Mobilising: Children who attend the Smiley Kids preprimary school in Walmer, Port Elizabeth, celebrate World Read Aloud Day in this file photograph. The annual event is aimed at drawing attention to the importance of reading aloud and sharing stories. Picture: FREDLIN ADRIAAN
Mobilising: Children who attend the Smiley Kids preprimary school in Walmer, Port Elizabeth, celebrate World Read Aloud Day in this file photograph. The annual event is aimed at drawing attention to the importance of reading aloud and sharing stories. Picture: FREDLIN ADRIAAN

February 1 commemorated two important dates, Exclusive Books’s GM for marketing, Ben Williams, told a crowd in Rosebank that evening. It was the first day of the Language Activism campaign, a month-long initiative established by the Pan-South African Language Board to "elevate the status of indigenous languages". It was also Harry Potter Book Night, when children descended on bookstores globally dressed as their favourite character from the best-selling novel series.

The Harry Potter books have sold more than 500-million copies worldwide and have been translated into about 80 languages, including Ancient Greek. Although Africa is home to more than 1,500 languages, the series had been translated into only one of them, said Williams: Afrikaans.

"This is the size of the problem we must address. We cannot sell what does not exist," he added.

World Read Aloud Day is on February 16.

"[This] is the best intervention you can have for your children," Williams said.

"It develops cognitive capacities that other activities cannot match. But most South African homes have fewer than 10 books in them," he added.

Illiteracy and the inability to read with comprehension are widespread in the country. The issue of children’s reading abilities and habits taps into a nexus of problems: from the terminology of indigenous languages and teaching quality in schools to the availability of materials and the home situation of children. The 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) results, published in 2017, paint a very worrying picture of South African children’s literacy.

The study aims to "monitor learner reading and comprehension" and has "assessed fourth year [grade 4] reading comprehension in over 60 countries since 2001", according to its report.

The researchers assessed 12,810 grade 4 pupils in their home language, which included participants who spoke all 11 official languages. About 70% of those pupils were tested in their mother tongue. Only one in five of children tested met the international benchmark for literacy and comprehension.

"Being able to read is the key to academic and future success," Celeste Combrinck, acting director at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, said when the report was unveiled in December 2017. "If you can’t read, your opportunities in school or after school will be limited, which is why reading should start at a very young age."

Over the decade that SA has participated in the Pirls, girls’ performance has improved slightly, while boy pupils’ reading abilities have declined. IsiZulu-speaking children showed the greatest improvement in reading comprehension.

More than 319,000 pupils from 50 countries participated in Pirls 2016, and SA came 50th in terms of grade 4 reading comprehension. At the launch of Language Activism month in Johannesburg, Prof Sarah Howie, co-ordinator of Pirls in SA, said: "Fiftieth out of 50 countries; if it [were] soccer, there would be national mourning."

Howie, who used to head the Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, became involved in the project during her PhD in which she "was asking why are children doing badly in mathematics, and not just mathematics but also science".

"The common factor was language. I discovered there was an impact of how well children could read and how well they were doing in mathematics," she said. "We have to mobilise, we have to get people reading," she said.

Learning to read is something that starts at home, but that is often an economic issue.

"More than 50% of homes have fewer than 10 books, and those books in the home would be religious books," Howie said.

"Poorer children won’t have access to libraries, and only 38% of our schools have libraries. About half the classrooms have classroom libraries.

"Where do children go, where do parents go, if there are not books in schools?"

Libraries are feeling the fiscal pinch. The Daily Dispatch reported in November that the Eastern Cape was closing 15 of its 203 public libraries, with rural areas disproportionately affected. The province is one of the country’s poorest and also one of the worst performers in terms of Pirls and pupils’ maths and science abilities.

Another huge issue is access to books in indigenous languages. Naledi Moleo, an SAfm talk show host who moderated a panel discussion on the country’s reading crisis at the Johannesburg launch of Language Activism month, said: "Our children now barely speak their own indigenous languages, let alone read them. There are black African families that are more than happy to have their children speak only English."

Pan-South African Language Board CEO Rakwena Monareng denies that the problem facing translation is terminology.

"It is a farce that African languages are not scientific, that they do not have the [terminology]," he said.

Monareng points to the dictionaries developed by the South African National Lexicography Units. The board and the National Lexicography Units have also launched picture dictionaries for grade 1 to 3 pupils.

However, experts say that indigenous languages require more funding and support to create standardised terminology in specialist fields.

A question from the audience highlighted that reading starts with parents, but there is a dearth of books in indigenous languages for parents who only speak them.

"There is nothing that is written for the adult population beyond school," he said. "The only thing written for adults is the Bible and only the Bible.

"There is nothing for black people. People want to read but don’t have anything to read. And kids grow up in an environment where there is no reading."

Williams acknowledged that there is demand for adult books in languages other than English and Afrikaans. "But whether the money is there is another issue because books are expensive."

He suggested that books could be published in a cheaper paperback format, which could make them more accessible. The demand is there. "The struggle is how to fund it."