Lack of books in SA’s homes throws spotlight on Pirls shock
No books in 43% of households with young children, according to research by Unicef
There are no books at all in 43% of SA households with young children, and just 16% of homes contain more than five books, according to research released on Monday by the UN children’s agency Unicef.
The study highlights how reading and storytelling are neglected in many households and comes hard on the heels of results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) 2021, which found 81% of SA’s grade 4 children could not read for meaning.
Reading for meaning refers to the ability to extract meaning from a section of text, and is a vital skill a child needs to acquire to progress through the school curriculum.
“Access to books and in turn reading and storytelling is critical because it sets the child up for foundational literacy in formal school,” said the deputy representative of Unicef in SA, Muriel Mafico.
“The first 1,000 days of life are when a child’s brain develops the fastest. Listening to stories and playing is an essential part of a child’s development to get the best start in life.”
The research was commissioned by Unicef and the department of basic education. It included 1,422 participants in all nine provinces from both urban and rural settings and explored the knowledge, attitudes and practices of caregivers responsible for children up to the age of six years.
It found even though 58% of households had access to some books, only 32% of caregivers reported reading regularly to young children, with many of them saying babies and toddlers under the age of two years are too young for books and play.
The department’s director for monitoring and evaluation, Stephen Taylor, said many factors affect a child’s reading development, but there is clear evidence that reading practices at home play a major role. Efforts to increase parental involvement in reading has so far yielded mostly disappointing results, he said.
“It seems difficult for government and other organisations to significantly change parent involvement in those homes where it is lacking,” he said.
The shortage of books in homes highlights the importance of making sure that early childhood development (ECD) centres and foundation phase classes are equipped with classroom libraries, said University of Stellenbosch associate professor of economics Nic Spaull.
“The department of basic education should commit to providing all ECD centres with a basic minimum package of books, and similarly all foundation phase classrooms should have a minimum 100-book library,” he said.
“Using Open Access books and printing at scale makes this goal realistic, even within current budgetary constraints.”
Breadline Africa CEO Marion Wagner said it is vital for their education that children develop a love of reading. “Every aspect of our lives is governed by literacy, from completing education and finding a job to reading the football scores.
“While it is true that books can be expensive, and in impoverished communities and families are finding it difficult to purchase basic food items, there are public libraries and nonprofits, like Breadline Africa, Book Dash and others, who are able to assist,” she said.
Having books at home plays a critical role in stimulating a hunger for reading.
“It is these first experiences of storytelling that form the foundation of a lifelong relationship with books,” she said.
Parents and caregivers have limited knowledge about the links between learning through play and positive early childhood development, the study found. They largely believe learning happens at creches or at school, and that teaching is the responsibility of teachers. Many caregivers see learning as a formal, structured activity conducted by a teacher, said the researchers.
The study found parents are using television and cellphones as an easy distraction, with 71% reporting that children use these devices frequently, said the researchers.
“The frequent use of TV for all young children from the ages of zero to six years old is very concerning, and this appears to be used as a pacifier on a regular basis,” they wrote in their preliminary findings report.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.