Following a number of visits in 2007 to the Sedgefield Primêre Skool in Smutsville the need was established for a literacy project because of the high rate of illiteracy or functional illiteracy amongst learners. Contact was made with Ed and Barbara Coombe in Cape Town who have been involved in literacy projects in primary schools. In January 2008 Ed and Barbara were invited to Sedgefield in order to introduce a group of 28 interested people to a beautifully illustrated graded series of readers published by Kagiso. From this initial group a core of volunteers was formed to start the project in collaboration with the Grade 1 teachers at the school. With the huge literacy problem at the school it was felt that we should focus initially on the foundation phase.
At present 15 Afrikaans speaking volunteers from the Sedgefield community are meeting twice a week in the school hall to develop the reading and writing skills of Grade 1 children. The problem was originally exacerbated by the lack of Grade R classes in Sedgefield and the low standard of teaching at crèches which led to children being ill prepared for primary education. At last this problem has been acknowledged and overcome by the establishment of a Grade R class at the school supported and financed by the W. Cape Department of Education. Other Early Childhood Development Centres have in the meantime also been improved or started in the community.
Masithandane in collaboration with Rotary Knysna has had a major hand in this endeavour. The result is that 6-7 year old children are better prepared for Grade 1 but insufficient academic home support and quite frequently the lack of parental interest or illiteracy of parents cause other socio-economic problems in this notoriously poor S. Cape community leading to a backlog that cannot easily be eliminated.
Added to this there is the problem of demographic changes in the area which have linguistic implications. An influx of Xhosa speaking families originating from the Eastern Cape have in the past few years created new problems. Currently as many as 50% of the learners of this traditionally Afrikaans medium school have Xhosa as their mother tongue and battle to understand what the teachers are trying to teach them. In an effort to address this problem the Department of Education appointed a teacher could bridge the gap but unfortunately this arrangement only lasted for 3 years.
In 2009 the Masithandane literacy project coordinators took the initiative to call together another group of volunteers focusing mainly on the understanding of English in Grade 3. At the moment no less than 20 volunteers from the Sedgefield community go to school once a week to do so called “paired reading” with these learners. This is a method that was taught and practically demonstrated by two lecturers from Bath University’s Department of Education. This project has born much fruit.
Books have been purchased and donated by schools, private donors and Biblionef and two trunk loads are used currently. Very repetitive stories are used for slower learners to learn words, while the children who read well have books that can stimulate their interest. Children may take books home but only get to take out the next book on return of the first.
At the end of the year a Christmas party is arranged for both Grade 1 and Grade 3. The local Spa sponsors hotdogs each year for which we are most grateful and the volunteers generously bring their share of goodies.
We are grateful for the 35 volunteers who make themselves available several times a week for these projects to overcome the high level of literacy in the Primêre Skool community. We never cease to be amazed at the amount of goodwill in this small coastal town. It would be wonderful if some of the children’s parents or retired teachers of the township of Smutsville/Sizamile would also make themselves available for this project.