Breakthrough To Literacy

Breakthough to literacy is an effective tool to address our reading crisis

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Large numbers of South African children struggle to understand what they are reading. In fact, South Africa was placed last out of 50 countries in the recently released Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). The study found that 8 out of 10 Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning. If children can’t read, they can’t learn, so are more likely to be trapped in the scourge of poverty, hopelessness and unemployment. Being able to read enables children to live a better future. Breakthrough to Literacy (BTL), a mother-tongue literacy course for Grades 1 to 3, is very powerful in teaching children to read with comprehension. The programme also develops their writing and listening skills.

Published by the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, the BTL method utilises as the basis for learning to read and write, the aural and oral language skills the child brings into the classroom from home. Masennya Dikotla, the Chief Executive Officer of the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, says: “BTL is a very effective literacy methodology that responds to curriculum and educational contexts, ensuring that it achieves results with the children, who learn to read and write freely within the first year of schooling and with their teachers, who develop knowledge and skills in early literacy  edagogy (the method and practice of teaching) and classroom management.” Molteno’s flagship programme, BTL is available in numerous South African languages, namely isiZulu, Sepedi, Xitsonga, Setswana, Sesotho, Tshivenda, isiSwati, isiXhosa, isiNdebele and Afrikaans as well as Nama, Kwedam and !Xun. The BTL programme has been implemented with great success in some schools across South Africa.

Masennya explains that the programme is highly effective in developing children’s vocabulary and phonology (understanding how to express sounds). He adds that BTL is unique because it works in children’s mother tongue and combines the different elements of literacy pedagogy into one programme that is relevant to the life and language experiences of African children.

BTL teaches children to read through various methods, including but not limited to, phonic decoding and look-and-say strategies. The phonic decoding involves children reading a full sentence, then breaking the sentence into words and then syllables and sounds. The look-and-say strategies involve children describing what they see on a conversation poster orally and then the teacher guiding them to write what they have described. Implementing the BTL programme provides the opportunity for learning individually, as pairs, in small groups or as a whole class. As part of BTL is a teacher’s guide, a learner’s guide as well as a sentence maker and a sentence holder, comprising of word cards that enable learners to make a sentence. BTL also includes phonic posters with individual sounds. In order to give children the opportunity to practise the reading skills they have learnt, BTL also provides readers with engaging stories. To determine children’s level of comprehension, teachers ask them questions about the stories they have read which they have to answer orally and in their notebooks. “The programme lays the ideal foundation for teaching English as an additional language,” says Masennya. “It also provides children with the skills they need to learn through English.”

A major aspect of the programme’s success is that it provides teacher training and follow-up support in the classroom. “We support teachers by helping them address their challenges,” says Masennya. “This provides them with necessary skills to successfully empower children with literacy, even in crowded and under-resourced classrooms.”

Through using BTL, teachers develop knowledge and skills in initial literacy teaching and in learnercentred classroom management, which are transferable to other areas of the curriculum. Teachers who are good at implementing BTL are more likely to become good at teaching maths and other subjects. BTL and all Moteno’s other materials comply with the Department of Basic Education’s curriculum requirements.

In addition to being available in South Africa, BTL was also available in Zambia and various other African countries. The programme has been evaluated extensively and found to be peerless as a mother-tongue literacy course. One example of its effectiveness is that individual evaluation in Zambia found that improved reading skills resulted in improved educational attainment across the board. The evaluation also highlighted that Grade 1 children in Zambia were reading and writing at levels equivalent to Grade 4.

According to Masennya, many Grade 4 learners in South Africa read at a Grade 1 level. BTL has huge potential to turn this problem around. In the context of South Africa’s literacy crisis, its powerful and positive effect on teaching and learning cannot be overemphasised.

If you wish to order BTL for a school/s, you can contact the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy on (011) 484 6245 and ask to speak to Ntiyiso Ngobeni or email him at or fax to (011) 481 4955. (Please note that price falls exponentially with higher print runs and rises with low print runs).

For more information on the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, visit:


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This edition

Issue 58