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Updated: Jul 14, 2021

Their file cover features a line drawing of the minibus and picture of one stack of books beneath the words “EXTRA ENGLISH”. Slightly lower down the page and in smaller print it says, “Feat. David, Zuks and Sihle.”

These three alternately describe themselves as “The Cool Kids” – especially when taking charge of music on the drive to schools – and they are the team responsible for facilitating English study groups, a new branch of Axium’s Ekukhuleni senior schools programme.

English has proven to be a stumbling block for many of our learners trying to enter university. We had the opportunity to address this when recent PGCE graduate-volunteer David de Gruchy joined forces with local matriculants Sihle Mdaniswa and Zukile Luzipho.

“At the beginning when we were starting, students seemed unhappy because they didn’t see the effect of an English study group,” Zukile told me. “They see that Math and Physics are their most difficult subjects, but English didn’t’ seem difficult. Although when we see their results, we see there’s a problem in English.”

Weak English becomes a major issue when writing national exams as well as when trying to navigate tertiary studies.

The team now visits one school on each day of the week and works with all the Axium learners together at Ekukhuleni on a Saturday. According to both Zukile and Sihle, who try to get regular feedback from learners, it is starting to make a difference.

“Having an English study group, I think it’s the most significant idea because our students find English very difficult. So it really assists them to have this,” Sihle said.

David moves around the class as learners answer comprehension questions from their literature textbook

“When you don’t see the effect of something, you don’t want it because you don’t see the value of that,” Zukile continued, “But in this time, they see the effect now and they become happy because they see that they are learning.”

Saturdays are more about writing, comprehension and general language skills, while weekday study groups focus on literature, identified by teachers as the area they'd like support with. Getting into meaning and opinion is a particularly exciting dimension of the sessions, connected to Axium’s broader aim of fostering a learning culture where education is something that opens the mind. “You can teach so much more than just the literature through the literature,” David said.

“Study groups have been really special, especially doing poetry when you can see that a metaphor has clicked into place,” he continued, recalling a learner stomping across the dusty floor to demonstrate a point about Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise. “Then they start to really express an interest and excitement in the poetry.”

The class reading aloud from a Shakespearian sonnet, with "death personified" looming over their tutor on the board

An aim for David has been encouraging students to venture their own opinions and interpretations more readily. Creative writing is a great tool for sharing thoughts and experiences. Students also read extra books and watch movies, sharing their thoughts on these.

Both Zukile and Sihle described their own journeys, improving over time by watching movies and listening to music despite not always having access to many English resources. They encourage the students to absorb as much as possible from the additional material made available in study groups.

“I liked watching movies and when I watched them I could pick up words. Then I’d look in the dictionary,” Sihle said, “Honestly, I didn’t like to read, but I liked listening to someone reading and I would capture that easily. Videos are a very important method to assist students.”

Zukile and visiting Paragon Zuko prepare for Friday film Good Will Hunting

Over time, it is hoped that building confidence can make way for new connections and future possibilities. “English is the most spoken language that can involve two different persons around the world,” Zukile expanded. “Our parents and our brothers and our grandmothers, they were having a bad influence with English because they thought it’s not our language. Yes it’s not our language. But it’s our first additional language.”

“So now, as time goes on and the generations change, everything changes and we have to adapt. It is not as though we are not happy in our language; we are happy, but we have to know the second language which means English,” Zukile concluded.

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