Family Literacy in South Africa – some examples

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Family Literacy in South Africa – some examples

Family literacy – the intergenerational sharing in reading and writing activities – happens in many homes in South Africa but the more formal use of the term, and programmes relating to it, have only recently begun to emerge. Early childhood development agencies in South Africa have incorporated the development of early literacy skills into their work for many years. Adult literacy programmes are also widespread in the country. However it is only in the last ten years that people have been talking about ‘family literacy’ and only since 2000 that family literacy has been developed and incorporated into the work of both adult literacy and early childhood development practitioners on a slowly increasing scale. Family literacy is usually included as part of an existing programme within an organization rather than as the sole aim of an organization although there are those who have dedicated their whole project to supporting family literacy. This chapter will describe two family literacy initiatives in the country, both of which arose out of a concern for the low levels of early literacy skills in pre-school children.

Adult Literacy in South Africa
It is difficult to establish how many South African adults experience difficulties reading or writing and the estimates range from 7.4 to 8.5 million adults with less than grade 7 (considered to be functionally illiterate) and between 2.9 to 4.2 million people who had no formal schooling. (Aitchison and Harley 2004) Most of these adults are black and there are slightly more women and men in this number. One reason for this is that many people in the country were too poor to attend school. If they did attend school the quality of schooling for black people was not good. Now that the discriminatory education system in place before South Africa became a democracy in 1994 has ended, we are beginning to see some changes. The right to basic adult education is spelt out in the South African constitution but there are not enough programmes or funding available to meet the Education for All target of halving the adult illiteracy rates by 2015.

Early childhood education in South Africa
The rights of children are protected in the South African Constitution and the national Department of Education has indicated its commitment to young children. However improvement in access to early childhood development provision has been slow – only from between 9 – 11% of birth to six-year-olds in 1996 to 16% in 2001. (Wilderman and Nomdo 2004:2).
The main provision of early childhood development care, apart from families, has been through community pre-schools and crèches supported in part by non government training and resource agencies. National and provincial government policies and programmes have increased the spread of provision but there are still not enough places available for all young children.

Family Literacy

Research conducted in the 1990’s provided evidence that early literacy skills were a cause for concern. They were low and even with interventions by national government, were not improving. These interventions focused on providing training and support to some pre schools and crèches.

Some organisations and individuals in the early childhood sector became interested in providing more support to families in the hope that this would be more effective than working only with preschools and crèches. The development of two family literacy initiatives as a different way to tackle the problem and these are described below:

Family Literacy Project
When she has finished her breakfast I dress her in her school uniform and then walk her to pre-school so that there is nothing that will frighten her, she is only five-years-old. When she comes back from pre-school she tells me about her day and what she did at pre-school. I then help her with school work, and play the games that they played at pre-school. Yesterday she wanted us to hop like frogs, but I could not hop that way and it made her laugh that I couldn't, and so she said we must rather stand. I found yesterday to be a nice day, and I think my child had enjoyed it, I saw that she was very happy; she woke up singing this morning.” Lindiwe Molefe
The first Family Literacy Project (FLP) parent groups were set up for the parents of pre-school children in five remote, rural sites in KwaZulu Natal. These areas are very poor with bad roads and little electricity or running water. The pre-schools were community run with few toys or books for the children.

The sessions covered activities that could be done at home using natural resources, conversations and, where available, books and pictures. They were aimed at developing early literacy skills. Parents were eager to try out the activities even though many of them had not completed formal school because of poverty. The women soon began asking the FLP to help them improve their own literacy skills and a way of delivering family literacy was devised. The enthusiasm of the adults has carried the project from its start in 2000 to date with many women continuing to attend the sessions.

