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National Reading Culture Barometer



National Reading Culture Barometer Project


Most literacy interventions focus on school-based efforts to improve teaching and learning. However, we also need to understand and improve the ecosystem of literacy in homes and communities. Parents and caregivers play an essential role in developing literacy through their conversations with children by telling stories and reading aloud, by role-modelling reading as enjoyable and worthwhile, and by discussing with children what they are learning at school and how it connects to their lived experience. Any intervention aimed at improving literacy outcomes must include the broader community to achieve large-scale, sustainable change effectively.

The South African Book Development Council (SABDC) ran the National Reading Survey (NRS) in 2007 and 2016 to map the nature and scope of national reading engagement. The key findings from the last NRS in 2016 are troubling and underscore the need to assess whether the myriad of literacy and reading initiatives since 2016 have made any impact.

It is proposed that the NRS be adapted into a Reading Culture Barometer (RCB) Survey. The insights from the survey are important to help stakeholders design programmes and adopt strategies that seek to support literacy development at scale and in specific communities.


The purpose of the RCB Survey is to measure adult reading habits, practices, and attitudes regarding their engagement with children and access to reading material, particularly in African languages. The implementation partner – Nal’ibali – has run a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign since 2012, which now reaches over 12 million people annually. The RCB Project plans to forge partnerships with interested government departments and public entities, publishers, literacy associations and universities.

Implementation is organised in five stages over a 16-month period, including inception, piloting and final planning, research and implementation, information dissemination, and knowledge sharing and advocacy.

The RCB will provide national data on key indicators to help in understanding and targeting our efforts to improve reading, evaluate the impact of literacy projects, strengthen monitoring and evaluation across the reading value chain, and build a body of research on reading culture in South Africa. The survey intends to raise awareness and provide a platform for advocacy to increase private sector investment in free or low-cost book publication in African languages for schools, communities, and homes, including books developed by Zenex Foundation’s Ulwazi Lwethu Project.

A comparatively cost-effective blended model has been recommended for the RCB survey. This combines data collected from an online survey and from phone interviews. The sample size used by the NRS 2016 survey (n = 4 000) will be replicated and distributed between provinces and rural, peri-urban and urban areas. The survey aims to include 2 400 voluntary, verified participants for the online survey. Another 1 600 participants will be interviewed telephonically using a Computer-Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) method. Relevant statistical tests will be conducted to ensure reliability and validity of the results. The survey question instrument will be based on the 2016 NRS questions with additional questions developed from other national surveys and literacy organisations.


The national survey will gather much-needed evidence on trends in literacy attitudes and behaviours and establish interconnections within the literacy eco-system alongside school outputs (homes and communities). The aim is to measure the success of current reading interventions and enable better targeting for future interventions. The work Zenex engages in at the interface between the school and home will draw on this new evidence base in future.


The outcomes of the RCB survey are:

  • Improved understanding of the access to reading materials for children, more specifically by type (genre) and language.
  • Reading culture map of South African adults incorporating behaviour, social norms and attitudes, with a focus on reading with children.
  • Improved understanding of constraints and opportunities for people to read for themselves and with children in their care.
  • Assessment of the impact of literacy interventions since the 2016 survey.
  • Reporting data and statistics to inform medium- to long-term literacy and reading policy, resourcing, research and practices.


Zenex’s current strategy on literacy targets the scarcity and affordability of African language readers as a major constraint to access and improved reading for meaning. Through Zenex-funded Open Education Resource (OER) initiatives, Ulwazi Lwethu and Vula Bula, Zenex can make a significant contribution to the supply of learning resources.

Where and how homes and communities access reading materials is critical to our understanding, particularly in terms of African language books. Despite the digital divide in South Africa, lockdown accelerated the adoption of digital tools and platforms for many with smartphones. Zenex’s commitment to exploring how technology can advance education outcomes will draw on the survey to inform new opportunities for facilitating reading. The RCB survey will measure the national reading landscape at a national level and inform the way we design and develop future literacy and reading programmes.

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