THE PREDICAMENT OF ESL LEARNERS IN SOUTH AFRICA: DO OUR CURRENT PRACTICES ENABLE OR DISABLE THE DEVELOPMENT OF LITERACY AMONG ESL LEARNERS?
Research highlights the advantage of first-language (L1) education, especially during the first formal years of schooling. Although only one in ten South African children is a mother-tongue English speaker, the majority are taught in English by teachers whose own mother language is not English. A further complication is the aspiration of many South African parents to have their children educated in English because they believe it is the language of empowerment. The following statistics corroborate the claim. A recent report by the National Department of Education (South Africa) reveals that 58.1% of Grade 3 learners did not achieve the acceptable and requisite performance level. In a Performance in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report, South Africa was ranked last of a total of 40 countries. Only 35% of Grade R learners in South Africa meet the minimum criteria for early literacy development. Against the above background, the need for urgent practices to improve the quality of the literacy performance of South African learners is evident. In the current study, we used a qualitative, interpretive research design to explore the experiences and challenges of Intermediate Phase ESL teachers (i.e. Grades 4 to 6) in their quest to create responsive literacy environments for ESL learners. Individual interviews were conducted with 10 intermediate-phase educators from five different schools in the Gauteng province of South Africa (i.e. two educators from each school). Some of the key challenges emerging from this research are that learners have to master English as a language of learning and teaching (LOLT) on an L1 level despite the fact that it is their second or third language; a lack of proper and fully functional schools with many overcrowded classrooms, i.e. an educator to learner ratio of 1:40+; a lack of individualised support for learners with special educational needs; the fact that many parents and/or guardians are not proficient in the LOLT and therefore cannot assist the learners with homework; impoverished home linguistic environments; and socio economic challenges.