Libraries on wheels help turn the page on low childhood literacy rates

11 June 2019 - 17:22 By SUMIN WOO
Children in rural areas are benefiting from mobile libraries at their schools and community centres.
Children in rural areas are benefiting from mobile libraries at their schools and community centres.
Image: Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy

A fleet of mobile libraries is helping to tackle the country's dismal childhood literacy rates.

The Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy has distributed 500 trolleys, each capable of holding 300 books, across six provinces since the initiative began in 2010.

“Only 10% of South African schools have libraries and they are usually in big cities, not rural areas,” said Molteno CEO Masennya Dikotla. “Instead of waiting for the government, we opted to do something.”

SA came in last among 50 countries in the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), a global assessment measuring children's literacy levels.

“African communities are more traditionally oral storytellers,” said Dikotla. “That’s OK, but obviously if you cannot read, you will not be able to learn.”

According to Unesco, SA’s literacy rate sits at 94% - but the PIRLS looks at data on “reading for meaning”, the comprehension and understanding of what is being read.

The study found that eight out of 10 pupils in grade 4 cannot read for meaning in any language.

“You need to be able to read bottles of medication, road signs. You need to be able to read to learn … and in the end, contribute economically,” said Dikotla. 

The organisation is using the trolleys, which are more sustainable and cost-effective than constructing brick-and-mortar libraries, to cultivate a positive attitude towards reading.

Their interventions have been successful so far. Dikotla said parents and teachers "see children behave differently" after using the mobile libraries. "Instead of playing in the streets, they allocate time to reading,” he said. 

The mobile libraries can hold up to 300 books.
The mobile libraries can hold up to 300 books.
Image: Molteno Institute

The libraries are mainly kept in schools, community centres and business offices, which do not have to pay for the trolleys or books.  

“Children shouldn’t be seeing books in schools only. It can’t just be the responsibility of the schools alone. Parents and the community must join,” said Dikotla.

Dikotla encouraged parents to play active roles in their children’s education, regardless of their own academic backgrounds.

“They must go with their children to the library. Those who can read, read for your children. Those who cannot read, ask your children to read to you,” he said.


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