Instilling the joy of reading in SA’s children is a prime imperative

Instilling the joy of reading in SA’s children is a prime imperative

The statistics are deeply concerning. Eight out of 10 Grade 4 pupils cannot read at an appropriate level; 63% don’t attend preschool and 50% have never read a book with their parents. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study placed South Africa last out of 50 countries and found reading scores had not improved since 2011.

South Africa is not alone. The Reading Agency in the United Kingdom reports that only 35% of 10-year-olds in England say they like reading “very much” and that by the final year of compulsory schooling in England, the reading skills of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are on average almost three years behind those from more affluent homes. And in the United States, a first world country, DoSomething.org estimates one in four American children grow up not being able to read.

Earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa in his state of the nation address, said early reading was the “basic foundation that determines a child’s educational progress, through school, through higher education and into the workplace”, adding “All other interventions – from the work being done to improve the quality of basic education to the provision of free higher education for the poor, from our investment in technical and vocational education training colleges to the expansion of workplace learning – will not produce the results we need unless we first ensure that children can read.”
What he didn’t touch on, something that is absolutely key, is that reading opens minds, allowing us to explore realms far from our own, taking us on adventures that we would never have in real life. What we have to do is inspire joy in reading for reading’s sake. Everything flows from that basic precept.

During my childhood, reading opened up a world beyond the farms of Norfolk and the chimneys of Lancashire for me. It gave me the promise of opportunity and adventure – I always knew I would travel and create my own adventures when I was a grown up. My stepfather banned watching TV in my teenage years so reading was my only ‘escape’ – often with a torch under my blankets long after bedtime because I couldn’t put it down. I’m a night owl to this day!

Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were my favourite books as a child, I read their adventures over and over again. I fancied myself as George (though not the tomboy part; I’ve always loved pretty frocks even when girls started wearing leggings and T-shirts to birthday parties). And reading about the adventures of teenage detective, Nancy Drew instilled a further passion for escaping into the pages of a good book.

Even my first jobs revolved around my love of the written word. I had a newspaper round when I was 11 years old, and worked at a bookstall at the market on Saturdays and school holidays from the age of 14. It was therefore no real surprise that I gravitated towards a career in media, where reading is a vital part of the job.

As much as we work with and rely on technology these days, and having been involved in the growth and development of digital media in South Africa over the years, I feel that reading has been impacted negatively by the ‘distracted’ economy. The smartphone pings, social media alerts attract attention. Retweeting and reading posts and hashtagging images isn’t going to help children develop cognitively. Reading requires attention, more attention than a post on social media.

Reading gives humanity a memory. This was a powerful opening statement in the PRC’s first READ study in 2017. The findings in the research confirmed that readers earn 50% more than non-readers. The majority of people in Socio Economic Measure 8-10 grouping read. And reach for print media (newspapers and magazines) by SEM increases significantly from 18% (SEM 1) to nearly 60% in SEM 10.

For The Publisher Research Council, promoting literacy in children is key to developing future readers of newspapers and magazines, whatever platform they are hosted on. And for me on a personal level, championing literacy and reading helps develop future leaders. We cannot give our youth the opportunities they deserve, to access education, training and jobs, without committing to building a nation that can read. So yes, there is a commercial imperative but so too is there a social imperative to future-proof good leaders. It’s that important.

In 2020, the Publisher Research Council is planning a campaign to endorse and support President Ramaphosa’s promise to give every child an opportunity to read for meaning by the age of 10. We all benefit from a nation that can read.