Every year in the month of September South Africa celebrates National Book Week - an opportunity to celebrate the joy of books and reading and reflect on ways in which we can promote books and improve reading levels amongst our learners to make South Africa a reading nation.
Access to books is essential for learning. The vital role that informational books, textbooks, non-fiction books and reference books play in the acquisition of learning is unquestionable. However using books to access information for formal learning is only one of the many uses of books. Nothing can add to our intellect more than reading a book. Through reading books, we can experience new things that we would not normally be able to experience. With an active imagination, we can go to other worlds or made-up worlds. Books can change our lives. They are filled with knowledge, parables, and insights into a happy life, helpful topics about life, love, fear, child rearing, and helpful advice. One can read about romance, the creation of the world, future events, and big battles that have been fought. Without books we wouldn’t know anything about other cultures, extinct animals, important historical events, scientific studies, and fascinating research. Books help us to have critical thinking skills, teach us how to perform tasks, helps us plan for our future, perform jobs better and solve problems. We know that children who read more are very aware of their world and themselves, and thus are assertive and can face the world without fears.
The benefits of reading include helping children to move swiftly through the education system, improve matric results, improve people’s capacity to communicate in an ever changing world and bring economic benefits for the country by producing workers who are competent in their reading and writing skills – all simply through reading!
Since the transition to democracy in 1994 the Department of Education (DBE) has been trying to address the quality of education provided to children in South African schools - improving literacy levels is a key target in this quest. Yet reading statistics report that only 14% of the South African population are active book readers, and a mere 5% of parents read to their children. Reading is a critical tool for the mastery of other subjects and one of the best predictors of long term learning achievement. Reading must be considered a priority area in our efforts to improve the quality of basic education, particularly for our learners from disadvantaged backgrounds (EFA Global Monitoring Report 2005).
Learner attainment is inextricably linked to proficiency in the language of learning and teaching, and, in particular, proficiency in reading. An analysis of the results from both local and international research provides clear evidence in this regard. Countries that perform highly academically in international studies are among the top achievers in reading assessment. Conversely countries that perform poorly academically have the lowest levels in reading assessments. The same situation applies in South Africa with similarly low levels of achievement in reading and in Mathematics and Science. While reading is only one of the variables influencing academic achievement and there is no one-to-one correspondence between raised reading levels and improved results in Mathematics and Science, reading proficiency can be seen as a pre-requisite for high academic achievement. Many top-performing countries in the 2011 PIRLS – Hong Kong, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Northern Ireland and the United States - had a relative strength in the interpreting, integrating and evaluating reading comprehension skills and strategies compared to their reading achievement overall. The connection between the ability to interpret and integrate ideas and information and the ability to access, interpret and learn from a range of content subject texts is clear and is reflected in the correlation between the high reading and academic achievements in these countries.
The results of local and international assessments such as the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the 2012 National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) national annual report, show that, although some progress had been made, the DBE had a long way to go to meet its literacy targets. The failure of some children to learn to read, write and enumerate as soon as or as effectively as their peers is a matter of great concern, hence this matter has been given priority through the DBE’s Action Plan 2014: Towards the Realization of Schooling 2025 which prioritizes literacy to improve learner attainment in this regard.
The DBE has introduced a number of grassroots initiatives to improve reading. A National Reading Plan has been developed and is being implemented in provinces and schools to give direction on all reading-related activities to teachers and learners in the classroom, the principal and school management teams in schools and for the district, provincial and national officials. The DBE is working to bolster provinces with the lowest percentage of access to library and information services over a five year plan from 2014. Provinces and districts are implementing a number of innovative strategies including the use of reading coaches, the provision of reading material, the formation of reading clubs, advocacy campaigns and the provision of reading norms as well as regular testing, monitoring and reporting.
The DBE has also realized the importance of regularly tracking learner progress. Apart from continuous assessments on site, the DBE has introduced standardized Annual National Assessments. Each year, all learners from Grade 1-6 and 9 write a national test in both home language and first additional language and Mathematics. From the 10-13 September 2013 all public schools will be administering the assessments for this year. The intention is to establish a national benchmark by which we can measure literacy and numeracy achievement in our learners, against our set standards and as well as international standards.
Many children in South Africa come from a largely oral culture in which the reading and ownership of books is not common and this is especially the case for children who come from disadvantaged communities. This predisposes these children to not getting off to a good start with literacy development. Putting books in children’s hands is to help them to realize that reading can be enjoyable and something they will want to do on their own. We need to not only teach children to read but to be avid and lifelong readers.
The DBE, in association with the South African Book Development Council (SABDC) and the Department of Arts and Culture, is using the National Book Week 2013 to advocate for promoting and sharing the joy of reading books. The National Book Week is an important initiative in encouraging the nation to value reading as a fun and pleasurable activity and to showcase how reading can easily be incorporated into one’s daily lifestyle.
Throughout the country National Book Week is being celebrated in schools, universities, libraries, in shops and through special activities including play and story readings, competitions, book discussions, debates and displays. On International Literacy Day, 8 September, UNESCO is reminding the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally. In honour of the global call, provinces have planned activities for schools where learners will be given books as gifts and rewards.
Books can be the best of gifts – and yet often parents choose games or gadgets over books for their children. To own a book is to own a life-long treasure, a source of knowledge and wisdom, something that can take us away from the cares of the world for a while at least, a source of inspiration or encouragement. The DBE is therefore encouraging parents and caregivers to buy books as gifts to their children to show that books are valuable and also give books as tokens of rewards for any acceptable conduct. This will assist the system greatly, as children will know the worth that books carry and will therefore continue to treasure them even at school. Children can also be encouraged to join a community libraries’ book club and also subscribe for membership. Parents are encouraged to find time to read a book to their children or take them to a library or a book shop to select a book of their choice.
With this year’s theme of “The Books of Our Lives,” National Book Week is embarking on a creative campaign which reveals to South Africans the many ways in which books play a role in our personal lives, by remaining our faithful companions on the road of life. So help us to celebrate National Book Week with your children or grandchildren and help to make us a winning nation!