Hamre et al. 2013; Stipek & Byler 2004; Williford et al. 2013). This article therefore examined the ways in which teachers in a Grade R class in a refugee child care centre interacted with learners (mostly refugees from neighbouring African countries). The study was guided by the following research question:

  • What is the nature of social and academic interactions between refugee children and their Grade R teachers in a refugee care centre classroom?

Theoretical framework

This study adopted Bronfenbrenner's (2001) Bioecological Model of Human Development to analyse data. The model explains development in terms of interactions between four major elements: process, persons, context and time (PPCT model). It describes the relationships and interactions that exist between the developing child, the school, the home and the community taking into consideration the biological component of the developing person. These relationships and interactions become complex and consistent over time to influence and effect development (Bronfenbrenner 2001; Bronfenbrenner & Morris 2006b; Rimm-Kaufman & Pianta 2000; Tudge et al. 2009). From this perspective, Bronfenbrenner and Morris (2006b) have argued that positive interactions between adults (including caregivers, teachers) and children bring about positive outcomes in children's learning and development. According to Bronfenbrenner (2001), a reciprocal interaction between children and significant others in contexts where they spend time brings about development. Such interactions, according to Bronfenbrenner (2001) and Bronfenbrenner and Morris (2006b), are expected to bring about changes in the learners behaviour, and as time goes by, they are expected to become complex and reciprocal for effective development. Researchers have expounded on the importance of classroom interaction and suggest that positive classroom interaction is a strong tool that brings about development and a positive learning outcome for children (Bronfenbrenner & Morris 2006a; Mashburn et al. 2008). In this study, the framework was used to understand the nature of children's interactions with their teachers in and around their Grade R class and how these might prepare children for successful adaptation in the mainstream school.

In this study, classroom interactions were defined holistically as involving the children's reciprocal social and academic exchanges with teachers and peers, as well as with the teaching and play materials in and around the Grade R classroom. The study was premised on the notion that the quality of classroom interactions between teachers and learners in the classroom determines the trajectory of the children's learning and development in later years (Dodd-Nufrio 2011). Conversely, poor classroom interactions are linked to poor development, behavioural problems, emotional problems and low levels of achievement in later years (Coolahan et al. 2000). Understanding such interactions has implications for the influence these might have on the learners' preparedness for Grade 1 in mainstream schools and their success therein and beyond.


Research design and methodology

As noted above, the major aim of this study was to understand the nature and quality of interactions between a group of refugee children and their teachers and peers in and around their Grade R classroom. To address the questions, the study was located within the social constructivist paradigm. According to the constructivism worldview, knowledge is constructed through interactions and conversations between people in a social context, and through the use of language (Churcher 2014; Vygotsky 1980). Research within this paradigm is interested in the lived experiences of the social actors (Schwandt 1994). Hence, the study investigated the interactions between the children and significant adults in their context of development, with the aim of understanding the phenomena from the perspectives of the participants.

Informed by this paradigm and the Bioecological Model of Human Development, the study adopted a qualitative approach to research (Creswell 2009; Swain 2006). In this study, the setting was a Grade R classroom in a refugee children care centre in the Durban area. The centre was founded by a group of refugee women, with a major sponsorship from an international non-governmental organisation. As such it caters mainly for refugee and immigrant children from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Zimbabwe, the Congo and a few South Africans of a low socio-economic status. Most of the children's parents had only completed primary school and some had no education. Many, particularly those from French-speaking countries and those with little to no education, use their native languages to communicate with their children in the home. This made it difficult for them to assist their children with their homework. The centre caters for children between the ages of 6 months to 6 years. The participants included 48 learners between the ages of five and six in the Grade R class and two adults (the Grade R teacher and a teacher assistant). The Grade R teacher was a South African, while the assistant class teacher was a female refugee from Burundi. The Grade R teacher had a Diploma in Education in Foundation Phase, with 10 years of teaching experience in the preschool setting. The assistant teacher had an equivalent of Grade 12 with 8 years of teaching experience in the preschool setting. At the time of the study, both teachers had never participated in any professional development training since they started teaching.

Data collection was carried out by the first author who visited the school three times a week over a period of 8 consecutive weeks. Like any study involving young children, this study was faced with some ethical issues which needed to be addressed. Beyond the principles of doing least harm, and the ethical clearance by the university ethics committee, in this study, we were guided by Schenk and Williamson's (2005) ethical principles that inform research with young children. These include ensuring the autonomy of the participants and not coercing them into participating. In particular, because of their age and their particular vulnerability as refugees, the children themselves were not directly interviewed beyond brief informal conversations during classroom and playground activities. Because of the age of the children, we cannot claim that they understood consent and that they had consented to participate. Rather, their parents' and caregivers' consent was sought. This included explaining the focus and purpose of the study to them in a language they understood. Permission was also sought from the school management. The primary data were collected through classroom and playground observations of the learners and their teachers for the period of 8 consecutive weeks during the last academic term in 2013. The first author spent time in the centre carrying out participant observations and conducting informal interviews with the Grade R teachers and the centre management. This was aimed at providing an in-depth account of how a social group (refugee children in a Grade R class) interacted among themselves and with significant others in and around the Grade R classroom. This allowed for an in-depth understanding of the nature and quality of interactions between learners and teachers and among the children during play and learning activities in the Grade R classroom. As a participant observer, she participated in the day-to-day activities and routines in the Grade R classroom, for example, by assisting the Grade R teachers and her assistant during the learning and play activities in the classroom. Our belief is that her involvement in the different classroom activities helped to make the children see her as part of the classroom and not a researcher who was there to study them. The observations were recorded in the field notes for analysis. In addition, informal interviews were conducted with the Grade R teacher, assistant teacher and centre manager. Data analysis was continuous throughout the study. The interviews with both teachers and the centre manager were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. The transcripts, together with the field notes, were coded and analysed into themes.

Ethical Considarations

Ethical clearance for the study was obtained from the University of KwaZulu-Natal Human and Social Science Ethics Committee, Ethical Clearance number: HSS/00S3/0114D.

