Letter published in the Cape Times on Friday, 7 September 2012

8 September is International Literacy Day, a UNESCO-organised day that aims to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies. Coinciding with this, South Africa has been celebrating National Book Week, organised by the SA Book Development Council, to get South Africans to ‘Read and Share’ books and their love of reading.

The uncomfortable truth is that there isn’t a lot of ‘love’ for reading to share in our country today. Books remain expensive and out of the reach of the vast majority of ordinary South Africans. According to a national reading survey, just 14% of South Africans say that they are active readers, and a mere 5% of parents read to their children. Exacerbating the problem is the lack of local books published that will capture the imagination of young people and get them to love reading. Furthermore, our government is failing our schools and children in even getting the basic rights: books onto desks and into schoolbags so that children can become just functionally literate.

An analysis of our education system by Nicholas Spaull (“Education in SA: A tale of two systems”, 31 August 2012 on Politicsweb) reminds us of our country’s appalling literacy levels. In a 2006 Progress in Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS 2006), that tested the reading literacy of Grade 4 and 5 children in 45 countries, SA came last. We are all aware of the 2011 Annual National Assessment results which showed how poorly our young learners are being introduced to the basics of reading. And, as Equal Education points out, only 7% of government schools are equipped with functional libraries (i.e. rooms that actually have books in them). This means there is little opportunity for the majority of our young citizens to get properly introduced to books and reading, and therefore little chance of igniting a lifelong love of reading.

This is a national shame.

Reading for pleasure has a multitude of benefits. It not only aids literacy development, language acquisition and empowers individuals to become knowledge seekers; but it also helps individuals acquire the ‘soft skills’ that are so necessary in our complex world. It teaches cause and effect and logical progression. Readers get to experience other people’s lives – from the inside – and thereby learn to empathise and gain a deeper understanding of life. Neuroscience also demonstrates how deep reading changes the neural pathways in the brain, increasing the potential for creative thought.

But, most of all, reading can be pure fun and excitement. Through books you can make new friends; get to see different parts of the world; travel back and forth in time; experiment, dream and play.

If you love reading, share that love! There are numerous organisations that are working to create demand for reading, ignite a love of books and stories, introduce young children to the basics and get books to young people in new and innovative ways.

To mention just a few: Help2Read and its teams of volunteers help to get primary school children reading; The Shine Centre provides literacy and language enrichment to foundation phase learners; PRAESA’s Little Hands Trust is creating local story books – in all of SA’s official languages – for small children; and, the Nal’ibali campaign is doing a great job to promote reading and create a network of reading clubs. Then there are businesses like Paperight that provide publish-on-demand type services in an effort to bring affordable content to low-income communities.

The organisation with which I am involved too is dedicated to finding innovative solutions to getting teens reading, specifically by creating deliciously exciting local content that can be read on a wide range of cellphones. And, our early feedback shows that we are getting some things right. An email from a cellphone reader this last week said: “I’ve read your books and I must say that they are truly inspirational. We thank you for creating and bringing these to the youth. Now anyone can read a book on his or her phone.”

The need to create a culture of reading and to promote literacy development is urgent and pressing. It’s time to get involved. Volunteer your time to worthy organisations, support your local library and school, donate books, share your stories and read, read, read.

– Mignon Hardie, managing trustee of the FunDza Literacy Trust