The FunDza Literacy Trust is a South African nonprofit dedicated to improving literacy among teens and young adults. Education provides the foundation for a healthy, stable, growth-oriented society; literacy is its cornerstone.
South Africa remains a society divided on racial and class lines. Education, which provides the fuel for social and economic mobility, is largely failing the majority of young people. As movements like Equal Education point out, the education received by young people in SA remains vastly unequal, even after 18 years of democracy. A UNESCO report states that “children from the wealthiest households in South Africa are ten times as likely as children from the poorest households to score well on reading.” (UNESCO 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report.)
The lack of reading culture is having a dire impact on education and the literacy levels of our youth. The Diagnostic Report for the Annual National Assessment 2014 – First Additional Language and Home Language (available here) reported that for First Additional Language (which is most frequently English – the language of assessment and instruction) the average mark for grade nines was 34% and the modal score was 31%. This low score is an urgent indicator for action.
Meanwhile, the latest National Reading Survey, conducted in 2016, found that a mere 14% of South African adults considered themselves ‘committed’ readers. Worryingly the incidence of reading in the past month declined significantly over the last decade: in 2006 65% of respondents had read in the last month, compared to 43% in 2016. The correlation between the likelihood of a person reading in the last month and their education level was high: those with the least education are also those who are least likely to be readers. In addition, those with the least education are most likely to be the poorest in our society. And, the report found that South Africa continues to be book-poor: 58% of households did not contain a single book to read for pleasure.
Improving literacy and growing a culture of reading in SA is imperative to build the foundation for an empowered, engaged and active citizenry. To grab the attention of our largely impoverished and poorly educated youth, South Africa needs homegrown stories of high appeal that are supported by an energised reading community.
The benefits of reading are far-reaching: reading develops imagination, empathy, critical thinking, the understanding of cause and effect, vocabulary and a general mastery of language. (Scientific Learning 2008) Adding ten minutes of reading time dramatically changes levels of print exposure. This report noted that children who were exposed to less language had slower rates of vocabulary development. Research has found that ‘even among students with lower general intelligence and weaker reading skills, extensive reading was linked to superior performance on measures of general knowledge, vocabulary, spelling, verbal fluency and reading comprehension’.
Various studies have shown how reading for pleasure in particular impacts on academic and professional success
A study by postdoctoral researcher Mark Taylor at the University of Oxford, 2013 (available here), found that reading books was the only out-of-school activity for 16-year-olds that was linked to getting a managerial or professional job in later life. Taylor said: ‘According to our results there is something special about reading for pleasure. The positive associations of reading for pleasure aren’t replicated in any other extra-curricular activity, regardless of our expectations.’
Other studies demonstrate the direct correlation between education and economic growth. (Gustafsson, M; Van der Berg, S; Shepherd, D; Burger, C. 2009. The costs of illiteracy in South Africa. Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers: 14/10. Stellenbosch University. Available here). This study found that education is the single most important variable requiring urgent policy attention to sustain and improve SA’s economic development. The study found that if SA’s citizens had a more typical level of school performance (as measured against other countries similar to SA’s in terms of development) SA’s GDP would be between 23% and 30% higher than its current levels.