It Begins At Birth – Course Overview

This course is about supporting young children’s early literacy and mathematical development in multilingual and multicultural settings.

Welcome to the E-classroom and PETS Foundation refresher and enrichment course, “It begins at birth”.

We all need to refresh our teaching skills and professional understanding from time to time to avoid becoming stale and bored, or worse, boring.

This course is about supporting young children’s early literacy and mathematical development in multilingual and multicultural settings.

Literacy is the bedrock on which future success at school and in later life rests.

Without a firm foundation in the literacy skills of thinking, speaking, listening, reading, writing and basic mathematical concepts it is impossible to function effectively in our contemporary world dominated by technology and social media.

It is crucial, therefore, that children are prepared from a very young age with the necessary skills that will enable them to cope with the demands that will be made on them throughout school and later in life.

This course sets out to enrich the skills and understanding of teachers and carers involved with the early development of very young children.

Created  with South African teachers for South African teachers.

Who should register for the course?

“It begins at birth” enrichment course is intended mainly for Preschool and Foundation Phase teachers, Early Childhood Development practitioners and carers who:

  • for professional reasons need to refresh and improve their skills in supporting the early literacy development of young children;
  • have an interest in increasing their understanding of the reading process and who want to improve their skills in teaching language across the curriculum.

The course will also benefit parents interested in their children’s literacy development as well as those home schooling children.

What is emergent literacy?
  • First, ‘literacy’ in this course means much more than simply being able to read and write. It covers all the ways young children make meaning by thinking, calculating, listening, speaking, imagining, story-telling, reading, and writing.
  • It also includes how children make sense of basic mathematical concepts like ‘how many’, ‘how big’, ‘how high’ etc., and different shapes: circles, squares and triangles.
  • Children start to become literate from birth through a combination of cognitive development (as their brains grow and develop) and interaction with their environment (as they experience and explore the world they find themselves in).
  • Emergent literacy refers to how young children start to understand, make meaning and use print to communicate as they discover the world around them.
Course modules covered (8)

Module 1: 

The oral tradition. The importance of the oral tradition and the benefits of talk for emergent literacy in young children.

Module 2: 

Families and literacy. Why children should be read to everyday. How to make reading a part of family daily life. The importance of reading for pleasure. What to avoid that will discourage children from reading. Getting children excited about books.

Module 3: 

The learning continuum and  emergent literacy. How children start to become literate from birth through a combination of cognitive development and interaction with their environment.

Module 4: 

Literacy and bilingualism, multilingualism and multi-literacies. The focus is on what happens when children learn to talk, read and write in an additional language.

Module 5: 

The writing continuum. How talking, learning to read and write are inter-related; how to encourage children to read and write, and writing activities that will extend their learning.

Module 6: 

Close correlations between emergent literacy and emergent mathematics. Emergent mathematics describes how children construct basic mathematical concepts, like ‘how many’, ‘how big’, ‘how high’ etc., and different shapes: circles, squares and triangles, from birth and continue throughout life in a similar way to how they learn other literacy skills.

Module 7: 

Emergent mathematics: Pattern recognition, Number sense, Measurement, Data management.

Module 8: 

Final exam. Based on the questions in the Quizzes.

Course principles

This course is guided three main principles.

1. Literacy is a social practice and is developmental.

This means that children learn to read by reading and they learn to write by writing.

2. All aspects of language are inter-related.

Children use their knowledge of speaking and listening when they are learning to read and write.

3. A love of stories and story-telling is fundamental to learning to read.

Narrative is one of the most important ways in which children make meaning.

What to expect
  1. The materials are task-based and text-based. You are encouraged to build on your existing knowledge and experience.
  2. A booklet accompanies the course.
  3. You are encouraged to create collaborative learning communities by working in pairs, small and larger groups to discuss, share ideas and problem-solve together. The Chatroom will help facilitate Learning Group discussions.
  4. Each module ends with a quiz, which must be passed with 80% to continue. There is an exam at the end of the course. All the answers to questions in the quizzes and exam are to be found in the course. All the questions for the final exam are drawn from the quizzes.
  5. There are no surprises!
  6.  An interactive website with a chatroom provides instant feedback for you to check your understanding, participate in learning group discussions, and find out your quiz and exam results.
  7.  While the different modules focus on different aspects of emergent literacy, in reality they are not as clear cut as we might expect.  There is considerable overlap and in some instances repetition. For example multilingualism is dealt with in detail in Module 4 but it is referred to where relevant in all the modules. The same applies to all of the major topics covered in the course. 

“It begins at birth”  has been created with teachers’ Continuous Professional Development in mind, and has been accredited by the South African Council for Educators (SACE)  for CPD points. 

