As a little boy, I was surrounded by words, by stories. Mom read to me; so did Dad, family friends, and relatives — introducing me to the vivid worlds of Richard Scarry, Dr Seuss, and many others.
Later, in my first years of school, my favourite period was library. Once we’d chosen new books to take out, we’d sit down in front of our school librarian and she would read to us. That weekly half an hour was both a soothing sanctuary and a thrilling escape from the often bewildering world of primary school.
While not everyone who is read to as a child ends up being a writer, it’s unlikely I would’ve ended up as one if I hadn’t been. Those storybooks gave me a profound sense of the transformative power of words. They nurtured in me a sense of curiosity — a desire to get to grips with other places, people, and perspectives — that remains insatiable to this day. As we turned the pages together, I had the exhilarating sense anything was possible; that the only limits were the ones imposed by my imagination.
My childhood experience is an anomaly, however. One estimate has put the number of South African parents who read to their kids at 5%. In the US, things are a little better: 48% of kids are read to each day, with 46% of kids between 0 and 5 being read to fewer than five days a week (according to research cited by the Read Aloud 15 MINUTES National Campaign). But even this, it’s clear, isn’t good enough.
So why’s it so important?
Firstly, vocabulary. Research suggests that 20 minutes of reading a day exposes a child to roughly 1.8 million written words a year. The more words they hear, the greater the headstart they have when they begin school, and the more likely they are to improve in literacy when they get there.
Reading out loud to kids stimulates their curiosity and fires up their imagination. Unlike watching TV, where the child is a passive consumer, she is required to be an active participant — she needs to exercise her imagination to fully realise the story that is being read. Reading out loud to kids has also been shown to support longer attention spans (unlike TV, which shrinks them), improve comprehension skills (especially when they are asked to retell the story), and promotes bonding between parent and child.
It’s little wonder that in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially advised its 62 000 member doctors to encourage parents to read out loud to their young kids. In their guide to raising readers, New York Times book editor Pamela Paul and the paper’s children’s book editor, Maria Russo, write: “Studies have shown that people, especially children, absorb and retain stories better when they read them in print.” They cite another reason to choose a paper book over digital diversion: “At night,” they say, “screen time is known to interfere with melatonin cycles, which makes it harder to fall asleep.”
There are a number of initiatives in South Africa that support children’s reading. Most of these place a big emphasis on reading for pleasure, in many cases with books that are in the children’s mother tongue.
- Among the largest is Nal’ibali (nalibali.org), a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign that distributes stories and reading materials in a supplement that appears in various Tiso Blackstar Group publications around the country. Nal’ibali also supports reading clubs and offers training for volunteers helping kids to read.
- Book Dash (bookdash.org) has hosted events bringing together writers, illustrators, and designers to work for 12 hours to produce story books from scratch that are then printed cheaply and donated to kids and libraries. So far, an incredible 150 000 books have been distributed; Book Dash’s mission is to hand out 600-million of them — so that each child in South Africa is able to own 100 books by the age of five.
- Proceeds from ticket sales at the Franschhoek Literary Festival go to the festival’s Library Fund, which has donated thousands of books (in isiXhosa, Afrikaans and English) to schools and crèches in Franschhoek valley. The fund also employs a roving librarian who works alongside four library assistants — one in each primary school.
- Shine Literacy provides weekly one-on-one reading sessions with 4 500 grade 2 and 3 learners in dozens of schools across the country. Help2read offers kids one-on-one reading lessons and also supports literacy tutors in township schools, focusing on Gauteng and the Western Cape. Read to Rise conducts reading workshops in schools and libraries, and also provides schools with mini-libraries, containing 50 age-appropriate books in different languages.
But, no matter where you live in the world, you can play a part in making sure kids are read to, have books, and learn to love reading for reading’s sake — whether it’s by buying books, volunteering at a school, or, if you have kids of your own, making sure there’s time each day for a few pages of a storybook.
The rewards are immense: by doing so you’re helping nurture a future generation’s curiosity, tolerance, empathy, imagination, and creativity. In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, we need all those qualities more than ever.