College of Human Sciences

Unisa linguist attempts to solve the literacy crisis in South Africa

Prof Carien Wilsenach

Prof Carien Wilsenach from the College of Human Sciences’ Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages recently delivered her inaugural lecture, titled "Letter-sound by letter-sound: making sense of written texts in the early grades – Evidence from alphabetic languages in South Africa".

Her research has attempted to understand to what extent cognitive-linguistic skills contribute to early literacy development in three African languages, namely Northern Sotho, isiZulu and isiXhosa, and to what extent improving these skills could alleviate the literacy crisis. This refers to the fact that 78% of learners in Grade 4 cannot understand what they read, and more than 50% of children do not know the letters of the alphabet by the end of Grade 1.

"The cognitive-linguistic skills that are necessary for successful reading development include vocabulary skills, phonological processing skills, letter-sound knowledge, morphological awareness, syntactic knowledge and critical thinking skills," she argued.

Wilsenach’s lecture focused on the importance of phonological processing and letter‑sound knowledge for literacy development in the foundation phase. According to her, "phonological processing is an auditory processing skill that represents the ability to process phonological aspects of the auditory signal. It consists of three interrelated components, namely phonological awareness, phonological working memory and rapid autonomous naming (better known as rapid naming)."

Using a longitudinal research design, she measured the development of phonological awareness, phonological working memory and rapid naming in both the home language and in English of Northern Sotho-, isiZulu- and isiXhosa-speaking children from Grades 1 to Grade 3. She also measured aspects of literacy, such as letter-sound knowledge, reading fluency, reading comprehension and spelling.

She said that the data suggest that although bilingual phonological processing skills develop over time, this development is quite slow in South African learners. Particularly, phonological awareness develops slowly, most likely because learners are seldom introduced to sounds at the phoneme level in South African classrooms. "Rather, teachers focus on the sounds that syllables make (such as 'ba', 'be' or 'bo')," she explained. "This leads to learners not developing adequate awareness of the fact that a word such as 'bana' consists of four sounds (b – a – n – a). This, in turn, causes learners to take a very long time to learn the alphabetic principle, namely, that the letters on a page correspond to the sounds in a language."

Wilsenach proceeded to state that phonological awareness skills support the acquisition of letter-sound correspondences, which, in turn, supports the decoding of texts. "Children need to be able to decode text automatically to start reading fluently, and fluent reading is necessary for reading comprehension." she said.

She further argued that we need a structured literacy approach to teaching reading in South African languages. The importance of teaching children the alphabetic principle early on (and often) as part of this structured approach cannot be overemphasised.

"The sooner children make the connections between sounds and letters, the sooner they will start decoding text," she said. "Structured literacy instruction would include phonics and explicit teaching, but structured literacy does not equal 'phonics'. Phonics-based reading instruction refers to a method of teaching young children to read and spell words individually."

Speaking after the lecture, Wilsenach said she feels a combination of gratitude and responsibility. "I think this feeling is based in my awareness of the fact that the more you know, the more you know how little you know."

Wilsenach is a past recipient of Unisa’s Developing Researcher and Women in Research awards.

#UNISA 150

* By Tebogo Mahlaela, Communication and Marketing Specialist, College of Human Sciences

Publish date: 2023/03/28

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