March 2022

The recent launch of the 2030 Reading Panel has renewed interest in the reading abilities of young South Africans. The goal, as outlined by the panel, is to ensure that by 2030 all South African children aged 10 can read for meaning in their home language and English. One would be hard-pressed to find members of the public who did not support the goal of ensuring that children are able to read for meaning. But what are the implications of children being able to read for meaning by 2030?


According to the 2022 Background Report for the 2030 Reading Panel, reading for meaning is the ability to “locate and retrieve explicitly stated information in a simple and easy text” (page 1) and later it is described as the “skill of being able to accurately and quickly match the sounds in spoken language with the print on the page” (page 5). While these are crucial skills, this is an inadequate conceptualisation of reading for meaning. As with most debates around literacy, there is a spectrum of understanding around this issue that ranges from a highly technicist approach to an approach that is deeply embedded in sociocultural framing. Despite these differing ideological approaches, few people involved in literacy education would be satisfied with a reductionist understanding of what it is to read for meaning.


Let us imagine a scenario in which we are on the way to reaching the 2030 goal. Once we have a group of children who are proficient readers and who love reading, we will need material for them to read. The road to reading proficiency depends on exposure to and the use of reading material of all kinds. There is an entire infrastructure set up to ensure that English-speaking (and Afrikaans-speaking) children can read for meaning, at all levels. The lack of literature available in African languages for the developing reader through to young adult fiction is profound. We need books, in all languages, available to children from birth, not only from when children can read. Who will write and publish these books, in our languages? A strong contingent of writers, publishers and creatives is needed, ranging from small, niche publishing houses to large commercial operators. This simply does not exist. As the esteemed writers who took part in the panel discussion at LITASA’s 2020 conference highlighted, there is little money in the work. It is done out of love. 


The recent closure of the South African Book Development Council seems at odds with the urgency around reading expressed by the Reading Panel. How is it that a high-level panel on reading skills amongst South Africa’s youngest citizens has been constituted, just as the body established to represent the South African book sector - to develop and protect writers and publishers, whilst providing strategic vision for the book sector - has been forced to close due to lack of consistent financial support?


If equal attention is not given to the creation of the materials that contribute to all South African children being able to read for meaning by 2030, as is being given to the school-based instruction that leads to this goal, then we have misunderstood the reading ecosystem. 


Being a competent reader does not immediately engender a love of reading. Along with the technical skills related to reading, children need positive attitudes towards reading modelled to them, along with time to read on their own and opportunities to choose reading materials based on their personal interests. Indeed, reading must start in the home from early on, through storytelling, songs and rhymes. What is needed is clear and consistent messaging, inside and outside the classroom, that promotes reading as a leisure activity and reinforces the idea that reading is something we can do for the sheer joy of it.


Developing a culture of reading in the country will increase demand for reading material. Given the economic state of South Africa, and the lack of disposable income amongst the vast majority of the nation’s citizens, access to free or low-cost reading materials will be the only way to meet demand. Our thoughts naturally turn to libraries as the source of those materials. However, as a recent Daily Maverick article outlines, school libraries are beset with infrastructure and resourcing challenges, while community libraries are experiencing budget cuts and, in some cases, closure. 


South Africa boasts many wonderful organisations already generating high quality texts using alternative publishing models that ensure resources are free (or almost free) to the end user. The work of Nal’ibali, Book Dash, Molteno and Wordworks naturally comes to mind. The focus in recent years has been on texts for early readers though. Organisations such as FunDza, the 2021 recipient of LITASA’s Significant Contribution to Literacy award, have done commendable work in producing resources for teenagers and young adults, simultaneously ensuring future growth by developing writers from within their network of readers. Reading materials across languages and age groups will be needed as the cohort of proficient readers matures into young adults – a practice which is not currently happening due to the significant focus on early grade reading and bias towards English in later grades.


Perhaps digital reading resources would provide a solution to accessing low-cost reading resources. Here, too, we are stumped. The cost of mobile data prohibits extensive use of digital resources and telecommunications companies are notoriously selective about zero-rating websites, even educational ones. There are however some organisations such as Nal'ibali whose websites are zero-rated. These organisations are to be commended for the significant effort made to ensure that their websites are zero-rated.


Does the Reading Panel intend to track whether all children can read for meaning by 2030 at school, because school is the only place where they have access to (limited) reading resources? If we continue to foreground school-based literacy practices as the only legitimate form of literacy, this perpetuates the divide between home and school literacies and does little to develop a culture of reading in society generally.


On the issue of school-based literacy instruction, teachers who have been specifically trained to teach reading in a range of languages are required. Those working in education are aware of the challenges around preservice teacher training programmes that do not adequately prepare teachers to teach reading. Furthermore, targeted programmes to support teachers with struggling readers in grades other than the Foundation Phase are virtually non-existent. Literacy development in content areas such as Mathematics and Natural Sciences has received limited attention. 


If we find ourselves with a cohort of children who are proficient readers by the end of the Foundation Phase, they will be capable of much more than CAPS currently expects of them. Will this require a shift in the curriculum or prescribed content to a wider range of longer, more complex texts? A more accomplished cohort of learners will also require teachers with skills to select and use multiple resources in meaningful ways. Shared textbooks will no longer be good enough. As we move increasingly into the digital age, the ability to integrate Open Educational Resources (OERs) into lessons, and to assess the quality of OERs, becomes increasingly important. How will teachers be supported to make this transition? And will they be supplied with multiple resources to choose from, including digital resources, for use in their classrooms? 


Finally, we must ask if the Reading Panel intends to track the ability of English and Afrikaans-speaking children in former Model C schools and private schools to read for meaning in at least one African language. The National Development Plan lays out the need for all South Africans to communicate in at least one indigenous language, in the interests of social cohesion. It seems reasonable to expect a fair distribution of this expectation in terms of reading as well.


Ultimately, we need to decentre English and Afrikaans, when the majority of our children in South Africa are African-language speaking. If we speak about tracking reading for meaning, all languages must be given parity. At LITASA, we support the equality of languages in literacy. We also support additive approaches to multilingualism. The shift to English as the language of instruction in Grade 4 is not policy, it is practice. This convention is part of the reason our children are not able to acquire proficiency in either their home language or English. Home language instruction has to be supported beyond the Foundation Phase. Therefore we need teachers who able to teach these languages, through these languages, in the higher grades, with appropriate and supportive reading material.


LITASA welcomes any initiative that promotes literacy development in South Africa, such as the 2030 Reading Panel. We simply ask that reading be viewed as part of the literacy ecosystem, and that initiatives supporting reading development fit alongside other initiatives that ensure success in reading. In so doing, we ensure a society in which all South Africans are literate and able to reach their full potential.