The five groups each chose a woman from their community to be their facilitator. These women were trained by FLP in a participatory facilitation method known as REFLECT, and in adult and early literacy. By combining these three aspects, units of six or seven workshop sessions were developed. Workshop topics reflect the interests of the women, for example water, HIV/Aids, confidence building, children’s rights and child protection. Each unit includes at least one session on how adults can prepare children for reading and writing. Each group received a small box of books and by the end of the year most of the women had moved from functional literacy (completing forms, reading signs or instructions etc) to reading or looking at books with their children or when relaxing in the evenings. “When we are finished eating we take books and read and look at the pictures and do homework.” (Sibongile Zuma)
Once the women started passing external adult literacy examinations, the FLP introduced a range of activities to make use of these newly acquired literacy skills. These activities include borrowing books from the project libraries, journal keeping with their children, writing or drawing notices for the community notice board, becoming pen friends with women in other groups and taking a more active role in the development of their areas by becoming members of committees.
The home visiting scheme established in 2003 was a result of FLP group members being eager to share their knowledge with neighbours. Each home visitor visits a neighbouring family at least twice a month. They take with them games to play with the children and books to share, and they also talk to the adults about early childhood development and health.

The FLP has established three small community libraries in areas where no books were previously available. The books were donated and all books were catalogued by group members, using conventional library stationery. The women themselves had never visited a library before so the cataloguing was kept simple and easy to use. The women, who were once looked down on in their communities for not being able to read and write, are now confidently running the libraries. The libraries are well used by adults and primary school children but it has been difficult to attract secondary school children. To encourage them into the libraries, workshops have been held to help with English and also to discuss sexuality issues - very topical in the light of the AIDS pandemic sweeping the country.

A short course for practising adult literacy facilitators was run to introduce them to the family literacy approach. It was not the intention to turn existing adult literacy groups into family literacy groups but to encourage the facilitators to include information for adults on the role they play in developing a love of reading within their families.

The FLP runs child-to-child sessions in the local primary schools. These are for fun and to build and support a love of reading and books. The children enjoy listening to stories and then writing and drawing about them.
The FLP has produced a number of books in plain language on parenting, HIV/Aids, stories of early childhood, setting up a community library as well as four story books for young children.
Many conventional adult literacy groups experience the problem of low attendance and drop out. It is interesting that this is not a very common problem in any of the FLP groups with women joining and remaining members for several years. One reason could be that the FLP answers a need within parents to see their children to have a better start in life than they had.
The Family Literacy Project approach has been to work directly with adults on their own (although babies and toddlers come along with their mothers to sessions) and through them reach the children.

Extra quotes

It has helped me a lot that we learn as a family, I no longer have low confidence around people and I can help my children with their school work and read books that I borrow from the library to them. These books are very helpful because the children often have homework and they allow me to be able to help them easily because I have read the library books and because I can teach my children to write English.

They have also been helpful because when the teacher is teaching in English and then explains in isiZulu I have already understood some of it. It has been very helpful to study with/through the FLP because we have much more understanding in my family and with our neighbours, we are no longer uneasy around each other. Even the neighbour's children ask me for help with their school work because they have heard my children saying that their mother helps them with their homework. Sibongile Dlamini

It has helped that there are programmes where the parent and the child can learn with each other, you can sit down with the child and teach her using pictures, ask her what she sees and teach her to write. There’s also Home-Visits, we teach our neighbours’ children, and we earn vouchers for this, which we can use to buy food for the family. There’s also Child-to-Child, young children study and learn to draw after school, and we also have pen friends that we can write to and communicate with. Bonisile Nzimande
Studying with the FLP has helped me a lot with my child who had not yet started school. I used to find Bona magazines that we cut out pictures from and stick them so she could look at them and tell me what she sees, and what is happening in the picture.
This built her and made her intelligent because she was happy to go to school this year when she started. She had seen and knew that learning was fun and good, and she does like studying and reading because she borrows books from the library and participates in Child-to-Child. She is bright in school and you can tell that she started learning from a very young age.
It is good for a child to learn at home before she starts school. Gladys Nzimande

Family Maths Science Literacy and Life Skills

On a personal level the FMSL programme has given me confidence to assist my own child. You find as a parent with a child at school, when you try to ask their educators at school to tell you about your child’s progress, they don’t know how to engage with you, they just give you a written report. There are no programmes at school that involve you as a parent in the same way that the FMSL programme does”. A quote from a parent

Family Maths Science Literacy and Life Skills (FMSLL) is a programme developed and run by two non government organisations; COUNT, a numeracy/mathematics training agency, and Woz’obona, an early-childhood development agency. It is derived from a similar programme developed in the United States of America and adapted to the South African context. The FMSLL programme was piloted between 2000 and 2004 and based on response from the twenty organisations who took part; it made an impact on the families reached, as well as the schools, projects and other institutions which use the programme.

