Learning to read is all about relationships and full community involvement
In January, new research from the basic education department showed the alarming impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on reading skills.
The study found grade 4 children lost 1.3 years of learning in 2020 and 2021. On average, in 2021 a 10-year-old struggled more with reading than a nine-year-old in 2018. In response, the basic education department has announced ambitious catch-up plans. These are important and must continue.
However, a school-based response alone is not enough.
When we think of reading as a skill mainly developed in the classroom, we limit children’s potential and disempower the adults who love them.
Ten years ago, the Nal’ibali campaign was founded because a small group of passionate people recognised that if we want all children to learn to read and love to read, we must look beyond school walls to start early and involve the whole of society.
Children who arrive at school with a rich vocabulary can more easily make the link between sounds and written letters and understand the words they find in books. International evidence shows children who know more words at age three read better in grade 3, and their maths skills are better.
Believing that reading is the “school’s job” also overlooks the immense power parents, caregivers and older siblings hold to shape a child’s future.
Children’s brains build connections through “serve-and-return” interactions — back-and-forth engagement where adults respond to children’s needs and interests. Children develop vocabulary, memory and curiosity when adults tell stories, sing songs, read aloud and talk about pictures in books.
Most of these are things anyone can do, even if they can’t read themselves. However, recent research by Nal’ibali showed very few parents of preschool-age children are aware these simple, daily habits can boost children’s brain development.
We should be shouting this from the rooftops: learning to read is rooted in relationships.
Since 2012, Nal’ibali has trained more than 42,000 people to read aloud with children. These literacy activists have launched 13,300 reading clubs in all nine provinces, creating safe spaces for hundreds of thousands of children to hear stories and develop their reading, writing and creativity.
There’s more to do. This year Nal’ibali launched a family literacy programme for caregivers so more children can arrive at school ready to learn.
Reading skills and curiosity develop when children have many exciting things to read in the languages they understand.
Each month, Nal’ibali distributes 720,000 bilingual stories to under-equipped preschools, schools and after-school programmes, and to parents at every post office in the country. Since 2012, it has placed more than 116-million stories in children’s hands and homes, and created opportunities for emerging black authors, illustrators and translators.
There’s more to do. We can build reading habits when free and inexpensive books in African languages are widely available, when children can borrow books weekly from well-stocked libraries and classrooms, when supermarkets sell books for less than a bar of chocolate.
A lifelong reading culture can flourish when society-wide systems are set up to support it.
At Nal’ibali we’ve given away books to parents in clinics, worked with libraries to grow membership and trained more than 7,000 reading champions to work in schools through the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative.
This year, in partnership with the National Library of SA, Nal’ibali is launching a national survey on reading habits and behaviour. Understanding common mindsets around reading, what prevents adults from reading with children, and what might motivate them to start, will help Nal’ibali and others to craft messages and programmes to get families reading.
Over the next 10 years, Nal’ibali wants to get more families reading by making it easier to start. Giving books and recommending reading to new parents at clinics helps families start reading early. Same language subtitling on children’s TV shows boosts reading and can be adopted by all broadcasters.
These shifts may sound overwhelming, but a reading revolution starts with a small step.
Take your child, niece, nephew or neighbour to your local library to check out a book. Read a story at the Nal'ibali free online library and retell it at bedtime. Recommend reading to a new parent and give a book as a gift.
Spread the word. To build a society where all children learn to read and love to read, we need everyone to take part.
For more about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access free children’s stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org or WhatsApp the word “stories’” to 060 044 2254.
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