Sunday, December 8, 2013

Books often a footnote in South Africa

By: Tim Tripp

Produced & edited by: Katie Foglia

According to the 2012 General Household Survey conducted by Statistics South Africa, 92.9 percent of South Africans are literate, but that figure does not necessarily reflect how much the country is struggling to get the youth to read books.
Surette van Staden, a co-national research coordinator for the Progress in International ReadingLiteracy Study (PERLS) 2011, thinks the study done by Statistics South Africa is problematic because of the way they define literacy.
“The ability to read and write does not necessarily point to being literate, since literacy encompasses many more activities, actions and abilities than merely the ability to read and write,” Staden said. “Even if an individual has mastered the mechanics of reading, this is no guarantee that they can read or write with meaning and understanding.”
Primary school students in South Africa.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
According to the 2011 PIRLS South African summary report, the most comprehensive study of reading literacy in South African primary schools, 43 percent of South African grade five learners have not developed the basic reading skills required for reading at an equivalent international grade four level.

Other issues contribute to lack of literacy

Many areas in South Africa deal with poverty, which results in schools not being able to afford proper library facilities. Additionally, the country lacks a widespread book reading culture, according to Tebogo Ditshego, a public relations specialist and founder of Read A Book SA.  
“Generally society perceives reading as anti-social and uncool,” Ditshego said. “Reading for leisure is the single most important indicator of future success according to research published in the UK Telegraph and other forms of leisure have taken over.”
According to the South African Book Development Council, only five percent of parents read to their children. Ditshego thinks the responsibility to spread a reading culture is on the parents and the main reason children do not grow up reading books is because their parents never read to them.
Staden agrees with Ditshego that there is a lack of role modeling from parents and teachers who are not avid readers, but thinks the issue is more complex than just a lack of role modeling.
“We are faced with a multi- level problem, where the lack of progress cannot be ascribed to a single factor,” she said. She cites poverty at home, teachers lacking content knowledge, resource poor environments, lack of leadership in the schools and the inability to implement policies due to the corruption in government as key factors to consider. “Poverty is a real obstacle to achieve greater functional literacy, but we find that even in adequately resourced environments, the children still don’t read,” she said.
Phumy Zikode, a coordinator at Family Literacy Project, thinks a big issue in promoting reading amongst children, many of whom come from an oral storytelling tradition, is that many books are not relevant to them. 
“There are very few books written in local African languages (such as IsiZulu or SeSotho) and most books lack contextual relevance,” he said. “Of the books written in these languages, very few of them are what we call ‘graded readers’ – books that start off with few words and lots of pictures, but as their reading level improves, there are more words and fewer pictures.”

Transformation of education system

Carole Bloch, director of TheProject for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) at the University of Cape Town, says that many kids lose hope in trying to read because they have to drop their home language early on in life to learn English or French.
“They face the double challenge of learning through a language that they are learning at the same time,” Bloch said. “The appropriate way to do it, is to teach children through their mother tongue, and have them learn to read and write in this language, and use it, while learning English… so becoming biliterate is then easy and gives children the best of both worlds.”
Kelly Long, director of the Grahamstown Area Distress Relief Organization (GADRA education) which provides key education services and advocates for transformation of the education system, says that raising literacy is not low on the political agenda in South Africa, but it could be much higher.
“Unfortunately (yet understandably), there are more pressing issues which take priority over literacy, such as the provision of adequate housing and sanitation,” Long said. “With so many South African people still lacking a roof over their heads and decent toilets, it’s no surprise that literacy is not prioritized as it should be.”
School children at Imperial Primary School in Cape Town, South Africa.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Long is optimistic though that literacy among youth will improve within the next five to 10 years because of the many dedicated non-governmental organizations that work closely with schools and kids. She also thinks that the new national curriculum (Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) – which has the aim to lessen the administrative workload on teachers and give them a clear guide to teaching – will go a long way. 

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