Bridges to the Future Initiative, South Africa

  • Date published:
    26 February 2016

Programme Overview

Programme Title Bridges to the Future Initiative
Implementing Organization Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy and the International Literacy Institute
Language of Instruction English, Sepedi, Xitsonga, Setswana and Tshivenda
Funding South Africa Department of Education; JP Morgan Chase; W.K. Kellogg Foundation; Spencer Foundation; University of Pennsylvania; USAID; and the World Bank
Programme Partners South Africa National Department of Basic Education; Limpopo Provincial Department of Education; Trydian Interactive Software; the Pan South African Language Board; CSIR-Pretoria; and the University of Limpopo
Date of Inception 2007

Country Context and Background

Located at the southern tip of the African continent, South Africa is a multiethnic society encompassing a wide variety of cultures, languages and religions. The country’s pluralistic composition is reflected in the official recognition given to 11 languages, all guaranteed equal status in law. Although English is the language most commonly used in public and commercial life, it is only the fourth most spoken language in South Africa (Statistics South Africa, 2012). According to the 2011 census, isiZulu is the language most commonly spoken at home, by 22.7% of the population. It is followed by isiXhosa, which is spoken at home by 16% of the population, Afrikaans (13.5%), Sepedi (9.1%), and Setswana and English (both 8.2%).

Literacy is essential for participation in the modern world. Yet, poor literacy remains a problem for many adults across South Africa. The challenge is compounded by the multi-lingual, multicultural nature of the society. According to statistics submitted by South African authorities to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 93.1% of adults in South Africa can read and write (2012). However, the General Household Survey (GHS) conducted by Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), on which this figure is based, defines adult literacy as the self-reported ability to read and write short sentences. The 2012 survey asked adults over the age of 15, whose level of education was lower than Grade 7, whether or not they were able to write their name, read and fill in a form, write a letter, calculate monetary change or read road signs, or if they had some degree of difficulty in doing so (Statistics South Africa, 2012). The GHS assumes that anyone with an education level equal to or higher than Grade 7 is literate. However, national and international assessments suggest illiteracy to be more widespread than this, with previously marginalized communities ranking among the lowest for literacy in South Africa. In 2006, for example, South African children obtained the lowest scores in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which assessed reading competency at Grade 4. In 2007, South Africa was placed 8th out of 15 participating countries in the SACMEQ (Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality) study, obtaining a lower score than Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Namibia. South Africa’s own 2011 Annual National Assessment revealed a similar picture, with only 31% of Grade 3 and 15% of Grade 6 learners obtaining a score above 50%. These tests were administered in the languages the learners speak at home. It is likely that learners’ reading skills are even less well developed in the learners’ second language, which is English for many South African learners. Despite the government’s stated commitment to multilingualism and the promotion of mother-tongue literacy in all aspects of public life, the education system still privileges the Afrikaans- and English-speaking elite (UNESCO Bangkok, 2008).

This problem is made worse by the popularization of digital technologies, which has created a digital divide between rich and poor. Research shows that English is the prevalent language on the World Wide Web, accounting for 32% of total content in 2006, with Chinese next, at 13% (Wagner, 2014). A similar bias can be found in the instructional software industry, in which English is the most frequently used language, often at the expense of other international languages, including major regional languages (ibid). This creates barriers to engagement for many people from ethnic-minority backgrounds, thus deepening the digital divide.

Programme Overview

The Bridges to the Future Initiative (BFI) was modeled on a pilot project in India, begun in 2004 in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The concept behind it, to improve literacy through interactive, computer-based lessons, was developed by the University of Pennsylvania’s International Literacy Institute (ILI), which continues to support the programme. The initiative is spearheaded in South Africa by the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, a local non-governmental organization. Using its staff resources and the knowledge it has gleaned from working in literacy in South Africa for 40 years, Molteno, with input from the ILI, developed the programme, which was implemented in 2010 in the Limpopo province. A local software developer, Trydian Interactive, developed the software to support Molteno’s vision. The success of the programme in working with adults led Molteno and ILI to seek funding to expand the programme to primary school learners.

