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Literacy: an imperative we must embrace in 2021

The theme for World Read Aloud Day 2021 explored why reading is so critical in the midst of a pandemic

On 3 February 2021, South African children, along with those in 172 other countries, once again immersed themselves in a world of new words, interesting characters and gripping plots on World Read Aloud Day 2021.

Presented by global literacy non-profit LitWorld and sponsored by Scholastic, the annual literacy celebration advocates for greater access to literacy through diverse stories, as well as the power of reading aloud. This has shown to have an immense impact on the academic and cognitive development of a child, and as suggested by a recent survey of 4,517 public school educators in the US*, their social-emotional well-being too.

In her analysis of that survey, author and literacy expert Pam Allyn stated that “Many students grapple with new routines and rituals during distance learning, or physical separations in their classrooms due to COVID-19 constraints, the benefits [ of reading] are particularly poignant, profound, and powerful for the mind and spirit.’’

On a global scale, the pandemic has underscored the importance of reading and literacy. The World Literacy Foundation** believes that reading will help learners remain in touch with their learning until formal education systems are able to make a full recovery.

During this tumultuous time, when there is a greater risk than ever of learners becoming disengaged from or wholly deprived of education, reading can mitigate against these risks. The question that begs to be answered now is this: how do we ensure that children in South Africa acquire literacy skills in their homes, communities and places of formal education during and beyond the pandemic?

Of paramount importance to the literacy discussion in South Africa is the oft-cited Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) finding that eight out of 10 Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read with understanding in any language. This frightening statistic prompted President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his 2019 State of the Nation Address, to call for a new social compact to tackle our abysmal literacy reality and ensure that every 10-year-old can read for meaning.

For leadership and education non-profit SSA, literacy celebration days, programmes, and general efforts to get all South Africa children reading matter because they align with its mission to mobilise active citizenship around the key challenges facing our country, and few are as critical as education and literacy.

SSA’s thinking on how to improve literacy is expressed by the adage: “it takes a village to raise a child”. By mobilising the adults (principals, teachers, parents and others who directly influence our children’s learning), we can create the human and social capital needed to support the development of literacy – especially during the critical first 1,000 days a child’s life.

This approach was exemplified by PfP’s co-founder Principal Ridwan Samodien of Kannemeyer Primary School, for whom World Read Aloud Day 2021 was the perfect opportunity to promote a culture of reading at his school.

On the day, each of the younger learners was paired with a ‘reading buddy’ from a higher grade who read aloud to them.  In the spirit of paying it forward, prominent alumni and partners of Kannemeyer Primary participated in a “mini-billboard” initiative, which featured a quote from each of them on the importance of reading. These billboards now adorn the corridors of the school. Former head boy Lester Kiewit, now a CapeTalk show host and journalist, was also invited to read aloud to the learners. He has become Kannemeyer’s Patron of Literacy, making the school one of the first to have its very own literacy patron.

With the help of parents and teachers, the school also launched a year-long reading competition to encourage a love for reading,  ultimately with understanding. The challenge is to read as many books as possible in a year, and learners are incentivised by a R500 prize for the most prolific reader.

The causal link between illiteracy and poverty (which has been shown to be cyclical in families), cannot be underestimated. Literacy problems impede overall performance at school, and adults who struggle to read are more likely to have problems upskilling as finding employment. Thus, illiteracy also impedes economic growth. A 2019 Help 2 Read*** report estimates that South Africa’s GDP would be 23% to 30% higher if the population were fully literate.

It is manifestly clear that literacy offers an escape from poverty by directly contributing to growth and increases equity and social justice. The barriers to literacy must be carefully considered and systematically addressed – lest we further deepen the chasm between rich and poor.

The year ahead will no doubt present unique challenges on the literacy front, as funds ring-fenced for education are more likely to be channelled towards learner nutrition and the provision of personal protective equipment for teachers. But as Allyn so rightly observes, story reading ‘’can and will nourish their [children’s] spirits and ours, and fuel their critical journeys to feeling better in a tough world—and to becoming lifelong learners, empathetic and caring humans, and world changers’’.

We, the adults, must champion this ideal.

* Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report: 2nd Edition, a national survey of 4,517 public school Pre-K–12 educators, conducted by YouGov, focuses on critical issues affecting schools and districts across the USA.

** The World Literacy Foundation (WLF) is a global non-profit that works to lift young people out of poverty through literacy

*** Help 2 Read is a local non-profit on a mission to erase illiteracy in South Africa

About the author:

Zah’Rah Khan heads up the editorial team at Symphonia for South Africa. Her focus areas are education, politics, law and research.