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Archive for the ‘Childrens Literature’ Category

Readers young and old will be enthralled by Sheila Cussons’ beautifully illustrated children’s book, Trevor in the Land of Fantasy

A few months before Sheila Cussons passed away, her son Jaume Saladrigas Cussons received a surprising gift from her… a manuscript she had kept to herself for decades.

She expressed a keen desire that the book be published and become available to her many readers.

The fantasy she had written for her little brother when she was still in her teens was familiar to Jaume and his brother Jordi.

When they were young, their mother often read the Trevor stories to them. While living in Spain with her husband and sons, she must have relived her youthful writing, set in South Africa, where she had grown up and would later return to.

In publishing the stories of Trevor, the hidden manuscript can finally be shared and treasured by anyone from eight to 108.

In keeping with Sheila’s long relationship with Nazareth House, this book has been dedicated to the children and staff of this landmark of giving and caring in Cape Town.

Beautifully illustrated with her own delicate artwork, the quaint characters in Trevor in the Land of Fantasy come to life, transporting the reader with them into a world of fantasy and imagination.

Book details

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“Books are an investment in a child’s life” – a Q&A with award-winning edu-designer and social activist Paul Talliard

Nal’ibali column published in: Sunday World (25/02/2018), Daily Dispatch (26/02/2018), Herald (01/03/2018)

By Carla Lever

Paul Talliard

Hands of Honour is project that trains unemployed people to build furniture, like your beautiful mobile classroom units that encourage children to read and learn more in schools. How did you get the idea for starting Hands of Honour?

Actually, rather like our classroom furniture, the idea “unfolded” in front of my eyes. Hands of Honour started as a support group run by me for young and adult men who found it difficult to return to mainstream society after making wrong choices in life. In my case, my fondness for crack cocaine cost me my job as a fireman, as well as my loved ones and home. One day someone told me of some artificial Christmas trees that a large retail chain wanted to dump. Together with some friends at our soup kitchen we collected, fixed and sold the tree. We made R8000 rather quickly and were hooked!

But then I then had a brainwave. The soup kitchen was held in two dilapidated classrooms at the local primary school. I used R4000 of the money and we gave the classrooms a makeover. We sent photos of the makeover to folk in the retail chain, and the rest is history. Our donations of unwanted goods became bigger and better and our makeover projects became bolder…but the real makeover was happening with the men. In the seven years we’ve been doing this, dozens of men have come through our program, never to return to the soup kitchen or drugs and crime again.

What adaptable features make the Angel Classroom design so special and useful for practical classroom activities?

There are so many! The Angel Classroom on Wheels not only has books, but has educational toys installed that were chosen by early education expert. It has a secret fold out bench that doubles as a work-desk. It’s mobile and in one swift move it transforms into a puppet theatre, complete with puppets! The front section is chalkboard. The rear is a painting easel complete with canvass, paint and brushes as well as fold-out activity boards. It’s basically a mobile storytelling and learning unit.

You build many beautiful upcycled designs with Hands of Honour. What made you realise that there was a very specific need for classroom tools?

We donated one of the first units to one of a local township school. When we arrived, I got the shock of my life – the class we visited only had six “readers” for over thirty children. One of the little boys, a skinny lad of about six, had a huge black eye. When I asked him what happened to him, he just hugged me. This experience drove me to do some more research and what I discovered was downright sad. This is now my life’s mission, that with our Angel Classroom on Wheels, and with other likeminded people, we will transform these children into the next generation of leaders and problem solvers.

What personal feedback have you had from teachers and young learners?

So far, we have built and delivered 88 Angel Classrooms and have received great feedback. Teachers are full of praise, while it is always a moment of joy when a unit is folded one to reveal the delights and adventures inside.

In 2014, you won the Spark ‘Changemaker of the Year’ award and it’s easy to see why. Can you tell us a little about the social and community impact that you’ve found particularly heartwarming?

