EXPLORING THE QUALITY OF EARLY LANGUAGE STIMULATION AND LITERACY ENVIRONMENTS AMONG GRADE 1 CHILDREN IN SOUTH AFRICA
Within the South African education context, numerous concerns have been raised about the quantity and quality of linguistic input that is required to enhance children’s vocabulary and language repertoire, which is known to be an important foundation for literacy learning. Exploring the quality of current early language and literacy environments, signifies a critical step in strengthening and reinforcing their effectiveness and in providing greater opportunities for children to learn, particularly those from a low socio-economic background. The current research forms part of a broader literacy project, funded by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) (grant number: 87728), entitled “Cognitive linguistic processing and literacy development of L1 and L2 children with typical and atypical patterns of development”. Guided by the transformative paradigm, our quest in the present study is to explore and transform current classroom environments to successfully meet the diverse language and literacy needs of all children. While remaining aware of the interplay of various intrinsic and extrinsic factors that affect language and literacy development in early school years, the research team, during the first stage of this literacy project, conducted a pilot study among 30 Grade 1 classes in the Free State Province, South Africa. Data were gathered through multiple methods, namely the Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation (ELLCO) instrument, field notes, and individual interviews with the Grade 1 educators at the sample schools. This paper will report the results of the ELLCO by focusing on the following main sections: classroom structure, the literacy curriculum, language environment, books and reading, and print and writing opportunities. In addition, main themes arising from the interviews highlighted both the challenges and positive experiences that teachers are encountering in their daily quest to create classroom environments that are responsive to early language and literacy development. Findings suggest, inter alia, that the quality of language and literacy instruction varied significantly across different rural and urban educational settings in the Free State province (South Africa) and was highly influenced by socio-economic factors, as well as teacher and school-related variables. For example, many children do not have sufficient access to books and early literacy development materials; classes are overcrowded, with a pronounced effect on the quality of teaching and learning; children are educated in a second or third language; and there is a lack of teacher–parent interaction. Results from the pilot study have significantly addressed the dearth of empirical research on this topic in South Africa and will be used to stimulate debate on this topic in the country’s education system. Moreover, these results will pave the way for future research, including comparative international studies of early language and literacy programmes in different countries being offered for both first and second language learners.