Reading aloud in the early years is crucial

Fewer children are in early childhood development centres now than in the past 18 years, which means scores are bereft of meals, safety, and early learning opportunities. To help remind caregivers of the simple power of stories to provide very young children with the mental stimulation they need for success later in school and in life, the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (Praesa) has teamed up with Nal’ibali, the national reading-for-enjoyment campaign, to open our largest literacy celebration, World Read Aloud Day, up to preschool children and their caregivers. Arabella Koopman, the programmes director at Praesa, tells more


Briefly, what has happened in the early childhood development (ECD) sector over the past year?

All ECD services (including preschools, crèches and playgroups) were closed from 18 March 2020, and it was only with a Johannesburg high court ruling on 6 July that they were allowed to reopen, provided they met stringent health and safety requirements. However, a survey issued two months afterwards showed that 70% of ECD sites remained closed. The main reason for this was financial: the inability to afford the legally required personal protective equipment and/or cover staff salaries and other costs. 

 The prediction is that 20 000 to 30 000 ECD operators run the risk of permanent closure with as many as 175 000 women losing their jobs. Even where ECD centres have reopened, the figures and our observations on the ground paint a dismal picture. While in 2018, 47% of children aged 0 to 6 attended an ECD facility, a survey conducted in July and August 2020 showed that only 13% of children now attend such a facility. In fact, ECD attendance rates are thought to be at their lowest in 18 years. So, in short, what was already a very fragile sector was completely ruptured in 2020, and the outlook for this sector in 2021 does not look encouraging.

Given the literacy levels and demographics of South Africa, do you believe that this type of reading and educational lag is something we can afford to have?

Whether it’s at home or in an ECD centre, young children need all kinds of stimulation to develop and progress well. They thrive in safe, interesting and culturally responsive environments, communicating with caring adults who offer them experiences and materials to explore. 

Opportunities to play and imagine, listen to, think and talk about stories and books all contribute enormously to young children’s language growth and are the vital foundations of their literacy learning. 

The early years are particularly important for all learning, and especially language learning, so days, weeks and months without appropriate interactions are problematic. For many young children, ECD centres might be the only places where they have the possibility of interacting with the world of print and develop an appetite for reading and writing.  

Wherever children are, though, this is a very unsettling and often desperately sad time for everyone. As adults, we need to think creatively about how to ensure young children have chances to explore their experiences and concerns through play and share in lots of stories that can help them feel more secure and resilient. 

We also need to recognise homes as children’s first and most formative of literacy teachers. Parents and other caregivers at home who regularly read and/or tell stories to young children are sowing the seeds of their children’s interest in and success at reading and writing. So, early language and literacy learning do not have to be determined by whether children attend an ECD centre!

There are different types of reading — using reading to learn and reading for leisure, for example. Why does Praesa believe in reading for enjoyment, specifically for young children?

These terms are bandied about a lot, but reading is reading. “Reading to learn” and “leisure reading” are not mutually exclusive activities. When you read, you cannot help but discover [learn] more about yourself, other people, and the world in general. And here, I do not mean the “reading” of empty texts developed with the sole purpose of getting children to practice the mechanical skills of reading. It might be that in some settings, when you “read to learn”, the text you are reading is selected by someone else, but this is not always the case. You might choose to read a text to find out about something of interest to you.

What is important for children is that they experience books and being read to as personally satisfying right from the start. If they do not, why would they want to learn to read? The term “personally satisfying” encompasses reading with the explicit purposes of finding out about something, or inadvertently finding out about something through leisure reading. Finding reading enjoyable is important, but the reality is that some of the things we read are challenging and not fun, but we still derive satisfaction from reading them.

How will Praesa be supporting Nal’ibali up to 3 February as it prepares for  World Read Aloud Day?

We have partnered with Nal’ibali to develop an easy-to-follow guide on using Nal’ibali’s 2021 World Read Aloud story [aimed at primary-school children] specifically with preschool-aged children. It shows how to bring it life and how to help children in this age group connect personally and imaginatively with the story. 

Nal’ibali will be distributing these along with its special story in 11 languages on all their platforms — and Praesa will be encouraging our network to share the story with children in their care.

What does Praesa hope the celebration of World Read Aloud Day will spark for South Africans this year?

We hope that adults across the country will share the story with their children wherever they may find themselves. Adults who currently do not regularly read or tell stories to children could use this opportunity to try it out and experience the tremendous satisfaction we get when we connect with children through stories. For adults who are already reading role models for their children, we hope sharing this story will remind them of the tremendous gift they are giving their children.

Take part in Nal’ibali’s World Read Aloud Day celebration on Wednesday, 3 February. Visit www.nalibali.org, or WhatsApp “WRAD” to 060 044 2254 to make your pledge, get the story in any official SA ­language and access Praesa’s special guide to sharing it with ­preschool children 

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