What does transforming literacy spaces mean to you? Early literacy Q&A part 1 of 3

01 November 2022

What does transforming literacy spaces mean to you? Early literacy Q&A part 1 of 3

By Leanne Rencken

International Literacy Day has been celebrated annually since 1966. This year’s theme is ‘Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces… an opportunity to rethink the fundamental importance of literacy learning spaces to build resilience and ensure quality, equitable and inclusive education for all'.

Rather than focus on a single day in September, we asked some of the people and organizations that do critical work in the early literacy field to answer three important questions related to the theme and how they plan to sustain the good work they are doing over time.

Although these questions were asked and answered independently, in reading the submissions, it’s incredible to see the relationships that exist between the organizations and the respondents, the influence they’ve had on one another, and the supportive nature of the work they do.

Our Q&A participants

Dr Nkem Osuigwe was recently named the Wikimedia Newcomer of the Year and spoke to us on behalf of the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA) where she works as Human Capacity Development and Training Director.

Dr Osuigwe nominated Dunstanette Davies, head of the children’s department at the Sierra Leone Library Board, to share her personal thoughts and early literacy experiences. Davies was also part of the first cohort of librarians to pilot AfLIA’s Early Literacy Development Course, specifically created, in partnership with NBA, for librarians and library staff in Africa, who want to support children in their early literacy learning journey. On finishing the course, Davies stated that ‘the Early Literacy course has given me more confidence to engage in discussions concerning early literacy development. Am forever grateful’. So, it’s great to have her included in this conversation.

Prolific South African author and translator, Lorato Trok, responded to our questions from her own point of view as well as that of that of the Puku Foundation, where she works as the Managing Editor.

We also heard from Dorcas Wepukhulu on behalf of African Storybook (ASb), a multilingual literacy initiative that works with educators and children to publish openly licensed storybooks for early reading in African languages. ASb was established by Saide, a non-governmental organization (NGO) where Wepukhulu works as the East and West African Coordinator.

Purvi Shah, Senior Director at StoryWeaver, an initiative by India’s non-profit publisher, Pratham Books, commented from her experience at StoryWeaver: A platform on which multilingual reading resources can be created, translated and freely accessed. It helps children build reading habits through openly licensed storybooks, reading programmes, audio books and videos, and is one of the largest open educational resources (OER) for children’s storybooks, with over 300 languages represented.

Julia Norrish, Executive Director at Book Dash, provided input from the South African-based, social impact publisher. Book Dash believes that every child should own one hundred books by the age of five. The books are created by volunteer groups of professional writers, editors, and illustrators, and are openly licensed so that they can be freely translated, printed, and distributed.

Noluthando Ncube, the Ulwazi Lwethu project manager gave insight to this African language reading materials project, which was set up by the Zenex Foundation in South Africa. This resource development initiative is developing African language reading books and teacher reading support resources targeted at teaching learners in the foundation phase to read in their home language.

Note: we have divided this piece into three parts. The second and third parts will be released in the next two weeks. Some of the answers have been edited for length.

Part 1 
In your line of work or within your organization what ‘space’ does early literacy learning occupy, and where does learning happen?

*Space can refer to geographical location, whether it’s online or offline learning, libraries, or schools or at home.

Nkem Osuigwe for AfLIA: AfLIA believes that libraries hold great promise as ‘open’ spaces for learning where everyone within the community is welcome irrespective of gender, affiliation, status or creed. This is important for Africa as it holds the unenviable record as the continent with highest number of out of school children. From East to West, Central, North and Southern Africa, public and community libraries are providing spaces for early literacy development. Their services fill the gap for many families and schools that cannot afford supplementary reading materials for children. Beyond that, libraries welcome children to literacy-rich environments that make learning to read easier. This is critical as learning to read is the basis for academic achievement all through life.