Study findings

The main focus of this study was to examine the nature and quality of the teachers' social and academic interactions in and around a Grade R classroom at a refugee care centre. The findings are presented in two sub-sections, namely social and academic interactions.

Social interactions

Teacher training and nature of social interaction: Overall, the findings from this study suggest that the nature of interactions in the Grade R class might have been influenced by the quality of the teachers' qualifications and their access (or lack thereof) to professional development programmes. As pointed out by McDonald Connor et al. (2005), the teachers' qualifications and teaching experience have important consequences on their ability to manage the classroom and scaffold learning that is developmentally appropriate for optimal realisation of development and a positive learning outcome. Teachers who are responsible for the education of children, especially the refugee children, are to be adequately qualified and exposed to developmentally appropriate practices that will assist them to manage and support children's learning and play for optimal realisation of development. In this classroom, the lack of participation in professional development programmes seemed to impact negatively on the teachers' classroom practice and interactions with the children. In particular, this was evidenced by their inadequate understanding of the curriculum framework for Grade R (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement [CAPS]), and their pedagogical strategies (teaching methods used in the classroom) and their approach to classroom discipline seemed inadequate:

'I am not sure if I am doing the right thing. The centre fails to provide us with curriculum framework with which to teach the children. I only do what I feel is right and uses the resource materials I had gathered during my teaching practise of over eight years. We don't ever attend any training, no workshop of any sort. Guess I am stocked in this centre.' (Interview transcript Grade R teacher, 27 October 2013)

This is discussed in more detail later in the article.

Physical space and nature of social interaction: Informed by the notion that educational facilities for young children must support a full range of capabilities in young children (Bowman, Donovan & Burns 2000), this study examined the influence of the physical, social and academic spaces in which the children interacted for curricular as well as extracurricular activities throughout the day. Findings from the study showed that the refugee centre as a teaching and learning environment had an influence on the nature of interactions the children had with their teachers and peers. The location of the centre (on the fourth floor of a dilapidated building) and its architecture prevented the learners from optimally engaging in appropriate activities and interactions that would have enhanced their experiences and learning. In addition, the dilapidated condition of the building and the poor condition of the Grade R classroom and facilities around it also limited the children's ability to be fully engaged in the teaching and learning environment. This might impact negatively on the children's acquisition of the social and academic skills needed for learning and school success.

Classroom management and pedagogical practices and nature of social interaction: Research evidence indicates a strong relationship between classroom management practices adopted by the teachers as they have a great influence on the children's interaction with their teachers, peers and parents and the acquisition of academic and social skills (Cabell et al. 2013; Pianta et al. 2002). From this study, it was observed that social interactions between the Grade R teachers and the refugee children in and around the classroom were limited by the classroom management practices. The observations indicated that the Grade R teacher and her assistant tended to pay inadequate attention to the learners during some of the activities during the day, while they focused on preparation for the next day's activities or attending to their individual needs, leaving learners to engage in negative activities such as fighting and struggling over toys, play material or space. One explanation for this involves the high teacher-learner ratio (2:48), where one qualified teacher and one assistant teacher were responsible for 48 learners with varied social and learning needs. This meant that the two teachers did not have the time or resources to pay attention to the children who required individual attention and support. During this period, children were left on their own. While it may be argued that leaving young children to choose their own activities during free play may be good for their development, weak or a lack of adult guidance may affect their learning and development. In addition, the findings suggested that the learners did not interact well with their peers during play time. This may have been largely because of the absence of a responsive adult who monitors and encourages positive interactions among the children. When the observations were shared with one of the teachers, she commented thus:

'I know that some things are inappropriate, but the first problem I have with these children is their attitude. I believe their background has a lot to do with this. You hardly can get them to do the right thing. I know what I am supposed to be doing with them, but their population makes it difficult. They lack discipline and are very difficult to curtail.' (Interview with Grade R Teacher, 09 November 2013)

Thus, from this teacher's submission, it became clear that the learners' backgrounds and population were seen as a barrier to the interactions needed for optimal development and learning in Grade R. Interviews with the teachers also suggested that lack of teacher's professional development negatively influenced their ability to handle the prevailing situation in the Grade R classroom.

Academic interactions

Nores and Barnett (2010) posited that high-quality instruction that focuses on specific skills has a positive influence on children's preschool experience. Hamre et al. (2013) observed that quality feedback and language modelling by a teacher enhances acquisition and development of appropriate concepts and skills in learners. Through the participant observation, the study explored how Grade R teachers interacted with refugee children during various learning activities. The study also examined how these interactions influenced the acquisition of basic academic skills.

The National Curriculum Framework (the CAPS) (South African Department of Basic Education 2011) supports child centeredness and group work as appropriate pedagogies for optimal realisation of learning outcomes and children's overall development (Copple & Bredekamp 2009b; Department of Basic Education 2011; Kim 2011). From the study, it was observed that the Grade R teacher and her assistant did their best to teach basic numeracy, literacy and life skills needed for school readiness. Observations and participation in the Grade R classroom indicated that the teachers' lessons were largely aligned within the CAPS framework. For example, the teachers used the concept of roll-call during the morning sessions to develop numeracy skills in the learners. Also, according to the teachers, having the learners undertake this exercise and repeat it on a daily basis assisted them to master the numbers and number ordering. Secondly, the teacher used different shapes, colours and patterns to support acquisition and development of basic numeracy skills. In addition, the teachers assessed the learners' ability to recognise the different shapes by providing opportunities for sorting and grouping. The learners were guided to join the dots in their worksheets to form different patterns and were made to describe the patterns. The teachers observed that engaging children in such activities supports development of logical thinking and language skills. The Grade R teachers also used the weather charts to teach learners the different weather patterns where learners discussed weather elements such as days, months, dates, seasons and year.

