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Phones let books boost our bedtimes

How much of your success was determined by hard work? Or was it luck? I’m sure you’re saying: “Yes, this was all down to my hard work.”

But I’d like to challenge that assumption. I’d like suggest that one of the reasons you’ve been successful is because of good fortune: the good fortune to have had a parent or someone close to you read to you as a child.

Being read to as a child meant that you began speaking at a younger age, were one of the first children of your age to begin to recognise letters and, when you started to read for yourself, you had the cognitive ability to process the words and make sense of what was otherwise a jumbled set of lines and squiggles on the page.

It also meant that you most likely had someone who read aloud to and with you as a child – a critical part of literacy learning. Dr Dipesh Navsaria, medical director of Reach Out and Read, explains: “If you read aloud to your children there’s a strong chance they’ll become good readers, and, in turn, develop a love of reading that will carry them through school, work and beyond.”

Now compare that with a child who has never been read to before, or outside of the school environment. Or children who do not have the opportunity to read and learn to read in their home language. They may have attended school, but how likely is it that they excelled?

In the United States, for example, studies have shown that children who aren’t reading proficiently by grade four are four times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers who are – something to think about in a country where more than half of our children drop out of school before they reach matric and who are forced to change their language of instruction early in their school careers.

Revolutionary
This reading theory is all good and well but no use for those who don’t have access to books. This is where mobile phones have revolutionised the reading world. Initiatives such as the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, driven by the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (Praesa), have grasped the opportunity to make good-quality reading resources available on the one device that is ubiquitous in South Africa: the mobile phone.

On International Literacy Day next week, September 8, Nal’ibali will launch an easy-to-use app it has developed with Mxit Reach that offers children stories, in multiple South African languages, that can be accessed on all forms of phones, including the low-end feature phone that continues to dominate the local market (even if smartphone use is growing).

This means that a parent living in an informal settlement, without the benefit of bookshelves filled with children’s books or out of reach of local libraries, can still read to their child. And, as a result, tens of thousands of parents (or other caregivers, such as older siblings) are reading to their children on a regular basis.

Of course there is always much criticism of the danger of digital devices, and certainly they should be used in moderation. But any child today is born into a digital era – one in which the most important skill remains the ability to read.

And that’s the beauty behind the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment app. It doesn’t just offer stories or books for kids; it also offer parents and other caregivers motivational tips and story activities to share with their kids.

My wife and I have been reading to our children since they were very young, long before they could talk, and certainly long before they could read. Much of this was prompted by peer pressure and a general awareness that it was the “right” thing to do.

So yes, I can pat myself on the back for being a good parent, but what I have also come to realise is that my parents passed down this simple routine of reading to my children and it’s become a habit. And therein lies the challenge and opportunity we have to support parents in the role they can play in developing their children’s potential and putting them on the path to success, no matter what their circumstance: finding ways to turn exposure to reading from good fortune into a daily habit in every home.

Andrew Rudge is a father of three young children and a regular reader of bedtime stories. His other job is as a behavioural economist and chief executive of the Mxit Reach Trust, a registered public benefit organisation, which developed the children’s stories app described here in partnership with the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (Praesa), a founding partner driving the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign. For more on this campaign, go to nalibali.org; nalibali.mobi, or search Nalibali on Mxit

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