Reading Is A Building Block For Success
There is no question that there is a reading crisis in South Africa, despite our reported 86% literacy rate, according to a report published in 2010 by Oupa Lehulere of Khanya College. “It is now commonly accepted that there is a deep crisis regarding the ‘culture of learning’ in South Africa. Only a very small section of the public reads and buys books; there is a virtual collapse of library services, and publishing in black languages continues to struggle 16 [now 20] years after the end of apartheid.”
He attributes this crisis to the constraints placed on black education during the apartheid years, but also on the current government’s market-driven approach to the development of social infrastructure. This has left many South African townships without the necessary infrastructure or services to support reading.
“This social infrastructure of reading refers to the quality of people’s general standard of living. This includes … libraries, schools, colleges, universities, book stores and spaces created for leisure. This includes well-resourced (with books and literacy-promoting programmes) kindergartens during childhood, youth leisure and recreation centres, access to good lighting in the home and adequate, spacious housing. A transport infrastructure that is extensive and cheap enough to encourage social interaction lies at the heart of a culture of reading,” says Lehulere.
Not a nation of readers
Only 1% of South Africans regularly buy books and only 14% are regular book-readers, according to the South African Book Development Council. And little wonder, if you consider that while there are 1 200 public and mobile libraries in South Africa, these are inequably distributed and resourced, and 92% of government schools do not have access to a library, according to education activist group Equal Education.
It would also be negligent to overlook the fact that reading is dropping in households on the other side of the economic spectrum. Affluent, middle-class and city-dwelling South Africans who have access to the infrastructure and services denied to their poorer and rural counterparts spend increasing portions of their leisure time watching television, working on computers or viewing tablets for entertainment.
Literacy necessary for achievement
Literacy, by which we mean the ability to read comfortably, not simply to sound out words on a page, is also fundamental to every aspect of children’s academic school performance. It is not a subject in isolation, but rather a building block for success in every other area. Children need to be able to consume information in mathematics, science, history, geography, and express themselves adequately in those subjects to do well at school.
Notes Canadian-based LangVid Language Training on its website, teachreadingearly.com: “Reading opens the door to your child’s early academic success, imparts a love of learning and leads to higher grades in every subject. Numerous studies have shown that strong oral language skills are the basis for literacy development. When children learn to read at an early age, they have greater general knowledge, expand their vocabulary and become more fluent readers. They also have improved attention spans and better concentration. Early readers can recognise a larger number of words by sight, which enables them to learn more from and about their environment.”
Access is the problem
Those at the lower end of the economic spectrum are likely to continue to struggle to afford books, no matter how much they would love to improve their children’s educational opportunities. Because of this, companies such as the Travelling Bookshop, which sells quality publishers’ remainders at schools around the country, have launched the Masixhasane Literacy Project to provide access to children’s literature to underresourced and rural schools.
The company approaches corporates for sponsorship of mobile libraries, which are fold-out boxes on wheels containing 800 books, a DVD player and DVDs, and either tablets or PCs loaded with educational software. When not in use, the mobile library can be closed, locked and safely stored in a room in the school.
“When we deliver these libraries to the schools, the students are overjoyed,” says André Venter, CEO of the Travelling Bookshop and Masixhasane. “We’ve been met with praise-singing, and I’ve even had a headmaster break down in tears at the handover of the library.”
Whether he’s circulating books to more affluent schools or to underprivileged schools, he says the reception is always electric. “The children are excited; the teachers are excited; the parents are excited. A love of books is alive and well; it’s just about providing access to them.”
Hamilton Wende, author of Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut, agrees that there’s no difficulty in getting South African children interested in books, but believes that we need more books telling African stories. “People have told me that it’s wonderful to read an African story that they can relate to in their own world.”
The message is clear: children love storytelling, and books bring stories to life. As a parent, at whatever end of the economic spectrum, make reading a priority. Encourage your children to read; insist that they spend time away from the television or other screens, and try to source reading material that helps them to explore their areas of interest. You won’t just be improving their reading skills; you’ll be providing them with a solid foundation for development in every aspect of their lives.
How reading helps little brains to have big ideas
A study published in the UK last year tracked the lives of more than 17 000 people born in a single week in 1970 in England, Scotland and Wales. Every few years, the study looked at their progress in education, employment, and physical and mental health.
Of the 17 000 participants, 6 000 took part in a range of cognitive tests when they turned 16. The study compared children from similar social backgrounds who had achieved similar test results at ages five and 10. It discovered that those who frequently read books at age 10, and more than once a week when they were 16, had higher test results than those who read less.
“In other words,” wrote Dr Alice Sullivan, one of the developers of the study, in a blog post on The Guardian, “reading for pleasure was linked to greater intellectual progress, both in vocabulary, spelling and mathematics. In fact, the impact was around four times greater than that of having a parent with a post-secondary degree.”