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Paperless power: The magic of reading to your child in a digital world

Increasing pressure on the publishing industry, plus a shrinking reading culture, hasn't changed the enormous lifelong benefit of reading to children from early childhood. With South Africa having eleven official languages, how do we ensure children across the country access these benefits in their mother tongue? By Jade Jacobsohn, Managing Director at Nal’ibali. 

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According to UNESCO, “Illiteracy and poverty constitute a mutually reinforcing, vicious cycle that is difficult to break.” When people are unable to read, they are cut off from information, and information is vital in the climb up the socio economic ladder. 

When children are unable to read, it’s no different. They too are cut off from information and doomed to a confidence-crushing slog through an educational system where they’re unable to fully engage with the curriculum. Their later climb mirrors that of illiterate adults.

Last year South Africa learned that 8 out of 10 children in Grade 4 are unable to read for meaning in any language (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). In a nation with unacceptably high levels of poverty, this news has rattled many to the core.  A well-known study in the United States found that children from welfare backgrounds are exposed to up to 30 million fewer words than children from wealthier homes by the age of 4. The implications for us are great.

Yet, it is possible to bridge this gap through the simple act of regularly reading aloud to a child. Numerous studies have found associations between pre-school language attainment and the ability to learn in school. Aptly put by writer Alicia Bayer, “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.”

Further, the Child Development Institute argues that stories help children 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 abilities to face challenges. 

Early starts 

It is well-recognised that the first thousand days of a child's life are critical, and that if that time is not used to maximum effect, the head start cannot be regained. South Africa has increasingly been prioritising early childhood development (ECD), however, there is 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, many children do not. This is where storytelling and sharing has an even more significant role. 

The good news

South African parents, teachers and caregivers have demonstrated an appetite for both intervention 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 through storytelling and reading. 

Another of Nal’ibali’s partners is CareUp, a mobile communication intervention initiated by the Department of Social Development in the Western Cape, created by The Reach Trust, and jointly funded by the Department and Innovation Edge. 

Targeting parents and ECD practitioners working with children aged 4-5, CareUp arms adults with knowledge about the role they play in stimulating children's early language and literacy learning. Nal'ibali contributed children's stories in English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa. 

Uptake was enthusiastic. Of a sample of 1 111 parents, 43% became frequent readers of Nal'ibali stories.  This was an impressive level of behvaiour change, especially when one considers that this was not one of the primary objectives of the intervenetion. Users had to do a little sleuth navigation to find the stories.  Interestingly, literacy interventions that have specifcially focussed on getting parents to read, have yielded lower results.  As an example, Worldreader, a digital reading programme in India, reported success on just 24% uptake on their stories. 

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people are accessing Nal'ibali's stories directly via its website and various print media. In January to June 2018 alone, there was a 58% year-on-year increase in downloads via 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? Firstly, it arises from a need for more children’s books in different African languages. Yet, pressure on the pubishing industry doesn’t always allow for a speedy response. Digital publishing on the other hand is more cost-effective, quick, and permits wide distribution in multiple languages. 

Secondly, worldwide, digital tools are a growing part of early learning – and in South Africa, even more so due to their low cost and easy accessibility.  

Thirdly, South Africa is an ideal market. According to mobile research company GMSA Intelligence, South Africa is the second-largest mobile market in Africa – and though Nigeria has larger numbers, SA has higher penetration. And, these days, smart phones are the second-hand phone of choice.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest-growing mobile market region in the world. In 2016, SA had a 68% penetration rate, next to India's 29% – which could explain the lower uptake of digital reading. At the same time, in SA, there was a mobile broadband penetration rate of over 70% and 4G networks reached three-quarters of the population. 

Although the opportunity is immense and promising, the exceptionally high data costs (higher than all of the big economies in Africa) still pose a substantial challenge to harnessing the exponential of digital to efficiently get learning resources where they’re most needed.  The Reach Trust was cognisant of the high costs of data when they designed CareUp.  The application is able to run in offline mode meaning there is zero cost to accessing the content after the initial download.

New solutions

If children are to develop the way they deserve, 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 challenges, 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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