Who Is Who In Literacy – Meet Nal’ibali
25 January, 2017
Last year, we took a long, hard look at the state of illiteracy in South Africa. By now, you may be well aware of the statistics and their implications, but what you may not know is what is being done by initiatives and organisations that, like ourselves, are working every day to solve the literacy crisis.
Over the coming months, our Who Is Who series will highlight some of South Africa’s leading organisations that promote reading and literacy among children. Each of the organisations featured tackles a different aspect of the challenges that young readers face. Each provides important solutions to the literacy crisis. Each is making some headway in erasing illiteracy for good.
Nevertheless, we recognise that greater coordination of our collective efforts is essential if we are to consolidate the impact we each have on the lives of the children we seek to help. We have to coordinate better between ourselves and pass the baton between ourselves so that children are able to build on and consolidate earlier interventions with those at a later stage of their school lives.
One of our key objectives in 2017 is therefore to encourage and increase joined up action and to secure the support of the private sector at scale, so that we can eradicate illiteracy within a generation. That is why we are launching this new blog series, Who Is Who in Literacy.
This month our featured initiative is Nal’iBali, a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign that was launched in 2012. We chatted to Nal’ibali Managing Director, Jade Jacobsohn, to find out more about the campaign.
What sparked the launch of the Nal’ibali campaign in 2012?
Literacy skills are a strong predictor of future academic success in all subjects. All the evidence shows that children who regularly read and hear engaging stories, in languages they understand, are well equipped and motivated to learn to read and write. A significant body of research reinforces the link between reading for pleasure and improved outcomes for children.
The Nal’ibali campaign was launched across South Africa in 2012 to encourage a love of reading. An isiXhosa word meaning “here’s the story”, Nal’ibali is built on the simple logic that a well-established culture of and love for reading can be a real game-changer for education in South Africa.
Encouraging children to read for enjoyment is central to the Nal’ibali Campaign. How does Nal’ibali define reading for enjoyment?
Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is to look at what reading for enjoyment is not. It’s not that lump in the pit of a child’s stomach when they encounter a page of black and white text that is undecipherable before their eyes. This is how many children feel about reading and is likely the sensation experienced by a child who states categorically, “I hate reading!”
At Nal’ibali we don’t believe that there is such a thing as a child who hates reading. There are children whose introduction to books has been lacking and whose experience of reading is consequently non existent. There are many reasons for this, some of which may stem from an adult reader’s own experience of reading being an intimidating one and this feeling is passed on to their children.
However, we believe that children who have the opportunity to read in a setting that is undemanding, where they get to self-select the stories that interest them, in a language that they choose, and at a pace that they determine, then children typically do enjoy the experience of reading. Children are naturally curious learners, but fear of failure when pressure is applied often inhibits their ability to perform well as readers.
In your experience, what are some of the main challenges that South African children face when it comes to reading for pleasure?
In South Africa, the majority of children are not reading well. Of 15 education systems in sub-Saharan Africa that participated in the most recent SACMEQ tests of Grade 6 learners, South Africa had the third highest proportion of functionally illiterate children (27%). In rural areas, this figure is even higher: up to 58% of 13-year-olds living in rural areas are functionally illiterate. UNESCO estimates that there are 4.7 million illiterate children in South Africa. Because reading underpins all learning, poor reading skills are a recipe for low educational achievement not only in language, but in all subjects, including mathematics.
Many factors contribute to this poor performance. Most South Africans have limited access to reading materials: 92% of primary schools lack functional libraries, and 85% of the population lives beyond easy reach of a public library. More than half of South African households (51%) have no leisure books, and only 6% of homes have more than 40 titles.
Government language policy supports mother tongue-based biliteracy: the vast majority of South African schools teach in children’s home language from Grades R to 3, and transition to English or Afrikaans (in theory) from Grade 4. However, reading materials in African languages are extremely scarce (DoE, 2008). Of 53,599 children’s books published in South Africa between 2000 and 2015, 42% were in English, 25% were in Afrikaans, and only 33% were in the remaining nine South African languages. Further, few bilingual resources are available to support children’s transition to English from Grade 4.
Many teachers see reading for pleasure as an “add-on” or “nice to have”, rather than a vital part of literacy learning that supports curriculum objectives. Technical approaches to teaching reading are often used exclusively, and not as part of a broader approach to literacy development that also takes into account the critical roles of motivation, confidence, writing, and linking language to children’s real life experiences. The 2012 National Education and Evaluation Unit (NEEDU) annual report found that the state of reading corners in schools “suggested general apathy and disinterest on the part of the teacher to encourage reading”.
