South Africa’s reading crisis: focus on the root cause, not the peripherals

Nearly a quarter of a century into democracy, four presidents and several curricular revisions later, South Africa has made little headway in its reading crisis.

Calling it a crisis is no overstatement. South Africa ranked last out of 50 countries in the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) study which tested reading comprehension of learners in their fourth year of primary schooling. The study found that 78% of South African pupils at this level could not read for meaning.

South Africa’s reading crisis is a topic of ongoing debate and several strategies for improvement have been proposed: promoting a culture of reading; encouraging parents to read to their children; making books accessible in schools and improving initial teacher education.

Addressing the problem by increasing access to books and developing a reading culture is helpful but only to a limited extent. Ultimately the buck stops with the Department of Education. Inadequate instruction is the root cause – the rest are peripherals.

No reading culture

Without a doubt, South Africa needs a stronger culture of reading. A survey of adults’ reading behaviour found that most spent an average of four hours per week reading compared to 7.5 hours per week watching TV or DVDs.

In response to these figures and children’s consistently poor reading performance, the Department of Basic Education has introduced the Read to Lead Campaign. This aims to “make reading fashionable” by encouraging teachers and parents to “drop all and read”.

Promoting a culture of reading is a highly worthwhile enterprise. But it does presuppose that older children and adults are able to read. Reading campaigns and better access to libraries will benefit those who are already able to read for meaning by providing more opportunities to practise the skills they already have.

Individuals who have difficulty reading – either because they cannot identify words or comprehend what they read or both – will be less motivated to read more or visit the library. And with good reason. If you’re a swimmer who uses incorrect techniques, easier access to a swimming pool will not improve your swimming. Instead it will allow you more opportunities to practice your incorrect strokes.

Strong research evidence suggests that parents’ involvement in children’s literacy is highly beneficial. This has given rise to family literacy programmes worldwide which aim to support and encourage parents in supporting their children’s literacy development. One such South African example is the Family Literacy Project in KwaZulu-Natal, which has implemented a range of projects to ignite a love of reading in poor communities.

Helping families to support their children’s literacy development is important and worth doing, provided that the burden of responsibility does not become theirs. There is a strong tendency to blame the literacy crisis on parents not reading to their children. Many teachers lament: “If only parents would read to their children.” And it must be conceded that this is frequently the case: my own body of research has found that many parents with low but not poverty level incomes and lower levels of education did not always read to their children or visit the library regularly.

This was not due to parents’ lack of concern about their children’s literacy development. Instead it stemmed from a lack of awareness about the importance of these activities and because reading and library visits had usually not been part of their own childhood experiences.

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