Image: Karl Rogers

As a little boy, I was surrounded by words, by stories. As I mentioned last month: Mom read to me; so did Dad, family friends, and relatives — introducing me to the vivid worlds of Richard Scarry, Dr Seuss, Niki Daly, and many others.

Later, in my first years of school, my favourite period was library. Once we’d chosen new books to take out, we’d sit down in front of our school librarian and she would read to us. That weekly half an hour was both a soothing sanctuary and a thrilling escape from the often bewildering world of primary school.

While not everyone who is read to as a child ends up being a writer, it’s unlikely I would’ve ended up as one if I hadn’t been. Those storybooks gave me a profound sense of the transformative power of words. They nurtured in me a sense of curiosity — a desire to get to grips with other places, people, and perspectives — that remains insatiable to this day. As we turned the pages together, I had the exhilarating sense anything was possible; that the only limits were the ones imposed by my imagination.

My childhood experience is an anomaly, however. One estimate has put the number of South African parents who read to their kids at 5%. There are many important reasons why we should be encouraging the 95% others to start doing so too.

Firstly, vocabulary. Academics reckon 15 minutes of reading a day exposes a child to 1-million written words a year. The more words they hear, the greater the headstart they have when they begin school, and the more likely they are to improve in literacy when they get there. This is something sorely needed; according to education expert Nic Spaull, 29% of grade 4 children are illiterate, while 58% cannot read for meaning.

Reading out loud to kids stimulates their curiosity and fires up their imagination. Unlike watching TV, where the child is a passive consumer, she is required to be an active participant — she needs to exercise her imagination to fully realise the story that is being read. Reading out loud to kids has also been shown to support longer attention spans (unlike TV, which shrinks them), improve comprehension skills (especially when they are asked to retell the story), and promotes bonding between parent and child.

It’s little wonder that in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially advised its 62 000 member doctors to encourage parents to read out loud to their young kids. In their guide to raising readers, New York Times book editor Pamela Paul and the paper’s children’s book editor, Maria Russo, write: “Studies have shown that people, especially children, absorb and retain stories better when they read them in print. At night, screen time is known to interfere with melatonin cycles, which makes it harder to fall asleep.”

There are a number of initiatives in South Africa that support children’s reading. Most of these place a big emphasis on reading for pleasure, in many cases with books that are in the children’s mother tongue.

Among the largest is Nal’ibali (nalibali.org), a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign that distributes stories and reading materials in a supplement that appears in various Tiso Blackstar Group publications around the country. Nal’ibali also supports reading clubs and offers training for volunteers helping kids to read.

Book Dash (bookdash.org) hosts events that bring together writers, illustrators, and designers to work for 12 hours to produce story books from scratch that are then printed cheaply and donated to kids and libraries. So far, an incredible 150 000 books have been distributed; Book Dash’s mission is to hand out 600-million of them — so that each child in South Africa is able to own 100 books by the age of five.

Proceeds from ticket sales at the Franschhoek Literary Festival go to the festival’s Library Fund, which has donated thousands of books (in isiXhosa, Afrikaans and English) to schools and crèches in Franschhoek valley. The fund also employs a roving librarian who works alongside four library assistants — one in each primary school.

Shine Literacy (shineliteracy.org.za) provides weekly one-on-one reading sessions with 4 500 grade 2 and 3 learners in 66 schools across the country. Help2read (help2read.org) offers kids one-on-one reading lessons and also supports literacy tutors in township schools, focusing on Gauteng and the Western Cape. Read to Rise (readtorise.co.za) conducts reading workshops in schools and libraries, and also provides schools with mini-libraries, containing 50 age-appropriate books in different languages.

We can all play a part in making sure our kids are read to, have books, and learn to love reading for reading’s sake — whether it’s by buying books, helping Book Dash make new kids’ titles, or volunteering at a school.

The rewards are immense: by doing so you’re helping nurture a future generation’s curiosity, tolerance, empathy, imagination, and creativity. In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, we need all those qualities more than ever.

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