For a start, many really good men don’t spend their days in soup kitchens anymore. I’m glad I had the chance to speak hope into people’s lives, although actually it’s them who have given me hope to carry on. One guy stands out in particular: a member of the notorious 26 prison gang who once lived in a car. Nowadays he travels the country as a Safety Officer for a rigging company. Well done!

Why is access to books for children so important and how can we all help?

Of all the resources we put into the Angel Classrooms, we find books to be the one of the most expensive. We have many good people who send us books, but we would love more! They are an investment in a child’s life, but we as a country also reap responsible, capable citizens at the end of the day.

How can people support building these classroom resources?

We’d like to invite anyone to sponsor a unit. The social impact is huge – children will have a better chance of succeeding academically and more jobs will be created for people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to support themselves. Take a look at our website or contact me if you would like to assist in any way at

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit:

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Open Box Library Project 2018

Open Book Festival has been committed to driving a love of books and reading amongst learners since its inception. Fundamental to this has been the Open Book School Library Project which has seen us put libraries into Matthew Goniwe Memorial High School, Parkhurst Primary and Westridge High School. The experience is one that has been hugely rewarding but which has also come with its own challenges.

As with all aspects of Open Book, we are constantly looking for ways to do things better and it is with this in mind that we reworked the library project to come up with something that doesn’t overwhelm, doesn’t require additional staff or space and which can be kept up to date with relatively little money. Welcome to Open Box! These mini mobile libraries are placed in classrooms, allowing teachers and learners access to the resource through the day.

St Mary’s Primary School
Located in the Cape Town CBD, St Mary’s Primary was ideally suited to be our pilot for the Open Box Project. Teachers showed huge interest in having access to books through the day in their classrooms, the school is within walking distance of the Book Lounge (which is closely associated with Open Book Festival) and learners at the school come predominantly from disenfranchised communities.

2015 – 2017:
2015 saw us piloting the Open Box project and we are delighted with how it worked. In total we placed 3 boxes at St Mary’s Primary and they are now in daily use in the Grade R, 1 and 2 classrooms. In 2016, we placed an additional 3 boxes in the Grade 3, 4 and 5 classrooms and in 2017, we placed boxes in the Grade 6 and 7 classrooms. The boxes include books, games, materials for activities and other resources that are relevant to both teachers and learners. Tied to the boxes, were the events we ran there through the year, from readings and activities through to author visits.

Selection Process:
We include at least 5 books per learner in each box. We meet with teachers ahead of purchasing so that they can outline the kinds of books that will best suit them, both in terms of their curricula and challenges faced by their learners. Those conversations enable us to stock each box with titles most relevant to both learners and teachers. The titles include a mix of fiction and non-fiction titles as well as books in different languages and aimed at different reading ages.

While we have completed the box handovers at St Mary’s, our relationship with them will continue and where possible we will organise events for learners. The focus of Open Box though will shift and we identified Siyazingisa Primary School in Gugulethu as the school we are working with for the next few years. The school is part of the same circuit as St Mary’s (Circuit 2).

The principal is Mrs Nonkonyana. She has been based at the school for over 20 years and is excited to be working with us on this. There are 3 Grade R classes and those will be our starting point. We met with the principal and teachers at the end of 2017 to discuss what books would be most relevant to their classrooms and we will be working on getting those together in the coming months. There are roughly 35 learners in each class and we will be aiming for a 5:1 ratio of books to learners. Ideally the majority of those books will be in isiXhosa.

The proposed dates for the handovers are:
23 April 2018: 3 boxes handed over with partial supply of books to each box
7 June 2018: Partial supply of books to each box
31 July 2018: Final supply of books to each box
The dates listed above may change. Each of the handovers will be linked to storytelling

Contact Frankie Murrey (Open Book Festival coordinator) for more information: +27 82 958 7332 /





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“I think a child without anyone to tell them stories is an abandoned child” – a Q&A with author and JRB City Editor, Niq Mhlongo

Nal’ibali Column 6, published in the Sunday World (18/02/2018), Daily Dispatch (19/02/2018), Herald (22/02/2018)

By Carla Lever

Niq Mhlongo, author and City Editor of the Johannesburg Review of Books

How do you think storytelling helps us understand place – can it make sense of where we are from?

