Once a library resource centre is handed over to a school, one targeted outcome would be an improvement in the children's reading, evidenced by better word attack skills and phonic awareness. Another equally significant consequence is the steady improvement in comprehension and spelling. Improvements in all subject areas - in other words, a more holistic development - are ensured if all things remain equal.
Insidious challenges to the process of learning and teaching in state schools are the twin devils of large class sizes and teacher competence. Most learners in a typical school struggle with the basics of reading, which renders the costly gift of a library a waste of time, money and effort. If a library is to become the hub of a school, then the process of preparing its youngest learners (those in the foundation phase) with the skills of reading is of critical urgency.
These learners have to first develop basic reading skills before the library can become a viable place where they can extend and expand this requirement. In order to achieve this, Imperial's library assistants had to be trained to teach this competence. Once our staff was trained they were able to assist teachers and learners with the literacy programme.
It was not by accident that we introduced the reading programme and enrichment activities with the concomitant staff development programmes into the literacy outreach programme. Each year a number of tried and tested activities have become part of the Imperial and Motus Community Trust reading and enrichment programme.
The reading programme is the backbone of the library programme as it addresses the very poor reading levels of learners in our partner schools. It is vital to bring their reading levels up to and even surpassing provincial and national norms. Libraries do not teach children to read. The expectation is that learners must be able to read (however rudimentary) at the outset.
The reality is that precious few learners are able to recognize basic words; in order to fast track these skills we introduced the reading programme for small groups within a class.
Formal reading assessments that we conducted at partner schools revealed a dire situation with scores bordering on semi- or illiteracy, and in most cases with a reading lag two to three years behind the age cohort.
In such a scenario even the brightest learners would struggle to cope with any school subject.
Together with principals and the management team, plans are made for compulsory reading classes from grade 1 to grade 4 (or beyond, depending on the size of the school.)
Our library assistants undergo rigorous training for the acquisition of on-the-job skills to mediate the reading programme and use of graded books and materials (flashcards, reading strips, bulk readers, etc.) for their small group sessions.
Two 30-minute reading periods per week are scheduled for grade 1-3s and one 30-minute period per week for the 4-7s.
Reading lessons concentrate on:
- Phonetic awareness so that learners are able to decode and encode new words
- Recognition of sight words
- Pre-reading of pictures and illustrations to enhance the reading activity
- Developing comprehension skills, and
- Fluency and spelling
The small reading groups are rotated between the teachers and the library assistants to ensure each child benefits from the individual strengths of librarians and teachers.
Library assistants follow the plans designed and provided by the Trust to ensure progression in reading and comprehension. Additional reading resources are supplied that includes teaching aids, graded readers, reading strips, and comprehension passages.
Spelling was introduced into the programme because it is a key skill aligned to reading. It is required for creative writing, for the acquisition of vocabulary, and to understand the distinct rules of spelling. This skill is so essential, and so evidently lacking, that spelling tests have been introduced from grades 3 to 7.
The learners write three term tests (terms 2, 3 and 4). The dates for the tests are communicated well in advance through letters to the school management team (SMT). Word-lists are sent to schools which the learners have to study. Initially, these are core words taken from high-frequency lists but in later tests, more challenging words are introduced which includes 'unseen' words (words not on the lists but appropriate to the grade/age being tested.)
Schools are not expected to make copies of the test. This is done at our main office and delivered to the school.
While library assistants distribute the lists, assistance is required from teachers and the SMT to go through the list with the learners and to remind them to study and to help by testing them regularly.
Learners with scores of 50% and higher qualify to get list two spelling words. Similarly, learners scoring 50% or more move on to test three.
Learners in grades 4 to 7 (not grade 3) who score 100% in tests 1 and 2 and 3 get automatic entry to our inter-school spelling bee finals. Should there be less than 14 one hundred percent achievers the top 14 learners qualify to participate. The finals consist of two written tests with words ranging from high usage words, curriculum- based words and age appropriate unseen words. Each participant automatically qualifies for a participation prize. The top four learners per grade also receive an extra prize.
BOOK CLUBS AND BOOK QUIZZES
Book clubs are exclusively for top readers in grades 4 to 7 who read higher quality books by acclaimed writers of children's literature. These clubs are integral to advance the love for reading.
Each year all partner schools are given various titles so learners are not forced to read books that do not interest them. Clubs are convened after school twice a month for 30-45 minutes and appear on the librarians' timetables (some clubs run during breaks because of scholar transport.) During club meetings the members read and discuss selected books with a librarian.
