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Addressing South Africa’s burning platform of illiteracy through promoting reading



September is celebrated as Literacy Month globally, with special importance given to International Literacy Day on 8 September. As part of the festivities, South Africa also celebrates National Book Week, an initiative of the South African Book Development Council (SABDC) in collaboration with the Department of Arts and Culture. All of these initiatives raise awareness about the importance of literacy and instil a culture and love of reading.

According to Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016, two out of 10 children can read for meaning by Grade 4 in South Africa. Only 14% of the South African population are active book readers, and a mere 5% of parents read to their children. These statistics highlight reading as a burning issue in South Africa, which, if not addressed, will have devastating consequences. There is no better time to start a crusade to get the country reading!

At the core of the Zenex Foundation strategy is its drive to improve literacy, reading, and language; we believe that building strong reading skills in the early Grades is the remedy to combat the scourge of illiteracy. We have committed R200 million over the next five years towards this.

We believe that support must be given to the call from the President and the Minister of Basic Education to prioritise reading. Having supported work in the field of literacy for many years, Zenex is well placed to use the evidence gained from our own interventions and research to inform a reading strategy for the country.

One such insight was highlighted in an opinion piece penned by our CEO, Ms Gail Campbell, and featured in the Daily Maverick: Mother tongue reading and learning is the key to literacy. The article highlights the importance of reading, specifically in mother tongue. To achieve the President’s goal that, in the next decade, every 10-year-old will be able to read for meaning, we must strengthen initiatives that promote mother tongue reading in the early Grades as well as at home. Ms Campbell advocates for the proactive promotion and implementation of the Language in Education Policy (LiEP) of mother tongue instruction and reading for the formative years of a child’s schooling. The article offers a practical programme of action that can be adopted to realise this vision.

Zenex has supported both teacher training initiatives and the development of reading resources. With regards to teacher training support, Zenex funded Molteno to develop Bridge to English (BTE), a First Additional Language course to build on the African Language mother tongue Breakthrough to Literacy Programme. These programmes were established to support the transition from home language to English. See https://www.molteno.co.za/ for more information.

Following the implementation of the Zenex Literacy (Zenlit) project, Zenex’s Expert Reading Teacher Course materials were developed to teach Foundation Phase teachers how to teach reading. Available: https://www.zenexfoundation.org.za/the-expert-reading-teacher

Within the Zenex Foundation, initiatives supporting the development of an ecosystem to produce school and leisure readers in mother tongue for schools and families began slowly after 1994 and then gained momentum. Some examples include:

• The Vula Bula graded reading series, a partnership between Zenex and Molteno, to build a resource base of books in indigenous languages. Available on https://bit.ly/2w7xNAl

• Zenex’s Learning through Sports project which coincided with the 2010 Soccer World Cup hosted by South Africa. Zenex developed a series of resources for the intermediate phase. Available: https://www.zenexfoundation.org.za/materials-resources

• The Centre for the Book children’s storybooks in five languages where the work of four aspiring South African writers and illustrators was published. Available: https://bit.ly/2Sf8kQs

• Sunday Times teaching and learning resource magazine aimed at Grade R to Grade 7, between 1999 and 2003.

• READ Educational Trust Project aimed at the production of readers for schools nationally. Ulwazi Lwethu is an exciting new project, which was launched by the Zenex Foundation in 2019. This is intended to develop African language reading books and teacher materials targeted at teaching learners in the Foundation Phase to read in their home language. More information is available here.

All of these initiatives have made a significant contribution to the promotion of reading and to reading outcomes and we hope you find them useful too.

Some tips on how you can develop a love for reading

  1. Read books that you enjoy. Books are just like movies and food. If you pick something you don’t enjoy, then you are unlikely to finish it. There are plenty of genres out there. Figure out what interests you and commit to reading it. The same goes for adults who read to children; adults should ask children what kind of stories they enjoy and then invest in those.
  2. Google best sellers and books that have won awards. If you are struggling to decide what appeals to you, then try read what is popular.
  3. Start small. Some people are avid readers and can finish a 400-page book in no time but if you are a novice, start small. Get into the habit of reading short stories and then gradually move to reading novels.
  4. Commit to reading something every day. Whether it’s a page or a chapter, don’t go to bed without picking up a book. Set your own target and stick to it. Reduce your time on social media and opt for a book instead!

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