Dunstanette Davies pictured shaking hands with President of Sierra Leone, his excellency Dr Julius Maada Bio at State House in Freetown: ‘As a proud librarian, I engaged him on the role librarians and libraries play in education and development of the Nation’s children’. Image source: Facebook

Dunstanette Davies: In my opinion, I feel some parents believe they should send their children to school as early as possible to gain an early learning experience. Unfortunately, in Sierra Leone schools do not enroll children until they are three years old and above, but learning starts much earlier than that. The daycare centers play a role but are mainly concerned with the physical needs of the child and make less educational provisions. The home, which should be a space for learning, is generally overlooked perhaps because there is no time, knowledge, and interest within the family. This leaves the library with a huge responsibility when it comes to early learning. Now the library’s doors are open to very young children, parents, and caregivers, as well as interested partners to promote, provide, and advocate for early learning.

Purvi Shah for Story Weaver: Pratham Books  is a not for profit children’s book publisher with a mission to see a book in every child’s hand. Early literacy is at the heart of our work. We know that reading is powerful. It shapes our imagination and equips children with tools for social and emotional learning. The journey from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’ can be achieved by showing early readers that reading is a pleasurable activity.  At the core of it, this means providing contextual books, visually rich and more importantly in their mother tongue. Through our award-winning open source digital platform StoryWeaver we make these stories accessible to parents and teachers in over 300 languages, for free.

It is our belief that every child has the #RightToRead an endless stream of stories. This may happen via our wordless books that invite children to pick up a book for the first time, or as they progress, the storycards that are read aloud in angandwadis (preschool centres). They might gravitate towards our audio-video books that aid language acquisition, or our levelled storybooks, created so that every page offers a joyful reading experience. We also deliver stories via WhatsApp, enabling children to huddle over a device and share them, alternatively bigger groups of children can improve their vocabulary and comprehension while enjoying stories told by their teacher or a librarian, using a projector in the classroom or library.

Dorcas Wepukhulu for ASb: The ASb’s vision of open access to picture storybooks in the languages of Africa, for children’s learning, enjoyment and imagination, offers opportunities for everyone who supports children’s literacy to innovate so that no child is excluded. We have increasingly become aware that literacy learning is not limited to the physical environment, and technology plays a major role in making this happen. Literacy learning can and does take place in schools, libraries, homes, and anywhere else children may be due to prevailing circumstances. COVID-19 has made this clear.

Innovation is about reconsidering classroom and library interactions and supporting teachers and librarians to embrace technology to maximize their potential as educators. With our support, they can use our storybooks, tools and guides in diverse ways to entrench reading and writing with children in varying contexts.

The ASb guides, which can be found on the website, help teachers, librarians, parents and caregivers with story selection and effective use of resources. Our website and Story Maker Android App are used to translate and adapt storybooks into languages and levels as needed. Teachers and librarians can also give a voice to children by encouraging them to digitize their own stories into picture books that represent their own experiences.

Julia Norrish at Book Dash: For Book Dash, learning and literacy happens in several spaces. But the one we are primarily interested in is reading in the home with caregivers, siblings, family, friends, neighbors, and other children. We use networks of early childhood development and literacy projects, as well as healthcare touchpoints, as mediation spaces where we can distribute books that will ultimately be given to the child to take home and own forever. By sending books into their homes, we hope to create opportunities for literacy and learning to take place, and for families to benefit from the joy of reading together. With resources in hand, the home can become a space of learning and literacy, storytelling, healing and safety, and growth and development. While public spaces are very critical, one should not be reliant on a library or a center of learning. Book Dash believes one should have agency in the home space to actively exercise and practice positive family literacy practices.

Noluthando Ncube for the Zenex Foundation’s Ulwazi Lwethu project: The situation in South Africa is that there is very little material designed for early learning in African mother-tongue languages. Where this material does exist, a lot of it hasn’t been developed in African languages, but rather translated from material that was produced in English. The Ulwazi Lwethu project was therefore established to meet two needs: firstly, to create African language materials, and secondly to support mother tongue literacy. The project has developed original stories in nine indigenous South African languages, those stories were then cross-versioned into the other languages as well. Ultimately, this means we have developed over 700 graded readers and made them available for classroom use in the foundation phase, where early literacy learning can now happen in mother tongue.

Read part two in this series.