Club meetings are an opportunity for learners to derive deeper meaning from a story, to understand the key features of novels, to learn new words, and to generally come away with an appreciation of literature.
At the end of term three, grade 4 - 7 learners who regularly attend book club meetings are tested randomly on books read. The written tests are marked by the management team and the top 14 learners are invited to participate in our Book Quiz finals.
Once again, learners who make it to the finals automatically receive a prize. The top four learners qualify for an additional gift.
GENERAL KNOWLEDGE QUIZZES
Our annual General Knowledge Quiz is designed to draw out the very best learners in the acquirement of fact-based information (and hopefully, knowledge) from a range of interesting topics.
Once the nonfiction books have been read, the contestants write internal and external tests. The top 14 learners are chosen to participate in the General Knowledge Finals.
Each grade is given a topic to study. The finalists participate in a board game which probes their understanding of the topics. As with all competitions that involve internal and external rounds, participants automatically qualify for a prize.
Getting maximum use from a dictionary is a lifelong skill; the benefits extend into high school and adulthood. Knowledge of words, word parts, parts of speech, word derivation, plurals, abbreviations and acronyms are some of the skills to be acquired. Our quizzes aim to bring out the application of these skills at the very inception of research and scholarship for learners.
Libraries are stocked with different editions of dictionaries which are available for continual use by educators to practice for the finals of this competition:
- Oxford Children's Colour Dictionary
- Oxford South African illustrated School Dictionary
- Oxford South African School Dictionary
Learners in grades 4 to 7 write knockout tests set by our curriculum staff and are conducted by our library assistants. The numbers are whittled down to the best 5 per grade (a total of 20 learners.)
The final 20 learners at each school write a semi-final test set and marked by our office. The top 14 learners per grade proceed to the finals.
For generations and in many cultures, board games have kept people entertained in all types of conditions: under trees, by firesides, on trains and in parks. Board games call on a combination of skill, timing and pure luck.
Seizing on this fun factor, Imperial libraries have been supplied with a range of board games: 30 Seconds, chess and checkers, junior and senior Monopoly, Scrabble, puzzles and compendiums of games.
The Board Games Challenge is hosted annually for learners to pit their skills against competitors from other schools. Programmes may change each year but there remains a selection process to identify the best players at schools, especially in games demanding skills such as Travellator, Scrabble, Rummikub puzzle construction, and chess and checkers.
Once players have been selected the event takes place at two venues, to cater for four learners representing each school.
NATURAL SCIENCE, SOCIAL SCIENCE, MATHEMATICS AND TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGE
The Trust is proud of its annual Science and Technology Challenge that promotes the use of resources provided in the library to ensure that libraries are only the domain of the language teachers.
This contest is a team event for grades 6 and 7. Learners go through a demanding semi-final elimination process, consisting of:
- Completing an experiment using instructions and chemicals
- Completing a construction activity using instructions and equipment
- Playing a geography board game called Travellator
- Competing in a Maths 24 challenge
Each primary school in our portfolio is involved in a number of fun activities annually. These activities are usually for grade R- 6 learners and are aimed primarily to entice reluctant readers into the library. Activities may take place during the week or on Saturdays and involve a combination of academic and fun events. Annual events include:
- Grade R fun days
- Mandela Month sports days
- Christmas parties
- Netball and soccer tournaments
All programmes are meticulously organised for our schools and comes at a huge investment: financial, logistical, material and personnel.
We can only be hopeful that the sum total of all our programmes and activities lead to a positive future for the learners and schools we are privileged to work with.
The saying "If you want to teach maths to John, you should know two things: maths and John" explains why we started scripting our own plays and story reading skits. We know the valuable role of theatre in learning and we know the lingo of township kids.
We had previously hired professional actors - at huge cost - from suburban theatre companies to perform for our children in Orange Farm, or Finetown, or Vlakfontein. However, the plays were lost on them for a myriad of reasons: language, diction, pronunciation.
That's when we began writing our own material based on well- known themes: litter, respect, greed, caring for the environment. When our staff took the stage audiences were riveted, eyes and ears followed actors across the stage, humour was understood, appreciated and laughter followed. The timing for delivery was on point!
We saw the value and progressed to reading much-loved stories in character and costume. Our scripts take on moral and ethical and educational themes. And the kids love them.