Molteno Institute’s Vula Bula programme

30 March 2015 | Tsepo Senoamali | Opinion

The Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy (Molteno) was established in 1974 as a project of Rhodes University. It was funded by a grant from the Molteno Brothers Trust, from which it derives its name, and sought to explore the reasons why African learners were failing to learn English.

Tsepo Senoamali, Social Investment practitioner (education)

Molteno, now autonomous but still enjoying support from Rhodes, has pioneered literacy capacitation programmes and developed resources in the primary education sector. It has worked collaboratively with the Department of Basic Education across the country in literacy and numeracy intervention programmes. Recent achievements include Molteno winning the coveted UNESCO Confucius International Literacy Prize in 2014, the Gauteng Productivity Awards in 2013, and being entered as a finalist in the National Productivity Awards in 2013.

Informed by internal and external research, Molteno has been developing and publishing a language and literacy programme called Vula Bula since 2010. The programme is unique in that each series originates from the target indigenous South African language, as opposed to being translated, and is carefully designed in accordance with the natural progression and specific literacy requirements of that language.

The Vula Bula Grade 1 isiXhosa core language and literacy programme, for example, incrementally introduces reading skills using a phonics-based teaching approach, which naturally takes into account the transparent orthography of Nguni languages. Explicit instruction in how to break up long words into syllables is also included to ensure decoding success. The programme includes themed vocabulary posters, an alphabet frieze, 8 Big Books (each containing four read-aloud stories), 32 graded readers, a learners’ workbook and a teachers’ guide.

The attractive full-colour illustrations and rich read-aloud texts of the Big Book stories are designed to engender a love for stories in the children and to inspire them to read. Graded reader series have so far been produced in isiZulu, isiXhosa, isiNdebele, Setswana, Sepedi, Sesotho, Xitsonga and Tshivenḓa.

The value of the Vula Bula graded readers has been widely recognised and they are currently being used in 800 schools participating in the Gauteng Primary Literacy and Maths Strategy, in 1 200 schools participating in the Programme to Improve Learner Outcomes in KwaZulu-Natal, and in 130 schools in the Northern Cape.

But it doesn’t end there. Language and literacy play a significant role in numeracy and maths learning. “Literacy” in this context refers to the reading, writing and oral communication skills required across all learning areas, with the specific purpose of developing and applying mathematical concepts and encouraging learners’ critical thinking, which is essential for maths learning.

With this in mind, Molteno approached the trustees of the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund to support a pilot project that would test the efficacy of combining the teaching and learning of a core Grade 1 isiXhosa numeracy programme with the stories of the Grade 1 Vula Bula isiXhosa literacy programme. To this end, the trustees of the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund approved a grant of R300 000 as a contribution towards implementing the Vula Bula numeracy pilot project for Grade 1 teachers and learners in six schools in Engcobo in the Eastern Cape.

The purpose of this pilot project was to determine the usability and appropriateness of the language and content of the Vula Bula numeracy materials, as well as the feasibility of the integrated learning approach.

Being able to read for meaning, with clarity of purpose, and with the capacity to engage productively in classroom experiences is crucial for maths development. Numeracy and maths concepts cannot be explored, grasped, integrated and applied without a strong understanding of language, especially the mathematical language embedded in everyday language use. Even before Grade 1 when learners are formally engaging with concepts such as numbers, patterns, space and shapes, measurements and data handling; innate numbers, language and literacy proficiency are hugely instrumental in children’s computing success.

Stories and play are a child’s most basic means to acquiring knowledge. A story can successfully be used to introduce numeracy and mathematical concepts to Grade 1 learners. The story format advances the learners’ cognition from simple to abstract thinking, guided by the storyline content and illustrations. Excellence in this skill begins with the benefits of teaching numeracy concepts embedded in literacy through story learning programmes starting in Grade 1.

The Vula Bula isiXhosa Grade 1 literacy and maths pilot currently taking place in six schools in the Engcobo district has been welcomed with great excitement and commitment from all role players involved: from learners and teachers to principals and district officials, including the district director. The programme has provided maths teachers’ guides, and learners’ workbooks as well as an alphabet frieze, read-aloud Big Book stories and graded readers in their mother tongues.