On successfully completing the course,  a certificate crediting you with 15 CPD points will be issued to you on-line.

A word of caution

We live in a multi-lingual multi-cultural world. South Africa is a microcosm of that world, with 11 official languages and substantial minorities of Shona, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Urdu, Gujarati, Bengali, and Cantonese speakers, and many others too numerous to mention. 

“It begins at birth” tries to accommodate and utilise this diversity.  But, it must be said, not every example or practical exercise will be appropriate to every setting. It would be unrealistic to expect otherwise. 

Participants are therefore advised to apply what can be used in their particular local and individual circumstances, while at the same time remaining sensitive to the challenges and opportunities presented by cultural and linguistic illustrations outside of their usual experience.

Having said that, there is much to celebrate that is universal in the confusing jumble we all recognise but would find it impossible to define as the South African culture. There are no pure cultures just as there are no pure languages. So, if our cultures and languages are all mixed up with each other, let us enrich each other by embracing and learning from our diversity.

How should the course be approached?
  • To benefit fully, it is recommended that you work in pairs or larger groups with colleagues who have similar interests to you, so that you can share your experiences and expertise. The Learning Group discussions topics in the Chatroom will facilitate the exchange of ideas.
  • Collaborative learning is encouraged. It not only makes the learning process more enjoyable, but it will also help you keep focussed and motivated.
  • A big challenge of doing an on-line course is keeping focussed and motivated.
  • Some of the exercises assume that you are not working completely on your own. They assume that you are part of a Professional Learning Community (PLC), either in your school or as part of another educational community.
  • The structure, membership and frequency of meetings of a PLC should be decided by the people in it.
  • If you are not part of a PLC, you can get a great deal of benefit from simply discussing the exercises with your colleagues or with the parents of the children in your class .
  • In addition to starting or joining a learning community, keep a journal. Use it to make notes on each module and to record points made in your learning community discussions.
  • Keeping a journal like this will help to clarify your understanding and improve your lesson planning and classroom management. You will find it invaluable for getting the most out of the inter-active exercises.
How long will the course take?
  • The time it will take to complete the course will depend on you and how much effort you are prepared to put in.
  • It could take between 60 and 70 hours.
  • However, this could vary a lot depending on the commitment and support provided by your PLC.
  • There is no deadline.



“It begins at birth” has been based on the Training for Early Literacy Learning (TELL) project, a partnership between the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) and the National Centre for Language and Literacy at the University of Reading set up to help transform the quality of literacy and biliteracy teaching in South Africa by developing practical training materials underpinned by meaning-based theories and pedagogies for initial and in-service teacher education.

Many thanks to Professor Carole Bloch Director of PRAESA (,  who’s understandings and work in early literacy gave rise to the TELL Project and who gave “It begins at birth” permission to use the material. Thanks also to her and the PRAESA team for the use of material from the Nal’ibali Reading for Enjoyment Campaign (, founded and initiated by PRAESA, in partnership with the DG Murray Trust. A huge thank you is due to Arabella Koopman of PRAESA who has reviewed all the course content.

Margie Owen-Smith, a leading expert on multilingual teaching and learning in South Africa, has been very generous with her advice and suggestions for improving the text.

The emergent mathematics content is based on Making Maths Really Count by Dr Susan Scoffin of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Mary Debrick (PETS Foundation) provided essential mathematical expertise.

Afrikaans translation by Laetitia Bedeker:

The course draws on already proven materials and research: “An alternative approach to in-service teacher education and professional development” commissioned by the WCED (2012-2016) developed and tested by the PETS Foundation with practising teachers in the Barrydale Education Laboratory(BEL): Derek Joubert, (Net vir Pret), Peter Takelo (Net vir Pret), Elton Esau (Net vir Pret), Jean Rall (Vleiplaas Laer Skool), Francinia Herdien (Vleiplaas Laer Skool), Leandri van Deventer (Akkerboom Laer Skool), Alina Kheo (Akkerboom Laer Skool), Renaldo Claassen (B F Oosthuisen Laer Skool), Willecia Riddles (B F Oosthuisen Laer Skool), Marita Marais (B F Oosthuisen Laer Skool), Jaco Windvogel (B F Oosthuisen Laer Skool).

Videos by: Riceboy Film Production. Video editing by: Priest Post Production.

Cindy Tyrell: Kidzpositive Bead Work Project:

Special thanks are due to Dave Woods for coffee, and much else besides; and Josi Frater, Xanthe Williams, Joel Joffe and HCI whose generous financial support made “It begins at birth” possible. And, of course, to Milo for his star performance.