Coaching as the key to ensuring that all children learn to read, write and do mathematics in the early grades.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said in her budget vote speech on Tuesday (16 July 2019) that her department has prioritised improving the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy. Echoing President Ramaphosa, who set the goal in his state of the nation address that “every child should learn to read with meaning by the age of ten”, she said that the number one priority of the department is to improve the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, especially “reading with meaning”. A related departmental priority is to collaborate with the Department of Higher Education and Training to equip teachers with the necessary skills and knowledge to teach literacy and numeracy, in particular reading. I had the pleasure of attending the Budget vote speech and Minister Motshekga added that the language issue is a key factor that influences reading and literacy outcomes and recognised that it is an emotional issue in South Africa. She emphasized that all eleven official languages of South Africa should enjoy equal use and enjoyment. We at the Zenex Foundation support her position and propose that mother-tongue education is the key to building language and literacy competencies.
The Zenex Foundation welcomes the minister’s emphasis on early grade literacy and numeracy, an area in which the Foundation has not only worked extensively, but also in which it has developed an evidence base through both research and monitoring and evaluation. In considering the question of how best can South African education ensure that all children learn to read, write and do mathematics in the early grades, we are of the view that the coaching of teachers should play a key role.
What follows are three key learnings about teacher coaching, namely that:
- Coaches can support teachers in the classroom to strengthen their pedagogical practice;
- Heads of Departments (HoDs) can play a key role in institutionalising and embedding the changes brought about by coaching;
- A deeper understanding of coaching is required, and thus innovative pilots, research and collaborative partnerships are needed in order that we can learn more as a sector.
1. Coaches help to ensure that good teaching and learning practices are embedded
The Department’s Early Grade Reading Study (EGRS) has demonstrated the impact that a dedicated “triple cocktail’ of training, aligned lesson plans and reading resources and expert reading coaches can have on reading outcomes. In this project, coaching for teachers has been identified as key to improving the capabilities of teachers. Consequently, in his State of the Nation address, President Ramaphosa said that all foundation and intermediate phase teachers will be trained to teach reading in English and the African languages, and that the government will deploy a cohort of experienced coaches to provide high-quality on-site support to teachers. Similarly, in her budget vote, Motshekga said that the Primary School Reading Improvement Programme will expand the package of reading support that was found to enrich instructional practices. “The package includes daily lesson plans aligned to the curriculum, additional appropriate reading materials in the African languages, and coaching for teachers.” To learn to read, children need access to books and every Foundation Phase learner should have a set of readers. On reading resources, Zenex has supported Molteno to develop a series of graded readers (Open Educational Resources) for the Foundation Phases called the Vula Bula Series.
Many of the Zenex Foundation initiatives have highlighted the important role of an instructional coach to support teachers. The evaluation findings from our recent Zenex Literacy Project confirm that coaching plays a significant role in ensuring that good teaching practices are embedded. The expert coach assisted teachers to mediate training and classroom practice, encourage behaviour change and reinforce good practice. However, gains made need to endure to support the ongoing professional development of the teacher and we recommend that the Head of Department (HoD) play a role in this regard.
2. Heads of Department (HoDs) can play a key role in institutionalising and embedding change
To sustain gains achieved through the support of an expert instructional coach and ensure that change is institutionalised and embedded in schools, HoDs need to be equipped with the necessary skills to encourage, support and monitor change on a long-term basis. This requires:
- Improved instructional leadership of HoDs;
- Improved instructional leadership of the Principal and Deputy Principal to support HoDs,
- Institutionalising phase meetings for curriculum management.
The Zenex Literacy Project initiated a yearlong training programme with HoD’s post the teacher development programme. The evaluation points to early signs of success in the area of enhanced relationships between HoDs and teachers, more regular phase meetings, and improved curriculum management. Most importantly HoDs demonstrated confidence and motivation in their roles.
There are limited resources in terms of skills and financial reserves in the South African education sector, which makes it difficult to deploy coaches in every school that needs the extra support. One way of maximising the resources available in the sector and minimising the cost of coaching is to equip and capacitate Heads of Departments to advance this element to ensure that there is sustained impact.