The Need

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.)

Latest estimates report that 4.7-million children in SA are functionally illiterate. This has severe negative impacts on their opportunities for future success and their ability to contribute towards economic development and social cohesion.

The lack of reading culture is having a dire impact on education and the literacy levels of our youth. The Annual National Assessments 2013 (available here) reported in terms of Home Language, that the average mark for literacy was 43.1%. 37% of all grade 9s scored more than 50% in the test (this is considered to be the ‘acceptable achievement mark). In terms of First Additional Language, the average mark was 33.2% and a mere 17% of grade 9s achieved the acceptable achievement of 50%. Importantly, the results are for all languages. The vast majority of learners – particularly those that FunDza is aiming to reach/influence positively – would be tested in their own indigenous African language for the home language and in English for their first additional language. So, for us, the most important mark to watch is the First Additional Language one as this generally refers to the level of English attained.

A 2006 study by the SA Book Development Council showed that a mere 14% of South African adults considered themselves active readers and just 5% of parents read to their children. The Council estimates that a mere 1% of the population actually buys books to read for pleasure. Some of the reasons for not reading include: little or no disposable income, lack of public library facilities and the low levels of adult literacy. (TNSResearch Surveys (Pty) Ltd. 2006. National Survey into the Reading and Book Reading Behaviour of Adult South Africans (December 2006). Commissioned by the Department of Arts and Culture through the Print Industries Cluster Council.)

According to a 2009 study by Equal Education (available here), just 8% of public schools in SA had a functional library and almost all of these are in the former schools that had been reserved for ‘white’ students under the apartheid regime. Books are expensive and are seen as luxury purchases, accessible only to a privileged minority.

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, 2011 (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.

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