Break poverty divide, read to your children


“The single biggest predictor of high academic achievement … is reading to children. Not flash cards, not workbooks, not fancy preschools, not blinking toys or computers,” writes author Alicia Bayer.

Yet “illiteracy and poverty constitute a mutually reinforcing, vicious cycle that is difficult to break”, says the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

When people are unable to read, they are cut off from information that is vital in the scramble up the socioeconomic ladder. When children are unable to read, they’re doomed to a confidence-crushing slog through the educational system, unable to understand the curriculum; their fate is similar to that of illiterate adults.

READ MORE: Reading must be central to our lives

Last year South Africa learned that eight out of 10 children in grade four are unable to read for meaning in any language, according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. In a nation with unacceptably high levels of poverty, this news has rattled many to the core.

A study in the United States found that children from welfare backgrounds are exposed to up to 30- million fewer words than children from wealthier homes by the age of four. The implications for us are huge.

Yet it is possible to bridge this gap with the simple act of regularly reading aloud to a child. Numerous studies have found associations between preschool language attainment and the ability to learn in school.

Furthermore, the Child Development Institute argues that stories help children to develop their linguistic skills, memory, imagination and creative thinking. It improves their capacity for rote learning, sharpens academic skills and hones communication. It also shapes their value systems and ability to face challenges.

It is well recognised that the first 1 000 days of a child’s life are critical and, if that time is not used to maximum effect, the loss cannot be regained. South Africa has increasingly prioritised early childhood development (ECD), but there is still a very long way to go.

One way to improve language learning outcomes is for children to have daily opportunities to read and hear stories in their mother tongue. In South Africa, however, many children do not.

This is where storytelling and story sharing can play a significant role.

The good news

South African parents, teachers and caregivers have demonstrated an appetite for interventions and new solutions. Nal’ibali, which means “here’s the story” in isiXhosa, is one such solution. It is a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign to spark children’s potential with storytelling and reading.

One of Nal’ibali’s partners is CareUp, a mobile communication intervention created by the Reach Trust, which is jointly funded by the Western Cape department of social development and Innovation Edge.

Targeting parents and ECD practitioners working with children aged four to five, CareUp arms adults with knowledge about the role they can play in stimulating children’s early language and literacy learning. Nal’ibali contributes children’s stories in English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa.

Of a sample of 1 111 parents, 43% became frequent readers of Nal’ibali stories. This was an impressive level of behaviour change, especially when one considers that this was not one of the primary objectives of the intervention, and that users had to do a little online sleuthing to find the stories.

Literacy interventions that have specifically focused on getting parents to read have yielded lower results: Worldreader, a digital reading programme in India, reported a mere 24% uptake of their stories.

Tens of thousands of people are accessing Nal’ibali’s stories on its website and various print media. In January to June this year, there was a 58% year-on-year increase in downloads from the website — 40 075 from January to June in 2018, up from 25 309 from January to June in 2017.

A digital world

Why this appetite? First, it arises from a need for more children’s books in African languages. The pressure on the publishing industry doesn’t always allow for a speedy response. Digital publishing, on the other hand, is more cost-effective, faster and permits wide distribution in multiple languages.

Second, worldwide, digital tools are a growing part of early learning, and in South Africa even more so, as a result of the low cost and easy accessibility.

Third, South Africa is an ideal market. According to mobile research company GSMA Intelligence, South Africa is the second-largest mobile market in Africa. Although Nigeria has larger numbers, South Africa has higher penetration. These days, smartphones are the secondhand phone of choice.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest-growing mobile market region in the world. In 2016, South Africa had a 68% penetration rate compared with India’s 29%, with a mobile broadband penetration rate of more than 70%, and 4G networks reached 75% of the population.

Although the opportunity is immense and promising, the exceptionally high cost of data (higher than all of the big economies in Africa) still poses a substantial challenge to harnessing the growth of digital to get learning resources to where they’re most needed.

READ MORE: South Africa’s reading crisis: Focus on the root cause, not the peripherals

The Reach Trust took the high cost of data into consideration when it designed CareUp. The app is able to run in offline mode, which means there is zero cost for accessing 

the content after the initial download.

New solutions

For children’s ideal development, they must be stimulated, nurturedand read to in their mother tongue from the earliest possible age.

South Africa is ripe for new solutions to its educational problems, and digital distribution of children’s stories is rapid, easily accessible and cost-effective. The proof is in the demand — we just have to keep supplying it.

Jade Jacobsohn is the managing director at Nal’ibali. For more on the reading-for-enjoyment campaign, children’s stories and tips on reading and writing for
children, visit,, Facebook and Twitter:@nalibaliSA

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Jade Jacobsohn
Jade Jacobsohn
Jade Jacobsohn Jacobsohn is the managing director at Nal’ibali. She is a seasoned anthropologist with research experience in South Africa, Uganda and Malawi, and has a solid grassroots background in the Eastern Cape as founder and Programme Manager of the Sophakama Community Partnership. She has managed various educational projects, specifically focused on early childhood development and environmental education within economically deprived areas, and has worked closely with Anglo American, Takalani Sesame and Food for Development. Her academic qualifications include a BSocSci (Hons) in Anthropology and Environmental Science from Rhodes University, and an MSc in Anthropology, Environment and Development from University College London.

Related stories

How to feed thousands

During lockdown, a powerful civil society network stepped up to the plate and managed to feed hundreds of thousands. People kept asking how this was done...

Saved by literature and love

“The library was a refuge I could run to when violence ripped at the very fabric of our existence and threatened to extinguish life itself,” writes Dr Barbara Boswell.

Here’s the story: The psychological effects of the pandemic on children

A free webinar discusses how to help young people struggling to find their place in the new normal without classmates and friends

Why dads matter: How reading to your kids can make a difference

The amount of time fathers spend reading with their children can help predict how well their children will read and write in the future

Family literacy: The glue that binds us

The lockdown is an ideal time to reintroduce storytelling at home and in the process promote a love of reading

How a pandemic took the book industry online

Writers, publishers and bookshops are trying to keep afloat during the extended lockdown with digital and virtual offerings

Subscribers only

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

More top stories

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Catholic NGO boss accused of racism and abuse in Sudan

The aid worker allegedly called his security guard a ‘slave’

Agrizzi too ill to be treated at Bara?

The alleged crook’s “health emergency” — if that is what it is — shows up the flaws, either in our health system or in our leadership as a whole

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday