Monday, 17 November 2014

The reading divide

Lately I've been reading Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain and she begins by touching on a big socio-cultural divide between those children who were read to before the age of five and those who were not. She calls it a "little-discussed class system" and refers to a study that found a gap of 32 million words between children from print-rich homes and print-poor homes in children of kindergarten age. She's very right of course, it does create a type of class divide which plays itself out in academic achievement and ultimately future opportunities.

I know that this is an international problem, but in a South African context, the divide is even more stark. We have the double problem of homes where parents (or often grannies who are the primary caregivers) are functionally illiterate and, perhaps more problematic, a population that places little emphasis on the written word; South Africa really lacks a culture of reading. The The South African Book Development Council (2012) estimates that only 1% of South Africans are regular buyers of books and only 14% can be considered "committed" readers (of a literacy rate of 88.7%). 

I strongly believe that this reading gap in the early years perpetuates an already very divided education system. The sad reality is that by the time that a child from a print-poor background enters school (through the now compulsory kindergarten year) it is already too late. They are already at a disadvantage. As Wolf writes: 
"Children who begin kindergarten having heard and used thousands of words, whose meanings are already understood, classified, and stored away in their young brains, have the advantage on the playing field of education. Children who never have a story read to them, who never hear words that rhyme, who never imagine fighting with dragons or marrying a prince, have the odds overwhelmingly against them."
 I think part of the problem is that for many, reading is associated with school and learning, and not necessarily fun which adds to a self-perpetuating and downward spiraling cycle of reading. The result is two-fold: firstly because reading isn't viewed as pleasurable, it becomes a chore (for example homework for older kids in the family) and watching TV is what families do to relax. Secondly, while the importance of reading may be acknowledged, it is often seen as belonging in the domain of schools and teachers, which means that for many children their first real interactions with books begin in school. Besides being too late, so many South African schools do not have a functional, let alone inviting, library that will inspire a love of reading.

And so the reading divide continues...

Old work photos I took of various rural and township schools and their libraries in KwaZulu-Natal


  1. Nicole, this is so thought provoking. Here (in the UK) we have Bookstart -- an initiative that delivers two packs of free books to all children, one in their first year & one when they're between 3 & 4. Catalyst funding of 20% from govt leverages 80% funding from publishers. Their (independently conducted) research show that for every £1 of govt investment there is a return of £25 of social benefit. The book packs come direct to families through healthcare professionals, librarians or teachers, and they also include information about the importance of reading to your kids & tips for making it fun. So when my son's teacher came to meet him on a home visit before he started reception (4 to 5 years) in Sept, she brought the books as a 'present' for him. All this just to say that this is one way of getting books into homes early on & emphasising reading to even very young children as being key to their development. Proust & the Squid sounds fascinating -- definitely going on my wish list. And those photos: just such a reminder of what a book-rich environment our own children are in & how little it would take to help others have the same opportunities. (Okay, I've burnt my kid's fishfingers & set the smoke detector off -- time to stop!)

    1. Thanks for your comment - it's always interesting to hear what happens in other countries and how reading (especially in the early years) is viewed. What you describe sounds fantastic. That would be a great way to get whole families involved and engaged in reading! In South Africa there are a couple of such initiatives (mostly from the non-profit sector) but they are far too few and can't reach the numbers. The school library situation in most schools is very poor (as you can see from those photos), often it's hard to even describe them as libraries, which is sad.

  2. Great post. Here in Edmonton our library has a Welcome Baby program with free books, library card, and literacy material. Parents get it at their 2 month immunization appointments so it's super convenient and gets them into the library. I'm doing a little fundraising for them this month. We're so fortunate here to have great libraries!

    1. Wow, that is so great! It's wonderful to hear that reading is promoted from such a young age. We have such a long way to go here...



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