International Literacy Day was first celebrated in 1966 by UNESCO. This day is intended to raise awareness on the importance of reading. Fifty four years later this day remains important as illiteracy remains a challenge for many people, particularly in the developing world. In South Africa, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) launched the Kha Ri Gude Mass Literacy Campaign in February 2008. The intention was to half the country’s illiteracy rates by 2015 to meet the United Nations Education For All commitment made in Dakar in 2000.
Despite many government initiatives that have encouraged a culture of reading for South African children, the literacy rate remains chronically low. According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), 76% of Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning in any language in South Africa. Other barriers that may impede on children’s ability to read is that books remain expensive and linguistically inaccessible for many South African children. There are not enough African language books being made available for African speaking children to read at school. According to Nic Spaull there are only 15 graded readers that exist in African languages per year for grades 1 to 3, while children at English-medium schools are reading up to 200 graded books per year.
In this blog interview, we have the opportunity to feature Nangamso Mtsatse, Head of Versioning at Funda Wande, an organisation that is invested in improving literacy levels in South Africa. Nangamso will help us understand what International Literacy Day means to them and what are some of the policy directions Parliament and Government should take to improve literacy levels in South Africa.
What does international literacy day mean for Funda Wande?
As a literacy organisation, promoting literacy and exploring different ways of improving literacy outcomes in South Africa is one of our crucial mandates. But, this particular day is the opportunity for us to bring awareness on literacy matters to the community at large. Although Funda Wande is currently working in three languages, it is also a time where we embrace South Africa’s multilingual societies and what does literacy mean for our context—acknowledging the changing literacies that have come with a changing world and aligning our work and mission to benefit the learners in the poorest schools in the country.
What is the condition of literacy levels in South Africa?
Numerous research and studies have mentioned the early grade literacy rate. And, a popular one is the PIRLS 2016 that provides evidence that 76% of learners in Grade 4 cannot read for meaning (Howie et al., 2016). Seventy percent of learners in the foundation phase learn how to read in an African Languages, meaning that a significant number of learners in African language LoLT schools are not meeting international reading benchmark – Please see full PIRLS 2016 report
What policy directions should Parliament and Government take to improve literacy levels in South Africa?
Parliament should prioritise early grade reading, as reading is the foundation for any academic success. To be a productive citizen, one needs to be able to have basic literacy and numeracy skills. Prioritising early grade also means having the political backing to allocate resources or strategic partners that can work together with the Government in implementing strategies that help learners to read for meaning by the age 10. Given that education is a basic right, the right to read should be as important, if reading proficiency has implications on success in the education system, both in the basic and higher education sector. A right to read should be considered; we cannot continue to fail our children by a lack of preparation for the bigger world. If a learner cannot read, the chances are that they will struggle with Mathematics or robotics!
What are the long term effects / implications of poor literacy levels for South Africa?
The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer! Why? Because the poor literacy levels are mainly in the poorer schools in the country. Suppose we are trying to uplift previous disadvantaged communities. What are we doing differently that will not leave learners from these communities yet again behind, 26 years later?
What can be done to build a culture of reading in the country?
How do you play soccer without a ball? We need to get high-quality reading materials to learners. These materials should reflect their own lives and as well as their aspirations. For a countrywide roll-out, this means finding cost-effective ways of implementing this, using opportunities to read across the curriculum, and not only associating reading with language teaching. Learners should be given the opportunity to engage texts in history, science etc. Reading must be fun!
Thank you to Nangamso Mtsatse, PhD Candidate & Member of the ReSEP at Stellenbosch University and Head of Versioning at Funda Wande for allowing us to feature Funda Wande in this blog.
Read more about what Funda wande does on their website.
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