The programme is supported on the ground by the National Department of Basic Education, the Limpopo Provincial Department of Education, and the Premier’s Office. Steering committees were established within Limpopo to support the implementation of BFI in 55 primary schools in the province, with the government institutions committing to support the programme’s ongoing expansion. The aim is to deliver the programme in 200 schools by the end of 2015.

In South Africa, BFI is presented in three African languages – Sepedi, Xitsonga and Tshivenda – as well as in English, to support literacy instruction and reading achievement. The programme promotes the acquisition of reading skills through supplementary instruction using mobile tablets, as well as through instruction supported by desktop computers (Molteno, 2013).

The programme not only improves access to good-quality educational materials, but also, by using native African languages, provides a critical motivation to learn for communities historically marginalized in South Africa. Although the province of Limpopo is one of the poorest in South Africa, a number of its schools (approximately 10% of the total) have computer laboratories. Typically though these only offer access to materials written in English. The BFI programme helps fill the gap in available mother-tongue resources in the region. It also builds on the inherently motivating features of ICTs in contemporary Africa. Working with the South African National Department of Basic Education, the programme has provided national leadership in the use of ICTs in learning and literacy. BFI South Africa provides a self-paced learning environment with continuous evaluation and support opportunities which help expand the scope of the programme beyond the school walls, engaging parents and children in intergenerational ICT-based literacy at home. It is one of the first programmes in South Africa to do this.

The implementing organization, the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, was established in 1974 as a Rhodes University project. Molteno aims to provide professional development for teachers in a cost-effective manner, and to improve learner attainment, as well as addressing South Africa’s literacy and language challenges through research, with a focus on ICT development (Molteno, 2013).

The International Literacy Institute was established in 1994 by UNESCO and the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in the United States. It has provided technical assistance in the development of prototype multimedia software in the Sepedi language and has worked in partnership with the University of Limpopo on field-based research on language and literacy issues. In 2007, ILI and Molteno signed a partnership agreement for working together on the BFI project, focusing on the use of South African languages in multimedia applications.

Aims and Objectives

The BFI programme aims to:

  • Provide interactive ICT learning content for adults and primary school children to support the development of both basic literacy and computer skills;
  • Offer authentic learning content in home languages for Limpopo adult and primary school learners;
  • Design interactive activities to support recognition of letter sounds and phonemes, as well as sentence and whole-text reading;
  • Support and complement classroom teaching by offering appropriate content and revision work to supplement it; and
  • Address the digital divide in education and technology by improving students’ literacy, basic education and technological skills, helping them develop the means to better determine their own social and economic futures.

    Programme Implementation

Teaching and Learning: Approaches and Methodologies

The programme recognizes mother tongue-based literacy as a key factor in language learning. Discrimination against mother-tongue languages has had a negative impact on literacy education (Ouane and Glanz, 2005), resulting in learner resistance and disengagement, and contributing to high illiteracy rates, poor school attendance and high dropout rates (ibid). Mother tongue-based literacy is vital in reaffirming the value of local knowledge as well as in building learners’ confidence. Effective literacy education needs also to reflect locally relevant literacy practices in languages which are accessible to learners (ibid). By utilizing multimedia-based ICTs in local languages, BFI acknowledges local need and knowledge, while addressesing the digital divide by improving mother tongue-based literacy skills, basic education and computer skills. Learners leave the programme better able to act in determining their own futures and that of their community.

