South Africa

EDUCATION OP-ED

Reading is a social justice issue: Libraries offer simple, affordable tools for literacy development

Research by Equal Education indicates that as few as 8% of public schools have functional libraries. This means pupils do not enjoy regular access to reading opportunities.

A child’s propensity to read for enjoyment can be a stronger predictor of their long-term success in education than the socioeconomic circumstances they grow up in. This can be particularly important in South Africa where income inequality is high and education outcomes are so often correlated with household income.

It means that reading for enjoyment can be an equaliser in education, and that access to books and programmes to deepen the reading culture in our schools and communities should be seen as a social justice issue – a mechanism to improve equity in education outcomes. 

This week, South Africa is celebrating National Library Week. This gives libraries an opportunity to showcase their work and gives us an opportunity to reflect on the role of libraries. 

Some of us may struggle to recall our last visit to a public library – having perhaps exchanged the hushed wonder of library shelves for the convenience of e-readers, the ease of online book shopping, or a hurried choice in an airport bookstore.

But few of us ever forget our first library visit. We remember that moment when you entered a room full of books, when you recognised the promise of adventure and discovery that awaited you on the shelves, and when you were first given the tools and freedom to plot your own exploration of the world.

As Iranian-American author Dina Nayeri describes it, “to be set free inside a library, to build a pile of books without having my choices checked – this was my first true taste of freedom”.

In the proliferation of national and provincial initiatives to promote reading there tends to be, quite rightly, a strong focus on developing reading as a technical skill. We focus on phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. All of these are critical building blocks for literacy development, but in the mind and experience of a young reader, these fail to answer the “why”. The processes to develop these skills rarely speak to the core motivation for developing them in the first place. 

Yes, reading is a foundational skill in a child’s education journey. Children have to “learn to read” so that they may “read to learn”. However, the pedagogy around literacy development and a child’s introduction to text also needs to spark the joy and wonder about the world of words and books that is so familiar to every avid reader, and that the research tells us can be such a key determinant for their success in education.

Learners are more likely to read for pleasure when they have access to diverse and interesting books and have choice in what they are reading. Furthermore, they need role models who demonstrate a passion for reading and should feel motivated to read in a safe, comfortable environment where reading is encouraged and valued.

The Otto Foundation continues to invest in school libraries and library programmes that are designed to touch on all of these elements of raising a new generation of readers. We see these programmes as a response to the national literacy crises, and as an investment in the future of South Africa. 

We also see our investment in libraries and reading programmes as a contribution to social justice. Research by Equal Education indicates that as few as 8% of public schools have functional libraries. This means that learners do not enjoy regular access to reading opportunities.

The absence of libraries is likely to be more keenly felt by learners in underresourced schools and from low-income communities who do not have access to books at home, and whose families are bound to be unable to allocate their limited disposable income to the purchase of books.

This absence of books also means that children do not spend time reading with a parent or caregiver – thus missing out on both the emotional and educational benefits of shared reading. School libraries with active library programmes should provide opportunities for self-directed and self-motivated reading, and should find ways to connect back to parents and caregivers to encourage discussions about books and stories in the home environment.

The theme for National Library Week 2022 is “ReImagine! RePurpose! ReDiscover… Libraries!” This is very apt in a context where libraries can offer simple, affordable tools for literacy development that can supplement the reading, writing, listening and speaking skills being developed in the classroom.

With the right books, programmes and management, libraries can help to provide the “why” in the literacy development process. 

The challenges in education are complex and require holistic solutions. In recognising this complexity we should, however, not overlook tried and simple solutions. Providing access to books and promoting reading for enjoyment are known to improve education outcomes.

Let’s recognise the value it can add, and find ways to achieve this in as many schools and communities as possible. DM

Zephne Ladbrook is Co-Founder and Chairperson of the Otto Foundation, and Frouwien Bosman is the foundation’s Chief Executive Officer.

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