LifestyleWelcome to the South African National Book Week!

Ida MwangiFebruary 4, 202365114 min

Source: South African Book Development Council

The National Book Week (NBW) South Africa going to be running from 7th-13th September under the theme “Passport to Tomorrow”, strategic in symbolizing NBW’s step into a new decade of promoting leisure reading and books. Being the most cherished reading awareness week, it’s almost so certain that there are lots of eager readers out there waiting for it. This year is different, and so is the decade NBW is walking into. South Africa is fast becoming a bi-literate society (as is the rest of the world), one that likes to read printed books but is also consuming content via digital devices. Therefore, even though necessitated by the global coronavirus pandemic, an online book week is a good manoeuvre into this whole new spectrum.

Digital content and to-do-activities will be presented virtually on NBW’s Facebook page, that is, programme includes reading-related activities, storytelling, poetry sessions, writing workshops, play-based learning and motivational talks in all South African languages; but 2020 comes with more surprises like magic shows and puppet making workshops. There’ll definitely be new participants this year owing to those additions. A segment on Stories from Africa led by the multi-talented Gcina Mhlophe is also being introduced. With NBW now virtual, people from around the world will be able to watch the legendary storyteller perform. I’m really starting to consider attending too.

The National Book Week (NBW) is an initiative of the South African Book Development Council (SABDC), in partnership with the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture. Launched in 2010 in response to a study commissioned by the SABDC into the book reading habits of adult South Africans, it is an important initiative in encouraging the nation to value reading as a fun and pleasurable activity, and to showcase how reading can easily be incorporated into one’s daily lifestyle.

How can we nurture a culture of reading in South Africa?

Source: South African Book Fair

Elitha van der Sandt, CEO of the South African Book Development Council, continues to pose this question in a bid to reverse the saddening statistics that led to the establishment of NBW.

The results of the 2017 General Household Survey (GHS) by Stats SA showed that nearly half (47.6%) of children never read a book. According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) study , 78% of South African grade four pupils could not read and understand sentences in any language, the sample representing learners from all the different languages and from all provinces in the country. A case of two potential problems; the challenge of accessing a book to read, and the graver one of having the ability to read a book.

A New Approach to a Reading Culture is Needed in South Africa

Source: Getty images,

These two burning issues point to a truth shone light on by numerous articles and research publications and reveal what little progress has been made in salvaging the reading situation.

Several strategies for improvement have been proposed and implemented, with a majority of them promoting a culture of reading in schools, and a few others placing a focus on encouraging parents to read to their children.

All this is good and worthwhile, but it comes with the assumption that the parties involved know how to read. A child will only benefit from better access to libraries if they can be able to read for meaning; otherwise, what motivation do they have to visit that library?

There can be no debate that the primary responsibility for teaching learners to read remains in the school system, else schools would not be so essential. A PIRLS study shows evidence of the failure of teacher education programmes, on their part, to produce graduates sufficiently equipped to teach reading.

Evaluations of foundation phase learners conducted by READ indicate poor development of vocabulary, in both the home language other than English as well as in English. Reading fluency is non-existent with most learners reading a few words correctly with much effort, and reading comprehension is poor. The evaluation found that at the beginning of an academic year more than 70% of the learners are at risk of not progressing to the next grade unless they receive focused, one-on-one support in developing their language skills.

Bertus Matthee, National Director, READ Educational Trust, is keen to point out the need for taking reading instruction out of the classroom. The curriculum does not allow for enough reading time in school so that sufficient reading practice and development take place, which is why making reading part of one’s lifestyle is becoming so crucial.

A further detrimental factor in improving reading in the classroom is the range of reading skills in one classroom. About 20% of Grade 4 learners still cannot match letters and sounds (phonics, which is a skill that should be mastered by Grade 1). Nearly half of the learners struggle to read words correctly and cannot make meaning of the words that they have correctly deciphered. Yet, there are the one or two learners that can read 140 words per minute, which is comparable to international Grade 4 requirements.

To address the lack of focussed reading in schools, says Bertus, the introduction of a Reading Teacher in our schools may be the answer. The Reading Teacher will assist the school’s language teachers to develop and improve the reading skills to the level where they are on-par with the grade requirement. After all, the tragedy of education is played in two scenes – incompetent pupils facing competent teachers and incompetent teachers facing competent pupils (and I’m afraid the South African issue may not even fall under any of Fischer’s brackets).

This kind of programme will not only improve the reading skills of learners, but also their broader academic achievement as they read faster, with more understanding and with the concentration span to read for longer periods of time. Even better, well-equipped language teachers will mean an ever-growing generation of able readers.

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Reading needs to be prioritised in our schools, homes and communities to encompass the needs of every South African child. Who knows, one day the rest of the world’s children might borrow a leaf. For now, let’s just mark our calendars for the greatly adored book week. An investment into a reading culture is always worth every effort.

Ida Mwangi

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