Ulwazi Lwethu Project takes hands with the University of Pretoria

Posted on November 24, 2022

The University of Pretoria and the Zenex Foundation have taken hands in a groundbreaking project called ‘Ulwazi Lwethu’. Over the next few months, Dr Joyce West will coordinate the project alongside Drs
Celeste Combrinck, Makwalete Malatji and Matshediso Lekgetho, and Mrs Francinah Masola, who will act as the project leaders. Nine African language experts from across Africa have also been recruited to contribute to this project. Two of those African language experts are faculty members at the University of Pretoria. They are Dr Connie Makgabo, who will serve as the Sepedi language expert, and Dr Nkhensani
Maluleke, the Xitsonga language expert.

Ms Tholakele Nyathi will be the project administrator. Reading is an essential skill that needs to be developed in the Foundation Phase. The purpose of developing reading skills in the Foundation Phase is to ensure that learners can ‘read to learn’ in the successive phases. Reading material, such as graded
readers and leisure reading material, are indispensable resources in helping Foundation Phase learners develop reading skills such as decoding, word recognition, reading fluency and, ultimately, reading

A major contributor to the reading challenges among South African children is the paucity of level-ppropriate reading material in indigenous South African languages. There is a dearth of linguistically sound, age-ppropriate books that reflect the realities of most South African children. The Ulwazi Lwethu Project has brought together four non-profit organisations (Room to Read, the Nelson Mandela Institute, Molteno and SAIDE) in the children’s literacy space and has produced more than 1 000 African language leisure
and graded readers for the Foundation Phase (Grades 1 to 3). The Ulwazi Lwethu Project developed readers in one of the nine indigenous South African languages, ie Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati,
Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu, and each of the original stories was then translated into the other eight South African languages.

The University of Pretoria’s role in the Ulwazi Lwethu Project will be to quality assure the readers that have been developed. Quality assurance is a multifaceted process, especially in the case of multilingual reading
material. It involves not only investigating the linguistic and educational quality of texts, but also determining their linguistic and cultural equivalence across different language texts by evaluating, for example, their readability. Readability analysis, as part of quality assurance processes, can assist in making evidence-based and informed decisions regarding the reading material provided to Foundation Phase learners. Readability analysis is essential in making decisions regarding the cognitive load of texts. For example, one text should not cause a higher cognitive load or be more cognitively taxing for some learners than for
others based on how the text was versioned or adapted. Determining the difficulty and comparability of text is also necessary, considering the pedagogical aim of matching a reader’s ability to the appropriate difficulty
level of a text (ie graded readers).

The way in which quality assurance of multilingual reading material takes place requires meticulous design. In a multilingual context, such as we have in South Africa, where languages are constantly evolving, a
need exists for a unique, comprehensive, inclusive and holistic approach to evaluating multilingual texts. For this project, a concurrent triangulation mixed research methodology will be used when reviewing and evaluating the quality and readability of the texts across the nine different languages. Using a mixed-method approach will help avoid common mistakes in traditional quality assurance processes and readability
analysis, ensure cultural sensitivity and equality and address the needs of our African language Foundation Phase learners. Furthermore, the quality assurance processes will be guided by the latest reading research that informs educational views on progression, coherence, accuracy and scaffolding in teaching and learning material. The Science of Reading (SoR) will serve as the theoretical framework for this project.

The SoR, which is a body of scientific knowledge regarding the most effective teaching methods for young children, emphasises the systematic, sequential and explicit teaching of reading skills such as phonics. As this project will focus on assuring the quality of African language Foundation Phase reading texts, the SoR
of African languages will also guide our quality assurance processes. The SoR aligns with reading research on African languages as both highlight the importance of phonological processing, phonemic skills and explicit phonics teaching. Combining the SoR principles with African language reading research will help us to avoid linguistic and pedagogical imperialism. The members of the team working on this project are passionate about developing African languages and promoting multilingualism. We are excited about
the project as we are aware of the urgent need for quality African language graded and leisure text for the Foundation Phase.

We also advocate for quality assurance as we believe it can make a vast difference in developing Foundation Phase learners’ reading skills. Keep an eye open for further developments—these are exciting
times for African languages.

- Author Dr Joyce West

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