31 October is a symbolic date for world literature. On this date in 1616, legendary literary writers 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 Vellejo. It was a natural choice for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) General Conference, held in 1995, to pay a world-wide tribute to books and authors on this date. This was to encourage everyone, in particular young people the pleasure of reading and gain a renewed respect for the irreplaceable contributions of those who have furthered the social and cultural progress of humanity. While we observe World Book Day, it is important to reflect on the current reading culture in South Africa.
South Africa’s Reading Culture
It has been nearly 30 years since South Africa entered into democracy and several curricular revisions have occurred, however South Africa has made very little way in its reading crisis. Calling it a crisis is not an overstatement. The 2020 Progress in International Reading Literacy study has South Africa ranked last out of 50 countries and found that 78% pupils could not read for meaning. The country’s reading crisis has been a topic of ongoing debate and a number of strategies for improvement have been proposed:
Addressing the problem by increasing access to books and developing a reading culture is helpful, but to a certain extent. Ultimately the Department of Education has a crucial role in fostering a reading culture in South Africa. Inadequate instruction is the root cause, the rest of peripherals.
It goes without saying that South Africa is in need of 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 watch TV. The Department of Basic Education introduced the Read to Lead Campaign. This Campaign was a response to these figures and children’s consistently poor reading performance. 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 presuppose those older children and adults have the ability to read. Reading campaigns like this, along with access to libraries would benefit those who already have the skill to read for meaning and would help them enhance their reading skills. For the 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. Justifiably so. 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 practice 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 which aim to support and encourage parents in supporting their children’s literacy development. One such South African example 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 because an estimated 55.5% of South Africans live below the poverty line, survival concerns rather than literacy may be uppermost in many parents’ minds.
Also, many parents may either not be literate or have low levels of literacy despite having completed grade 7, which is considered to be an indicator of literacy achievement. Although 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 as 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 ten South Africans older than 16 years lived in households without a single book present. One initiative to increase access to books is the Read to Lead Campaign which aims to create 1000 school libraries by 2019. While the 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 to use books as resources for enriching vocabulary, and asking 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 South Africa’s children lies with the school system. The PIRLS results and recent investigations 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 learners currently in the foundation phase of schooling. So it is crucial that in-service teachers have access to ongoing professional development to support reading instruction. It is critical that accelerated efforts be made to equip teachers for their task of teaching children to read. South Africa’s children deserve no less.
By Yanga Malotana: Communications Strategist at the Democracy Development Program and Politics PhD Candidate at the University of Pretoria.