Despite various teaching skills demonstrated by the Grade R teachers in the development of academic skills among refugee children, it was observed that Grade R teacher had gaps in understanding and applying some aspects of CAPS. For example, in a conversation with the Grade R teacher, she commented as captured below:

'I am using the resource materials that I use during my teaching practise years, because I don't have the department's [the CAPS] curriculum. The refugee centre don't have any either. I am not always sure if what I am teaching the children is right. I just do what I feel is right from my studies. They don't have a specific curriculum to follow in this centre, so, I am using my resource materials.' (Interview transcript, 15 November, 2013)

Secondly, the findings indicated that teaching and learning in the Grade R classroom were mostly teacher-centred and didactic in nature. It was observed that the teachers mostly stood in front of the class and 'taught'. For example, the morning usually started with the Grade R teachers leading the learners in reciting different nursery rhymes. This would often be followed by reciting, again in a chorus, the days of the week, months, seasons of the year and numbers from 1 to 20. After the recitations, the teacher would then teach the day's lessons, involving literacy, numeracy and life skills. Again, the learners would listen while the teacher taught. The teachers mostly used English, as a medium of instruction, limiting interaction as most learners were not well conversant with the language. The language barrier resulted in many of the learners struggling to complete the assigned tasks. As stated in the Developmentally Appropriate Practice Statement (Copple & Bredekamp 2009a), an effective teacher intentionally adapts the learning instruction to the developmental needs of the child. He or she tailors the curriculum to the individual child's needs, determines each child's capabilities based on the learning goal and adjusts their teaching to meet such needs (Copple & Bredekamp 2009b). Yet, the Grade R class teacher seemed to expect that once she gave a general instruction to learners during the morning session on how to complete the different tasks, every learner would be able to complete the day's learning tasks without difficulty. As such, learners were left on their own during this time, and those who struggled with the learning activities were either ignored or ridiculed. In one of the interviews with the teacher, she commented:

'It is difficult to teach these children. They do not understand the English. This makes it difficult for them to understand the learning instructions in the class. My responsibility is to teach them the basic things they need to be ready for school. I am not going to open their heads and put words in them. The children's population is also not helping it is difficult to give them individual attention or attend to their individual needs.' (Interview, 15 November 2013)

Reading was one of the academic activities which took place in the Grade R classroom and that constituted an avenue for teachers to interact with the learners. However, as an activity, it was infrequent. The teachers only read to learners twice during the 8 weeks of this study. On the two occasions, the learners showed enthusiasm and paid a lot of attention while the book was being read to them by the class teacher. They were able to answer all questions directed to them about the story. This suggested that the learners could have benefitted more if the teachers read to them more often and in an interactive way. This would contribute towards building their literacy and communication skills (Mol, Bus & De Jong 2009; Reese & Cox 1999).



The study sought to understand how the refugee children's interactions with others in and around the care centre influenced their experience in Grade R as well as their readiness for mainstream schooling. This analysis was informed by the bioecological model of human development introduced by Bronfenbrenner (2001). The model explains development in terms of interactions between four major elements: process, persons, context and time. The complex nature of relationships and interactions between the developing child, the school, the home and the community, taking into consideration the biological component of the developing person, was elucidated in the model (Bronfenbrenner 2001).

The findings suggest that the refugee children in this study had both positive and negative interactions with their teachers during the social and academic activities and routines in the Grade R classroom. Factors within the care centre and Grade R classroom tended to have a negative effect on the nature and quality of the interactions the children experienced with each other and with their teachers. These included teacher qualifications and experience, poor teacher expertise and motivation for managing and scaffolding the children's learning and play activities, a high teacher-learner ratio (2:48), insufficient teaching materials, a lack of conducive space for extracurricular activities and a lack of in-service training and support for teachers. This is consistent with findings from other studies, including Connor et al.'s (2005), which found that the higher the level of the teacher's qualifications and years of experience, the higher the quality of their interaction and responsiveness with the students. In addition, Curby, Grimm and Pianta (2010) posited that high-quality instructional interactions between teachers and learners have a positive impact on children's school outcome. Low levels of instructional interactions between teachers and learners as observed in this study are likely to have a negative impact on the refugee children's overall development. In this study, teaching was mostly teacher-centred, and the learners who struggled did not receive the attention they needed to learn and develop. This suggests that the interactions in this Grade R class lacked the reciprocity between the teacher and learners needed for optimal learning and development (Bronfenbrenner & Morris 2006a). As an illustration, research evidence suggests that reading in the early childhood setting provides children not only with language and literacy skills but also gives room for quality and rich conversations that transcend the content of the book or story, thereby allowing for dialogue between the adult and the child (Reese & Cox 1999; Wasik & Bond 2001). Such quality conversations and dialogue during reading have a positive effect on children's vocabulary and language skills. In this Grade R classroom, our analysis suggests that the learners were not fully engaged in such quality and rich conversations. They were only allowed to answer questions directed at them by the teacher. Considering their backgrounds (refugees from various African countries with different language backgrounds), informed by the scholarship reviewed here, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the children could have benefitted from engaged and interactive reading and other classroom activities than from the teacher-centred pedagogy that dominated the Grade R classroom.

Thus, this article argues that generally, in any context of development, children present varied learning interests and needs and abilities. Thus, it is imperative that their learning needs and interests are taken into consideration in planning and implementing learning and play activities. Such needs in the context of the Grade R class under study would include the children's background as refugees and linked to this their low socio-economic status. The findings in this study suggest that, influenced by such factors as inappropriate pedagogical practices, inadequate teaching and learning resources, and a limited/limiting classroom and school environment, the interactions between the teacher(s) and the refugee children in this Grade R class failed to address the learning and developmental needs of the learners. Arguably, failing to cater for the individual needs of the learners in the Grade R class might have a negative impact on their preparation for mainstream schooling and the trajectory of their future development.



The exploratory study analysed in this article reiterates the importance of quality ECDE provision for all children, including those from refugee families as a necessary foundation for their entry into and success in schooling (and beyond). Providing ECDE for refugee children is important in ensuring that, like all children in society, they receive the care and support they need to reap positive educational and other outcomes later in life. Significantly, the nature and quality of the interactions they have with their teachers (and others) in early childhood influences their development and learning and later success in school and beyond. In this Grade R class, several factors impacted negatively on the quality of these interactions. For example, the teachers' lack of access to professional development opportunities meant that they had an inadequate understanding of the National Curriculum Framework (CAPS) and its requirements and that of relevant pedagogical strategies for use with young children with diverse learning needs, such as the refugee children in their care.

