Language, Literacy, and Lots of Learning

Reflections from the first month in South Africa!

Hello again! I’ve been in Jo’burg for about a month now, and the time has truly flown by! I’m working in the Research and Development Unit at the organization I’m interning with, but my supervisor was very clear about wanting to provide me with opportunities to do a “little bit of everything”, and she has definitely stayed true to her word. So, what am I doing when I’m not exploring the city or bungee jumping? Keep reading!

Bungee-jumping at Orlando Towers in Soweto.
10km hike at Melville Koppies Nature Reserve. The waiver was right. It was not “a walk in the park”.

Materials Development

The organization I’m interning with specializes in the development of literacy and teacher-support materials for grades 1-3 in all 11 official South African languages. Since arriving, I have been working on creating phonics resources to complement the alphabet friezes (alphabet cards) and graded readers (leveled texts) that the organization created a few years ago. These phonic cards will be used to assist students in learning decoding and word recognition skills. I began by making phonic cards in Isizulu, Setswana, and Sepedi using lists of commonly-used words that my co-worker previously created. However, I’m now making a list of Siswati words on my own, which is much harder than you may think! In African languages, there are SO many digraphs, trigraphs, and blends and very limited printed resources available. Hence, it has taken me an extremely long time to go through a dictionary from 1981 to find comprehensive vocabulary words appropriate for grades 1-3. After I finish, the list will go to a Siswati expert who will approve the words, and I will then begin working on the design of the phonic cards.

graded reader
Graded reader in Isizulu

I have also worked on creating a training guide for teaching in pre-grade R (age four). Using extensive training guides for grade R (age five), I was asked to create a short guide that pre-grade R teachers could quickly refer to for developmentally-appropriate instructional support. Having an opportunity to go through all of the training manuals gave me a much better sense of the overall level of pre-service and in-service teacher education and support for pre-grade R and grade R teachers in South Africa, which helped me to better tailor the support provided in the pre-grade R guide.

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Instructional support guide for pre-grade R teachers.

The organization also creates English First Additional Language (EFAL) lesson plans that teachers in grades 1-3 receive on tablets each term. In South Africa, students receive increasing amounts of English instruction (as a subject) in grades 1-3 before transitioning to English as the language of instruction in grade 4. I have edited all of the EFAL lesson plans for grade 2 for the upcoming term, which provided insight into how English is taught in grade 2 and the phonemic awareness, decoding, and comprehension skills that they are working to develop. It was so nice to use my undergrad and grad school experiences with lesson planning to think critically about how the lessons could be adjusted to best meet the needs of diverse learners. The organization began piloting electronic lesson plans in October 2016, and teachers have been responding very positively (the organization prioritizes stakeholder input), so it will be exciting to see how these lesson plans contribute to academic gains.


I have also completed two literature reviews for different proposals for material development grants. One literature review was about the need for/benefits of coaching support for early grade teachers. I personally had the most incredible instructional coach when I was teaching, so I am very passionate about the impact that an expert mentor can have on instruction. Luckily there was lots of recent literature about the topic, as there is a movement towards coaching-based instructional support.

Currently, many grants are focused on improving literacy in the early grades, as research shows that early intervention has a high return on investment and helps address areas of concern early on. However, the organization wants to move into creating graded readers and other literacy materials for grades 4-6, as the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) showed that 78% of grade 4 students cannot read for meaning. So, it is essential that high-quality materials and support be provided for these grades. There was limited research on investment in the intermediate grades, revealing a need for attention in this area. If the organization receives the grants in the next few weeks, I will be working on these projects before finishing my internship.

Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E)

Monitoring and evaluation of various projects is in full-swing this summer (I mean, winter), so the M&E specialist has taken the time to send Sharanya and I necessary documents to provide us with background on the projects he is working on and has answered the countless clarifying questions that we have asked. We edited and provided suggestions for a bi-annual report about a new ECD project that is being implemented in Limpopo, a rural province to the north of Johannesburg, as well as analyzed current quantitive data. The project centers around providing support and education for teachers, principals, and parents on the importance of early childhood education for school-readiness. I’m excited to visit the field sites, see the project in action, and talk with local stakeholders in a few weeks!

That’s a really quick overview of what I’ve been doing in the office. More on my adventures in South Africa in my next post!

-Nics (my newest nickname)

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