Helping kids shine at school – in their own language

Founder and director Maurita Glynn Weissenberg reads to a group of pupils, developing their reading skills.

The happy smiles attest to the success of improved reading skills for these children.
(Images: The Shine Centre)

MEDIA CONTACTS
Linda Codron
Manager, Communications, The Shine Centre
+27 21 762 4320

RELATED ARTICLES
Instilling a love of reading
Storybook sparks love of reading
Why we need a literate nation
Reading to boost our self esteem

Lucille Davie

Literacy is crucial for long-term success in today’s world, and a love of reading is vital for children’s long-term happiness at school and life beyond the classroom. The Shine Centre, based in Cape Town, is giving children that love of reading.

It brings volunteers into schools to give children one-on-one help with reading. “Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. Once children have our attention we will have theirs, and then we can share our love of books with them,” says Maurita Glynn Weissenberg, the founder and director of the centre, where the slogan is “Words can change worlds”.

Established in 2000, the centre has given some 5 000 children a better start in life by taking them out of the classroom and giving them extra attention. There are seven satellite centres in Cape Town, with an eighth to be opened next year. There are also five Shine Chapters, or social franchises, in Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth; in Johannesburg, there are nine Shine-inspired independent Literacy Centres.

Four-prong approach

Weissenberg’s model, which has a four-prong approach, is being used by others too: she has trained orphanage teachers and after-school centres in the method.

The Shine Centre supports children in grades two and three. At the end of Grade 1, every child in a Shine-supported school is assessed, and those at risk of not coping are given weekly two-hour sessions with a trained volunteer in Grade 2 in Shine’s Literacy Hour Programme. On average, depending on class sizes and schools, approximately 40% of children assessed will need to attend the programme. By the end of the year, however, a very small percentage will need to attend the following year.

The children have a refresher course, in which they are given the basics of reading again. These involve a volunteer sitting with them, helping them to read, and building their confidence and self-esteem in the process. “The children quickly make up when they are paired with a volunteer,” says Weissenberg. She emphasises that the work is done at the pace set by the child.

The next step is paired reading, where, if the child falters, the volunteer strives to reduce anxiety by slowing down the reading. The emphasis is on language acquisition, vocabulary and general knowledge. Then games are introduced, in which the child’s reading speed is improved. These also concentrate on phonics, encouraging the child to perfect the pronunciation of words. At this level, comprehension of sentences and concepts is strengthened.

The fourth stage is called “have-a-go” writing, in which the emphasis is on spelling and handwriting, with the aim of getting the child to write with confidence. Along the way, the child is assessed every six months, to get a fix on his or her progress. These tests include eye assessments, and glasses are supplied, if necessary. These are usually provided by optometrists as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes.

Other programmes

Weissenberg, who is a primary and remedial teacher with 20 years’ experience, has drawn on other programmes to create Shine: the Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnerships in the UK, combined with the Paired Reading and Storybook Reading method, 36 bespoke games, and the Have a go Writing method. She has worked with specialists in the field too.

The principles of the Time to Think programme have also been incorporated: creating a physical environment where each individual matters; affirming the children’s importance; listening with respect and without interruption, and no hurrying of the child; giving them undivided attention; treating each other as thinking peers, and learning from each other, regardless of age, qualification or race; “ease creates, urgency destroys”, in other words, creating an environment that encourages children to work at their own pace; and, to practise the art of appreciation, with a lot of praise and encouragement for the children.

An element of this is involving the parents in their children’s reading. All the schools where Shine operates are given a parent workshop for parents of children in grades R and one. “Our aim is to help parents see that just a little bit of positive support using basic literacy skills such as reading stories to the children, telling stories to them, engaging with them by really listening to them, asking them questions, asking their opinion,” explains Weissenberg.

Shine has the backing and support of the Western Cape education department. “They like the fact that we have a set programme, formal training for our volunteer tutors, assessments every six months from Grade 1 to Grade 3, and set outcomes.” She adds that literacy and numeracy levels have risen in all the schools in which they work, except for one, where the school is plagued by crime, gangsters and drug abuse, “that affects the children deeply”.

Buddies programme

The Shine Centre also has a Book Buddies programme, in which older children have the opportunity to read to younger children. It has advantages for the readers, who gain more fluency reading aloud, while they become aware of expression and vocalisation. And for the younger children, they gain comprehension by talking about the stories to their mentors.

“Children will begin to understand that reading can be enjoyable while they improve their reading skills and foster a lifelong love of reading,” indicates the website. There are other spin-offs. It is a chance to build friendships by learning from one another. It gives older children the chance to be role models, thus boosting their confidence and self-esteem.

And, older children are less likely to be bullies, as they appreciate the needs of younger children, and at the same time learn constructive behaviour and social skills. It’s a win-win for everyone. “Relationships built between children of different ages benefit the entire community. The older children feel needed by their peers and empowered with knowledge and responsibility. The younger children feel supported and nurtured with the ability to confidently take on new challenges,” reads the website.

Shine reinforces this work with workshops for communities and organisations to “empower them to be a proactive part of the school community and support children’s learning outside of the school environment”.

Xhosa versus English

A problem Weissenberg has encountered is that children are largely Xhosa-speaking but urban schools are usually English medium. They are taught for two years in Xhosa, and switch to English by Grade 3, a language with which many are unfamiliar. “This means that most are learning in a second language. Every child should read in their mother tongue.”

This means, says Weissenberg, that by Grade 6 less than 1% are coping at school.

Getting books suitable for the children’s reading age is also a challenge. Books in the classroom are not always suited to their reading age, which is often below the standard for their grade. Shine buys its books from Cambridge and Oxford Press, but also uses the Talking Stories readers, which are printed in Xhosa and English. They also use the Biblionef books, which aims to have story books printed in all 11 official languages. “We buy their books in English and Xhosa so that the children have the best of both worlds,” says Weissenberg.

New Shine centres

Weissenberg and her team also facilitate the establishment of new Shine centres, called Shine Chapters, a social franchise, and reading clubs. They provide training to prospective franchisees, to help them set up around the country.

“I attended Shine’s formal seminar about setting up a literacy centre. It was a privilege to be among people of such integrity and competence,” writes Margi Bashall on the website. “Their standards are uncompromisingly high, their system is professional and their commitment to education is absolute.” She has helped set up nine independent literacy centres in Johannesburg. “I know this work is healing.”

Weissenberg has some 500 volunteers working in Shine’s centres and chapters around the country. By 2016, she hopes to have reached 16 000 children through reading clubs in faith-based organisations, after-care clubs, community reading clubs and Shine Chapters. The most rewarding part of her role as director, she says, “is witnessing the impact a love of reading can have on children”. Her top tip for encouraging children to read is to first gain their trust.

Shine sponsors include DG Murray Trust, Sanlam, UK and US foundations, Rotary, School Aid in the UK, and individual sponsorships and family trusts. The Shine Trust is part of the MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet fundraising scheme, which raises money for schools, charities and environmental organisations.