The literacy component of FMSLL began as a programme known as ‘Let’s make books’ which was a response to evaluation and research findings released in 2001 that recommended that more books were needed in pre-schools and crèches to support early literacy development. The under- resourced pre-schools and crèches struggled to provide books and Woz’obona presented workshops aimed at the women working in these facilities. Woz’obona saw the potential for working with parents as COUNT was doing through its maths and science programme and the two organisations began to work together. Parts of the “Lets make books” course for preschool educators were rewritten for parents and literacy was incorporated into FMSLL.
Many parents had bad memories of learning to read at school and these are explored in the first workshop on literacy. The training attempts to create a positive attitude towards books and reading and presents tools for people to use to address the problem of not having easy access to books. In the workshops the trainers model good communication between adults and children in the hope of creating and supporting good relationships within families. An example of an activity to achieve this is that adults are asked to draw their first experience of being read to. They then relate this to a partner who writes the story under the picture. Discussions on how early experiences affected their own reading development and may continue to influence the way they introduce books and reading to their own children, help parents to become more aware of their interactions around early literacy development.

The workshops, although aimed at helping parents support their children’s early literacy development do also help the adults. At a workshop in a preschool in Sekhukhune, a poor rural area in Limpopo province, a grandmother came to a FMSLL workshop with her granddaughter. The workshop introduced journals and how to use them. Each child received a notebook to use as a journal and was asked to draw a picture. In a modelling exercise the facilitator showed how the family member could encourage the child to talk about the picture by saying “Tell me about your picture”. The family member was then assisted to write exactly what the child said under the picture and put the date of the picture on the page. At the end of the workshop during the verbal evaluation the grandmother asked if she could also have a journal for her own learning. The facilitator agreed that she could and gave her a journal. At the next workshop the grandmother returned with her journal and shared it with the group. She had drawn the face of a mobile phone. She explained that she had not known her numbers and yet her daughter wanted to give her a mobile phone so she had the idea that she could draw the mobile phone face and get help from her family members to learn the numbers and how to use the mobile phone.

The workshops also help break down barriers between homes and schools, and begin useful conversations about what is best for children, as can be seen from the following activity. Parents are asked to vote on the issue of whether children should be taught to read in their mother tongue or another language, usually English. Often parents will vote for English. The activity that follows is that the facilitator speaks to the group in a language none of them is familiar with. She provides no translation and expects the group to become engaged in different activities. The group is asked the question once more about making a choice between mother tongue or English as a language of teaching and learning for their children. Instead of voting for English as in the first round of voting, most adults vote for mother tongue following their own brief encounter with an unfamiliar language. This leads on to discussions around school and family needs and how to accommodate both within the formal education system.

Twenty of the activities used in the workshops have been put together for teachers, facilitators and even parents, to use.
One organisation that is implementing the FMSLL is the Centre for Social Development (CSD), a self-funded institute within Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape province. Four facilitators from CSD were trained in the FMSLL approach in 2003 and have since passed on this approach to the students attending early childhood development courses at the centre. Community development course students were also introduced to this approach to literacy development in families. Each early-childhood site these students work with has received a donation of books to use alongside the literacy activities both in the pre-schools and in families during home visits.


There are different ways family literacy is being implemented in South Africa, all driven by concerns that young children need more support at home to develop the skills that make literacy a pleasure and not a difficulty. Those projects that work closely with families report that both the adults and the children benefit from the entertaining and educational activities that are suggested. The family literacy approach in South Africa also stresses the importance of respecting parents and acknowledges that they are the first and most important educators of children.


Aitchison, J. and Harley, A. 2004. South African illiteracy statistics and the case of the magically growing number of literacy and ABET learners. Paper presented at the Kenton Conference, Didima, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa 1-3 October 2004.

Khulisa Management Services 2000. National Early Childhood Development Pilot Project: Phase Three Research Report, Khulisa Management Services, Johannesburg.
Wilderman, R.A. and Nomdo, C. 2004. Implementation of Universal Access to the Reception Year (Grade R): How Far Are We? IDASA Budget Information Service, Johannesburg.

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