It’s really fundamental. If Joseph Conrad didn’t write Heart of Darkness I don’t think people like Donald Trump would have had the audacity to call African countries ‘sh*tholes’. Perhaps is he had been forced to read Emecheta, Laye, Mphahlele, Ngugi and others he would have had a clear understanding of Africa.

So much of our cultural geography is imported – TV shows and novels glamorise places like New York or Paris. At the same time, African cities tend to be written about, often in negative terms, by outsiders. Why is it important that we write about African places and cities and create our own literary maps?

Someone once told me that the biggest commodity that America was able to sell to Africa was its culture. I agree. Cultural geography, as you call it, is a very powerful tool that powerful countries have used to dominate other countries. When South Africans today talk about ‘decolonization’ I think it is a legitimate appeal to break away from, among other things, the shackles of cultural dominance. So when authors write about African places and cities they contribute a lot in creating our own literary maps that have been disregarded by the imposed colonial narratives of places and spaces that we live in.

Your upcoming book Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree, takes us into the places you were born and raised in. Can you tell us a little about why you wrote the book and how it felt to be making a place meaningful to people through your writing?

I wrote Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree because I could not find a good written story about Soweto that I could read and actually identify with. I was tired of the meaning of Soweto always being confined to Vilakazi Street and the Twin Towers. I decided to write that story I was searching for myself – in fact, as an insider, it made perfect sense that I do it!

You have weaved African oral traditions, cultural practices and storytelling traditions into your previous novels, too – I’m thinking here particularly of your novel Way Back Home. What does it mean to you to be called an African author? Is that a useful description or one you find unnecessary?

There is no problem being called an African author. It all depends on the context in the context in which the name is used. If it means that my writing is inferior compared to the so-called ‘European author’ or ‘American author’, then such a name is already loaded with negativity.

I know you write adult fiction, but you have written for children too! Can you tell us a little about writing for the TV series Magic Cellar and why projects that get young people excited about stories are so important?

Ah, let me not exaggerate my involvement with Magic Cellar. In fact, I only wrote one script for them. But the project trained me as a children’s story writer. During the same period I actually wrote a script for children based on African folktales. It was animated for a children’s program on SABC 2…so I suppose I learned something!

I think a child without anyone to tell them stories is an abandoned child. Stories make all of us happy, and give us a sense of belonging in society. They guide us and give us hope in the world. Any project that give young people that kind of wholeness deserves full support from everyone.

What changes would you like to see in the South African literary scene? Are there things (maybe organisations, new spaces for writers or publishing initiatives) that you find exciting?

I would like to see a full government involvement in the South African literary scene by supporting any literary project, especially projects that make children read. I would like to see government officials and schools reading and prescribing more South African literature. I would like to see more political leaders at the ABANTU Book Festival this year and years to come. The JRB, ABANTU, Nal’ibali, Longstory Short are some of the most important literary projects in South Africa today which give me a right to write.

How can we get more children excited about reading, particularly proud of our own, rich African literary heritage?

We need to prescribe more South African books and make things like Shakespeare optional in our school curriculum. In that way we can show them our rich African literary heritage.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit:

Book details
Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree


Way Back Home

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Reading revolution reaches deep rural schools

By Michael Cekiso, Story Powered Schools Project Manager

What’s the best way to improve a child’s school results across the board? What if there could be one magical intervention that could skyrocket a child’s progress in every area of their lives? What a dream it would be for funders. What a gamechanger it would be for learners! As it turns out, there is a gamechanger: books.

Policy experts, educational specialists, and statisticians all agree: a child who reads and is read aloud to, is a child who learns. In fact, reading proficiency is the number one indicator of future academic success greater even than a child’s economic background or school choice. But what does this mean for South African children? The short answer is: a challenge.

