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Pitching in together

“Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted, counts.”

— Albert Einstein

It’s always a sign of hope when we sense the buzz of activity as organisations and individuals gear up to do volunteering for a better South Africa, especially around days such as Mandela Day. There is something we can all choose to do to help with one of the biggest challenges for children – their literacy learning. But, simply put, something is missing. Children urgently need role models to interact with and learn from and voluntary action from adults across the length and breadth of the country will go a long way to making this happen.

The ‘natural’ way that babies and young children learn to speak is by being surrounded by adults who include them in their daily activities; the model is to notice and emulate. It’s similarly only through such a continuous ‘drip-feeding’ approach that we can bring about the desired ‘culture of reading’ in our country, by including children in reading and writing activities. It might seem elusive, but it doesn’t have to be if we choose to spend a bit of time sharing stories with children.

Because the use of narrative is fundamental to being human, and stories and their partner in childhood, play, are vehicles for organising learning, a one-off event is not enough though, no matter how wonderful.  It is the daily language in stories that bring about the much-needed literacy lessons that naturally lead children into reading and writing.  These are the complex and often marvellously exciting foundations of literacy, which include (but are not necessarily preceded by) recognising, forming and manipulating sounds and letters and decoding or combining them into words and sentences.

Our country’s education system is deep into legitimating the globally pervasive formal education mould and parents are subdued by an intensively test-driven, skills-based, back-to-basics curriculum for the majority of children. We accept the implicit message that storytelling and reading from literature follow as supportive and supplementary to ‘essential’ skills and drills. But, for one thing, in most cases, it doesn’t follow because children’s literature, and the libraries and bookshops that promote and house them, are only available to those children who already have the tradition of using books and stories regularly, in the languages they understand. And, for another, the basics of literacy learning actually lie elsewhere.

They lie, for all children, in an immersion into the world of stories. Volunteering to tell or read a story you rate highly yourself provides children with some of the essential, but informal, interaction they need to learn crucial but presently invisible language and literacy lessons. With an emotional connection provided by the mutual focus on a vibrant story, curiosity deepens, language flourishes and significant concepts about print are learned at the same time as children come to appreciate and love stories.  All of our cultural learning begins with such powerful lessons from the people who live among us, and re-igniting family and community interest to tell and read stories can become part of this.

We learn how to behave in order to belong. These lessons become our cultural practices.  From the very tiniest baby to the oldest grandfather, belonging makes us feel secure and wanted, and offers us the sense of purpose that gives life meaning. We can influence what kind of society we want, we can decide if it should be about only us and our immediate families, or we can cast our caring web of influence wider.

It’s easy to find somewhere to volunteer for a few minutes – and we hear expressions on radio and social media of the exhilarating feeling of involvement, interaction and personal satisfaction that comes with knowing you are collaborating to make a difference in the lives of others. But who is willing to keep unwinding this thread of giving in a regular commitment to some voluntary action? Inspiring a spirit of volunteering among adults is at the heart of the Nal’ibali national reading-for-enjoyment campaign. You can help.

Among a number of access points, Nal’ibali puts out a weekly supplement that contains stories, information and tips on stories and reading with children. It’s bilingual in a growing number of African languages and English. Collect it, download back issues off the website, and share it with your own children and grandchildren or with others. Find out about the network of reading clubs where you can volunteer regular time to share stories with children. Nal’ibali, it starts with a story.


Carole Bloch is the director of PRAESA (the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, at UCT) which is driving the Nal’ibali campaign together with a growing number of partners.

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