We provide professional development of teachers through the following avenues:
- Developing early literacy content that is appropriate to different age groups with different needs;
- Providing quality training, coaching and mentoring to teachers, heads of department, and subject advisors on early grade reading, specialising in African languages;
- Empowering our own staff with up-to-date skills training on early grade reading theories and practice.
Our focus areas are language and literacy content development, specialising in mother tongue or African indigenous languages, and English Second Language (ESL).
The project was initiated in 2009 when Molteno approached the Zenex Foundation to fund a graded reading scheme to support isiXhosa literacy and language learning for Grade 1 children. The isiXhosa graded readers were unique in that they were written directly in isiXhosa, and not translations of existing English books. They are, to our knowledge, the only authentic African language graded basal readers available. The series is known as Vula Bula.
During 2012 and 2013, the isiXhosa Vula Bula series was versioned into seven other African languages to be used in the Gauteng Primary Literacy and Mathematics Strategy (GPLMS).
In 2015, in order to make the series more readily accessible, Molteno made them available online via a Creative Commons Open Licensing platform. As a result, thousands of schools in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape, North West and Limpopo provinces are using the Vula Bula graded reader series as a core resource for improving the literacy levels of their learners. The Setswana Vula Bula materials were evaluated by South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE) and were found to be effective in teaching literacy.
The Vula Bula resources make learning to read in African languages easy. It is the first graded reading programme in African languages where progression from level to level is based on the phonics of each language, offering carefully structured, developmental reading practice. Familiar vocabulary and sentences patterns enable rapid reading progress. They have attractive, clear and detailed illustrations which facilitate knowledge acquisition and understanding. The graded readers can be utilised during group-guided, paired and independent reading.
Materials development is the central component of this project; we then dispense the resources via our website. We develop readers for Grades 1 to 3, and we are currently actively seeking funding in order to develop appropriate and quality materials for learners in Grades 4 to 6.
We have supplied and trained the almost 800 GPLMS schools in 2011-2013. We will supply in 2019 the anthologies to about 450 000 Eastern Cape primary schools. The NECT supplied all its project schools in different provinces (e.g. PILO/Jika iMfundo), the EGRS 1 project schools in the North West, and the RSP project. We have reached approximately a million learners by now.
The strategic objective of the project is to improve early literacy (reading with understanding) levels of Foundation Phase learners by making books freely available to them in the relevant language of learning and teaching. There is consensus that children’s books written in African languages are scarce. In cases where they are available, they are usually translations of English readers, which renders them inappropriate and ineffective for decoding purposes when children are learning to read. Through the project we empower teachers with the resources needed for teaching early reading in the home languages of their learners.
The project addresses the needs of learners who are unable to read with understanding in their mother tongue, because they have not yet mastered essential decoding skills. African languages are orthographically phonically regular languages and need to be taught as such. In addition, Nguni languages are agglutinative and conjunctive, which means that children need to develop syllabication skills in order to read fluently, and with meaning. The Vula Bula resources are a concerted effort to ameliorate the shortage of appropriate reading materials for children learning to read in an African language. The project also addresses the need for teachers to be equipped with the skills to teach reading in an African language.
The fact that a clear Department of Education policy on mother tongue instruction was put into effect was due in part to our small contribution. When we made these materials available on an open license in 2014, it excited the Minister of Education to endorse them, and subsequently launched them in 2014. Since 2015 various departments of education and privately funded projects included or referred to our materials in the teachers’ lesson plans.
Today four out of nine provinces are using these materials on a very larger scale. These include Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Northwest and Gauteng. The impact of the use of these materials have been documented by independent evaluators.
The Vula Bula readers have a proven pedigree, and have been supplied to schools in the following provinces and projects, where they are making a significant impact on the improvement of learners’ reading and comprehension skills:
- The Department of Basic Education’s Early Grade Reading Study 1 project in the North West province – the Setswana Lesson Plans incorporate the Vula Bula readers
- The National Education Collaboration Trust’s (NECT’s) Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes (PIILO) “Jika Mfundo” project in KwaZulu-Natal – the isiZulu Lesson Plans incorporate the Vula Bula readers
- The NECT projects in the North West (Bojanala district) – the Setswana and isiXhosa Lesson Plans incorporate the Vula Bula readers
- The NECT projects in Limpopo (Vhembe and Waterberg districts) – the Setswana, Sepedi, Xitsonga and Tshivenda Lesson Plans incorporate the Vula Bula readers
- The NECT projects in Mpumalanga (Bushbuckridge/Bohlabela districts) – the isiZulu and Xitsonga Lesson Plans incorporate the Vula Bula readers
- The NECT projects in the Eastern Cape (Libode and Mount Frere districts) – the isiXhosa Lesson Plans incorporate the Vula Bula readers
- The Zenex Foundation (Eastern Cape & KZN) – supplied Vula Bula readers to all ZENLIT project and control schools
Our Vula Bula materials have been endorsed not only by government, but by literacy experts as well as being the best for African indigenous languages. Some government departments access our materials through our website and distribute them widely across the country. Other projects have found a way of condensing our story books into the so-called anthologies so to make them easily handled by teachers.
Evolution and lessons learnt
Due to the lack of standardisation in the African languages, development is slow and often painstaking. This impacts on proposed time frames, as progress can be hampered by the need for extensive consultation with language practitioners. Another challenge is convincing provincial departments of education of the need for subject advisor and teacher training on how to make optimal use of the Vula Bula materials.
Although schools and projects can download our materials free of charge, they are not benefiting from our expertise in how to properly use the materials to deliver the literacy curriculum and its concomitant pedagogic methodologies. Materials alone are not the only solution to the literacy problem that South Africa is experiencing. Some projects offer their own training, but it is logical that the materials developers are in the most informed and best position to deliver training. As we propagate freely available open educational resources, we would like to also be involved directly in teacher training, to ensure best use of our product.
South Africa needs to invest in the development of high quality, appropriate and freely available literacy and language materials in African languages. We then need to invest in training department officials, school management teams, and most importantly teachers, in how to successfully enliterate Foundation Phase children to become independent readers and thinkers. This period of time would allow Molteno the opportunity to produce all the core resources needed to successfully teach reading in African languages in the Foundation Phase. All research shows that if language learning is done correctly in the mother tongue, then there is a far greater chance of success in the acquisition of the first additional language (English).
The Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy has an established research and development unit that is responsible for all Vula Bula resource research and development. The unit is continuously in touch with stakeholders, especially teachers, so that it can produce needed, useful materials to allow for successful literacy and language learning. With continuous funding and financial support, the R&D Unit can continue to produce high-quality resources which will then be made publically available through our open-licencing model. We firmly believe that this is the most cost-effective and sustainable way of providing the best possible African language literacy materials to our children.