We’re in a crisis! Government tackles reading at schools
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We’re in a crisis! Government tackles reading at schools

Books are windows on the world, but unfortunately South Africa appears to be in a reading crisis says Terence Pillay.  

a child reading a book
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A few years ago I started a campaign to get children to start reading again. It was called Back to Books and together with some of my actor friends. We went to a few schools holding reading workshops in an effort to get children to start developing a love for reading. So naturally, I was a little ahead of my time because this past weekend, the Department of Education and the National Education Collaboration Trust (or NECT) launched a national reading programme. 

In an effort to provide a national response to the reading challenges faced in South Africa, the NECT together with the Department of Education’s Read to Lead campaign has established the National Reading Coalition - a self-sustaining, agile ecosystem of reading initiatives across the country. 

Before this, there were a number of smaller initiatives like the Read to Lead campaign and the Drop Everything and Read (DEAR). The idea behind DEAR is that every day, everybody within a schooling community at a particular time, would drop everything and just pick up a book or some other reading material and read for some time. So from the security guard at the gate, to the cleaner, to the cook, the teachers and the learners, everybody models a reading for pleasure practice.

It’s an amazing initiative, but it’s also very important that parents read to their children. Unfortunately, not all parents are literate, but that’s also okay; perhaps in these instances, if you can’t read to your children, your children could read to you. Spend time doing this – even if it means paging through a picture book together, you need to build this culture of: “It’s good to read, it’s okay to read and it’s fun to read!” 

Part of the problem in getting children to read is that there isn’t too much reading material that resonates with local young people. And so at the early childhood phase, we should also be encouraging mother tongue reading – reading in your home language – as opposed to necessarily trying to read in English. There is a lot of research and evidence that says that will support future learning in other languages. I think we have this tendency to be very mono-lingual in our attitude towards reading, whereas we should be multi-lingual. 

The idea is for us to become a reading nation, which we are not at the moment. People start to read later on in their lives when they discover the value and the enjoyment they can get from it, but we need to encourage reading from a young age.

If we look at the PIRLS, which is the Programme for International Reading and Literacy Study, they assessed grade six learners and found that only about 25% of children could read for meaning at the appropriate grade level. The figures are shocking. We have a massive reading crisis and I don’t think people are taking it as seriously as they should. There’s sufficient evidence that’s stacked up now and there is sufficient acknowledgement of how serious the problem is that there needs to be a national response. 

We can’t just idly sit by and just have these little organisations that are doing their best in their small corners like NaliBali, the Read Educational Trust and African Story Book to name a few. They are all significant but there needs to be a more coordinated effort and a national campaign that implores everybody to get behind this. And it can be any small organisation, a religious group, schools, parents, anyone who understands the importance of it and we can provide accessible reading material that can be used with children. 

And this material needs to be something that resonates with them, and that’s authentic to that child’s experience. And they are out there. For example, NaliBali has an incredible range of short stories written by young people for young people. These are stories that children will relate to as it involves their lived experiences. African Story Book also has an amazing set of books that are beautifully illustrated and in multiple languages from across Africa as well as local languages. 

There’s also Fundza, which is a mobile book app that you can download and there are a lot of short stories on there as well. What’s nice about them is that it’s all open source so you can get them for free. But there are also the municipal libraries that are there for the express purpose of lending books to people. I had a card when I was growing up, and my nieces have cards now and go to the local library every Saturday to check out books, which they read during the week.  You can make it an activity with your children. And it’s free.

The other thing that we need to do is make sure our teachers are reading – it all feeds into this whole culture of not reading. In the English curriculum, they still have set books and set poems and so on, but are people reading for pleasure? 

If children didn’t read, how would they be able to assimilate any information? And how would they process information and make connections to existing knowledge without being able to read? Children need to be taught to read for understanding and read for meaning. That’s the source of all knowledge – the ability to read; and read with understanding. It’s a fundamental tool.

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @terencepillay1 and tweet him your thoughts.

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