We standardise training for pilots and doctors. We must do the same for teachers

Literacy levels in South Africa are low, so training educators who can teach reading is more vital than ever. From www.shutterstock.com

Teacher preparation programmes at many of South Africa’s universities are failing to produce graduates with the right skills to tackle the country’s literacy challenges.

Many South African children simply can’t read at their grade level. This means the country must produce world class reading literacy teachers more urgently than ever before. A great teacher of reading can be the first line of defence against a child’s future reading difficulties.

But educators can’t teach what they don’t know. A fourth-year Bachelor of Education student recently told me: “I had to present a lesson on diagraphs and consonant blends … when I realised that I was having a difficult time recalling exactly what a consonant blend was myself.”

There is a chasm between the research knowledge base about reading literacy development and teachers’ classroom practices. Teacher preparation programmes at universities are partly to blame for this divide. Many of these programmes have failed to adequately prepare their candidates to teach reading.

South Africa’s Department of Basic Education reveals in its national reading strategy document that many teachers have an underdeveloped understanding of how to teach literacy, reading and writing. Others don’t know how to teach reading at all, while some know only one method of teaching reading that doesn’t cater to every learners’ needs.

Shortfalls in training

Some universities have badly underestimated the demands of competent literacy instruction and the training that’s required. Teacher preparation in reading literacy instruction is often too brief, too shallow or depends too much on ideas that aren’t supported by research. For instance, too few courses focus specifically on the science of reading. Understanding this science equips educators to teach reading literacy better.

This flies in the face of the stringent training and preparation that is required for other professionals. Pilots, engineers, optometrists and medical doctors must learn concepts, facts and skills to a prescribed level. They conduct their practice under supervision and must pass rigorous entry exams that are standardised across the profession.

There are no such rules or standards to ensure that teachers who instruct children in reading have mastered the relevant knowledge base and acquired the necessary skills. Even within universities that prepare hundreds of teachers every year, there may be no curricular specifications or standards. What a teacher candidate learns depends on their lecturer for a particular module. The lecturer will teach what he or she knows and believes. This means that preparation for teaching reading is often more grounded in ideology than evidence.

The academic freedom that lecturers often invoke certainly has a place in teacher education. But professional preparation programmes have a responsibility to teach a defined body of knowledge, skills and abilities that are based on the best research available in the field.

Standardisation is crucial

The Department of Basic Education has identified teacher quality as an area that needs attention. Its policy on the minimum requirements for teacher education defines standards at a generic level for all teacher education qualifications. But what is needed now are far more specific standards that relate to the areas of expertise in which teachers need to specialise - like reading literacy.

There is successful international precedent for this. In the United States, standards for reading professionals have been successfully developed and implemented.

South African teacher preparation institutions differ in their preparation methodologies, teaching approaches and organisational purposes. They should, however, ascribe to a common set of professional reading literacy standards for the benefit of the students they serve. Compliance with these standards would assure the public that individuals who teach in South Africa’s diverse schools are equipped to implement scientifically based and clinically proven reading practices.