This study argues that for refugee children to be ready for school and succeed therein, quality interactions in the ECDE teaching and learning environment must be ensured. Children must be exposed to developmentally appropriate learning materials and teaching practices in an environment that is conducive and stimulating and that solicits their active participation and engagement. Of course, this cannot be achieved without the active participation of a supportive adult (like the teacher) who scaffolds the children's play and learning activities in ways that lead to their optimal development. This is key also for ensuring that the country achieves the United Nation's sustainable development goals, including, among others, ending poverty and hunger, reducing inequality, providing quality education and ensuring well-being for all. Provision of quality ECDE for refugee children will contribute to eradicating inequality and ensure that they have access to programming that caters for social, educational and health needs.

Despite its importance in advancing the conversation around the need for the quality of early childhood education for refugee children in host countries, this study has several limitations. Notably, the study focused on a small sample of refugee children from one refugee care centre. While a lot can be learned from this glimpse into the children's experiences of ECDE in this setting, more in-depth and longitudinal studies that focus on the children's experiences from Grade R through the schooling system are needed. Such studies could address questions like: What educational and developmental programmes are on the ground for refugee children who are newly arrived in South Africa? What works in supporting refugee children's learning and development as they progress through the schooling system? Addressing these questions would go a long way towards developing curricula that address the diverse early childhood educational and social needs of these children. For example, based on the findings from this exploratory study, we conclude that targeted ECDE interventions aimed at facilitating the academic and social integration of children at risk, such as refugee children, are needed. These could include institutional policies and programmes that pay specific attention not only to policy development but also to professional development programmes that equip teachers with the necessary knowledge and skills for providing quality ECDE for all children, including those from refugee families. This requires targeted funding for ECDE centres that enrol refugee children so that these interventions are well resourced.



The authors would like to thank the Early Childhood Development Centre community (staff, parents and children) where this study was conducted.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors' contributions

This article was compiled by the joint contribution of both authors as follows: data collection was done by R.O.A.-O., while analysis of data and results presentation and the development of the manuscript were done by both R.O.A.-O. and R.M.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as this was not negotiated in the informed consent and permission to conduct the study.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the authors.



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Relebohile Moletsane

Received: 23 Jan. 2018
Accepted: 07 Feb. 2019
Published: 10 July 2019

^rND^sArzubiaga^nA.E.^rND^sNoguerón^nS.C.^rND^sSullivan^nA.L.^rND^sBlock^nK.^rND^sCross^nS.^rND^sRiggs^nE.^rND^sGibbs^nL.^rND^sBradley^nR.H.^rND^sCorwyn^nR.F.^rND^sBritto^nP.R.^rND^sYoshikawa^nH.^rND^sBoller^nK.^rND^sBruwer^nM.^rND^sHartell^nC.^rND^sSteyn^nM.^rND^sBulotsky-Shearer^nR.J.^rND^sDominguez^nX.^rND^sBell^nE.R.^rND^sCabell^nS.Q.^rND^sDeCoster^nJ.^rND^sLoCasale-Crouch^nJ.^rND^sHamre^nB.K.^rND^sPianta^nR.C.^rND^sCaro^nD.H.^rND^sMcDonald^nJ.T.^rND^sWillms^nJ.D.^rND^sChurcher^nK.^rND^sCoolahan^nK.^rND^sFantuzzo^nJ.^rND^sMendez^nJ.^rND^sMcDermott^nP.^rND^sCurby^nT.^rND^sGrimm^nK.^rND^sPianta^nR.^rND^sCurby^nT.^rND^sRimm-Kaufman^nS.^rND^sPonitz^nC.C.^rND^sDodd-Nufrio^nA.T.^rND^sHamre^nB.^rND^sPianta^nR.^rND^sDowner^nJ.^rND^sDeCoster^nJ.^rND^sMashburn^nA.^rND^sJones^nS.^rND^sKim^nH.K.^rND^sMashburn^nA.J.^rND^sPianta^nR.C.^rND^sHamre^nB.K.^rND^sDowner^nJ.T.^rND^sBarbarin^nO.A.^rND^sBryant^nD.^rND^sMcDonald Connor^nC.^rND^sSon^nS.-H.^rND^sHindman^nA.H.^rND^sMorrison^nF.J.^rND^sMol^nS.E.^rND^sBus^nA.G.^rND^sDe Jong^nM.T.^rND^sNores^nM.^rND^sBarnett^nW.S.^rND^sPrior^nM.A.^rND^sNiesz^nT.^rND^sReese^nE.^rND^sCox^nA.^rND^sRimm-Kaufman^nS.E.^rND^sPianta^nR.C.^rND^sSidhu^nR.^rND^sTaylor^nS.^rND^sChristie^nP.^rND^sStipek^nD.^rND^sByler^nP.^rND^sSwain^nJ.^rND^sTu^nT.-H.^rND^sHsiao^nW.-Y.^rND^sTudge^nJ.R.^rND^sMokrova^nI.^rND^sHatfield^nB.E.^rND^sKarnik^nR.B.^rND^sTyrer^nR.A.^rND^sFazel^nM.^rND^sVandenbroeck^nM.^rND^sLazzari^nA.^rND^sVostanis^nP.^rND^sWasik^nB.A.^rND^sBond^nM.A.^rND^sWilliford^nA.^rND^sMaier^nM.^rND^sDowner^nJ.^rND^sPianta^nR.^rND^sHowes^nC.^rND^1A01^nCarike^sKriel^rND^1A01^nCandice^sLivingston^rND^1A01^nCarike^sKriel^rND^1A01^nCandice^sLivingston^rND^1A01^nCarike^sKriel^rND^1A01^nCandice^sLivingston



Foundation phase learners' view of learning support and self-esteem



Carike Kriel; Candice Livingston

Faculty of Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Wellington Campus, South Africa





