/ 6 June 2022

Nal’ibali: We can all help children learn to read – and to love it

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


In January, new research from the department of basic education showed Covid-19’s alarming effect on Reading skills. The study found that grade four children lost 1.3 years of learning in 2020 and 2021. On average, a 10-year-old in 2021 struggled more with reading than a nine-year-old child in 2018.  

In response, the department has announced ambitious catch-up plans. These must continue.  

But a school-based response alone is not enough. When we think of reading as a skill mainly developed in the classroom, we limit children’s potential and disempower the adults who love them. 

Ten years ago, the Nal’ibali campaign was founded because a small group of passionate people recognised just this: if we want all children to learn to read and love to read, we must look beyond school walls and involve the whole of society. 

Children who arrive at school with a rich vocabulary can more easily make the link between sounds and written letters and understand the words they find in books.

Believing that reading is a “school’s job” also overlooks the power parents, caregivers and older siblings hold to shape a child’s future. 

Children’s brains build connections through “serve-and-return” interactions — back-and-forth conversations where adults respond to children’s needs and interests. And children develop vocabulary, memory and curiosity when adults tell stories, sing songs, read aloud and talk about pictures in books.  

Most of these are things anyone can do. But recent research by Nal’ibali showed that very few parents of preschool-age children are aware that these simple, daily habits can boost children’s brain development. 

Since 2012, Nal’ibali has trained more than 42 000 people to read aloud with children. These literacy activists have launched 13 300 reading clubs in all nine provinces.  

This year, Nal’ibali launched a family literacy programme for caregivers, so more children can arrive at school ready to learn. 

Each month, Nal’ibali distributes 720 000 bilingual stories to under-equipped preschools, schools and after-school programmes and to parents at every Post Office in the country. Since 2012, we’ve placed more than 116-million stories in children’s hands and homes. But there’s more to do. We can build reading habits when free and inexpensive books in African languages are widely available; when children can borrow books weekly from well-stocked libraries and classrooms; when supermarkets sell books for less than a bar of chocolate. 

At Nal’ibali, we’ve given away books to parents, worked with libraries to increase membership and trained more than 7 000 reading champions to work in schools. 

This year, in partnership with the National Library of South Africa, Nal’ibali is launching a national survey on reading habits and behaviour.

Over the next 10 years, Nal’ibali wants to get more families reading by making it easier to start. Giving books and recommending reading to new parents at clinics helps families start reading early.  

A reading revolution starts with a small step.  Take your child, niece or neighbour to your local library. Read a story at the nalibali.org free online library and retell it at bedtime. Recommend reading to a new parent.  

To build a society where all children learn to read and love to read, we need everyone to take part.  

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.