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Ulwazi Lwethu: African Language Reading Materials Project



Ulwazi Lwethu: African Language Reading Materials Project is a resource development initiative intended to develop African language reading books and teacher reading support resources targeted at teaching learners in the Foundation Phase to read in their home language.

Name of service providers: Molteno, SAIDE, Room to Read and Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development 

Name of project/intervention: Ulwazi Lwethu: African Language Reading Materials Project  

Duration of project: June 2019 to December 2022

Geographical base for the project: National


Ulwazi Lwethu



The national challenge in literacy and reading in South Africa is recognised by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and in the many systemic projects initiated by donors. The 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found that 78% of Grade 4 South African learners cannot read for meaning.

 The poor results for African languages in particular can be attributed to a range of factors including a shortage of level appropriate and engaging reading materials in African languages. Additionally, books that do exist often do not reflect the realities of the majority of South African children, or are translated in ways that are linguistically age inappropriate.

 The Zenex Foundation has understood the importance of language competence, in particular home language, as critical in learner achievement. The Foundation’s commitment to developing African language materials has been pioneering from as early as 2010. Zenex commissioned Molteno to create the Vula Bula series – a reading series of 32 readers aimed at teaching learners to read in their home language in Grades 1–3. The readers are graded appropriately according to the reading level of the learner; the structure of the particular African language and the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS).

Project Overview

Zenex together with the First Rand Empowerment Foundation, Tshikululu Social Investments and DG Murray Trust engaged in an exploratory research study that included a comprehensive online landscaping survey, in-depth face-to-face interviews and desktop research. The study sought to understand the supply and/or demand gaps and challenges related to African language reading materials required to facilitate primary grade reading in children (aged 0 – 9 years old). The following key issues were highlighted:

  1.  South Africa’s law and policy recognises the importance of African languages, however, there is only a proviso that learners have the right to learn in their home language, where reasonably practical.
  2.  The Incremental Introduction of African Languages (IIAL) policy  in 2013 aims to improve
    proficiency in previously marginalised African languages and provides for learners in all grades to learn one language at the home language level, and two on the first additional language level. The policy has not been implemented with the requisite economic backing and provision of teachers and resources. It is anticipated that full coverage will only be achieved in 2029.
  3.  Learners struggle in their home language. The reasons for this are myriad and include that how to instruct reading in African languages has not been taught well at tertiary institutions. Likewise, current reading pedagogies are in English and are not suited to instruction in home language. 
  4. There is a desperate need to develop resources in African languages. Some of the barriers to this include the difficulty of determining which dialects to use. There are as yet no standardised versions of African languages.
  5. African languages and their linguistic structure are transparent. If instruction in home language is done well, children will be better equipped to learn to read.
  6. The procurement of affordable high quality books at schools is complex and difficult because of the range of complexities of the African book context. Therefore, creating common licence products is essential.

To address some of the findings of the exploratory study, Ulwazi Lwethu objectives are to:

  1. Produce a variety of readers in African languages that build the foundational reading and comprehension skills of children and encourage a rich and diverse culture of reading.
  2. Build a supply of skilled Black writers, illustrators, proof-readers and editors in African language children’s materials by incorporating an element of capacity building in the materials development process.  
    Ulwazi Lwethu will focus on the nine official indigenous languages in South Africa. In the development of the readers, alignment and complementarity will be sought with the CAPS; the lesson plans being used by Early Grade Reading Study, Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes and the National Education Collaboration Trust; the Phonics Plan (developed by the DBE Language Directorate); and The Draft National Framework for the Teaching of Reading in African Languages (DBE document).

Expected outputs

Ulwazi Lwethu will produce 40 Graded Readers and 45 Leisure Readers per African language. All resources will be developed as Open Education Resources. The resources will comprise:

  • Graded readers, a comprehensive series of readers which teach children to read. They systematically help them with decoding, letter sound, word recognition, reading fluency and comprehension skills which are the basis for reading.
  • Leisure readers with interesting stories that use words and sounds to reinforce decoding and develop reading fluency. The readers are for leisure reading to the learners’ level of reading ability. Leisure books extend learners’ vocabulary development, nurture independent reading, facilitate reading for enjoyment and help to expand background knowledge 

A solid foundation at the Foundation Phase with home language literacy is critical to setting the basis for further learning and development. An essential but missing requirement is adequate reading material in African languages. The development of appropriate reading materials contributes towards ensuring a reliable and consistent supply of high quality graded and leisure readers for Foundation Phase learners to strengthen reading and ensure sufficient practice in reading.


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