The first five years of life are the most significant for brain development.
This is the time when the foundations for language and life are laid down and when, for children to thrive later in school and professionally, they need to be surrounded by caring adults who create safe and stimulating environments that are filled with opportunities to play and imagine and to listen to, think and talk about stories.
But, with attendance at early childhood development centres lower than it has been in the past 18 years, many children face a gloomy future. In response to this situation, three literacy NGOs, supported by the Liberty Community Trust, have teamed up to intervene: Yizani Sifunde (Come, let’s read), is a newly launched literacy project from Nal’ibali, Book Dash and Wordworks.
Each one of us is a storyteller in some form or another and stories could well turn out to be South Africa’s secret weapon.
Great and well-told stories motivate children to learn to read and write for themselves and are what set the foundation of literacy learning as well as cognitive and emotional development.
Research shows us that we cannot wait for children to learn the mechanics of reading at school. For the effects of a literacy intervention to be meaningful and lasting — so that the results are felt well into the school years and adulthood — it needs to take place in the early years.
This includes increasing the availability of good quality books and stories in children’s home languages for parents and others to share with children, but it also means ensuring that the adults who surround these children understand why — or at least accept — that telling and reading stories with children is valuable — and essential — for their future educational success and for the broader success of society.
With most learners leaving the school system without the basic skills they need to succeed in school and afterwards — remember: about 78% of grade 4 children cannot read for meaning and close to a third of children are functionally illiterate and live in rural areas — they remain trapped in a cycle of poverty. Yizani Sifunde will be injecting 100 000 new locally-contextualised story books in children’s home languages into the Queenstown, East London and Tsholomqa areas, with the majority of these being for children to take home.
It will also support practitioners at 40 early childhood development centres to make use of a literacy-themed learning programme and provide practical training and materials to caregivers and interested members of the areas on how to run extra-mural reading clubs.
Regular reading and story sharing at home and in other settings, together with support for programmes and media campaign, will influence children’s oral and written language development as well as the confidence, understanding and practices of all those who are involved so they are better placed to spark their children’s potential long before they start school.
Ultimately, Yizani Sifunde aims to significantly change the life trajectory of children by helping parents and other adults value their teaching roles and reawaken a love of stories.
Sally du Preez is Nal’ibali’s communications specialist