Intsomi’s three L’s: Literature, learning and love


By Nokuthula Sibiya and Nomvelo Masango

“I have a question for the parents. My child is doing Grade 4 now, and it’s not easy. I just want to find out: how did you manage? She has lots and lots of work. Sometimes the homework is four pages and it’s lots of calculations. It’s not only Mathematics, but there’s also Life Sciences, isiXhosa…  Can you please advise me because now I’m in a tight corner.”

Lush Mhleli, a member of the Intsomi Reading Programme, raises a question in a workshop about how parents have dealt with the jump from Grade 3 (foundation phase) to Grade 4 (intermediate phase). Many parents murmur in agreement. They share her concern and some are able to offer her advice on her situation, having been there before with their own children.

It is the first Intsomi workshop for 2019 and the conversation is illustrating the significant facilitative role that family and community play in a child’s education. Although it is late in the day at the end of a very long week with disagreeable weather, a group of about 20 parents have gathered to plan for the upcoming year. The passion for their children’s education is evident in their animated suggestions for engagement in their children’s education.

With 78% of Grade Four South African learners being unable to read for meaning, it is clear that the education system is in need of serious intervention. Key problems are the lack of a reading culture and limited access to reading material.

Instomi (the isiXhosa word for ‘folk tale’) was started at Rhodes University in 2015 to help Rhodes University Grade 1-5 staff members become agents in the development of their children’s reading and learning skills. As Cathy Gush, the coordinator of the programme explains, “A child’s development is a stakeholder approach. It is not just the teachers who play a role in the education of a child, but the whole community.”

Intsomi ambassadors Cathy Gush and Lush Mhleli play games with the children at a recent Intsomi Fun Day.

A project of the Rhodes University Community Engagement Office, Intsomi has been providing reading and learning material, and hosting termly workshops, to assist parents with their children’s learning outside of the classroom. The parents discuss how to engage in their children’s learning by using the ‘whole language’ approach: this means reading with them and developing a love for reading as it becomes naturalised into their lives.

The parents are loaned book bags, containing a mixture of isiXhosa and English material that the children and parents will read for the next two weeks. The programme is subdivided into three groups: Early Childhood Development (ECD) Phase (0-5 years), Foundation Phase (6-9 years) and Intermediate Phase (10-13 years). In the ECD Phase, the children are provided with more isiXhosa books as it is their home language. As they progress, they are provided with a higher ratio of English books as Gush, explains, “We believe it is important to have books in both languages. As they get older and start using English more, we want them to grow comfortable with it.”

At an Intsomi Fun Day for over 30 parents and children in early June, Rhodes University’s Prof Sam Naidu discussed with parents the challenges they face, such as making time for reading after the end of a busy day, the creation of routines, helping with homework and bilingualism in reading. They also discussed the benefits of reading to children at an early age such as greater cognitive development and the building of a relationship between parents and their children.

The parents were then made aware of the Nal’ibali Initiative and shown how to use the supplements to aid in their reading time. Afterward, the parents broke off into pairs and role-played reading as adults to children. Guidance was offered on how to improve the reading to make it more engaging for the children.

The children and parents came together after tea time and put the reading into practice. After the parents read to the children, the children presented what they learned to the rest of the parents and learners. The joy on the faces of both the parents and the learners was palpable and the day continued with board games, colouring, and a raffle, filling the room with excited chatter and laughter.

Luko Mhleli smiles proudly with her raffle prize at a recent Intsomi Fun Day.

Intsomi has yielded steady upward progress in the learners’ reading and learning. Parents have found that it is not just the literacy of their children that has improved, but also that their relationships with their children have grown because of the bond which has been created by reading together every day.

This year, the programme aims to engage more parents and children in the intermediate phase as the focus has mainly been on the ECD and Foundation phase. They hope to do this by hosting more workshops throughout the year with the learners and helping them become more active in their own reading and education. This is of great significance to learners in the Intermediate Phase as they approach high school, which has a new set of reading demands. “It’s not just about learning to read. It’s about feeding the habit and sustaining it,” Gush explains.

The parents who are part of the Rhodes University branch of the project are striving to extend the programme to members of their communities who are not employed at Rhodes. A group of six parents, known as the Intsomi Ambassadors have become literary activists in their communities. They also hope to run a library drive where they involve community members and children in getting familiar with their local libraries.

The group has been engaging members of the community through word-of-mouth, posters, videos (see here and here) and speaking on local radio shows. A few years ago, Lush, who is a part of the vanguard group, featured in a video about her experience of working with her child, who was then in Grade 2, on the Intsomi project.

To find out more about the Intsomi project, like the Facebook Page: Intsomi Parents Grahamstown. Or contact Cathy Gush on 074 885 9205 or Lush Mhleli on 073 804 8927.

Watch some more videos here:

After-lunch playtime at the Intsomi workshop.

Cathy Gush reads ‘The Three Little Pigs’ at a recent Intsomi workshop.

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