Books are expensive and disposable income is tight. What’s published depends on what makes publishers the most profit and how many children’s stories have you seen in isiZulu or isiXhosa recently?

These are predominantly the mother tongues of children living in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal who are now well into the swing of 2018 and have either just started or are back at school. What that looks like for millions of children across SA is peak hour traffic jams, homework, and lost lunch boxes. But for children living in the rural areas of these provinces – it looks radically different.

In the Eastern Cape, for example, the lack of basic facilities is heart-breaking. Only 26% of schools in the province have a library, and only 10% of learners may borrow books. It will be no surprise then to discover that school results are just as poor and compounded by poor economic circumstances. Many children are attending school on an empty tummy, do not live with their parents, and live in homes without toilets. South African children simply aren’t getting the basic tools they need to make the leap out of poverty.

If access to books makes the difference between a child who can and can’t read, in one generation it makes the difference between a country that is economically thriving and one which is caught in a poverty trap. But rather than feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to remember that small actions can have big results, if they are sustained.

2017 was the first year of our pilot project, Story Powered Schools, which introduced the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign’s proven approach to literacy development to 240 rural schools in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. These are schools that have been given a powerful injection to move progress forward, schools that have been given books and literacy support.

Based in areas that would otherwise receive almost no developmental opportunities, these schools were identified by the Department of Basic Education who brought District Education officials on board to help with a roll-out that included principals, teachers, and community members. We employed 48 ‘Story Sparkers’ and eight Literacy Mentors from local communities to keep fanning the flames of our big idea.

How did it work? Every school that participated received five hanging libraries, one suited for each grade from R to 4. These mobile units each housed 150 exciting storybooks for children in their mother tongue as well as English. And, every fortnight, schools received copies of the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment supplement packed with bilingual stories and activities to keep any reading club motivated.

Although supplements are available in newspapers across the provinces, they often don’t reach deep rural areas, but, putting story power back in to the hands of communities, we made a commitment to take supplements to them and well over half a million were donated and delivered last year.

It doesn’t end there. Through continued face-to-face support, we made sure that each school received weekly visits from our Story Sparkers, who in turn were paid a stipend. Not a huge amount, but in many cases, it made a significant difference in their lives. Some financed studies through UNISA, others were finally able to purchase that two-bedroom house for their families. It’s a project that has knock-on benefits for the whole community.

And, although it’s hard to benchmark direct benefits – that depends on schools having the time to participate in far more monitoring and evaluation activities than they have resources for – what we have seen has been encouraging. Not one school we approached opted out.

Close to 100 000 children were reached last year and 799 reading clubs were launched by school children, parents, and community members. Schools reported a significant decrease in absenteeism and late-coming, and children became excited to attend schools where there were steady streams of new stories to feed their minds and imaginations. Teachers also noticed an increase in confidence with children telling stories and discussing ideas in class. Stories, it surprises none of us to hear, make children excited.

And that was just our first year! 2018 sees the graduation of our 2017 school group, and the intake of 244 new schools across the Umgungundlovu and iLembe districts of KZN and the Bizana, Lusikisiki, Mount Ayliff and Maluti districts in the Eastern Cape where we aim to keep changing the narrative of our schools, communities, and nation one story at a time.

Story Powered Schools is a Nal’ibali initiative endorsed by the Department of Basic Education and made possible by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). For more information about the campaign or the power of reading and storytelling, visit: and

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World Read Aloud Day: over one million children reached!

World Read Aloud Day was celebrated on the first of February 2018 and South Africans certainly made a significant contribution to the 24 hours dedicated to reading aloud to children, thus encouraging a love of books and ensuring an increase in literacy achievements.

Nal’ibali – the reading for enjoyment campaign – called on South Africans to contribute towards creating a South Africa where children read for enjoyment, meaning and understanding, emphasising the value of reading aloud to children:

Reading aloud to a child is one of the most important things a parent and caregiver can do with children. Not only does it build a strong language foundation, it introduces vocabulary and can help develop empathy, curiosity and critical thinking.This World Read Aloud Day we’re calling on YOU to add your pledge to read to the children in your life.

