/ 16 May 2020

Family literacy: The glue that binds us

Parents have long been told that reading to their child is an essential facet of good parenting
Parents have long been told that reading to their child is an essential facet of good parenting. (John McCann/M&G)


When I was growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, life was starkly different from what it is today. In the townships, households with electricity and a television set were a rarity; a luxury only enjoyed by a privileged few. Furthermore, libraries and books in homes were practically unheard of. 

For many, radio was the only medium of news and entertainment and for my family, evenings were solely a time for oral stories, traditional games and songs. We may not have known it then, but our entertainment was a way of promoting family literacy. Indeed, the foundation for my own love of reading, writing and my work in promoting multilingual children’s literacy was laid through these early family gatherings.

Now South Africa is gripped by a deadly pandemic and we are faced with the realities of our inequalities, including in education. 

That said, some of the best of South Africa has also revealed itself during the lockdown. Literacy promotion organisations and individuals have been at the forefront of bringing stories to children and their caregivers in the absence of schools, bookstores and library visits. The social media streets are awash with story reading and telling sessions as well as book discussions. Hopefully caregivers and families are now too experiencing the joy and benefit of reading and sharing stories at home. 

Literacy has been viewed as a de facto skill for acquiring a better education and something taught at school. But literacy is more than reading. When children learn to read at school, they are being taught technical skills. Despite their teacher’s best efforts, literacy assessments continue to show that many children fail to reach required literacy milestones. But children who read for pleasure have improved technical reading skills. So, for children to thrive in the classroom and in life, we need to nurture a love of reading and stories at home first.

The family literacy train excludes no one. Grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters and neighbours are all welcome (and expected) to hop on board, even if they cannot read and write. They have a wealth of oral stories and other literacy resources such as indigenous games and songs to share. 

Neighbours reminiscing about life “way back when” and sharing those experiences with the younger generation, older family members sharing information about the family tree, family traditions and customs with young people can form part of the daily family-literacy experience. We all need to ride the train of family literacy.

Nal’ibali, the national reading-for-enjoyment campaign, is introducing family literacy to its activities this month, unpacking simple literacy activities that can be done at home.

Around the world, children growing up in poverty struggle to read, but studies show that when poor children are exposed to books, they start to read better and reading for pleasure has a stronger effect on educational attainment than the socioeconomic status of parents. 

Decades come and go, pandemics hit and disappear, but families remain constant. If South Africa’s literacy crisis has taught us anything, it’s that our reliance on the education system to teach our children to read is doing our children a disservice. We need to start much earlier in the home. 

For information about the Nal’ibali campaign, family literacy or to get children’s stories in South African languages, visit www.nalibali.org. To get free reading-for-enjoyment training, sign up to Nal’ibali’s FUNda Sonke programme at www.nalibali.mobi.