Hundreds of Makhanda parents are discovering that they don’t need to decode the written word to share books with their children, reports JESSICA FELDTMAN
Emodeen Heathcote sets two blankets down on the living room floor of her small house in Ghost Town, Makhanda. Brandon, her three-year-old son, toddles into the room carefully, trying not to drop the numerous books locked in his arms.
He grins at his mother as he plonks himself down on the blanket next to her and lays the books at her feet. His eyes gleam with excitement as his mother picks up a colourful book without words. Heathcote and Brandon’s soft voices bring the book to life as they read together.
Nearly half of South Africa’s children have never drawn or read a book with a parent or guardian.
Emodeen Heathcote was one such parent. She simply lacked the confidence to read with her son but is now one of the hundreds of parents in Makhanda who are using a magically simple book-sharing method rolled out by two Makhanda-based NGOs, the Lebone Centre and the Centre for Social Development (CSD), in partnership with the Mikhulu Trust in Cape Town.
In their research, the Mikhulu Trust discovered that when parents share picture books with no or few words with their children, they are not simply ‘reading’ to a child who listens passively. Instead, it is an active exchange, led by the child and supported by a loving adult who is attentive to their interests and communication.
Emodeen and Brandon are much more likely to engage in complex discussions about thoughts and feelings when they share a book with no or few words than when there is a lot of text.
Their dialogues have helped them form powerful bonds with each other – while developing Brandon’s language and cognitive development.
“We definitely understand each other better. I feel grateful to read with him now because there is a difference in our interaction compared to before the workshop,” said Heathcote.
Adre de Jongh, one of the Lebone Centre’s book-sharing leaders, said: “Most of the parents we work with never finished school, so they find it difficult themselves to sit with their kids and read. But this gives them courage and a sense of pride in knowing that they can help their children – even if they can’t read themselves.”
One parent, Avril Shafens, said, “Sometimes I think my daughter just wants to play, but now all she wants to do is have me read with her. It’s an excellent project as it teaches children how to read before they go to school.”
Another parent, Jeanine Matroos, said she had seen a significant change in her relationship with her child. “My child is only one, and she would throw the book if I wanted to read with her, but Lebone’s book sharing workshop has taught me how to read with her.
“I used to only try and read to her at bedtime, but now she fetches books herself and wants me to read with her all the time. I am just so grateful.”
Numerous Makhanda parents have participated in workshops hosted by Lebone Centre and CSD workers, who were themselves trained by the Mikulu Trust over Zoom in November 2020. Each trained member will conduct four workshops with small groups of parents. The second round of workshops commenced in May.
Each training session involves a presentation filled with high-quality slideshows and videos, making it easier for parents and children to follow. Each parent also receives one of the Mikulu Trust published books.
Due to the shortage of affordable and high-quality wordless picture books, the Mikhulu Trust produces its own books with support from the Mila Charitable Trust. These books are made available to their partners as cheaply as possible.
The Lebone Centre is targeting 160 parents from the Makhanda communities of Sun City, Ghost Town, Hoegenoeg, Vergenoeg and Scotts Farm. In comparison, the CSD will work with 160 parents in Joza, Tantyi and Fingo Village.
Lebone Centre coordinator Cathy Gush said book-sharing is strongly child-led and focuses on parents interacting with their children and is not limited by written language. “Not only does it improve children’s vocabulary and literacy but also encourages parents to bond with their child,” said Gush.
CSD acting director Nicci Hayes said teenagers could also get involved: “Our teenagers are often secondary, if not primary, caregivers of young children, and they can play a significant role in assisting youngsters with their literacy. Especially with many schools still piloting because of COVID-19.”
“Many youngsters aren’t getting the teacher attention they previously would have received. This another way to maximize home support, and teenagers can help,” Hayes said
Hayes has conducted a workshop with teenagers from Victoria Girls’ High School and hopes to eventually have the CSD expand this initiative to other schools in Makhanda.
The Mikhulu Trust conducted a book-sharing trial in Khayelitsha with the University of Reading and Stellenbosch University from 2014 to 2015. Results showed that book-sharing significantly benefited children’s language development, influenced parents to be more responsive and sensitive to their children’s interests, communication and feelings and had narrowed the visible gap between the worst and best-performing children by the end of the programme.
CSD community engagement facilitator, Nolothando Shelle, said workshops even hosted a few children in Grades 4 and 5 who wanted to attend after seeing their younger siblings practice techniques with their parents at home.
Shelle said many parents and caregivers who attended the workshops had seen children’s curiosity increase, improved communication and listening skills and overall bonding in families. “It’s not only about sharing books, but also about sharing family issues, chores and growing relationships,” said Shelle.
“Book-sharing has encouraged a hope for a better generation, one where children are interested in reading and who are responsible enough to share with others,” said Shelle.
Like the heartwarming change between Heathcote and her son, Brandon, both the Lebone Centre and the CSD continue to receive touching feedback from parents involved in the workshops.
Would you like to get involved?
If you would like to get more information about book-sharing or donate to this great foundation, please visit the Mikhulu Trust website: https://www.mikhulutrust.org
If you are interested in joining a workshop within Makhanda, please contact:
- Lebone Centre: 046 622 7985 or Cathy Gush: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Centre for Social Development: 046 603 8573 or Email: email@example.com
About the journalist
I am Jessica Feldtman, a 22-year-old fourth-year Bachelor of Journalism student at Rhodes University.
Despite all the challenges facing South Africa, I have always been very passionate about this nation and its people. Being able to meet and hear the stories of South Africans from different walks of life brings me more excitement than eating pasta (and my loved ones know how much I love pasta)!
At present, I am very interested in South African education, especially early childhood development and literacy. I believe education is a fundamental tool for shaping our nation. My overall mission as an aspiring journalist is to see hope translated into reality. I intend to shape this by working with citizens to share stories of hope and encourage understanding and solidarity.
If you have stories you would like to share or have investigated, feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org