BACKGROUND: Learning support in South Africa is a phenomenon where learners who experience barriers to learning are withdrawn from the mainstream class and receive support in their home language and mathematics. A need for learning support surfaced when emphasis was placed on inclusivity in mainstream schools. The efficacy of this withdrawal on self-esteem has however not been investigated.
AIM: This study sought to investigate the learners' experiences of withdrawal for learning support and the relationship with their self-esteem.
SETTING: A primary school in the Western Cape.
METHODS: This qualitative design aimed to determine the perspective of the learners. Purposive sampling was used to identify five learners who received learning support. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used to analyse data gleaned from the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES), which had been adapted into an informal interview schedule.
RESULTS: Participants in this study did not report negative experiences of learning support. Learners identified that issues of negative self-esteem were unrelated to learning support, but were attributed to school culture, mainstream teachers' attitudes, family relationships, peer comparisons and social competencies.
CONCLUSION: Participants reported that learning support rarely caused negative self-esteem, but rather heightened confidence in their academic abilities regardless of their need for learning support, holding social factors responsible for their negative self-esteem. The implications of these findings allude to the fact that withdrawal for learning support continues regardless of popular beliefs reported to the contrary. Schools should however monitor these learners in order to determine individual differences and needs.

Keywords: barriers to learning; learning support; Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale; self-esteem; withdrawal; Foundation phase.



Introduction and background

The Policy Guidelines on Inclusion in Education by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO 2009:8) refers back to international policies, such as The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action: On Special Needs Education for inclusive education (UNESCO 1994:12). This policy states that learning support (LS) should be provided in mainstream schools and classrooms. Learning support can however be given in various forms. Primary schools in the Western Cape, South Africa, are encouraged to follow a specific LS model. In South African primary schools, an LS model is suggested. Learners who experience barriers to learning are withdrawn from the mainstream class in small groups in order to receive extra support from a specialist (Mahlo 2016:7). Nel et al. (2016) however point out that learning support teachers (LSTs) are only stationed at a few schools. As pointed out by Mahlo (2016), there remains a division between theory and practice. The job description of LSTs (Western Cape Education Department [WCED] 2017) stipulates that this support should be in their home language and/or mathematics.

The researcher as an LST was also caught between the practice of withdrawing learners for support and the policies of inclusive education moving towards providing all support in the mainstream classroom. Contradictory statements between campaigners for inclusive education, policies and those in favour of withdrawal brought about a need for a qualitative study. It is thought that learners experiencing barriers to learning often have low self-esteem, and it is argued that LS is a possible cause of low self-esteem. This is especially true in cases where learners are withdrawn from the mainstream classroom, in order to be taught in a separate LS classroom. International campaigners for inclusive education such as Condren et al. (2000) and Takala, Pirttimaa and Törmänen (2009) argue that withdrawal from the mainstream classroom often goes hand-in-hand with 'labelling' of learners. With this in mind, labelling is often linked to negative self-esteem. These campaigners are trying to put an end to the withdrawal of leaners from the mainstream classroom for support. They encourage LS to remain in the mainstream classroom.

Polat (2011) however highlighted that the necessary support is not always given in the mainstream classrooms with full inclusion. Therefore, inclusive education policies and South African researchers such as Dreyer (2008:212) argue that learners experiencing barriers to learning have the right to receive additional support outside of the classroom. Policies for inclusive education include withdrawal from the mainstream class for specialist support (Polat 2011). An international statement by UNESCO (2000:3) suggested that learners experiencing barriers to learning can receive support in the mainstream classroom or on a withdrawal basis. The Screening Identification Assessment and Support (SIAS) policy also suggests this form of support as Level 2 support which is a temporary withdrawal from the mainstream classroom for small-group support by the LST (Department of Basic Education [DBE] 2014:19-21). This allows the researcher to investigate the actual experiences of learners who are withdrawn for LS, instead of making assumptions about their experiences.

Conceptual framework

Social inclusion was used as a paradigmatic lens with which to underpin the elucidation of the conceptual framework of self-esteem and LS in this study. The idea that all members of society including learners who receive LS should have equal access to institutions and resources and take part in the activities of the mainstream school and classroom (Mahlo 2016:8) is a central tenant of social inclusion. Society should ensure that people are included as this leads to improved self-esteem (Cobigo et al. 2012).


Lawrence (2006:13) proposes that self-esteem is an underlying part of self-concept, together with self-image and the ideal self. According to Lawrence (2006:13), self-image is a person's belief in him or herself, while the 'ideal self' is the belief of what he or she should be like. Self-esteem is thus seen as the 'gap' between self-image and ideal self. Minton (2012:34) claimed that Lawrence's self-esteem theory is excellent to help teachers grasp the concept of self-esteem.

Theories and models of self-esteem

There are various perspectives of self-esteem. The multidimensional view of self-esteem entales that self-esteem is formed by a combination of various contexts, including: peers, school, parents and personal interests (Miller & Moran 2012). This view of self-esteem was originally proposed by Stanley Coopersmith. Coopersmith (1967:6) discovered that children do not distinguish between their self-esteem in various contexts before reaching adolescence and this led to the researcher choosing to focus on the global self-esteem of the learners, rather than multidimensional self-esteem. Rosenberg's (1965) perspective is the most widely accepted and states that self-esteem is global and unidimensional. It was confirmed by Descartes, Ramesar and Mills (2018) that global self-esteem is a more accurate predictor of children's self-esteem than domain-specific self-self-esteem. Rosenberg (1965:30-31) defines self-esteem as the positive or negative attitude towards oneself as an object, therefore referring to whether a person feels that he or she is good enough compared to others. Researchers have labelled the Rosenberg's Self-Esteem Scale (RSES), which defines self-esteem as global and unidimensional, as the most widely used measure of self-esteem (Hyland et al. 2014). However, Tafarodi and Milne (2002:444) claim that global self-esteem is two-dimensional and has two aspects, namely, self-competence and self-liking. Self-esteem is therefore formed by what a person can do, including abilities, skills and talents, as well as what they are, referring to moral character, attractiveness and social acceptance (Tafarodi & Milne 2002:444).

