ne in four Swedish 15-year-olds could not read a simple text. This statistical finding dominated headlines for two months and shocked the small Nordic nation last year.
It was dubbed the “Pisa shock” and came in response to the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), an annual standardised test that evaluates 510 000 15-year-old students in 65 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries worldwide. A few years earlier, Sweden had ranked on top of the Nordic countries for reading and comprehension. Now they had slipped to the bottom.
For a country used to being the best at almost everything they did, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Where did it all go wrong?
According to Sweden’s reading ambassador, Johanna Lindbäck, Swedish people seemed to have the attitude that they were brilliant at everything already, so it was taken for granted that their children would be brilliant readers. “Sweden still thinks we’re a nation that can read very well. We don’t have to work hard. [Being poor readers] is a new identity for us. We do have to work hard.”
To give the Swedes credit, since the poor results last year, the country has undertaken mass campaigns to get kids to start reading again. Already, sales of books for ages six to 12 have gone up as parents commit to reading to their children again.
During a recent trip to Sweden for the 70th Anniversary of the Swedish children’s book heroine Pippi Longstocking, I learnt about the Pisa shock and met with several organisations that were addressing the problem.
In South Africa, we are struggling simply to get books (especially those in any of the 11 official languages that aren’t English or Afrikaans) to our poorest and most disadvantaged children, and kids suffer in their learning because of ill-equipped schools and undertrained teachers. Still, there is a lot to learn from Sweden to instil a thirst for, and love of, books in our youth.
Get kids to the library
I had the privilege of visiting Stockholm’s Kulturhuset (The House of Culture), and here they’re doing more than just lending books.
It houses six separate libraries – from the Rum för Barn (Room for Children), which is meant especially for youngsters, to spaces specifically for preteens, young adults and adults. Teens can do anything here from booking time in a recording studio to silk-screen printing a T-shirt, making jewellery, filming their own productions against a green screen and debating around a cup of tea in the library kitchen (built because everyone always ends up talking in the kitchen).
The idea is to make the library a space so full of activities and fun that it’s a regular stop for the youth. In the process, they might even pick up a book and decide to read it.
In South Africa we don’t seem to put much stock in libraries. According to a recent article in the Sunday Independent by Sipho J Mabaso, the Johannesburg City Library is falling apart. “At night, the doors are a headboard for homeless folk. The escalators cannot be called clean, bookshelves are largely empty and at one time there were no newspapers, as the city had not paid the suppliers.”
We need libraries, and good ones. In remote areas, we need libraries that are easy to access, are welcoming instead of foreboding, offer services beyond just lending books and have reading material that isn’t written only in English. Without proper libraries, how will we foster a love of reading in our population?
Reading and soccer collide
In Sweden, kids have so much on offer to them that time spent reading has to compete with a host of other activities, chief among them the national sport: football.
I met a culture coach and other representatives from the football team Östersunds FK, which plays in the second-highest division, which are actively working to promote reading among the youth.
Their organisation, Passaboken (Pass the Book), encourages football players to engage in “active recovery” – where they spend their downtime reading. It’s also about breaking the stereotype that “nerds” read and soccer players don’t.
Östersunds FK’s coach found that by getting his football players to spend time together doing cultural activities off the field, he was creating players who played more intelligently and cohesively on the field. The team even wrote a book together called My Journey to ÖFK.
In South Africa’s outdoorsy and sports-oriented culture, surely we can create the same kind of programmes.
Sweden was one of the earliest adopters of the internet, and while the web has been a brilliant education tool, Swedish kids now spend way more time surfing multimedia content online than reading.
Though we don’t have nearly the same level of access to the internet that Sweden has, we shouldn’t think that creating paperless classrooms and being completely online savvy will automatically make our kids better readers.
A population that reads is one of the most important aspects of a free-thinking, questioning and critical democracy, and it starts with its children.
We have nothing to lose by learning what other nations are doing and adapting it to our country.
Koen was hosted in Stockholm by the Swedish Institute
AN OPEN BOOK Stockholm’s awe-inspiring Kulturhuset (The House of Culture), which houses six separate libraries