The programme uses a phonics-based approach to teach individual sounds, blends, and complex letter construction, reinforced through phonemic recognition activities and spelling games. Although African languages have been romanized, using the limited set of letters available in English, they nevertheless contain a number of complex and nuanced sounds not found in English. BFI, therefore, in addition to introducing individual letters, also introduces complex combinations, providing learners with a visual image of the letter (in upper and lower case) along with an audio track of the corresponding sound and examples of words that begin with this letter. This is followed by a number activities in which learners identify words beginning with the target letter or combination of letters and use the target phonics to build words.

Lessons also include a listening component, a reading passage with comprehension questions, punctuation activities, and grammatical awareness activities. The programme is designed to complement the existing national curriculum, offering learners a choice as to the language of instruction.

Programme Content and Teaching Material

In assessing learners’ needs, Molteno drew both on its long history in the literacy field and on current research projects on literacy. The programme targets areas of literacy in which learners are typically low-performing, such as punctuation and comprehension, as well as emphasizing the phonemic skills necessary for further progress. As noted above, it is self-paced so that learners have the freedom to progress at the rate that best suits them. Access to mobile tablet technology had increased this flexibility still further, creating learning opportunities outside the classroom and during extended breaks (such as during holidays), which reinforce classroom-based learning gains.

Curriculum content was developed in line with the South African Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement, which is part of the National Reading Strategy for South Africa. The frequency with which particular phonic combinations occur was analyzed, using available dictionaries to help determine the order of introduction and the most natural order of progression in language learning. The BFI materials have been formally vetted by curriculum officers in the South African Department of Education.

The teaching material was developed collaboratively by Molteno and the International Literacy Institute, in partnership with NGOs and government agencies. Although the listening component and the opening animation sequence is the same in each language, all other content was developed independently in each language by teachers, language experts and curriculum experts. The final content was extensively piloted in rural areas to ensure its suitability and was reviewed by teachers and principals at schools and education centres.

The multi-media programme has the following features:

  • An interactive learning environment with attractive visuals and audio in a choice of Sepedi, Xitsonga, Tshivenda and English; and


  • An easy-to-follow introductory tutorial to develop and practise basic computer skills.


By using animation to engage learners, the package aims to promote rapid learning at whatever pace suits the learner in question. The learning content is closely associated with the daily routine of a typical family in Limpopo. Consequently, learners can easily identify with the content, creating an additional motivation to learn. Throughout the programme, the learning content focuses on the actions of a typical family and their community. Each lesson starts with a story animation which grabs the learner’s attention while providing a familiar context to the learning content. The stories build upon each other and support the development of other life and vocational skills.


After the story animation, learners are guided through a series of interactive exercises. The picture below is from a listening exercise. The learner must click on the words to listen to them. Learners can click on the words as often as they like until they feel comfortable moving on to the next activity.


Learners’ progress is tracked throughout the programme using USB sticks in order to provide further feedback, to both participants and instructors. After the completion of each exercise, learners are congratulated and motivated to proceed to the next module.


Throughout the curriculum, learners have complete control over the learning process. With the supportive voice-over guidance to lead them through each lesson and activity, learners move through the curriculum at their own pace. The easy-to-use navigation controls mean that learners can interrupt the lesson at any time, repeat an activity, or listen to words or sentences again. This allows them to achieve success with each lesson and to build their confidence, motivating them to go on to other levels.

The overall aim of the initiative is to close the digital divide in South Africa by improving literacy as well as computer skills. The next phase of the project will involve it expanding to include all 11 of South Africa’s official languages, allowing for roll-out across the whole country.