Learning support

A thorough understanding of LS is also necessary in order to understand the phenomena under scrutiny. Learning support aims to improve teaching and learning and can be defined as 'supplementary', 'remedial' or 'extra class instruction' (Mashau et al. 2008:416). Transformation of the education system in South Africa has led to policy reviews with regard to inclusive education in order to meet the diversity of learning needs in the mainstream classroom. White Paper 6 was published in 2001 and aimed to support the national curriculum in promoting education for all learners (Department of Education [DoE] 2001:5). As a result, a need for LS in the mainstream class came to the fore. Inclusive education policies require that all learners are accommodated in mainstream classrooms, irrespective of their abilities (DoE 2001).

Four different levels of LS are described in the SIAS policy (DBE 2014:19-21). Level 1 refers to LS by the LST in the classroom. Level 2 refers to temporary withdrawal from the mainstream classroom for small-group support by the LST. Policy, however, does not specify the schools, grades or size of groups in which learners should receive this support. In the researcher's experience as an LST, these schools are mostly previously disadvantaged schools, and learners are withdrawn in groups of between 1 and 12 learners.

Dreyer (2008:60) is of the opinion that full inclusion (level 1 of LS) will lead to the teasing of these learners, causing them to be reluctant to participate in the mainstream class. This view is supported by Hornby (2015:240) who is of the opinion that learners experiencing barriers to learning will be labelled in the mainstream class whether they are withdrawn or not. Overcrowded classroom is another issue raised by Mahlo (2016:11) and Everling (2013) as it often leads to disciplinary problems of learners (both mainstream and LS) which makes it extremely difficult for the LST to offer effective LS to the learners in his or her care. According to Bojuwoye et al. (2014:9), LS in the mainstream classroom is problematic, because learners are afraid to ask for support, be labelled as the weak learners and be teased by their peers. Condren et al. (2000:3) argue that withdrawal of learners (level 2 of LS) is often unsuccessful, because of discontinuity with the programmes followed in the mainstream and in the LS classroom. Takala et al. (2009:167) also stressed that learners miss out on work done in the mainstream classroom, and teachers do not have time to plan together in order to align their curriculums. Condren et al. (2000) however concluded that although collaborative support in the mainstream classroom improves learners' self-esteem and participation, literacy and numeracy remained a major problem. Dreyer (2008:166) on the other hand found that in the most cases, these learners, who were withdrawn from the mainstream class for LS, showed academic improvement and even those who did not show academic improvement still seemed to develop emotionally. Uszynska-Jarmoc (2008:13) and Pullmann and Allik (2008:562) further found that age plays a role in the relationship between academic abilities and self-esteem.

Learning support and self-esteem

In a research conducted by Condren et al. (2000:6), self-esteem was identified as a factor that is equally as important as a learner's intelligence in ensuring academic achievement. They argue that continuous failure will have a negative effect on a learner's self-worth and self-esteem. Mashau et al. (2008:416) argue that LS will help learners to overcome their barriers to learning. This view of additional instruction to improve specific knowledge is supported by Everling (2013). According to Condren et al. (2000:5) it is important to strengthen a child's self-esteem as well as social skills while focussing on literacy and numeracy. They argue that it is essential for the learner to believe in himself in order to learn (Condren et al. 2000:35). Donald, Lazarus and Lolwana (2012:315) agree that improving the learner's self-esteem will help the learner to achieve academic success. As such, LS can then be seen as the vehicle by which either (1) academic achievement encourages vicarious improvement in self-esteem or (2) self-esteem leads to improvements in academic achievement. Therefore, it can be stated that these two factors shape one another.

Thus, we know that LS is provided in certain schools in the Western Cape to Foundation phase learners experiencing barriers to learning. Labelling due to withdrawal, teasing by more competent peers and age are factors that can contribute to negative self-esteem. The phenomenon under investigation has, however, not been investigated in South Africa.

The purpose of this interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) design therefore was to discover how Foundation phase learners experience LS and whether they feel it leads to negative self-esteem, in a mainstream primary school in the Western Cape. At this stage in the research, LS will generally be defined as learners who are withdrawn from their mainstream classroom for additional academic support. Self-esteem will be defined as global self-esteem that has two dimensions, self-liking and self-competence, and is formed by the cognitive bottom-up model. This model implies that success or failure linked to self-competence and social acceptance, also known as self-liking, is linked to self-esteem. The research questions 'How does Foundation phase learners' experience learning support?' and 'Is there a link between learning support and self-esteem?' were formulated to investigate this phenomenon.



This study employed an IPA as research design. Interpretative phenomenological analysis is a phenomenological approach which involves a thorough investigation of the participants' world and the researcher aims to stand in the participants' shoes while continuing to ask critical questions (Pietkiewicz & Smith 2012:362-363). Interpretative phenomenological analysis uses small samples as it aims to let each participant's voice be heard and does not intend to create a theory which can be generalised over the population (Pietkiewicz & Smith 2012:364). The researcher chose this approach because she aimed to determine the experiences of learners towards LS and also asked critical questions with regard to withdrawal from the mainstream class for LS. The researcher argues that it is of utmost importance to give the Foundation phase learners a voice, to share their own experiences of LS as they are the subjects of this support service.

The learners came from one no-fee, primary school in Circuit 3 of the Cape Winelands Education District. As this study dealt with minors, ethical clearance certificates were obtained from the university and the DoE. Purposive sampling was used to identify five learners who had been withdrawn from the mainstream classroom for LS in their home language and mathematics for at least a year in order to determine how they experienced LS. Learner 1 was a boy who was repeating Grade 1, Learner 2 was a girl who was repeating Grade 2, Learner 3 was a Grade 2 boy, Learner 4 was a girl who was repeating Grade 3 and Learner 5 was a boy who was repeating Grade 3. The self-esteem of the learners was explored by using the RSES (Rosenberg 1965:326) which was adapted into an interview schedule. The reason for the adaption of the test was firstly because the learner participants have academic barriers and, secondly, to acquire in depth experiences from the learners in order to improve the researcher's understanding of their personal experiences. Learners who receive LS usually experience difficulty with reading and the researcher wanted to ensure that the learner participants were as comfortable as possible, thus removing all stress from the process. Informal semi-structured interviews further allowed the researcher to delve into topics which came to the fore during the process. For example, if a learner responded that he did not like himself, the researcher could enquire why not. The learners were introduced to the researcher and she became known to them as a 'teacher', to ensure that they would be comfortable speaking to the researcher. Audio recordings of the interviews and field notes made up the data collection instruments for this phase of the research.

