South Africa houses more than the 11 major languages spoken here, but English is the prescribed universal for teaching and testing within the faltering educational system. In the Western Cape, a vast majority of our learners are native isiXhosa speakers – English is their 1st or even 2nd Additional Language course manadatory for all high school students. Speaking English is one thing; a non-native speaker can communicate in broken English their meaning well enough in rudementary form. Instructors are mandated to teach their lessons in English, but this is not always the case in township schools where learners are already struggling with initial concepts in all subjects, compounded by the struggle to translate from English to their native language. Solution? Stop teaching as frequently in English. Yet there’s a few problems with this: homework assignments for all classes are given in English; textbooks are written in English; exams are written in English.
When I first joined IkamvaYouth as an intern and tutor, I quickly realised that our learners were struggling to answer questions dealing with analysis simply because they didn’t know what the question was asking them. Their low reading comprehension skills and basic lack of knowledge on how to use referencing materials became overwhelming. Our learners can speak English because it’s in the music they listen to, the television they watch, and they use it with those from outside of their communities. But can non-native English-speaking South Africans read and write English to the proficiency standards set by National exams? Simply, the answer is no.
The English Reading Project at IkamvaYouth is set out to address this issue. On Saturdays I work soley with grade 9 learners to help them understand the fundamentals of the English language: grammar and sentence structure. I know, it makes even the strongest of hearts cringe at the thought. Almost every week my learners spend about 15 minutes writing on a topic of my choosing. The next week, their papers are returned with corrections to punctuation, spelling, and grammar notated as well as feedback. The rest of the class period is spent learning about different parts of speech, what their roles are in sentence structure, and grammar rules associated with the many irregularities that come with writing in the English language. Reference materials such as the dictionary and encyclopedia are also introduced and encouraged for learners to use. From where we started at the beginning of the year, the results seen in their writing are astounding, and it makes me excited to see how this carries on with them through their exams and onwards to matrics.
Recently, I asked them to write about their impressions of IkamvaYouth and what they’ve learned. I’ll let them speak for themselves:
When I first saw the Ikamva advertisement, I thought of being helped through everything I didnt know or understand. I was very happy, without lying, because it was an honour to see/understand that there are still people who care about us people who need their help. Ikamva’s people improved my marks at school; now I can write or spell words correctly in a good way. Also, now I somehow know how to do maths, use the computer, and I have developed through learning here. It’s very fun too, because you get to go to places you never thought you would go to, meet new people and learn about who they are, and so on.
It’s very important to me to attend Ikamva because they are the people who make a difference in my life in such a way that thay made me who I am. I am able to speak English properly and learn more about our country by going to Table Mountain. There are people like tutors who come here to teach us instead of being with their families or do their own work. That is truely amazing of them. All I can say to them is may God give them more strength and power to always carry on with what they are doing…
-Nwabisa Mtumtum, Grade 9
This is me, Thabo, as the face of IkamvaYouth. This is where I belong. This is where you build up education and your future. I heard people speaking about this program. I thought I should try what they are trying and bring myself to IkamvaYouth to be one of the members that work very hard for their future. So for me being here is a success, and I still want to be here since Ikamva has now become a family to me. I respect what I am doing at IkamvaYouth.
Let me give you advice: If you have a goal in your life, just go for it and it will be a success. Success starts now – not tomorrow, now. So guys, I am aiming at something big with my life, and I want it to be a success. If I fight for it, it will happen, I can feel it. It is here.
-Thabo Charlie, Grade 9
From IkamvaYouth, I learned how to work with other people and how to communicate with them. It has been a great experiment for me, and it’s also helping me with my school work or my assignments. It wasn’t my thing to come to the library during the week and Saturdays, it’s boosting me to do my school work regularly. I’m glad that I received a great opportunity to attend classes here. It’s really helping me with my assignments and my school marks are improving as well.
-Phozisa Mbovane, Grade 9