Innovative Features

The programme is innovative in several respects:

  • It is the only substantive literacy programme in Africa offering multi-lingual literacy instruction using computers and tablets;
  • It is the first South African programme to use early literacy materials relevant to children, young people and adults, while also attending to the needs and motivations of learners of different ages. This can be done, for example, by adapting the story line: while the content of the adult programme might focus on vocational issues, the primary school programme can look at borrowing a book from the library;
  • The programme uses local languages as a motivational tool, allowing teachers to switch easily between different languages in accordance with the needs of learners;
  • It is the first South African programme to use Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) on an ICT-based multi-media programme. EGRA is one of the tools used to measure students’ progress in learning how to read (Grove & Wetterberg, 2011). The screenshot below shows assessments developed in three local languages, and English;


  • It is the first time that a literacy programme in South Africa has utilized randomized control trials to judge the impact and effectiveness of ICT-based materials. The intervention is administered at school level and the results compared to a counterfactual outcome.
  • It is one of the few South African literacy initiatives to involve a wide partnership of stakeholders, including NGOs, universities, government agencies, the private sector and foundations, communities, schools and learners. Programme partners include the South Africa Department of Education; Limpopo Provincial Department of Education; Trydian Software; Pan South African Language Board; CSIR-Pretoria; and the University of Limpopo; and
  • It is one of the first South-North literacy partnerships involving a major international research university working in partnership with an Africa-based and African-led NGO, sharing students, ideas, resources, in both directions, over an extended period.

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

The programme is facilitated by teachers, teacher trainers and ICT-qualified personnel, who are paid $20 per day. Molteno staff train the facilitators. Additional programme-specific training takes place over three sessions, with Molteno staff working directly with facilitators. The facilitators are given in-depth support on how the BFI programme functions, troubleshooting and how to navigate through the activities.

Selection of Project School

Fifty-five schools were selected for the initial roll-out of the programme, with delivery planned through a combination of PC and tablet. The programme targeted poorly resourced ‘no fee’ schools with functioning computers. The schools were selected in consultation with the provincial governing bodies, and, as far as possible, encouraged to schedule and provide access opportunities to all learners in Grades 1, 2 and 3. With few exceptions, the schools have been able to deliver these schedules.

Assessment of Learning Outcomes by Students

Grade 1 and 2 learners do not participate in an external evaluation. However, Grade 3 learners participate in South Africa’s Annual National Assessment examination. At the end of the year, the scores of participating learners can be compared to non-participating schools with similar characteristics. All learning outcomes will be assessed using the EGRA instrument used in baseline tests at each of the intervention grades. Results gained at the end of the programme are compared to initial scores to determine improvements in learning outcomes and compare them to improvements made under the regular literacy curriculum.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Initial inspection of computer laboratories was conducted at each of 45 participating schools to ensure they met minimum system requirements. A further 10 schools used tablets. Regional facilitators based in Limpopo follow a monitoring schedule to provide ongoing field support, to verify that teachers are using the programmes as intended, and to inspect the laboratories. A time-on-task monitoring instrument has been developed for participating teachers, detailing learner progress throughout the curriculum. The instrument captures the number of activities completed per session at two separate intervals, identifies the language used, and assesses whether learners are working independently or in pairs, the number of lessons completed and the number of times lessons are repeated. A ‘teacher log’ is used to record the total amount of time spent in the computer lab per week and the overall frequency with which learners require intervention.

In order to evaluate the improvement in literacy skills, baseline tests of in-school learners were conducted in participating schools prior to implementation, using EGRA. This instrument was developed through support from USAID, and has been used in a number of countries in Africa to provide rapid feedback of learner progress in early literacy. The end-of-programme EGRA results are compared to initial data, and to the control group, to assess the impact of the BFI curriculum.

Programme Impact and Challenges

Impact and Achievements

  • The BFI programme has successfully installed around 500 computers in 45 school computer laboratories across the Limpopo province and in 50 other adult basic education and training centres. Systems were scanned and Windows files updated to ensure minimum technology requirements were met. Schools have taken ownership of the programme, providing additional support such as the acquisition of headphones to ensure learners can access content effectively;
  • The programme was designed to be both effective and sustainable. For that reason, considerable effort was put into securing long-term government support and involvement as the project is scaled up nationally; and
  • Lesson content is authentically South African, and in the appropriate national languages. Most multimedia in Africa is in international languages, or is ‘localized’ material translated from international languages.