This year’s story was ‘The final minute’ written by Zukiswa Wanner (available to download in all 11 official languages) and over one million (1 294 345, to be precise) children countrywide were treated to a reading!

Viva, World Read Aloud Day, viva!

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10- year-old author the recipient of Cell C’s Acts of Kindness Campaign!

Buhle Mthethwa, the 10-year-old of The Big Fat Naughty Cat.

Soweto, 30 January: Buhle Mthethwa has an impressive track record – she’s a published author on a mission to instil a culture of reading in this country, and for this she’s been featured in a Top 10 South African heroes list and is up for an award from the Premier of Gauteng. What is truly remarkable is that she’s only 10-years-old.

And now, thanks to Cell C’s ongoing Acts of Kindness campaign, 1000 copies of her first book The Big Fat Naughty Cat were distributed today to learners in Grades 1 to 4 at Thabaneng Lower Primary School in Orlando West, Soweto, at a function attended by Miss South Africa Adé van Heerden and the author herself.

For Mthethwa – a Grade 5 learner from Mooifontein Primary School, Birchacres in Kempton Park – it is a dream come true: “I love reading and I want to share my passion with other children and encourage them to read and write from an early age.”

Buhle developed an enthusiasm for reading in Grade 1. When she realised that some of her friends could not read properly, she starting helping them after school, using books from the library while also running a book club for youngsters, aged between four and 14, from her family home.

Miss South Africa Adé van Heerden and Buhle at the recent handout.

The Big Fat Naughty Cat was launched last year in Johannesburg with launches planned soon in both Cape Town and Durban.

It tells the story of a young girl called Lira, her family and a cat that is ugly, dirty and always hungry. Lira picks up the cat, takes it home and cleans it. It is welcomed into the family home with love. But Lira and her family are disappointed when the animal does not appreciate their kindness. The foreword to the book is written by her school principal Jorrie Jordaan.

Brand South Africa has profiled the young author and she featured in the Top 10 South African Heroes in a feature run in The Star in November last year. She has been nominated for the Girl Child Awards, taking place in March, by the Premier of Gauteng David Makhura.

As part of its monthly Acts of Kindness, Cell C Head Office donated money for the print costs of the 1000 books which were distributed at the Soweto school by Van Heerden who expressed her delight at Buhle’s talent and called her an “inspiration and role model for the youth”, Cell C and employee volunteers and young Buhle.

Says Suzette van der Merwe, Managing Executive Corporate Social Investment at Cell C: “We were incredibly impressed by Buhle’s achievements and her desire to promote reading and the love of books in disadvantaged schools. Cell C was delighted to contribute towards the print run of another 1000 copies of her book and help with its distribution.”

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World Read Aloud Day – why reading aloud matters

Via the Read Educational Trust

On World Read Aloud Day, the 1st of February 2018, it is well worth our while to ponder on the countless benefits of such a simple activity.

While children whose parents frequently spend time conversing with them, already have a head start, it’s only in books, newspapers and magazines that enriching vocabulary is seen.

A child who hears these types of words has a giant advantage. Reading aloud also increases a child’s attention span, and when you read aloud, you’re whetting a child’s appetite for reading.

Expecting your child to grow into being an avid reader is wishful thinking if they see no one reading at home.

In an age where the average teen spends 90 minutes a day, sending text messages, it is absolutely vital to keep the habit of reading aloud, alive. There is evidence that we don’t remember information as well when we read it on a screen, so parents and caregivers have a huge responsibility to encourage a love of books and be that priceless reading role model.

READ Educational Trust has a lifelong focus of promoting literacy in a country where 78% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language, according to the recently released PIRLS Study (Progress In International Reading Literacy, 2016). In this context, the ‘Read Aloud Magic’ sets, launched alongside Reading Matters, is a vital tool in encouraging reading aloud, at home and at school.

