Literacy Month ended in September and it is vital that our literacy woes do not fall by the wayside until September rolls round again.
We have heard it repeatedly and the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study confirms that almost 80% of grade fours in South Africa cannot read for meaning — in any language. One thing is clear, we need a vision to raise us out of the doldrums; we need a reading revolution.
In a bid to “do something”, it can be tempting to simply make the ability to read our goal but such a bar is far too low. Beyond the interventions we must make on behalf of the children who need accelerated reading remediation from grade five onwards, we also need to have long-term solutions to ensure that the next crops of grade four pupils are equipped to read and thrive.
We need to instil in children a love of reading. Knowing how to read requires technical abilities; loving to read requires inspiration. Although the education system will be best placed to respond to the former, love cannot be legislated. It cannot be taught — it is caught. This is because inspiration is profoundly interpersonal.
We have long believed that education is important, but we, as a nation, are yet to be convinced that reading for pleasure is just as vital.
According to the South African Book Development Council’s 2016 national survey on reading behaviour, the incidence of reading by adults declined by 22% from 2006 to 2016. Out of the 4 000 adults surveyed, only 8% said they were regular readers and only 24% believe that reading is fun. Only 9% of parents said they encouraged their children to read, 7% agreed that children do better in school when parents read to them, and a mere 4% reported reading to their children.
These opinions and behaviour affect our children’s ability and attitude to reading.
South Africans tend to have a utilitarian approach to reading — one that focuses on education and acquiring specific information. We outsource our children’s education to schools and to teachers. But reading does not need to be outsourced; in fact, it should not be. It should be the kind of activity that parents introduce early on, starting with babies and toddlers, to bond with them. With older children, parents can facilitate reading with rewards and by leading by example.
We know that reading for pleasure has an even greater effect on children’s educational achievement than the socioeconomic status of their parents. Research shows that in low-income households having as few as 20 books in the home can propel children to higher levels of education than their parents.
If we are to turn the tide on the literacy crisis in South Africa, we need to shift the national approach and attitude to reading from duty to delight. Shifting attitudes about reading is a developmental imperative, and it should be a public policy issue.
To make good on 1994’s promise of freedom, we need to democratise the spirit of wonder and nothing stirs curiosity quite like reading for pleasure. A love for reading may not be easy to measure, but it will yield much fruit for our democracy in the long term.
We can borrow a page from the work of an organisation that has dedicated itself to being the national reading-for-joy campaign, Nal’ibali. In its work to change the culture of reading in South Africa, Nal’ibali honoured Literacy and Heritage Month by running its annual multilingual story-writing and story-telling contest called Story Bosso in partnership with the United Nations Information Centre in Pretoria.
A nationwide event, it provided spaces for children not only to consume the canon, but also to create and seek to contribute to it. Children experienced the power of the story when they wielded the might of the pen. This experience widened children’s imaginations and deepened their empathy. Events such as these are sowing the seeds of the revolution.
With just 15 minutes of reading a day, we can build the transformative, lifelong habit of reading into a labour of love.
Dr Sebabatso Manoeli heads up the DG Murray Trust, which aims to get children reading by grade four