A book can change a nation

2017-12-17 06:12

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Where will you be in 10 years? Whether it’s growing a business or raising a family, we all make plans for our future. Yet our future selves are either enabled or limited by our broader context. So, what is our national context in a generation?

Results from a global literacy study released last week paint a devastating picture. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), which assesses children’s reading comprehension, has placed South African children last out of 50 countries.

According to the statistics, 78% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for basic meaning in any national language. In other words, eight out of 10 of the country’s nine-year-olds are functionally illiterate.

This survey presents the socioeconomic equivalent of Cape Town’s taps running dry on Day Zero. Simply put, it’s the most urgent wake-up call our country has had about what our future looks like, and we need to respond accordingly.

There’s a reason Pirls tested Grade 4s. The age is a tipping point: if a child remains functionally illiterate at age nine, there is a strong correlation to them remaining so, which in turn leads to an inevitably steep school dropout shelf.

A 78% illiteracy rate in Grade 4 means the next generation will enter the workforce without the basic skills needed to raise themselves out of poverty. It means a generation without the capacity to learn, to teach, to lead. More alarmingly, it means a generation unable to pass along literacy to their own children, exacerbating the situation with every passing year.

In the US, there is an alarmingly precise correlation between the number of illiterate Grade 3 boys and future incarceration statistics (the US, for reference, scored just 4% on the Pirls survey). In South Africa, boys have fallen behind to such an extent that they are now a full year of learning behind girls of the same age – the second-highest gender gap in the world.

The Pirls survey attempted to quantify social inhibitors to education, such as bullying among peers.

We are also world leaders there, with 42% of South African Grade 4s experiencing bullying weekly (by comparison, 15% of children reported the same experience in the US and UK).

What kind of future can we build when our children cannot build empathy?

Change can happen

Government is putting urgent plans in place to secure our resources: sustainable water, electricity supply and so on. We all weigh in on these because South Africans care about what our country looks like and we’re willing to make a noise when we feel a lack of leadership on these matters.

Where is the noise here?

If literacy is everybody’s problem, then it’s also everybody’s solution. These results need to be the rallying call to the heart of our nation.

The good news – and there is much of it – is that change can happen. After all, Japan and, more recently, Chile, turned around their literacy rates by simply making it a holistic national priority.

But how do we start with a similar approach in South Africa? Take heart that many of us began a long time ago. NGOs have determinedly been stepping up to the plate, introducing and quietly maintaining extraordinary, effective, and targeted initiatives to support literacy development across the country.

Nal’ibali, for example, operates countrywide to spark children’s potential. It creates opportunities for children to fall in love with books and stories in their home languages as well as in English. Research proves that regular reading and a strong foundation of language in children’s mother tongues are two of the most significant indicators of future academic success – even more so than socioeconomic status. That’s food for thought in a country where the poverty trap seems inescapable.

We are hardly tackling this problem alone – it takes a nation to nurture a reading culture and Nal’ibali works hand-in-hand with hundreds of partners. Together we’ve seen extraordinary successes in our five years of operation. We are fighting the odds and winning; helping to root a culture of reading in South Africa by immersing children, caregivers, and communities in great and well-told stories in relaxed and meaningful ways, rather than focusing on the mechanical literacy instruction so common in the classroom.

We are weaving a web of support and creative solutions that, given enough backing, will catch our learners when they fall through the cracks of the formal education system. Just imagine what we could do if our work was amplified and enthusiastically championed across the country! It’s time for us to join forces.

Those who can’t help in financial or practical terms, can still play a vital part, simply by picking up a book. Reading or giving a good book to one child may feel like a tiny act, but the ramifications of these small, everyday actions can have startling consequences.

Stories teach us at a linguistic level – the basic vocabulary, spelling and grammar pour in unconsciously. But stories also teach us at a human level – they help us to imagine worlds and possibilities different to the ones we are currently experiencing.

In South Africa, right now, that’s surely a talent that every one of us needs to learn to develop.

- Jacobsohn is managing director at Nal’ibali.

Visit nalibali.org and nalibali.mobi, or find them on Facebook and on Twitter @nalibaliSA

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