‘READ ALOUD MAGIC’ Sets Available Online!

Each of three box sets contains 12 beautifully designed books filled with enchanting, adventure-filled stories set in Africa.

These stories are all set in Africa, and revolve around children and animals discovering the world in which they live. Set A is suitable for children aged 4 to 7, while 5-to-8-year-olds will enjoy set B. Set C is aimed at children aged 6 to 9.

These sets are a priceless investment, not only in terms of serving to build your child’s vocabulary, but as far as spending quality time with your little ones goes.

Each set retails for R1500, and may be purchased via, on or directly from Reading Matters. Phone 087 237 7781, or 0800 11 65 35. Alternatively, feel free to e-mail for further information or to order.

Visit to find out more and join the conversations on:


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The managing director at Cover2Cover Books discusses SA’s publishing industry, literacy development in children and the joy of reading

Published in the Sunday World (21/01/2018), Daily Dispatch (22/01/2018), Herald (25/01/2018)

By Carla Lever

Palesa Morudu, managing director at Cover2Cover Books


What was your own personal journey to the world of writing and publishing? Why are books important to you?

My journey started with a book! Reading helped me to round out my understanding of how human beings interact with the planet, which sparked my interest in writing. In fact, I soon came to understand that readers make better writers. So books are important to me because they help me expand my knowledge about the world; they also help me be a better writer.

A recent global study placed South African literacy levels as the worst in the world, with 8 out of 10 grade fours being unable to read for meaning in any language. Are there any good examples of industry leaders responding to huge national challenge?

The recent PIRLS results were shocking. Perhaps this has the potential to galvanize a national effort to finally deal with what is essentially a national crisis. The Nal’ibali reading for pleasure campaign as well as the FunDza Literacy Trust are very important interventions to build on – take a look at their work and free resources online. However, to build a culture of reading, South Africa needs business and government to get on board on a massive scale to make sure that books are available in each and every household.

What will it take to get SA reading for enjoyment, not just for school?

It has to do with what the publishing industry puts out in the market. Readers want to see themselves in stories, and even better if the stories are well told. I’m excited by content that’s relevant locally but with themes that resonate universally.

You’ve said before that there’s huge potential in the South African market. Are there any special interest gaps you have identified and what kind of material is proving a success with these?

In 2010 Cover2Cover Books identified what we termed the “township teen” as big gap in the market. Apart from school textbooks, no one was writing for this large and exciting demographic. That translates to millions of teenagers not reading for pleasure because no one was writing for them. That same year we launched our flagship series ‘Harmony High,’ which is set in a fictional township high school. It has been a major hit, with thousands of previously reluctant readers now being hooked on the ten titles in its series. We are inundated with feedback from high-school teachers and librarians, whose students just can’t get enough. The formula is simple: the kids see themselves in the characters, the plots are pacy, there is tension and drama, and the stories are well written. We intend to scale up in 2018, working with our partner the FunDza Literacy Trust, to set up more township and rural reading clubs so we can get many more of our books to South African teens.

You’ve even been using social media to promote literacy through mobile reading clubs! Can you tell us a little about how you’re combining hard copy books and virtual worlds to get readers engaged?

FunDza runs “library on the mobile” programme. Because many young people are hooked on their mobile devices, what better way to bring them books and stories than on their favourite platform? FunDza downlaods some of Cover2Cover’s content on its mobisite and readers can access stories through the FunDza app on their mobile devices. It’s a great new way to engage and it ultimately means more people get to read in a way that works for them.

National Read Aloud Day is on 1 February and there are a range of exciting initiatives planned. How can people get involved?

Nal’ibali will go big on February 1 with a campaign to get South Africans to read aloud to one million children with the #WRADChallenge2018. I encourage everyone to take part in the campaign by going to, downloading the free story ‘The Final Minute’ especially written for the day by Zukiswa Wanner and pledging to read it to children on 1 February. It’s available in a range of South African languages, too!