The data analysis of this qualitative study was carried out as stipulated by interpretive phenomenological analysis procedures (Pietkiewicz & Smith 2012). Firstly, the researcher transcribed the audio recordings, leaving margins on both sides for comments. The researcher read the transcript of a single case, making notes in the left-hand margin. The themes which emerged were then written in the right-hand margin, clustering similar themes and identifying superordinate themes. Identifiers were added to the table to indicate where the original source of the theme could be found in the transcript. The remaining four learner interviews were then analysed individually and compared to each other in order to find similarities and differences. A final table of superordinate themes was constructed, containing the themes on which the researcher would focus. Themes were chosen towing to frequency, richness of the transcript or contribution to other aspects. Themes were then converted to narrative accounts, linking these to the literature as each superordinate theme was discussed.

Ethical considerations

Ethical protocols were adhered to and parents and principals signed informed consent forms. Ethical clearance was granted by the Faculty of Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology as well as the WCED (Western Cape Government, Education) (reference numbers: WCED: 20150826-2741; EFEC 6-8/2015).



The researcher aimed to get an indication of the learners' levels of global self-esteem by asking the questions which were adapted from the RSES during an interview. Follow-up questions were asked in order to determine how the learners experienced LS in order to determine whether withdrawal for LS can be associated to learners' self-esteem.

The RSES (Rosenberg 1965:17-18) consists of 10 questions. Questions 1, 3, 4, 7 and 10 are positively stated and scored from left to right (4 to 0), while questions 2, 5, 6, 8 and 9 are negatively stated and reverse-scored from left to right (0 to 4). The higher the learners' score, the higher their self-esteem. The highest self-esteem score that could be achieved was 40, while the lowest score is 0. Self-esteem scores that were less than half of the possible maximum score (thus less than 20) were considered as low self-esteem. Self-esteem scores from 20 to 30 were considered normal self-esteem, while scores over 30 were considered high self-esteem. Two learners (one boy and one girl) had normal global self-esteem, and three learners (two boys and one girl) had high global self-esteem. None of the learners who received LS in this study were perceived to have low global self-esteem. However, all of these learners indicated a low level of self-esteem in some of the questions, but when the researcher inquired about the reasons for their low self-esteem, it was found that the causes were often unrelated to LS or even to the school context. The causes of low self-esteem as identified by the learners were placed in groups of superordinate themes. Although all these learners received LS, they often referred to other experiences when discussing positive or negative self-esteem statements. These experiences included personal experiences, family issues and school-related occurrences, which were often unrelated to LS. The main themes that emerged from the merging of the data were behavioural characteristics, self-competence, self-liking, family relationships, mainstream teachers' attitudes, perceptions of experienced success and comparison to peers.

Personal experiences

The majority of the learners made statements that indicated that behaviour can be associated with low self-esteem. Four learners made positive statements indicating behaviour and characteristics of high self-esteem. Two of these learners however also made negative statements on behaviour and characteristics associated with self-esteem. Therefore, learners portray a combination of behaviour and characteristics that can be associated with low and high self-esteem. Learner 5 indicated that he does not always feel he have good characteristics. He gave the following explanation:

'Sometimes I'm a bit lazy, but other times I'm not lazy. Sometimes when my grandma gives me work while I have a friend over, and then we will do the work together.' (Learner 5, boy, Grade 3)

Learner 3 indicated positive self-esteem at various questions. His responses indicated that this is because of good behaviour.

'I do not hit other children.'

'I share with my friends.' (Learner 3, boy, Grade 2)

These comments indicate that learners consider their behaviour when judging their self-esteem. Good behaviour contributes towards positive self-esteem, whereas disobedient behaviour contributes to negative self-esteem.

Four of the five learner participants made statements that indicated high self-liking. Two learners however also made statements, which indicate low self-liking. When asked why they feel good about themselves they made positive statements about their physical appearance and gender.

'Because I like my body.' (Learner 1, boy, Grade 1)

'I am a beautiful child. (Learner 4, girl, Grade 3)

'Because I am a boy.' (Learner 5, boy, Grade 3)

Learner 2 (girl, Grade 2) once again made contrasting statements; although she was too shy to talk, she first nodded that she never feels like a failure and then later shook her head when asked if she feels good about herself.

The fact that the majority of the learners made statements about self-liking (whether positive or negative) indicates that self-liking can be associated with self-esteem, although it is often completely unrelated to school or LS.

Family issues

It seems that the family circumstances at home, although unrelated to LS, play a major role in the self-esteem of young learners. Learner 5 scored high self-esteem when asked whether he has good characteristics and explained that it is because his grandma cares about him, and he likes his grandma.

One learner scored a low self-esteem when asked if she is happy with herself. She explained her negative response as follows:

'My dad used to live with me and then when he got that new wife he did not want me anymore.' (Learner 4, girl, Grade 3)

Once again, good family relationships seem to be coupled with positive self-esteem, whereas bad family relationships seem to be linked to negative self-esteem.

School-related occurrences

The majority of learners commented on their academic incompetence. Learners also referred specifically to their incompetence in the mainstream class. Some learners however made contrasting statements in this specific domain where they referred to their academic incompetence and at another stage to their academic competence. For instance, learner 1 made the following statements:

'I struggled with the writing.' (Learner 1, boy, Grade 1)

When asked at a later stage: What are you proud of? He replied:

'When I write.' (Learner 1, boy, Grade 1)

Therefore, it can be argued that although these learners have barriers to learning, they still experience success with academic work positively.

