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World Read Aloud Day: It’s imperative that we embrace literacy in 2021

File photo: Gracious Angels pre-primary school grade R pupils, Khensani Khoza and Tsholofelo Inwina read during the City of Tshwane's annual Born to Read campaign held at Olievenhoutbosch community Library. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency(ANA)

File photo: Gracious Angels pre-primary school grade R pupils, Khensani Khoza and Tsholofelo Inwina read during the City of Tshwane's annual Born to Read campaign held at Olievenhoutbosch community Library. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Feb 3, 2021

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By Zah’Rah Khan

South African children, along with their global counterparts in 66 countries, will once again immerse themselves in a world of new words, interesting characters and gripping plots on World Read Aloud Day (Feb 3).

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Presented by global literacy non-profit LitWorld and sponsored by Scholastic, the annual literacy celebration advocates for greater access to literacy through diverse stories, as well as the power of reading aloud.

This has shown to have an immense impact on the academic and cognitive development of a child, and as suggested by a recent national survey of 4 517 public school educators in the US*, their social-emotional well-being too.

In her analysis of that survey, author and literacy expert Pam Allyn stated that “…many students grapple with new routines and rituals during distance learning, or physical separations in their classrooms due to Covid-19 constraints, the benefits [of reading] are particularly poignant, profound, and powerful for the mind and spirit.’’

On a global scale, the pandemic has underscored the importance of reading and literacy. The World Literacy Foundation believes that reading will help learners remain in touch with their learning until formal education systems are able to make a full recovery.

During this tumultuous time, where the risk of learners becoming disengaged from or wholly deprived of their education is greater than ever, reading potentially mitigates these effects.

The question that begs to be answered now is this: how do we ensure that children in South Africa can learn to be literate in their homes, communities and places of formal education during and beyond the pandemic?

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Of paramount importance to the literacy discussion in South Africa is the oft-cited Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) statistic that states that eight out of 10 Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning in English or their home language.

It was in light of this hard-hitting fact that President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his 2019 State of the Nation Address, called for a new social compact to tackle the abysmal literacy rates. The shared goal was to ensure that every 10-year-old would be able to read for meaning.

For leadership and education non-profit, Symphonia for South Africa, literacy celebration days, programmes and general efforts to get all children in South Africa reading, matter, as these endeavours align with its mission to mobilise active citizenship around education and literacy. The adage, ’It takes a village to raise a child’ rings true in this case.

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Symphonia for SA’s premise for literacy improvement is simple.

By mobilising the village, that is, the adults who wield direct influence over the educational future of our children such as school principals and teachers, as well as parents and other interested parties, the human and social capital needed to tackle the critically important issue of literacy in the first thousand days of each child’s life can be created.

An example of this mobilisation was initiated by Ridwan Samodien, co-founder of Symphonia for SA’s flagship leadership development and principal support programme, Partners for Possibility (PfP), and principal of its nexus school, Kannemeyer Primary. The 2020 edition of World Read Aloud Day was the perfect opportunity to foster a culture of reading at his school.

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With the help of parents, teachers and other staff, the school launched a year-long reading competition to encourage a love for reading - and ultimately reading with understanding. The challenge was incentivised: whoever read the most books by the end of the year would win R500.

Samodien reported that learners from all the grades participated. The children were paired as ‘reading buddies’, with Grade 7s reading to Grade Rs, Grade 6s to Grade 1s, Grade 5s to Grade 3s and Grade 4s to Grade 2s.

In the spirit of paying it forward, prominent alumni and partners of Kannemeyer Primary participated in a mini billboard initiative, which featured a quote on the importance of reading from each person.

These billboards still adorn the corridors of the school. Former head boy, Lester Kiewit, now CapeTalk show host and journalist, was also invited to read aloud to the learners. He is now Kannemeyer’s patron of literacy, making the school one of the first to have its very own patron.

It is manifestly clear that literacy offers an escape from poverty by directly contributing to growth and by increasing equity and social justice. The barriers to literacy must be carefully considered and systematically addressed – lest we further deepen the chasm between rich and poor.

* Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report: 2nd Edition, a national survey of 4,517 public school Pre-K–12 educators, conducted by YouGov, focuses on critical issues affecting schools and districts across the USA.

Zah’Rah Khan heads up the editorial team at Symphonia for South Africa. Her focus areas are education, politics, law and research.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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