How to raise kids who love to read

07 May 2017

Raising kids who love to read will give them a head start in life – and it’s never too early to get going. Here’s how parents can make the magic of books come alive.

It's one of the greatest gifts you can give your children and opens the doors to learning like nothing else can. If you foster a love of reading from the get-go, they’ll always be a step ahead.

Experts agree on the matter, yet a recent study at the University of Stellenbosch painted a grim picture of the state of literacy in South African schools.

Fifty percent of Grade 4 learners don’t understand what they read and 30 percent are illiterate.

Things are even worse in the Eastern Cape where a staggering 60 percent of kids haven’t learnt to read in any language by the end of Grade 4.

The study, titled Laying Firm Foundations: Getting Reading Right, was done by the university’s economics department. It was commissioned by the government to gain insight into the national situation and aimed to discover why so many children are illiterate even after six years of formal education.

What emerged was that kids whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to former Model C or independent schools were likely to find themselves battling along in under-resourced, overcrowded schools.

The study also showed many children aren’t being exposed to enough educational stimuli during their formative years – and only 33 percent of preschool children attend early childhood education facilities.

The economic inequality in South Africa is, of course, at the root of the problem – many parents struggle just to put food on the table. Yet literacy is a key element in escaping the cycle of poverty, experts say.

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Parents play a vital role in developing literacy in their children, says Lizelle Naudé, a speech and remedial therapist and the principal of a school in Midrand, Gauteng.

“Start reading to your children before they turn one,” she advises. “You can read anything from books to magazines or even the newspaper because at that age the content isn’t important. The idea is to get your baby used to touching and turning the pages and looking at colours and pictures.

“From the age of two you need to make reading more of an active process. This means showing them the proper way to hold a book – not upside down, for instance – and showing them that we read from left to right. This increases your child’s ability to read tenfold.”

Establishing a routine of just 10 minutes’ reading time a day is invaluable to your child’s development, she adds.

Continue it after they enter the foundation phase at school, as reading stops being a priority in Grade 3 when the focus shifts to other skills such as problem- solving and application.

“You can never expose your child to too much reading,” Naudé adds. “Reading unlocks the ability to understand every other subject matter they’re taught in school.” Anel Annandale, an educational psychologist on the panel of the Mysmartkid early childhood development programme, agrees.

“The more you expose your child to reading in the early years the more extensive their learning is,” she says. “Whenever your child is exposed to a new concept or experience, a neural pathway is formed in the brain – and the earlier this pathway is formed the stronger it gets.”

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Learning to read in your mother tongue is the best foundation for literacy, says Zandi Shabangu, an education psychologist from Johannesburg. “It’s important that children first learn to speak and read in their home language,” she says.

“That way they can use it as a building block to better grasp other languages.”

Turn reading into a fun activity

Find books with interesting textures, pop-ups, squeakers or smells (such as a scratch and sniff series) for your child to explore, Annandale says.

And choose books with lots of rhyme and repetition so they can join in the fun and feel as though they’re reading with you. Discover your inner actor and become animated when you read to your child.

Pull faces, put on accents and change the pitch of your voice when reading the dialogue of different characters. Mix up the sequence of events of a story you’ve recently read and ask your child to help you remember things in the right order.

Vary the routine

Young children often gravitate to one book and ask for it every night. While this is fine, read other books too.

Enlist other family members to read to your child every now and then to provide as many new experiences as possible. Use high-frequency words when your child is learning to read. These are words such as the, we, us, it, that and are – they’re the easiest for them to learn as they appear so often.

Turn reading into a game

When out and about, get your child to call out the letters or words they recognise on billboards, on road signs or in restaurants.

In supermarkets ask them to find the aisle you’re looking for by reading the overhead signs. Write down the names of household objects on sticky notes – light, stove, kettle, bath, table, door – and put them all over your home.

Audiobooks can be fun and effective in teaching the correct pronunciation of words, Naudé says. They can also help children to understand another language if the story isn’t in their mother tongue.


The comic and TV presenter has three kids, Bonsu (7), Lesedi (4) and Afia (2). “I take reading very seriously and read with my children every day,” Tumi (34) says.

“I believe we need to teach kids that books are their friends.” Her brood have their own library at home from which they can choose what to read. “Since my eldest has reached a certain level of reading he sometimes enjoys reading to his younger siblings.”


Reading is important to the singer, who is mom to Jordan (12) and Kylie (10). She spends extra time reading with her son, who has hearing difficulties.

“Sometimes while I’m driving them around I’ll have Jordan read out loud to me in the car. I’ve also started a ritual after bath time where we all climb into my bed and I’ll have Kylie and Jordan read a story to each other.”


The 5FM DJ says reading is a priority for her. “My parents taught me it was the cornerstone of life – as long as you have something to read you’ll be okay!” S

She’s continuing the legacy with her own daughter, Pavani (5). “We’re now at the stage where she illustrates and writes her own stories which she reads to me.” Sureshnie (38) also regularly takes her daughter to their local library.

-- Mabale Moloi

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