Teacher attitudes is a possible cause of the contrasting statements learners make about their experiences of support at school. One of the learners was upset about the way that his mainstream teacher treated him when he had to leave the class for LS. Learner 5 was asked if there was anyone who teased or treated him badly for leaving the class for LS, and he responded that the teacher sometimes did:

'She says I must leave the class, but other times she says we must wait till the teacher finishes with the other group. If I'm not done with my work she says I must come again. Sometimes when I'm busy with my last sentence she says I must go, and then she gives us other work to do and tell me to leave that sentence and finish the other work. Then she wipes that sentence off the board.' (Learner 5, boy, Grade 3)

The deduction is made that the mainstream teacher is not responding consistently. Sometimes she would not allow him to go to LS, because he is still busy with work and other times she sends him off but then does not give him the opportunity to complete his work in the mainstream class.

In the light of the learner's experience with the mainstream teacher, a follow-up question was asked to determine learners' general feeling towards LS. The majority of learners made statements that they enjoy LS and experienced success in the LS class. Learners indicated that LS gave them the confidence to take part in the mainstream and LS classes and thus experience success in learning and class integration. Their statements included:

'It is fun.' (Learner 1, boy, Grade 1)

'We learn.' (Learners 3, boy, Grade 2)

'When I go out of my class to the other teacher she gives work that is fun and we learn and we read in the class.' (Learner 5, boy, Grade 3)

A general positive feeling towards LS is found in the learners' experiences. One learner however revealed that she does not want to go to LS anymore, but her explanation made it clear that it is not because of a negative experience of LS. Her reason was as follows:

'Because I have learned.' (Learner 2, girl, Grade 2)

It seems that learner 2 realised that the LS group is for improving her academic skills, and as it has, she is now satisfied with herself. She later also explained that she has now moved to the middle ability group in the mainstream classroom.

Learner 4 was the only learner in this study who mentioned a negative experience of LS. When asked why she does not think she is just as good as her peers, she replied that she has to go to LS. However, in other questions she responded that she enjoys LS.

Learner 4's answer indicates that she compared herself to her mainstream peers. This finding of peer comparison however was true for the majority of learners. This was predominantly a negative experience, as most of them did not feel they were as good as their peers. All of these learners were either grade two or grade three learners, indicating that age can play a role in self-esteem. This highlights the importance of the LS group where learners will compare themselves to peers who work more or less on the same level.

Learner 3 was asked: 'Do the other learners struggle as well?' And he replied, 'No teacher'. (boy, Grade 2)

Learner 5 compared himself to his mainstream peers and felt that: 'Sometimes they do things well and then I do poorly.' (Learner 5, boy, Grade 3)

Learning support creates a group of learners with more or less similar capabilities, implying that comparison to peers within this group will not have such a negative impact on the learners' self-esteem (Hornby 2015). Thus at least for part of the day, the learners will feel competent when compared to their peers.

Learners mentioned various experiences that can be associated with self-esteem. Learning support seems to be experienced in a positive manner and is found to be enjoyed by learners and perceived as a vehicle through which to improve their academic abilities. Negative experiences that the learners linked to their self-esteem were behavioural characteristics, self-competence, self-liking, family relationships, mainstream teachers' attitudes, perceptions of experienced success and comparison to peers.



The global self-esteem assessment found that all the learners portrayed a combination of high and low self-esteem aspects. However, their global self-esteem seemed to be high. It can thus be concluded, that the learners' self-esteem varies in different environments and domains, which are included in global self-esteem. The majority of the learners mentioned that they enjoyed LS and experienced success in LS. Various learners however also mentioned that they did not feel they were as good as their mainstream peers and struggled in the mainstream class. Only one learner indicated that she did not want to receive LS anymore, but she explained that it was only because she felt she has learned enough. Learning support does not seem to cause low global self-esteem; however, individual differences should be kept in mind.

The researcher concluded that LS can be associated with the self-esteem of learners but that most of the learners experienced LS positively. They seemed to enjoy it and experienced academic success because of it. It seemed that most of the learners did not get labelled and teased about leaving the class for LS. Only one learner mentioned that he was sometimes teased for going to LS. However, she still said that she enjoys going to LS. Therefore, the concern of Takala et al. (2009:167) is valid, although it was seldom experienced by learners in this research context. It seems that most of the mainstream teachers contributed to the positive experience of LS. However, one learner did have a negative experience in this regard. Bojuwoye et al. (2014:9) also raised the issue that learners in need of support are sometimes afraid to ask the mainstream teacher for help, indicating a possible negative attitude of mainstream teachers towards LS. Behavioural aspects, social acceptability and family relationships were mentioned more often as negative experiences than LS and other school-related factors.

Although the findings of this study cannot be generalised to the broader population, it can be noted that LS, within the context of this study, does not seem to be a negative undertaking. However, a caveat that must be added is that the LST needs to be cautious when withdrawing learners for LS. One learner commented that she did not want to go to LS anymore; although she did not experience lowered self-esteem, she just felt that she has learned enough as she had been moved to the middle ability group in the mainstream class. This finding agrees with Dreyer (2008), Mashau (2008) and Everling (2013) that withdrawal for LS improves academic ability, and as discovered by many researchers such as Condren et al. (2000:30), Mashau et al. (2008:416) and Donald et al. (2012:315), improvement of academic abilities and self-esteem goes hand-in-hand. Mainstream teachers and LSTs should be aware of these negative experiences that learners may have of LS. They must ensure that no learners who are withdrawn for LS does not regard LS as a negative incident in their school day.


Certain limitations were identified in this study. The learners' poor language ability might have influenced their responses and led to the possibility of inaccurate results. Owing to the nature of the qualitative IPA study, a very small sample was used. The small size of the sample did not allow the researcher to generalise the findings to the greater population. In order to accommodate the learners' linguistic ability, the internal reliability of the RSES needed to be forfeited to change the survey to an interview.

Implications and recommendations

Further research should be conducted to compare Foundation phase learners and intermediate and senior phase learners' experiences of LS. As Uszynska-Jarmoc (2008:13) pointed out, various domains of self-esteem are important in different developmental stages of the learner. The younger the learners, the less differentiation could be found between the domains that defined self-esteem. Schools should monitor the self-esteem of learners' who receive LS to ensure that it is not harm