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Read my tips: this is how to get SA’s kids to read more

Ideas

Read my tips: this is how to get SA’s kids to read more

SA’s reading crisis will not be solved by increased access to books, but rather by enabling skilled educators

Yanga Malotana
World Book Day on April 23 is a time to reflect on literacy levels in SA.
THE JOY OF READING World Book Day on April 23 is a time to reflect on literacy levels in SA.
Image: 123RF

April 23 is a significant date for world literature. On this date in 1616, legendary literary figures William Shakespeare, Miguel Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. It is also the date of birth or death of other prominent authors such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo.

It was the natural date for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) general conference, held in 1995, to pay tribute to books and authors. World Book Day was established to encourage everyone, in particular young people, to engage in the pleasure of reading and gain a renewed respect for the contributions of those who have furthered the social and cultural progress of humanity.

SA’s reading culture

It has been nearly 30 years since SA entered into democracy, and several curricular revisions have occurred. However, SA has made little progress in its reading crisis. Calling it a crisis is not an overstatement.

The 2020 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) has SA ranked last out of 50 countries and found that 78% of pupils could not read for meaning. The country’s reading crisis has been a topic of ongoing debate, and a number of strategies to improve this have been proposed: promoting a culture of reading; encouraging parents to read to their children; making books accessible in schools; and improving initial teacher education.

Addressing the problem by increasing access to books and developing a reading culture is helpful but to a limited extent. Ultimately, the department of education has a crucial role in fostering a reading culture in SA. Inadequate instruction is the root cause.

Children need skilled adults to scaffold their encounters with books.This leads to the issue of initial teacher training, arguably the most critical strategy for addressing the literacy crisis.

SA needs a stronger reading culture. A survey of adult reading behaviour found that most spent an average of four hours per week reading compared to the 7.5 hours per week spent watching TV. The department of basic education introduced the Read to Lead Campaign in response to these figures and children’s consistently poor reading performances. The campaign aims to make reading “fashionable” by encouraging teachers and parents to “drop all and read”. Promoting a culture of reading is a highly worthwhile enterprise. However, it does assume that older children and adults can read.

Reading campaigns, along with access to libraries, would benefit those who already have the skill of reading for meaning and would help them enhance their reading skills. Individuals who have difficulty reading — because they cannot identify words, comprehend what they read or both — will be less motivated to read more or visit a library. If you’re a swimmer who uses incorrect techniques, easier access to a swimming pool will not improve your swimming. Instead, it will allow you more opportunities to practise your incorrect strokes.

Strong research evidence suggests that parents’ involvement in children’s literacy is highly beneficial. This has given rise to family literacy programmes worldwide that aim to support and encourage parents in supporting their children’s literacy development. An example in SA is the Family Literacy Project in KwaZulu-Natal, which has implemented a range of projects to ignite a love of reading in poor communities. Family literacy intervention is an appropriate strategy, but it must be acknowledged that an estimated 55.5% of South Africans live below the poverty line, so survival concerns, rather than literacy, may be uppermost in many parents’ minds.

Also, parents might have low levels of literacy or not be literate at all, despite having completed grade seven, which is considered to be an indicator of literacy achievement. Though parents with low literacy levels are still able to provide literacy support for their children, they are limited in how much they can do. Family literacy initiatives, then, should be viewed as a complement to early childhood and foundation phase education, not a substitute. Placing the responsibility or blame on parents takes the responsibility away from public education.

Increasing access to books is another popular response to the literacy crisis. A survey found that six out of 10 South Africans older than 16 years lived in households without a single book. While a strategy aimed at making books accessible is commendable, there are two provisos: quality and mediation. Children need access to high-quality books, but they also need access to skilled readers who can mediate their encounters with books by, for example, pointing out print concepts such as reading from left to right and encouraging their awareness of speech sounds. Skilled readers can also help children use books as resources for enriching their vocabulary and ask questions that facilitate comprehension of the story. Children need skilled adults to scaffold their encounters with books.

This leads to the issue of initial teacher training, arguably the most critical strategy for addressing the literacy crisis.

While the above strategies have their place, the ultimate responsibility for educating SA’s children lies with the school system. The PIRLS results and recent research have provided incontrovertible evidence that initial teacher education programmes are not producing graduates sufficiently equipped to teach reading. Processes are under way to support more effective initial primary teacher education in literacy by developing curriculum frameworks and resources for university courses and building university academics’ capacity to deliver higher-quality teacher education. But this will take time and will not help the pupils in the foundation phase of schooling, so it is crucial that in-service teachers have access to ongoing professional development to support reading instruction. Accelerated efforts must be made to equip teachers for their task of teaching children to read. SA’s children deserve no less.

Yanga Malotana, department of political sciences at the University of Pretoria and communications strategist at the Democracy Development Programme

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