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CityPress - - Voices -

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

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