SWAZILAND: Reading project to improve critical thinking

Thursday, September 21, 2006
Pre-school children in Swaziland are the focus of a novel large-scale reading project that aims to push literacy levels to 100 percent among the adult population and encourage independent thinking.

Although the country of about one million people has a literacy rate of more than 80 percent - relatively high compared to other countries in the region - this figure is misleading, according to the Swaziland Reading Association, as the ability to read does not necessarily translate into critical thinking.

"The way to promote literacy is to encourage the thought process. The more you learn, the more you question," said Spangle Mmema, head of the association. He believes that developing critical thinking will lay a foundation for future leaders to find creative local solutions to Swaziland's problems, rather than relying on foreign expertise.

"Literacy means understanding, and in some cases going beyond the text. Adults taught by the old ways don't do that. We want critical thinking from the earliest age, at the pre-school level. Children need to ask 'Why?' more often," said Mmema, who is also a primary school deputy principal in the capital, Mbabane.

In Swaziland, a conservative society ruled by executive monarch King Mswati, the concept of child rights is sometimes viewed as a challenge to customary disciplinary measures by which children are raised.

Mmema said it was a delicate path to tread in such an environment, but adults should also be taught not to feel threatened by a child's independence of thought.

The project, launched in the central region of Manzini last week, has the backing of the education department and textbook publishers Macmillan.

It will mount the country's first nationwide alphabet- and word-recognition initiative. Workshops were held to instil pre-school teaching skills in rural educators, with practical sessions using children and word posters.

Five year-old Tebenguni munched on a banana given to her by her educator; when prompted, she responded by pointing out a banana bunch on a fruit poster and then worked out the pronunciation of the word with her teacher.

"We are excited by this approach. When we first went out to meet the teachers and pre-schoolers, we didn't know what to expect, but the reception has been overwhelming - the kids are fascinated by books," Macmillan's sales manager for Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique, Chris Ntshangase, said in an interview.

"We felt the pre-school side of education, which is vitally important, has been neglected. Rural schools have no access to literature and books," he said.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, two-thirds of Swaziland's people live below the poverty line.

Donating books to children who have yet to learn to read appeared premature, so the publisher opted to give away posters worth R30,000 that link illustrations of the alphabet, food and animals to their English names. Pre-school textbooks written in SiSwati, the local language, will be donated to daycare centers and other children's institutions.

"Children must not forget where they came from, nor their mother tongue," said Gwendolyn Simelane, an early child development official with the education ministry. "English is the second official language in Swaziland, but the curriculum simultaneously teaches in SiSwati."

The project will fan out to the country's other three regions next year.
Source: IRIN