Here’s a piece of common sense familiar to most of us adults (well, at least those of us who have ever watched an episode of the Dr Phil show on TV): you can’t keep doing the same thing continuously and expect to get different results. So, if you’re faced with a huge challenge like improving literacy levels in South Africa, you clearly can’t be doing ‘more of the same’. Yet, in response to what is called a ‘literacy crisis’ in the country, that is exactly what we seem to do over and over again: we look at the results schools’ produce over a couple of years, then, dissatisfied with these (as we should be), we revise the school curriculum and, as a result, change what teachers are required to teach, provide them with some new resources to do this and then increase the number of times in a year that we assess children’s progress … and that’s where it ends!
Now imagine what learning to read is like for most six-year-olds in South Africa. It must be so hard trying to learn how to unlock the meaning in the words on the pages of your school reader when you have very little or no experience of the power of reading, so you don’t even know that the words carry meaning! (It’s a bit like trying to learn to name and describe the function of a clutch, accelerator and foot brake when you’ve never experienced travelling in a car or seen one in operation.) How can you know how this ‘reading thing’ works if no one has ever demonstrated this by reading aloud to you – by providing you with an opportunity to discover first-hand the satisfaction to be gained from reading.
The intellectual gains from being read to from an early age are well-known: it helps expand children’s ability to use language and develops their thinking. But, perhaps even more importantly than this, as we read young children the kinds of stories that make their hearts sing and their spirits soar, they learn to associate reading with pleasure and satisfaction. And so, they are intrinsically motivated to learn to read because they know that reading is a meaningful and powerful activity. Why wouldn’t they want to learn to read and then keep reading so that they get better and better at it?
Here’s what’s really odd: we have access to numerous research studies from around the world that show that reading aloud to children is critical to their success as readers (and therefore to educational achievement) but we have a schooling system that does not include the reading aloud of ‘real’ books (as opposed to instructional devices like textbooks and readers) as a built-in focus of the curriculum? And wouldn’t you think, if you knew that reading aloud to children had the potential to turn them into lifelong readers, you would insist on spending less time expecting children to read aloud to teachers and parents as a means of checking their progress and more time making sure that children are read to? All it really takes is 15 minutes every day and some great picture books and novels. Of course, you can read aloud to children for much longer but this is all you have to do to make a profound difference in their lives. And then imagine this scenario: your children come home from school with books they have selected to read and they tell you that their homework is to spend 15 minutes sharing the books with you! How much better would that be for everyone than 15 minutes of phonics practice per day?
So, perhaps as people who have a vested interest in South Africa’s future, we should be insisting that provision is made in our schools for teachers to read a story or stories to children – whether they are in Grade R or matric – for a minimum of 15 minutes every day. If such a small action has the potential to have such a profound effect, why is this not already part of the formal school curriculum? Well, that would be because we keep doing ‘more of the same’ in the hope that things will improve instead of looking at what other possibilities for change exist.
Arabella Koopman is the Content Manager for PRAESA’s Nal’ibali Reading-for-Enjoyment Campaign.