/ 16 June 2023

Only 32% of adults read books regularly, survey finds

A survey found only 32% of adults in South Africa read books regularly.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga this week encouraged parents to get books for their children to stimulate a culture of reading from a young age, after a survey found only 32% of adults in South Africa read books regularly.

Motshekga was speaking at the launch of the Nal’ibali Trust’s national reading barometer, which surveys the adult reading culture and the broader reading ecosystem in South Africa.

The data for the survey, which was collected in late 2022 and early 2023, included questions on reading practices, motivation, access to materials, reading with children, digital reading, language preferences, libraries and demographics.

“It was uncovered when we read the report that two-thirds of our children arrive at the schools without owning a children’s book,” Motshekga said.

“I think the pride of having your own book [as a child] is something we must also raise consciousness of among parents […] because just the pride of just saying ‘this is my book’ [is important].” 

In May, the education department released the results of the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which showed that only 19% of grade 4 pupils could read for meaning in any language. This represented a worrying 3% decline in literacy rates since the previous assessment in 2016.

One of the National Reading Barometer survey’s encouraging findings is that 52% of adults who live with children read with them, up from just 35% in 2016.

“Positive attitudes towards reading and reading with children have increased significantly since 2016,” the study noted.

Motshekga said the survey highlighted the urgent need for children and adults to have access to reading materials.

More than 4 000 adults, aged 16 and above, participated in the survey and the results show that 83% of the participants “read in some way” — such as magazines or on cellphones — either for pleasure, to learn new things or to communicate with others, while only 32% read books regularly. 

The survey shows adults still face significant difficulties in accessing reading material, with only 58% saying they were able to get books from local libraries.

Kathrine Morse, who works on Nal’ibali’s national reading-for-enjoyment campaign, said: “Libraries remain important places for reading but only 8% borrow books.”

The survey also showed that South Africans have unequal early learning outcomes and extremely poor school literacy. Provinces such as Western Cape have more libraries than, for example, Eastern Cape.

The National Reading Barometer project will be repeated in 2026 and again in 2030.