/ 1 February 2023

South African children face reading crisis

Almost 80% of grade 4 pupils failed to reach the low international benchmark for reading and comprehension for that grade.
After the release of the Reading Panel’s 2023 report, we have again been reminded of the shocking state of reading competence in our schools.

The country is facing a reading crisis with 41% of South Africans owning fewer than 10 books, according to a survey by the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (Pamsa).

But owning books should not be the sole measure of South Africa’s literacy culture and access to them in all forms should be improved, Pamsa’s executive director Jane Malony said.

“Books in libraries and similar facilities and books in a diversity of languages for South Africans. Picture books for little hands and developing brains also hold tremendous power, and ideally the books should be paper,” she said.

The survey showed that when reading for leisure, 32% of participants preferred paper books to electronic versions.

Julia Norrish, the executive director of Book Dash, a nonprofit publisher of African picture books for young children, said the survey offered valuable insights to reading preferences.

“Many people find print materials valuable in their daily life and in how they prefer to consume information. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always correlate to how many people own and access books,” she said.

The process of creating books and distributing them takes skill, time and money, which makes them unaffordable for most families, she added. But if children have access to books when they’re very young, it can increase their chances of success in life.

A language barrier can also contribute to the low rate of people reading, particularly as only 2% of children’s books published commercially in South Africa are in local African languages, Pamsa said.

“In a country where eight out of 10 people speak a home language that is not English or Afrikaans, creating relatable stories in indigenous languages is critical if we hope to improve childhood literacy and inspire a love for reading in future generations,” it said.

Malony believes that access to books is important for early childhood development because it helps young ones develop their language and comprehension skills.

“Countless research studies have shown that paper-based materials promote reading comprehension, information retention and learning and that print-based texts are superior to digital texts in facilitating learning strategies,” she said.

According to the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, almost 80% of Grade 4 learners are not able to read for meaning in South Africa.

Melusi Tshabalala, the author of Gogo Magic and Her Food Truck, believes the problem is not the reading platform.

“The country doesn’t have a big reading culture so whether it’s physical books or digital, people are not interested. People need to fall in love with reading, regardless of the medium or platform,” he said.

Tshabalala praised the work done by organisations such as Nali’bali, a national campaign aimed at children up to the age of 12, saying that any organisation that promotes reading, particularly among children, should be commended and supported.

“We need more stories that are relevant to our kids’ lives and realities — stories with kids like them and families like theirs,” he said.

Tshabalala’s book tells the story of 18-year-old Tumelo and two of his younger siblings, Akhile and Azande, who wanted to share their awesome gogo with other children — especially those who live far from theirs or don’t have one.

“I also brought it (story) to life by launching a food truck that sells the food mentioned in the book, prepared by my mother, whose actual name is Magic, just like uGogo in the book,” said Tshabalala.

The book is available electronically and the Gogo Magic food truck operates out of the Fourways Farmers Market in Modderfontein, Johannesburg on weekends.