The importance of learning to read

Musa Mkalipi

literacy1-text Some 123- million youths are illiterate and only 87% of females have basic literacy skills compared to 92% of males.

literacy2-text Literacy gives individuals knowledge of the world they reside in. It is a key factor for career opportunities.
(Images: MediaClub South Africa)

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Phakama Matoti
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The ability to read and write affects our daily lives; it affects the way we think, our income and how we fit into society. Being able to communicate through reading and writing is so important that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has set aside a day each year to draw attention to the status of literacy around the world.

“Literacy is much more than an educational priority – it is the ultimate investment in the future and the first step towards all the new forms of literacy required in the 21st century. We wish to see a century where every child is able to read and to use this skill to gain autonomy,” says Unesco director-general Irina Bokova.

The statistics are sobering: globally, 774-million adults do not know how to read or write, of whom 493-million are women. The Unesco Institute for Statistics estimates that some 123-million youths are illiterate and that only 87% of females have basic literacy skills compared to 92% of males. In South Africa, between 7.4-million and 8.5-million adults are functionally illiterate, according to UNESCO’s data. Local records show that between 2.9-million and 4.2-million people have never attended school. But there is some glimmer of hope: the South Africa government states that 160 300 students graduated in 2011, up from 144 852 in 2009 and a low 95 940 in 2001.

International Literacy Day falls on 8 September each year, and has been marked in the Unesco calendar since 1966. The intention of the day is to raise awareness and voice concerns regarding literacy around the world. This year, the theme was dedicated to literacies for the 21st century, highlighting the need to provide people with skills and lifelong learning. Literacy is a fundamental tool for the success of individuals as it opens more career opportunities, which will, in essence, improve quality of life.

South African interventions

Much is happening to improve literacy in South Africa. To celebrate International Literacy Day, the Centre for the Book, a unit of the National Library of South Africa, hosted 50 children who are members of book clubs from primary schools in Cape Town townships to an afternoon of fun and education. “The book clubs from around Cape Town held a number of activities, such as taking part in spelling bees as well as reading,” said Phakama Matoti, a project co-ordinator of the Children’s Literacy Programme at the Centre for the Book. All of the activities were taken out of the children’s book, Desert December, by Dorian Haarhoff.

International Literacy Day this year coincided with South African National Book Week, which took place from 2 to 7 September. The main events took place at Red Location Museum in New Brighton, Nelson Mandela Bay, in Eastern Cape, but there were satellite events around the country on the programme as well. Also an annual event, National Book Week emphasises the importance of reading, and urges South Africans – particularly young South Africans – to read more.

Literacy is also crucial in social and economic development. It expands knowledge and a literate person is more likely to understand and adjust in society. The Unesco Institute for Lifelong Learning runs the Family Literacy Project in southern KwaZulu-Natal. It is aimed at families as a means of addressing the low literacy achievement of many pre- and primary school children, and the parents’ lack of confidence in their ability to support these children. As the parents, or those who take on the role of parents, are the first and most important educators of children, the family literacy approach supports both adults and children.

To promote reading among young South Africans, the Fundza Literacy Trust, a non-profit organisation that provides South African reading content to get young people to read, uses the Mxit social mobile app. It publishes short stories on Mxit, which is a social messaging tool on mobile phones, reaching an average of 350 000 readers as well as a million page views each month. Fundza edits and publishes the work on its Fanz section on Mxit. The collaboration has been running since 2011 and according to Mxit, the Fundza stories are not just fun but also talk about crucial issues such as HIV/Aids, cyber bullying and more.

Another organisation that works to encourage people to read is the Readers Society of South Africa. Initiatives such as The Nalêdi Initiative focus on children, providing them with lifelong learning and creating a love and appreciation for reading, as well teaching them to be analytical and critical thinkers. There is a plethora of other initiatives around the country, both local and national.

Defining literacy

Literacy is not simply the ability to read and write, but it is the ability to use these skills. In the globalised world, literacy has become more diverse than simply being able to pick up a book and read, and understand what is being read. Today, for example, digital literacy is the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats using a computer. It is also the ability to use new media such as the internet to access information.

Media literacy is the ability to access, analyse, evaluate, and create media in a variety of forms, as defined by the Center for Media Literacy, an educational organisation devoted to promoting and supporting media literacy education. The Media Development and Diversity Agency also promotes this type of literacy. It aims to give South Africans access to diversified media as well as to create an environment for media development that caters to the needs and aspirations of all South Africans.

And then there is culture, which also plays an important role in moulding human beings. Cultural literacy is the ability to understand and appreciate other cultures. It requires a person to examine and understand the different beliefs, values and traditions of others. To be truly literate, an individual must be fluent in all these aspects of literacy.