Early Literacy Research Library (ELRL) - Article

Early Literacy Experiences of Two Children During COVID-19 Lockdown in South Africa: A Semi-Ethnographic Study

Nkomo, S.A., Magxala, X.P., Lebopa, N. (2023) Early Literacy Experiences of Two Children During COVID-19 Lockdown in South Africa: A Semi-Ethnographic Study. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 0(0), 1-34.,

Access: FREE/Open Access

Publication year


study description


core topic(s)

Early Literacy

Population Characteristics

International , Rural , Toddler/Preschool , Urban

Exposures, Outcomes, Other

COVID-19 and Pandemic Impact , Home Language/Literacy/Learning Environment , Language and Literacy Development , Parent-Child Relationships/Interactions , Technology and Digital/Screen-Based Media


The main research question for this study is: What were the literacy experiences of the two children during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown? The sub-questions of this study were: 1) What activities did the children engage in during the lockdown? 2) What tools (resources) did the children make use of to develop their literacy (ies) during the lockdown? 3) What were the caregivers’ experiences with helping children with their literacy development during lockdown?


COVID-19 Lockdown

outcomes evaluated

Early literacy experiences


The participants of this study were two young children aged three, together with their caregivers. The participants were conveniently selected as they were the researchers’ neighbours. When the lockdown regulations were implemented, researcher two was in her rural village (Site A) while researcher one was locked-down in the city (Site B).


The study was conducted during lockdown Alert level 4 (May et al., 2020) to the end of June, when the country moved to lockdown alert level 3 as shown in Table 1. In the 3 weeks of May et al., 2020, parents were requested to serve as research assistants, collecting data for the researchers who could not do this themselves since movement was restricted. Once the COVID-19 regulations were eased, two researchers (one in each home) visited the participants’ homes and physically lived with them for 4 weeks (Monday- Friday). In line with the Covid-19, protocols, rather than staying longer at the participant’s homes as understood in full ethnography, we were also concerned about health issues, considering the increasing death rate that was reported in the province. We avoided commuting daily to the participants’ home, as this would have increased our chances of contacting and spreading the virus. Instead, we lived with the participants from Monday to Friday for 21 days. We travelled to our homes to restock our food supplies over the weekend. Hence, we consider this a semi-ethnographic study. During our stay in the homes, we recorded the literacy events we would have observed, we became participant observers and had formal and informal conversations with the parents in relation to the study and life in general. Two instruments were used for data collection. Observations and video recordings were considered to be the main data collecting instruments as they allowed the researchers to collect rich data from the participants in their natural settings. At the beginning of the data collection process (May et al., 2020), the country was on lockdown Alert 4 (see Table 1), and therefore the researchers could not visit the participants. However, parents/guardians were asked to video record their children whenever they were involved in emergent literacy activities. They were asked to pay attention to emergent literacy activities which included observing and recording children when they were engaged in shared storybook reading, pretending to write or draw, incorporating literacy themes into play, and engaging in oral wordplay such as rhyming and their use of digital tools. In recording the emergent literacy, parents/guardians used their cell phones. Using data and airtime provided by the researchers, they sent the video clips via a WhatsApp group created for easy communication with the researchers. Throughout the observation process, pictures were taken and videos of the two children were recorded whenever they were engaged in emergent literacy activities at home. The researchers were able to follow up with parents and ask for clarity on the received video clips. However, we acknowledge that giving the parents the responsibility to record the videos is a limitation for this study as they might have missed some important literacy moments that the researchers would have captured. A semi-structured interview schedule was used with the caregivers to develop an insight into what was happening at home with the child during lockdown. The questions that were asked during the weekly interviews included: What parents spent time doing with their children during lockdown, this included what they read, watched on television and if they had any access to the internet. It was also important to know how the family interacted with their children within and outside the household and the literacy activities they observed their children engaging. In addition, the researchers wanted to know the challenges encountered by caregivers in assisting their children with learning, focusing on literacy development during the lockdown.

sample size

n=2 (children)


Measure of Early Literacy Experiences: observations and video recordings.


The following findings are discussed: 1) Literacy activities which children were involved in 2) Tools and resources which enabled literacy development during lockdown 3) The use of media 4) Learning from the more knowledgeable other (MKO) 5) Dilemmas and challenges experienced by parents in developing literacy during the lockdown


The paper documents the early literacy experiences of two 3 year old children during the Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa. In addition, analysis of parents or caregivers’ feedback about their experiences in providing assistance to the young learners during the lockdown is presented. Findings of the study show that in both research contexts, literacy practices were different, but not lesser. Challenging as it was for the caregivers to support the development of literacy, the home environment provided many opportunities for learning.


The major limitation of this study is that, fieldwork was conducted during a particular phase of the pandemic (Lockdown Alert Level 4) when there were strict Covid-19 restrictions and regulations in the country. This resulted in the researchers adopting a rapid qualitative research approach (Beebe, 2014) where data was collected and analysed within a short period of time. In addition, we conducted a semi-ethnographic study instead of an ethnographic study, and hence, we might have missed opportunities of collecting rich, thick data to fully respond to the research questions. According to Vindrola-Padros and Johnson (2020) this might therefore result in less credible findings due to the short-term immersion and interaction of the researcher with the participants.