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 BPN Newsletter Issue No 26-27, November 2000 


Children's Reading*

all-Africa conference, August 1999

Elinor Sisulu
Elinor Sisulu is board member of the Centre for the Book and a member of the South African Children's Book Forum. She is based in Pretoria, South Africa.

'Kader Asmal was a boer man. He died in the Anglo-Boer War that took place in Bloemfontein in 1968.' Many teachers would guess that this horrendously inaccurate statement was a response to an examination question. This level of ignorance would even not surprise some. After all, how many school children know that Kader Asmal is our Minister of Education and is very much alive, and that the Anglo Boer War was fought a hundred years ago? What should shock teachers is that this response came not from a primary school child but from a second year library science student!

The Kader Asmal response was quoted by Dr Lulu Makhubela in her presentation to the all-Africa conference on children's reading held in Pretoria in August 1999. Naturally the anecdote evoked much laughter among the delegates to the conference, but underlying the laughter was a grave concern that many teachers and librarians do not read enough to acquire even the most basic general knowledge. If professional educators, who are expected to promote reading, do not read themselves, how can they teach children to love reading? This concern was echoed throughout the conference, which brought together teachers, teacher-trainers, librarians, researchers, writers, publishers, book activists, literacy experts and policy-makers from all over Africa and other parts of the world.

The all-Africa conference on children's reading, the first of its kind, was organised by the South African Department of Education, the South African National Commission for UNESCO, READ Educational Trust, the International Reading Association and UNESCO. Sponsors included the governments of New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the World Bank, the International Reading Association, UNESCO as well as some publishers and companies in the private sector.

In his opening address the Minister of Education, Professor Kader Asmal, emphasised the importance of reading when he said millions of African children have been denied the right to basic education, of which literacy is the core. 'The lack of access to education robs these children of their chances to develop their natural abilities of reasoning, problem solving and creative thinking, and thus lift themselves out of poverty so ensuring a better life for their own children in the future.' The minister pointed to the need to re-design and upgrade teacher-training programmes 'so that teachers can transform their classrooms and schools into sites of genuine intellectual exploration and creativity'.

The importance of training teachers to teach children how to read was a key concern of the delegates. The presentations and subsequent discussions revealed that throughout Africa not enough emphasis is placed on teacher preparation. Far too often, teachers in Africa are ill motivated and ill equipped to teach reading. Discussions pointed to the need for more research on teacher preparation in reading and the need for information on research regarding reading which should be available to all teachers. Teachers need to know more about the literature of their countries and the continent as a whole and courses in children's literature should be included in teacher-training college curricula.

Most of all children need teachers who are passionate. The conference demonstrated that there is no shortage of people who are passionate in their commitment to the enormous task of achieving literacy for all in Africa and turning African children into independent lifelong readers.

'Every teacher is a story-teller', declared one of the delegates. The significance of storytelling and oral traditions was another recurring theme of the conference. Mzingizi Manzezulu, a subject adviser in the Western Cape Education Department, demonstrated ways to use storytelling to teach science. Australian writer Mem Fox delighted conference participants with her stories. She argued that when learning to read children need teachers who understand deeply what reading really is, who will tell stories and read aloud often, teachers who will make connections between learning to write and learning to read. Most of all children need teachers who are passionate. The conference demonstrated that there is no shortage of people who are passionate in their commitment to the enormous task of achieving literacy for all in Africa and turning African children into independent lifelong readers.

'The book sector in Zimbabwe is like a dog chasing its own tail: people don't read books because books are so expensive; books are so expensive because people don't read.' This observation by Miriam Bamhare, Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Book Development Council, could apply to any other African country including South Africa.

Structural adjustment programmes throughout the continent have entailed cuts in government education budgets. Consequently libraries have no money to spend on books. This is a disaster for the education of African children because the inability to read is often the root cause of failure to progress in school. Without stimulating reading material children do not learn to read for pleasure and are less likely to read outside the school curriculum. The great divide between home and school, the failure of education systems to recognise the oral cultures of communities, especially folklore and storytelling traditions, and the lack of culturally relevant materials in indigenous languages are all factors which contribute towards the lack of a reading culture in many African communities.

The greatest success of the all-Africa conference was bringing together the major players in the field of children's literacy. The conference showed that there is no need for each of us to try to reinvent the wheel. There are groups of people across the continent working in concrete and creative ways to address the problems of literacy and reading in an environment of shrinking resources and material deprivation.

The most prominent literacy organisation in South Africa is the READ Educational Trust. Founded by Cynthia Hugo in 1979, READ addresses the problems of low levels of literacy and lack of libraries. READ's countrywide language and literacy programme involves training teachers and providing materials to schools in disadvantaged communities.

Conference discussions emphasised the importance of mother tongue and oral language traditions as a source of literacy. In 1995 the first Zambian National Reading Forum report indicated overwhelming consensus that initial literacy should be achieved as quickly as possible in a local language. The report recommended the adoption of an existing programme developed by the Molteno Project and implemented successfully in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Molteno's reading and writing programme is based on students' knowledge of the spoken form of their own language.

In Tanzania, the Children's Book Project (CBP) addresses the shortage of books and reading materials. The project aims to encourage and promote writing, publication and readership of children's books as well as to support and improve indigenous writers, illustrators, publishers, booksellers and printers. As a result of CBP efforts, more than 150 titles, mostly in Swahili, have been published and disseminated to more than 600 primary schools throughout Tanzania. The project turns some of its titles into Braille books and audiotapes for the visually impaired. Its training programmes for illustrators have been so successful that CBP has carried out training for Zimbabwean and Kenyan illustrators. CBP aims to strengthen the skills of primary school teachers and it has launched a pilot programme using the READ method of 'language to literacy'.

Another project involved in the creation of new materials is the aptly named Association for Creative Teaching in Cameroon (ACT). ACT has produced learning materials based on the histories, folklore and customs of local communities in parts of Cameroon. Among other things, ACT trains teachers in research methods and teaches them how to collect materials for ACT supplementary readers. Since 1981 ACT has trained about 2,500 teachers. It has also encouraged children to write and produce their own books.

There is a lot that can be and has been done to inculcate and sustain a reading culture in African countries. The first all-Africa conference on children's reading provided a valuable forum for the exchange of ideas. Delegates suggested that the conference should be seen as a starting point, the beginning of a network and dialogue and the first in a series of conferences at a national, regional and continental level.

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in The Teacher in South Africa, (a sister publication to the Mail and Guardian), which is distributed every month to all schools in South Africa [end] [BPN, no 26–27, 2000, p. 11.]

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