Promoting literacy in children: Tips for parents

Nurturing your child's literacy skills not only fosters a love for learning but also strengthens parent-child relationships.

Recently, the Government announced the dismal results of the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). The study showed that only 19% of Grade 4 pupils could read for meaning, down from 22% in the previous 2016 report. There is no more doubt that our education system is failing our children, so what can parents do to make sure their children learn to read?

Tracey Chambers, CEO of educational-focused NPO Grow ECD, says there are research-backed strategies parents can apply to improve their children’s literacy and nurture a love for reading.

“The most important thing is for parents to realise that you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Your child’s ability to read and write is your responsibility, not the schooling system’s. Secondly, it’s never too early to start. You can lay the foundations for a love of learning from when your child is a baby,” she says. “Encouraging parents to be part of their child’s literacy development has long-term benefits for the child’s development as well as the relationship between parents and caregivers and their children.”

Read to your child every day, from the day they are born

Spending time, even if you only have ten minutes, reading to your child in their home language every day will vastly improve their literacy.

“Make it fun and it will be some of the most special and beneficial time you spend with your young child,” says Chambers. “Regular read-aloud sessions have many benefits, including improved language skills, vocabulary development, and promoting a love for reading. As you read to a child, they learn new words, understand stories more, bond with you and see that reading is fun. It also creates opportunities to talk about what you’re reading, which helps children with comprehension.”

Storytime at preschools is essential, so make sure the crèche your child attends has this as part of their daily programme.

Talk to your child in their home language

“It’s important to talk to your child as much as possible, even when they are babies and you think they don’t understand,” says Chambers. “Talking to your child in full sentences will help them learn to speak and develop an extensive vocabulary which is essential for literacy in early childhood. Parents should speak to their children using proper ‘adult’ words and language, not only ‘baby’ words, to ensure their vocabulary grows. It’s also important to allow your child to ask questions, and as they get older engage in conversations with them about the books you are reading and things happening in their lives – this will also help develop their language skills.”

Visit your local library with your child

“Access to books is essential to encourage early childhood literacy,” says Chambers. “Visiting your local library is one of the best and most cost-effective ways to find books. Allowing your child to choose books they like, which you can read to them at home, helps develop a child’s love for books and reading from a young age.”

It’s important to have a selection of books available in the home. If there isn’t a library nearby, the preschool could send a book home every week for parents to read to their children. Many ECD organisations, like Grow ECD, collect second-hand books (people can donate these) to set up reading corners and they usually allow children to take these home so their parents can read to them.

Send your child to the best Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre you can afford

Good early learning programmes help to improve your child’s literacy. “Research shows that taking part in early childhood education programmes have long-term positive effects on a child’s cognitive (brain and learning) and socio-emotional development,” says Chambers. “That’s why parents should prioritise choosing a preschool with a quality daily programme.

“There are a few NPOs in South Africa– like Grow – that work with ECD centres in disadvantaged areas to make sure these preschools give children the education they need to thrive. At these schools, teachers are given proper training and the schools have excellent, play-based curriculums that work to develop children’s early language and literacy skills,” says Chambers. “My advice to parents is to try to find an ECD centre that offers an approved Play-Based curriculum that is NCF (National Curriculum Frame) aligned, and where your child is assessed twice a year against their developmental milestones so that you can track progress.”

Other things parents can look out for when deciding on an ECD centre for their child: Teachers are qualified and passionate about education and children. There is a daily learning programme and books, chairs and tables for the children. There is drawing and playing equipment, toys and outdoor space. The learning space has enough light and there are no dangerous open stoves, exposed wires or steep staircases. The school has good sanitation and a place for kids to wash their hands. The school should also have a daily routine which includes structured and free-play activities. Also, make sure that children are always supervised and that classrooms are not overcrowded. Ask the school about their approach to storytime and how often your child will be read to or have an opportunity to engage with books.

Avoid crèches where children watch TV or sit around in dark rooms with no toys and no structured, planned learning activities. Avoid centres where your child is forced to do ‘worksheets’, sitting at a desk all the time. Young children need to learn through play and they need a variety of activities to stimulate them throughout the day.

Finally, make sure your child’s ECD centre offers programmes that focus on developing vocabulary. This could be done with a comprehensive ECD curriculum, continuous development of teachers or by working with other literacy-specialist organisations like Finding Thabo, and Mikhulu Books.

Read and be a role model – children copy their parents

As a society, how can we expect children to want to read and write when we don’t role-model that behaviour? Children must SEE and HEAR all the important adults in their lives enjoying reading. Pick up a magazine, newspaper, novel or digital book!

Donate books and support ECD centres in need

“We have over 5 200 children currently attending 102 Grow ECD centres around the country. Our latest assessment shows that 79% of our learners are developmentally on track,” says Chambers. “To help children’s literacy, people can support GROW by donating their age-appropriate books for children under five and we will distribute them to preschools in need. People can also make a financial donation so that we can equip more preschools with the Grow ECD curriculum, resources and support.”

Other non-profit organisations that specialise in literacy and offer programmes to promote literacy development which people can support:

  1. Nal’ibali
  2. The Shine Literacy Trust
  3. READ Educational Trust
  4. Book Dash
  5. FunDza Literacy Trust
  6. Wordworks
  7. The Masikhule Foundation

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