Reading-for-joy as a strategy for development must be a priority on South Africa’s agenda. In fact, it needs to be our next big revolution, says Dr Sebabatso Manoeli.

As Literacy Month ended in September, it is vital that our literacy woes do not fall to the wayside until the month of September rolls back round again. We have heard repeatedly that, according to the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), almost 80% of Grade 4s in South Africa cannot read for meaning – in any language. One thing is clear, we need a vision to raise us from the doldrums of disappointment and self-pity. We need a reading revolution.

In the bid to ‘do something’, it can be tempting to simply make the ability to read our goal. I argue that such a bar would be far too low for a nation with such great ambition.

Beyond the important interventions we need to make on behalf of the children who need accelerated reading remediation in Grade 5 onwards, we also need to build long-term solutions that will ensure that the next crops of Grade 4 learners are equipped to read and thrive.

We need to give our children a love of reading. Knowing how to read requires technical information; loving to read requires inspiration. While the education system will be best placed to respond to the former, love cannot be legislated. It cannot be taught, it is caught. This is because inspiration is not primarily political, it is profoundly interpersonal.

We have long believed that education is important, but we, as a nation, are yet to be convinced that reading for pleasure is just as vital. According to the South African Book Development Council’s (SABDC) 2016 national survey on reading behaviour, the incidence of reading by adults declined by 22% from 2006 to 2016. Out of the 4 000 adults surveyed, only 8% self-identified as regular readers, and only 24% of South African adults believe that reading is fun. These opinions do not only affect adult behaviour, they impact our children’s ability and approach to reading, too. Only 9% of South African parents surveyed said they encourage their children to read, 7% agreed that children do better in school when parents read to them, and a mere 4% reported reading to their children.

As a country, we tend to have a utilitarian approach to reading – one that focuses on education and acquiring specific information. We outsource our children’s education to schools and to teachers. But reading does not need to be outsourced; in fact, it should not be. It should be the kind of relational activity that parents introduce early on, starting with babies and young children to in order to bond; with older children, parents can facilitate reading through rewards and leading by example.

We know that reading for pleasure has a greater impact on children’s educational achievement than the socio-economic status of their parents. And in low-economic households, research shows that having as little as 20 books in the home can propel children to higher levels of education than their parents.

It is clear then that if we are to truly turn the tide on the literacy crisis we face in South Africa, we need to shift the national approach – and attitude –  to reading from duty to delight. Shifting national attitudes around reading is a developmental imperative and it should be a public policy issue.

To make good on 1994’s promise of freedom, we need to democratise the spirit of wonder. And nothing stirs curiosity quite like reading for pleasure. A love for reading may not be easy to measure, but it certainly counts – and will yield immeasurable fruit for our democracy in the long term.

We can borrow a page from the work of an organisation that has dedicated itself to being the national reading-for-joy campaign, Nal’ibali. In their work towards changing the culture of reading in South Africa, Nal’ibali honoured Literacy and Heritage Month by running its annual multilingual story-writing and story-telling contest called “Story Bosso” in partnership with the United Nations Information Centre in Pretoria.

A nationwide event, it notably provided spaces for children to not only consume the canon, but also to create and seek to contribute to it. Children experienced wielding the might of the pen, and the power of story.

This affirming experience widened children’s imagination and deepened their empathy. Events like these are sowing the seeds of the revolution. With just 15 minutes of reading a day, we can also build the transformative, lifelong habit of reading into a labour of love.

Dr Sebabatso Manoeli heads up the work of the DG Murray Trust (www.dgmt.co.za) to keep all children on track by Grade 4.

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