It is well known that literacy is critically important and the backbone of all learning. South Africa faces literacy performance issues across the board, but over the past few years has been developing a strong body of evidence and knowledge around literacy issues. In this session, Fatima Adam from the Zenex Foundation facilitated a discussion among four experts and practitioners in literacy: Yandiswa Xhakaza (Nal’ibali) Nonkqubela Maliza (Volkswagen South Africa), Professor Elizabeth Pretorius (UNISA) and Professor Leketi Makalela (Wits University). The session covered different approaches to literacy, both in and out of the classroom, as well as the challenges related to literacy in South Africa as well as low- and middle-income countries.

 Rethinking the school curriculum and the way we teach literacy

Professor Leketi Makalela from Wits opened the session by introducing literacy as a “socially situated” concept – a way of being, knowing and doing, and as props for day-to-day interaction. He argued that the school curriculum and teaching of literacy was fundamentally flawed, saying that school do not teach literacy that is rooted in the African language. African children are taught literacy at school differently to the way that they learn it at home. According to Prof Makalela there is little consciousness around this, yet it is a significant challenge for children and teachers.

 Inspiring a culture of reading

Yandiswa Xhakaza from Nal’ibali introduced the work of her organisation and their approach to literacy in South Africa. Nal’ibali promotes leisure reading with three key focus areas: 1) improving reading perceptions and behaviours, 2) making reading material accessible to children in their home languages, and 3) sparking a culture of reading among communities through reading clubs and community-based reading activists. Their aim is to embed a culture of love for and excitement about reading, so that reading is not something that is located just in the classroom.

In response to a question about whether it was more important to focus on creating a culture of reading or on the structural components of literacy teaching in the classroom, Xhakaza said that we shouldn’t choose one over the other as they reinforce each other. Sometimes school literacy is just about teaching children to read, but literacy and reading for meaning require additional elements such as imagination, talking around the story, recall and repeating the story. These are all elements that emerge in reading for leisure and so there are elements of pedagogy that also come through in reading for leisure.

Taking a focused approach to literacy interventions: a corporate view

Nonkqubela Maliza from Volkswagen South Africa reflected on VW’s 70-year history of investing in education in South Africa. For a long time, VW had only invested in the later years of education – high school and tertiary – often with sub-optimal returns because of the huge obstacle posed by poor literacy that started from an early age. In 2016, VW established its “legacy literacy” programme with the aim of ensuring that all learners in Uitenhage are functionally literate by the time they are ten years old. It is a comprehensive and multifaceted programme involving many partners but concentrated in one geographic location. VW’s key learnings from this programme have been to invest only in rigorous programmes that are able to objectively measure outcomes.


Maliza made a strong argument for investing in literacy, which VW believes is a basic human right and the driver of personal development and learning. She said it had been shown that when learners are functionally literate by the time they are ten years old then all other educational outcomes will be positive. It is imperative to make sure that teachers can teach children to read as, without basic literacy, further educational investment is arguably a waste of time.

A global perspective on literacy

Professor Lily Pretorius from UNISA provided a global perspective on literacy and on reading specifically. According to Pretorius, there are three conditions required to successful reading to develop: 1) access to texts, 2) opportunities to read, and 3) knowledgeable teachers who can help children to read. It was also much easier to read in a familiar language, especially in the first three years.

Pretorius introduced three key lessons from global research on early literacy in the past 20 years. The first was that understanding the contexts within which children learn is essential. Secondly, quality teaching and good teacher training is essential. Teacher coaching, although expensive, is an intervention model that has been proven to be effective. The third lesson is that access to print resources is crucial.

Pretorius unpacked the importance of understanding the broader contexts within which children learn. Over half of children worldwide do not learn basic literacy and numeracy in their first four years of schooling, and in sub-Saharan Africa nine out of ten children cannot read with minimum proficiency. Almost all of these children are from lower-income and middle-income countries that have five things in common 1) poverty, which creates major barriers to learning, 2) lower adult literacy rates, which has implications for children’s access to texts and the support that they get with reading and learning at home, 3) multilingualism is common, which can be a positive factor, but needs to be understood and catered for as the language of school might be completely different to the language of home, 4) teachers are not well trained and are seldom voluntary readers themselves, and 5) print resources in local languages are usually limited.

Community interventions and training and mentoring teachers ranked most effective by conference delegates

In the live poll conducted during the session, delegates agreed on the importance of community interventions, training and mentoring of teachers and national reading campaigns, ranking these as the first, second and third most effective interventions for literacy. Interventions in school leadership support, and support for district officials, were ranked lowest by delegates.

Written by Rebecca Mhere