Help Nal’ibali read aloud to one million children this World Read Aloud Day, Thursday 01 February! Visit the Nal’ibali webpage at to sign up and download the brand-new story by acclaimed South African author, Zukiswa Wanner, in any official South African language. You’ll be joining a wave of adults across the country reading to children and raising awareness of the importance of this simple yet effective activity.

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“If we truly care about our national matric pass rate, let’s direct our energies to ensuring children have a solid educational beginning” – managing director at Nal’ibali

By Jade Jacobsohn, managing director at Nal’ibali

Photo courtesy of Nal’

When the tide pulls back before a tsunami hits, they say that the beach is littered with beautiful starfish. Often people go down onto the beach and collect these star-shaped echinoderms, admiring their bright colours. In the distance, however the power of the ensuing wave builds.

Reading the newspapers recently as the results of the National Senior Certificate (matric) were released felt a little bit like watching those people on the beach, happily collecting starfish. 75.1% of learners who wrote the matric exams passed them. Our politicians cheered, and we celebrated the astounding triumphs of high-performing students – particularly those who achieved against all odds. Learners who were the first in their families to matriculate, who not only achieved multiple distinctions, but who will go on to study fields such as astrophysics. Learners who attended rural schools that didn’t have enough teachers for all subjects, but who aced the toughies like Mathematics and the Sciences.

These are bright and beautiful starfish indeed, but we would be wise to pay heed to the rising tide behind them and, importantly, what is happening on the ocean floor of South Africa’s education system causing the buildup.

There are already some who are cognizant of this cataclysmic wave made up of the learners who didn’t quite make it through. And it’s not only the 14.9% of Matrics who wrote but failed the exams that we are talking about here, it’s also the half-a-million odd learners who enrolled in Grade 1 twelve years ago and who didn’t even sit the exams that make up this looming watery mass.

But our matric-result infatuation needs to move even deeper than that. It needs to shift to the early years of a child’s life where the hardwiring for success, or failure, takes place.

Last year closed with the release of another set of education results; that eight out of ten nine-year-olds in South Africa are functionally illiterate, and that our children’s reading comprehension abilities scored lowest compared to the children in the 49 other countries that participated in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

It begs the obvious question: if children are unable to read, how are they able to meaningfully progress through the schooling system? According to PIRLS, 78% of our Grade 4s will be playing an exhausting game of constant catch-up.

If we truly care about our national matric pass rate (and what it means for the future of our country), let’s save ourselves a great deal of both effort and money by directing our energies to ensuring children have a solid educational foundation. We need to start at the beginning.

How about each year, we dissect this part of our society? Let’s become obsessed with early numeracy and literacy rates, and the creative ways in which they can be improved. Let’s become absorbed by the quality of teaching in preschools and primary schools, and find complimentary partnerships to ensure that all key areas for unlocking children’s potential are addressed: nurturing care, stimulation, nutrition and protection. Let’s become play-advocates – evangelising its central role in children’s learning. As a nation, let’s pledge to do whatever we can to see that children get to read for enjoyment so that books become less scary. Let’s invest in this phase of education that yields the highest rates of return, and then let’s monitor the progress of the education department, non-profits and other actors in this sector.

Finally, let’s dive right in to the ocean floor and see what other bright and beautiful starfish we can find. Those government officials who understand that poor early education exacerbates inequality and stifles economic potential. Those same officials who make sure classrooms are filled with books in children’s home languages as well as English, and who enforce policies that create opportunities for children to fall in love with reading.

Let’s raise up and celebrate the teachers, early childhood development practitioners, and every day South Africans whose efforts help turn the tide and contribute towards a future filled with employable youth, critical thinkers, empathetic citizens, and parents who are able to pass these early lessons on to their own children someday.

For more information about the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, free children’s stories in a range of SA languages, tips on reading and writing with children, details on how to set up a reading club or to request training, visit,, or find them on Facebook and Twitter.

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