“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.
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.
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.
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 nalibali.org, nalibali.mobi, Facebook and Twitter:@nalibaliSA