Break poverty di­vide, read to your chil­dren

In to­day’s dig­i­tal world, it’s be­com­ing easy to find sto­ries in South Africa’s 11 lan­guages

Mail & Guardian - - Education - Jade Ja­cob­sohn

‘The sin­gle big­gest pre­dic­tor of high aca­demic achieve­ment … is read­ing to chil­dren. Not flash cards, not work­books, not fancy preschools, not blink­ing toys or com­put­ers,” writes author Ali­cia Bayer.

Yet “il­lit­er­acy and poverty con­sti­tute a mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing, vi­cious cy­cle that is dif­fi­cult to break”, says the United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

When peo­ple are un­able to read, they are cut off from in­for­ma­tion that is vi­tal in the scram­ble up the so­cioe­co­nomic lad­der. When chil­dren are un­able to read, they’re doomed to a con­fi­dence-crush­ing slog through the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem, un­able to un­der­stand the cur­ricu­lum; their fate is sim­i­lar to that of il­lit­er­ate adults.

Last year South Africa learned that eight out of 10 chil­dren in grade four are un­able to read for mean­ing in any lan­guage, ac­cord­ing to the Progress in In­ter­na­tional Read­ing Lit­er­acy Study. In a na­tion with un­ac­cept­ably high lev­els of poverty, this news has rat­tled many to the core.

A study in the United States found that chil­dren from wel­fare back­grounds are ex­posed to up to 30mil­lion fewer words than chil­dren from wealth­ier homes by the age of four. The im­pli­ca­tions for us are huge.

Yet it is pos­si­ble to bridge this gap with the sim­ple act of reg­u­larly read­ing aloud to a child. Nu­mer­ous stud­ies have found as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween preschool lan­guage at­tain­ment and the abil­ity to learn in school.

Fur­ther­more, the Child De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute ar­gues that sto­ries help chil­dren to de­velop their lin­guis­tic skills, me­mory, imag­i­na­tion and cre­ative think­ing. It im­proves their ca­pac­ity for rote learn­ing, sharp­ens aca­demic skills and hones com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It also shapes their value sys­tems and abil­ity to face chal­lenges.

It is well recog­nised that the first 1000 days of a child’s life are crit­i­cal and, if that time is not used to max­i­mum ef­fect, the loss can­not be re­gained. South Africa has in­creas­ingly pri­ori­tised early child­hood de­vel­op­ment (ECD), but there is still a very long way to go.

One way to im­prove lan­guage learn­ing out­comes is for chil­dren to have daily op­por­tu­ni­ties to read and hear sto­ries in their mother tongue. In South Africa, how­ever, many chil­dren do not.

This is where sto­ry­telling and story shar­ing can play a sig­nif­i­cant role.

The good news

South African par­ents, teach­ers and care­givers have demon­strated an ap­petite for in­ter­ven­tions and new so­lu­tions. Nal’ibali, which means “here’s the story” in isiXhosa, is one such so­lu­tion. It is a na­tional read­ing-for-en­joy­ment cam­paign to spark chil­dren’s po­ten­tial with sto­ry­telling and read­ing.

One of Nal’ibali’s part­ners is CareUp, a mo­bile com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­ter­ven­tion cre­ated by the Reach Trust, which is jointly funded by the Western Cape depart­ment of so­cial de­vel­op­ment and In­no­va­tion Edge.

Tar­get­ing par­ents and ECD prac­ti­tion­ers work­ing with chil­dren aged four to five, CareUp arms adults with knowl­edge about the role they can play in stim­u­lat­ing chil­dren’s early lan­guage and lit­er­acy learn­ing. Nal’ibali con­trib­utes chil­dren’s sto­ries in English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa.

Of a sam­ple of 1 111 par­ents, 43% be­came fre­quent read­ers of Nal’ibali sto­ries. This was an im­pres­sive level of be­hav­iour change, es­pe­cially when one con­sid­ers that this was not one of the pri­mary ob­jec­tives of the in­ter­ven­tion, and that users had to do a lit­tle on­line sleuthing to find the sto­ries.

Lit­er­acy in­ter­ven­tions that have specif­i­cally fo­cused on get­ting par­ents to read have yielded lower re­sults: Worl­dreader, a dig­i­tal read­ing pro­gramme in In­dia, re­ported a mere 24% up­take of their sto­ries.

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple are ac­cess­ing Nal’ibali’s sto­ries on its web­site and var­i­ous print me­dia. In Jan­uary to June this year, there was a 58% year-on-year in­crease in downloads from the web­site — 40 075 from Jan­uary to June in 2018, up from 25 309 from Jan­uary to June in 2017.

A dig­i­tal world

Why this ap­petite? First, it arises from a need for more chil­dren’s books in African lan­guages. The pres­sure on the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try doesn’t al­ways al­low for a speedy re­sponse. Dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing, on the other hand, is more cost-ef­fec­tive, faster and per­mits wide dis­tri­bu­tion in mul­ti­ple lan­guages.

Sec­ond, world­wide, dig­i­tal tools are a grow­ing part of early learn­ing, and in South Africa even more so, as a re­sult of the low cost and easy ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

Third, South Africa is an ideal mar­ket. Ac­cord­ing to mo­bile re­search com­pany GSMA In­tel­li­gence, South Africa is the sec­ond-largest mo­bile mar­ket in Africa. Although Nige­ria has larger num­bers, South Africa has higher pen­e­tra­tion. These days, smart­phones are the se­cond­hand phone of choice.

Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa is the fastest­grow­ing mo­bile mar­ket re­gion in the world. In 2016, South Africa had a 68% pen­e­tra­tion rate com­pared with In­dia’s 29%, with a mo­bile broad­band pen­e­tra­tion rate of more than 70%, and 4G net­works reached 75% of the pop­u­la­tion.

Although the op­por­tu­nity is im­mense and promis­ing, the ex­cep­tion­ally high cost of data (higher than all of the big economies in Africa) still poses a sub­stan­tial chal­lenge to har­ness­ing the growth of dig­i­tal to get learn­ing re­sources to where they’re most needed.

The Reach Trust took the high cost of data into con­sid­er­a­tion when it de­signed CareUp. The app is able to run in off­line mode, which means there is zero cost for ac­cess­ing the con­tent af­ter the ini­tial down­load.

New so­lu­tions

For chil­dren’s ideal de­vel­op­ment, they must be stim­u­lated, nur­tured and read to in their mother tongue from the ear­li­est pos­si­ble age.

South Africa is ripe for new so­lu­tions to its ed­u­ca­tional prob­lems, and dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion of chil­dren’s sto­ries is rapid, eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble and cost-ef­fec­tive. The proof is in the de­mand — we just have to keep sup­ply­ing it.

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