RASA conference highlights

On Saturday 15th March the Reading Association of South Africa held a conference called “Literacy Works: Best practices in literacy teaching and a focus on mew media: their place in literacy teaching” at the University of Cape Town. It was an informative day, with everyone there clearly enthusiastic and committed to improving the literacy levels of South Africa’s youth.

Texting and literacy
Kevin Sherman, an ICT Education Specialist at the Schools Development Unit, University of Cape Town, spoke about using text messaging to teach literacy skills. It was a fun session where various groups had to translate conventional English passages to txtspk and back again. Afterwards we thought of all the learning activities that we’d employed in the exercise — a list of about 20 points. When weighing up this list against the negatives usually associated with texting, e.g that it might be bad for spelling and grammar, the positives very much won.

Primary school teacher, Fiona Beel, talking about how much her learners have enjoyed blogging (License: CC-BY-NC-SA)

Mobiles for literacy
I spoke about the m4Lit (mobiles for literacy) project, presenting an overview of the project findings. The presentation and research reports will be launched on Wednesday, 17 March. What was interesting is that nobody in the audience during Kevin’s talk or my talk was opposed to texting and using cellphones to get kids to read and write. Usually there is the voice of dissatisfaction in the audience, but not a single one on Saturday. One of the teachers did mention, however, that his school has a strict ban on cellphones, so learners would need to do their cellphone reading and writing after school.

Education reform
The day started with a presentation by Dr Ursula Hoadley, who was part of a task team organised by the Minister of Basic Education in 2009 to review the implementation of the Curriculum 2005 (1997), Review of C2005 (2000) and the National Curriculum Statement (2004). The committee traveled around the country, listened to teachers’ complaints and suggestions for change. What they found was massive confusion around the different policies, and therefore inconsistencies in the way these were implemented.

Over the last decade, in the classroom there has been a focus on group work, the construction of learner knowledge, and a marginalisation of textbooks. The policy focus has been on the “how of teaching,” with a neglect of the “what of teaching” — and this has resulted in problematic practices in the classroom. Teachers complained that they didn’t know what they actually had to teach!

Some of the committee’s recommendations include:

  • Streamline and clarify policies:
    • Single document per learning area/subject per phase, grade R to 12.
    • Design clear, succinct, unambiguous policy and guidelines in clear language, e.g. get rid of “learning areas” and “learning programmes”, and replace with “subjects”.
  • Reorganise subjects and time allocations in the Foundation Phase (FP) to give more prominence to languages and mathematics.
  • The abandoning of Learning Outcomes (LOs) and Assessment Standards (ASs) as curriculum organisers — from OBE. LOs and ASs have not shown to effectively mark learning progress for learners and also draw teachers into bureaucratic box-ticking.
  • Learning and Teaching Support Materials (LTSM):
    • That a national LTSM catalogue be produced. BUT there are also too many textbooks in the market — need to rationalise and ensure quality.
    • That the role of textbooks be reasserted.
    • A textbook for every learner for every subject in every grade.

A return to a focus on content and clear guidelines on what needs to be implemented and how — a “return to syllabus”.

The Minister of Basic Education wholeheartedly accepted the report. Now it needs to be implemented. The bureaucratic machine of government, and the tensions between the report’s recommendations and existing laws and policies is making implementation a slow and uncertain process. Much heated debate is raging at the moment, e.g. the argument for state control of publishing, e.g. one textbook for a particular subject per grade, as opposed to a choice of 16 different textbooks offered at the moment.

The audience noted that we should be aware of binary thinking towards policies, where the pendulum now swings away from “process” back to “content”. Ursula responded that the report was not a pendulum swing where practices that are appropriate in certain settings, e.g. groupwork, are thrown out wholesale. The report is an attempt to address the criticisms and failures of the last 15 years, to make it simpler and easier for teachers to teach.

Short paper: The effects of texting on literacy: Modern scourge or opportunity?

Texting refers to the use of abbreviations and other techniques to craft SMS and instant messages. Texting does not always follow the standard rules of English grammar, nor usual word  spellings. It is so pervasive that some regard it as an emergent language register in it’s own right. This is largely due to the proliferation of mobile phones as well as internet-based instant messaging (IM).

Girl textingFor a number of years teachers and parents have blamed texting for two ills: the corruption of language and the degradation in spelling of youth writing. Is there any good to come from this “modern scourge”? In the evolution of language, are we witnessing a major change akin to that brought about by Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th-century author who wrote in vernacular English language, rather than French or Latin?

To answer these questions, I wrote an issue paper that explores the issue of texting, first by defining literacy, then describing the empirical research available on the effects of texting on youth literacy, which underpin the positive perspectives a number of linguists ascribe to texting. Examples of positive interventions – in classroom and informal learning contexts – that leverage the popularity of texting are outlined. Finally, research questions regarding texting in the South African context are offered. All comments welcome!

Download paper (pdf)

(Image: Texting by adotjdotsmith. CC-BY-SA-2.0)

One textism does not a language corrupt

I’ve been working on a short paper on the effects of texting on literacy (forthcoming soon). Texting — SMS-speak, IM-speak, abbreviated and misspelled words, etc. — is much hated by teachers, parents and linguists who complain that textspeak is creeping into formal writing assignments — which it is. There is evidence — formal and anecdotal — of this happening in schools around the world.

My issue with this is the hysteria that has been created — the sense that a generation of youth cannot speak or spell correctly. The hysteria is based on a small number of actual textisms in essays, no more than grammar mistakes, spelling mistakes or the other inevitable mistakes that learners make when they practice writing.

The focus is on the mistake, e.g. the one textism, and not the 499 good words in an essay. The exception/mistake defines the whole piece. In the same way that when you read a book and notice a typo, you remember it. You make a mental black mark against the author and the editing process of the publishers. It’s wrong that these mistakes get made, but they need to be fairly assessed against the bigger picture of the narrative, the story structure, the characterisations, etc.

AristotleLet’s not create a whole category for texting and regard it as the death knell of English. Let’s not hysterically focus on the small mistakes. Let’s deal with them as best we can, but ask the bigger question: can young people, especially in SA, write long pieces? According to much research, they can’t because they never practice it. We need to get our kids writing, much longer pieces and more often. The few textisms need to be dealt with, but they don’t mean the end of a communicative generation.

As Aristotle said: “One swallow does not a summer make.”

(Image: Aristotle by Jastrow. Public Domain)