The power of reading to increase opportunities for children

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Carmeline Bothman, 8, browses in the Valley Farm School library on the Altydgedacht Wine Estate in Durbanville. Children cannot learn to read, or love to read, if they do not have access to books and stories, says the author. Picture\: Armand Hough

Early language development is rooted in the interactions children have with their parents, caregivers and peers. It is with this understanding that the statistics are unsettling: eight out of every ten South African nine-year-olds are unable to read for meaning in any language. Statistically speaking, that’s an alarming 78%. If nothing is done, these children will grow up unable to participate effectively and fully across many aspects of life, such as the economy, business, media, politics and health.  

And, since reading underpins all school learning, it is critical that we start thinking of strategies to instill a culture of reading across all the various demographics of South Africa and reach all our linguistic landscapes. Without reading, children’s minds can stagnate and their ability to imagine better prospects for themselves isn’t developed. They are denied the chance to see the opportunities that life may present to them, and the capacity to see progress they may be making.

A reading country is a successful country. This is highlighted when reading about successful people across the globe. These people did not just become successful; they read widely about their interests, inculcating a passion to know more, read more and understand more. We can confidently argue then, that reading is the capstone in building great minds. But, children need to adopt a culture of reading from a very young age if they are to become fully literate, make meaning from their everyday lives and increase their cognitive abilities.

Encouraging and supporting children to attend libraries, be part of reading programmes and book clubs, or simply to retell the stories they have been reading, presents them with some opportunity to practise critical thinking, engage in in-depth discussions and grow their academic prospects. When children participate in this way, reading becomes a culture – something they can voluntarily engage with. If this culture is taught early, children become confident in reading in open spaces and amongst others.

Not only does the reading process exercise the brain, encouraging it to absorb knowledge effectively; it also encourages a sequential trail of thought about the topic at hand. And, research shows a strong link between reading and academic success.

By creating and distributing children’s stories in different languages, reading-for-enjoyment campaign Nal’ibali paves a way for young children to become greater thinkers and contributors to the world. With the launch of its new loyalty programme, FUNda Sonke, the adults and caregivers supporting children in their literacy journeys can be supported and recognised with additional books and other related rewards. The aim is to see not only more children becoming great readers and excelling at school, but more young people and adults becoming literacy activists.

The name FUNda Sonke (isiXhosa for ‘everyone read’) is also a prophetic declaration to all of us that reading, and reading together, is powerful. Through reading together, we ensure that spaces are opened to share knowledge contained in the books we come across and to discuss, interpret and see its relevance in our everyday life.

Somikazi Deyi is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, School of Languages and Literatures, Department of African Languages.