  • Quality. The BFI programme involved expert linguists, educators, and software designers in creating its ICT-based multimedia literacy tools. The content and language had to be checked at regional level in order to ensure the required quality. This was a lengthy process, with further revisions made on an ongoing basis in response to feedback from schools.
  • Infrastructure. As most computers in Limpopo are not connected to the internet, and have been updated only infrequently, the programme has had to take responsibility for upgrading and servicing many computer laboratories in Limpopo, both in schools and in adult basic education centres. The programme has had to allocate substantial time during roll-out to meet such contingencies.
  • Constraints. The programme encountered shortages of ICT expertise among teachers and literacy instructors. Most do not own computers and few are familiar with their use. Consequently, the BFI software was designed with an extremely user-friendly interface, including an introductory session aimed at orientating the user to the basic computer skills required to successfully navigate the lessons, offered in three local languages and in English. Another constraint is the rapidly evolving nature of ICT platforms. In response to the change, the programme has begun to make use of handheld tablet devices. This platform, while potentially very useful, is even less familiar to users in Limpopo than desktop computers. Molteno staff are aware of this context and work with local agencies to overcome the barriers.

Lessons Learned

The delivery of ICT programmes in rural settings presents a number of challenges. Schools may report having computers, but the computers they have are often not working, are virus-infected, or are so old they do not accept either USB or CD inputs. Some are running illegal versions of Windows, or do not run any, others suffer from faulty connections between hardware components, lack memory space, or cannot be accessed and/or updated due to lost administrator passwords.

Schools require a lot of ICT support with which they are not generally supplied. Few schools employ experienced ICT staff who can provide computer support. Many school staff seem to think their computers will ‘wear out’ if used, and prefer instead to ‘save’ them. In many cases the school environment is not conducive to keeping the computer labs clean. BFI staff have attempted to educate participating schools about computer care, but often the problem is that computers are simply not made for that environment. Schools with laptops or older PCs seem to do better, but these computers too may fail due to their age. In providing computers to schools in the future, durability should definitely be taken into consideration.

The lack of standardization of some African languages also presents challenges. Language use varies significantly by region, resulting in irregular and inconsistent spelling and pronunciation. Consulting one language expert from one area is not advisable when working with languages that do not have formal standardized forms, especially if content developers are working in areas with high levels of contact between users of different languages, such as urban centres. Ultimately, language speakers from each region, as well as language experts, editors and educators, were consulted and decisions on particular spellings and word usage made in a participatory way.


The BFI approach is to include government authorities both in decision-making and in the roll-out of services. As a result, the national government, impressed with the impact of the pilot phase, is planning to adopt the programme across the country, for use in a variety of education sub-sectors (for children, young people and adults), all in support of multi-lingual literacy. Key to the programme’s sustainability efforts are the strategic alliances it has formed with the South African Department of Education and the Limpopo Provincial Department of Education, as well as the continuing input of a steering committee comprising all relevant stakeholders at provincial and national levels. Workshops with teachers, learners and community members have helped to engage and motivate learners. The national government has committed to a 500% expansion of the programme next year. The programme will also will be available as an open educational resource, accessible via the national department’s website. In sum, the programme’s strategy for sustainability is to provide a low-cost supplement to literacy instruction which national and provincial government are prepared to support because of its impact on learners and the high-quality instruction it provides. Through its work, the BFI programe is also developing local ICT and reading capacity, for teachers and facilitators, as well as in schools.



Masennya P. Dikotla,
Chief Executive Officer
10th floor Orion House, 49 Jorissen street, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, SOUTH AFRICA
Tel: +27 11 339 6603; Cell : +27 83 670 1087
PA: Brenda Ramokgadi; brenda (at) molteno.co.za

For citation please use

U. Hanemann. Last update: 20 July 2017. Bridges to the Future Initiative, South Africa. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 20 March 2023, 14:39 CET)

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