Lack of reading culture extends into homes and communities. Only 14% of South Africans adults consider themselves active readers, and only 5% of parents read to their children. Some caregiver are illiterate, and many more lack the confidence, skills and stories to read aloud. The importance of oral storytelling, talking to children, songs and rhymes, which also support language development, are largely undervalued.
How does Nal’ibali help address these challenges?
Nal’ibali has a three-pronged approach in our response to the challenges listed above. The first prong is sourcing/producing and then distributing of a wide collection of high quality children’s stories in all South African languages. These stories reflect worlds and people that South African children can recognize. We do this through a variety means in collaboration with publishers and media partners who effectively help us distribute these reading materials into newspapers and magazines, and our stories onto national radio stations. We proudly produce stories in 13 South African languages on radio that are listened to by over 5 million people every week.
Secondly, we have a strong team of literacy mentors who work with partner organisations and activists around the nation to start and sustain reading clubs for children. Nal’ibali’s team takes adults through high energy and high quality training, which guides adults on how they can engage children around books and stories in ways that are fun, inspirational and full of laughter. There are currently just under 35 000 children in Nal’ibali reading clubs around the country, and we have trained over 6 300 adults to run these clubs.
Finally, we run a high visibility media campaign, both in traditional and digital media, designed to inform, inspire and equip adults to spark the potential of children in their immediate spaces.
“It starts with a story” – As you are well aware, illiteracy is a major concern in South Africa, with more than half of our Grade 4 learners unable to read for meaning. What has been your experience of the power of stories in helping children learn to read and love it?
I like to think of stories as the brightly colored trail of chocolate Smarties that can grab a child’s attention, are delightful when chewed on, and can lead a child to the place where you would like them to be! I’m not advocating for bribery in learning, but rather saying that engaging stories can entice children to connect with books, helping them develop a love of reading, so becoming lifelong readers and lifelong learners. A good story means a reader turns the page in order to keep reading so they will find out what happens next.
You write and publish children’s stories in multiple South African languages. What motivated you to start doing this?
Children need to learn to read in a language that they think in – in their mother tongue. If children do not have this first introduction to text, then all they are learning to do is to decode symbols.
They may learn that ‘C’ makes a sharp cracking sound, ‘A’ the sound of a short exhalation, and ’T’ the tutting of an annoyed grandparent, but this deciphering of symbol to sound does not equal a small, furry domestic companion.
That’s not to say that decoding is not important. It is in fact critical in the journey of becoming a reader. However, it is not enough. Meaning-making, comprehension, understanding – that’s what builds the links between the words, and is the prompt to what might come next.
The campaign values the power of language and cultural relevance in literacy development. For reasons relating to empowerment, pedagogy, identity and democracy, Nal’ibali fully promotes reading and writing in mother tongue languages. All children and adults need to understand what they are listening to, or reading, for it to be meaningful and enjoyable – which is crucial for raising readers.
Nal’ibali encourages everyday citizens to take action and do their part in tackling illiteracy in South Africa. Tell us more about the FUNda Leader campaign.
The most inspiring part of promoting a reading culture in South Africa is that many parents, caregivers and community-based organisations are already reading and telling stories to their children.
Nal’ibali is about recognising and respecting the power and potential of these communities in literacy development.
The FUNda Leader campaign is becoming a movement of passionate people from all walks of life and all across the country, each standing up to do their part in ensuring that all of South Africa’s children are given a better chance to succeed through the power of stories and reading. These are everyday heroes – literacy activists across the country who take time to bring stories and books to children in whatever way they can. They are the foot-soldiers who work to make reading activism a reality in South Africa.
How can other organisations, whether schools or literacy NGOs, support and be supported by Nal’ibali’s efforts?
Individuals or organisations can join the FUNda Leader movement by visiting our website www.nalibali.org. You can sign up for one day, inspirational FUNda Leader training, two-day training on how to run a reading club, or three-day train-the-trainer training for larger partners.
We will also share the 15 different ways that you can promote literacy development in your space through our FUNda Leader Kick-off Kit. Being part of the FUNda Leader network instantly connects you to over a thousand other like-minded activists who have chosen to do the same.
Nal’ibali will invite you to participate in events, will share free books and stories with you, and will help create opportunities for you to work with our team and/or with other FUNda Leaders in the network to make change happen!
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