The Constitution of South Africa and the Language in Education Policy (LiEP) promulgated in 1998 both recognise the equal status of 11 official languages in South Africa. The aim of the LiEP is to ensure meaningful access to education for all learners. Parents of non-mother-tongue speaking children exercise their democratic right by enrolling their children in Afrikaans- or English-medium schools, because they believe education in Afrikaans- or English-medium will give them an advantage in the future. Consequently, teachers in South Africa are challenged by the presence of diverse languages and cultures in their classes, which poses unique challenges in the classroom.
Epistemological issues relevant to teaching pedagogies are not emphasised sufficiently during in-service teacher training. The ability of teachers to develop new knowledge as well as thinking about and finding new solutions has therefore been inhibited. It is important that teachers realise the implications that epistemological issues have for reading comprehension skills. This includes the education of non-mother-tongue speakers in Afrikaans Home Language classes. Teacher development has not incorporated knowledge of the relationship between language and cognition, or strategies for promoting reading comprehension in a non-mother-tongue environment.
This article reports on a study which investigated and addressed the professional development needs of teachers to improve their pedagogies regarding the reading comprehension of non-mother-tongue speakers in Afrikaans-medium classes. A professional development programme was designed and implemented based on collected data. The investigation was undertaken against the background of the poor overall achievement of pupils in the national systemic evaluations and international assessment studies, which is currently a cause of great concern. Teachers have indicated that they feel frustrated and overwhelmed, because they do not have adequate knowledge to support non-mother-tongue speakers in their classes. Therefore, they have expressed the need for professional development to assist them to improve their pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) in this regard.
One of the learning theories underpinning the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) is socio-constructivism. Implications of socio-constructivism for teachers are that they should not only provide an environment within which pupils can discover and explore on their own, but that the teachers should also consider themselves to be active participants with their pupils by learning from them, giving information, reminders and encouragement. However, the continued dichotomising of teacher-centred and learner-centred pedagogies is not helpful for improving the quality of teaching, because teachers continue to practise both approaches. Teacher trainers should therefore keep this in mind when planning professional development activities. This should take place through discussion, problem-solving, exploration of different reading and comprehension strategies and their implementation. This enables teachers to construct their own knowledge, establishing them as independent learners.
Action research as part of a mixed-method approach was the chosen design for this study. Empirical data was generated by two cycles of this action research study. In this way, research questions could be explored without the constraints of using only one research method.
During the first cycle the problems that lead to the poor performance of non-mother-tongue speakers in primary schools in South Africa were investigated. This investigation included a literature review of the status of literacy in South Africa, the causes of poor comprehension skills of non-mother-tongue speakers, and the processes of reading and reading comprehension. This was followed by a questionnaire to gather quantitative and qualitative data on the professional development needs of in-service teachers. Data gathered from the literature study as well as the questionnaires was used to design a professional development programme to expand the existing pedagogical repertoire of in-service teachers so that they are better able to support the reading comprehension of non-mother-tongue speakers in their Intermediate Phase Afrikaans classes.
During cycle two a professional development programme was implemented to address the identified professional development needs of the teachers, which included the following: understanding action research, practising reflective thinking, deepening their knowledge of the process of reading by discussing the different reading models and their respective advantages and disadvantages, reading strategies, reading comprehension strategies, and lastly strategies to enhance vocabulary.
After completing this programme the teachers implemented the new pedagogies in their classes. The participating teachers recorded their experiences in journals, which produced valuable qualitative data regarding the classroom implementation process. Furthermore, classroom observations were conducted by the researchers to determine whether the teachers were able to implement the pedagogies acquired during the professional development sessions. Additional data was obtained by conducting semi-structured interviews. The qualitative data was coded and grouped into categories by using the research questions, questionnaires, interview schedules and observation schedules as guidelines. Data collected from these data sources was analysed and discussed and then compared in what is called side-by-side comparison. Quantitative data was analysed by the Centre for Statistical Analysis (CSA) of the University of Stellenbosch by using the McNemar Chi-square test as well as the mixed-model repeated measures “analysis of variance” (ANOVAs).
Findings before commencement of the professional development programme indicated that the majority of the respondents had received no professional development on reading models and reading strategies, nor on comprehension strategies to enhance the reading and comprehension skills of the non-mother-tongue speakers in their Afrikaans-medium classes. Furthermore, 84% of the respondents indicated that they do not explicitly teach comprehension strategies.
The study indicated that the professional development programme may have had a positive influence on the PCK of the participating teachers regarding reading models and strategies as well as comprehension strategies. Similarly, the programme may have resulted in increased implementation of these strategies in their classes, as indicated by the 92% of participants who explicitly taught comprehension strategies after the conclusion of the professional development programme. The results show that the participants’ implementation of action research may have contributed to effective application of reading and reading comprehension strategies.
The responsibility to ensure that pre- and in-service teachers receive professional development, which should include the appropriate methodologies and strategies to adequately support the literacy skills of non-mother-tongue speakers, lies with universities and the Department of Basic Education. The study, its findings and recommendations can therefore be used as a resource for the development of training programmes to improve teacher PCK regarding the enhancement of the reading comprehension of non-mother-tongue speakers.
Keywords: Afrikaans Home Language classes; Language in Education Policy (LiEP); non-mother-tongue speakers; professional development; reading comprehension strategies