Maverick Citizen


South Africans are readers, but face a number of barriers

South Africans are readers, but face a number of barriers
What is on your reading list? (Photo: Unsplash / Tom Hermans)

While the findings of the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study reveal some bleak statistics on reading skills and habits in South Africa, there is some good news to consider: the 2022 National Reading Survey demonstrates that when reading is conceptualised more broadly, South Africans are in fact readers – but there are a number of barriers to expanding reading practice that must be overcome.

The recent launch of the 2022 National Reading Survey and Barometer comes at a time when South Africans concerned with the poor literacy levels of children in our country could use some encouraging news.

The findings of the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) on South Africa have been widely lamented, as they indicate just how far we are from our national goal of all children aged 10 being able to read for meaning: 81% of Grade 4s cannot read for meaning in any language. 

Results also revealed persistent and growing inequalities in terms of income, language groups, urban and rural areas, and gender (girls are around 1.5 years ahead of boys in terms of reading abilities – twice the international gender gap). 

Other research has shown that those who don’t learn to read in Grade 1 and 2 will not “read to learn” from Grade 2 onwards, leaving children perpetually behind in terms of their capacity to learn, with wide-ranging implications for their future educational and life outcomes and the country’s economic and social progress.

There is significant debate and disagreement on the nature of the literacy crisis and appropriate paths forward. While the phonics approach to reading acquisition currently being used in our schools is supported by significant evidence, we believe that there is more to achieving fluency and comprehension than can be carried out in the classroom alone.

Reading is a sociocultural practice that can and should be nurtured in the living and learning space of a child. Therefore, the immense task of improving literacy levels should be considered within a broader literacy ecosystem. 

This ecosystem includes parents and caregivers, early childhood development practitioners, libraries, communities, civil society, access to reading materials, institutional and policy frameworks, and broader social attitudes towards reading. 

Reading cannot only begin at the start of formal schooling – the Thrive by 5 Index showed that in 2021, only 55% of children aged four to five who attend early learning programmes are on track for early literacy. Meaning that more than half of children start school at a significant disadvantage (and these stats do not even include those who have not had opportunities to be enrolled in early learning programmes and are likely to be further behind).

To resolve the literacy crisis, there is important cross-sectoral work to be done to provide the scaffolding and create enabling environments for reading to be pursued and enjoyed by both adults and children, not only for immediate literacy outcomes but for the intrinsic value of reading and storytelling to our society. 

The benefits of reading and reading to children are well demonstrated and include parent-child bonding, the building of empathy, increased access to information and providing the building blocks for further learning and a lifelong reading habit. 

If children associate reading with positive and happy emotions, they are more likely to indulge in reading for pleasure and enjoyment beyond the classroom.

So, where do we stand in terms of our literacy ecosystem? 

The 2022 National Reading Survey (NRS) and the accompanying National Reading Barometer (NRB) – composed of NRS and published secondary data – provide important insights into the nature of adult reading cultures in South Africa, which we believe have direct implications for children’s literacy and efforts to strengthen literacy ecosystem and, therefore, outcomes. 

Data collected focuses on reading behaviour, attitudes towards reading and the conditions, systems and structures that enable or constrain reading practices, motivation, ability and access to reading materials.

Somewhat contrary to the popular belief that South Africans do not read, the NRS findings demonstrate that when reading is conceptualised more broadly to include the various types of reading relevant to the 21st century, South Africans are, in fact, readers. 

Only 18% of those surveyed identified themselves as non-readers, while others read a wide variety of materials for different reasons (to be informed, connected and for enjoyment). This tells us that there is no single correct way to read (e.g. it has to be printed books) and that all forms of reading should be acknowledged and encouraged. 

It also suggests that to build our reading culture, we need to meet parents where they are in terms of their own reading practices and develop appropriate strategies to motivate and cater for different types of readers (which we categorised as functional, occasional, regular and committed readers).

The NRB findings also highlight the need to reduce the barriers that people face in deepening their reading practices, particularly those reading or wanting to read more in African languages. Access to diverse reading materials in African languages lags significantly behind English and Afrikaans, particularly for African languages that are less widely spoken. 

While book ownership has increased among those who already have books, 63% of people do not have a single fiction or non-fiction book in their home language.

Importantly, the vast majority of those surveyed across economic, racial and geographic groups (93%) recognise the value of reading with children in terms of school performance: only 52% of adults who live with children do, in fact, read with them. 

Data showed that much of the gap between parental awareness of the importance of reading and action is driven by a lack of time, confidence, and, again, appropriate materials in the right languages. For example, 65% of homes with children under the age of 10 do not have a single picture book, and only 31% of adults said their oldest child owned a book by age 5.

To enable families and communities to become part of the ecosystem that supports children’s literacy development, we need to increase access to interesting and appealing reading materials in African languages. 

Organisations such as Nal’ibali, Book Dash, the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation and the African Storybook Project are hard at work trying to address the issue of access to children’s books, stories and reading materials in all African languages, but more needs to be done, and these efforts need to be scaled up. 

It is also critical to facilitate access to and promote the use of libraries for reading and book borrowing (only 8% of those 58% of respondents with access to community libraries borrow books). 

We also need to encourage South Africans to identify as readers and provide on-the-ground support to bolster adults’ confidence to share stories and books with children, become part of their children’s journey to literacy, and help spark a love of reading in a new generation. DM 

Dr Gabrielle Kelly is the Head of Research, Impact and Innovation at Nal’ibali Trust. Cathy Gush is the Director of the Amakhala Foundation, Projects Manager of the Lebone Centre in Grahamstown and a Board member of Nal’ibali Trust. Kay Lala-Sides is the Chair of the Nal’ibali Board.


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