Books Are Door-Shaped Portals (And Children Are Shut Out)

The 2023 Background Report from the 2030 Reading Panel was recently released and it made for some sobering reading. Based on the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results, 78% of South African children aged 10 cannot read for meaning in any language. In light of this reading crisis, the purpose of the panel is to bring together respected leaders across different sectors to ask what needs to be done to address this and ensure all children can read by 2030. 

Again and again, we have been shown that reading is a gateway to academic success in the later years, to a broader understanding and sense of the world, to a functional and active role in modern society, to a choice of business and career options, and yes, also to that magical world that allows us to escape ours for a little while. Every child has a right to pass through this gateway. No child should be kept out.

Schools are the gatehouses, built to guide and support children through this portal.The 2023 Background Report makes it clear that for far too many children in South Africa, education is failing them and this gateway is and remains shut. The Reading Panel reports on a Western Cape study tracking learning losses due to the pandemic and shows that if these (at a conservative estimate) can be generalised across South Africa, then we move from 78% of 10-year-olds unable to read for meaning to 82%. If that is not a reading crisis, then I don’t know what is.

The report goes on to examine new research around early grade reading and provides a comprehensive look at both government-led and NGO-led interventions in the period of 2010-2022.What stood out for me was the simple answer to the question: Is there a National Reading Plan or a budget for improving reading? 

No, there isn’t. The most recent “National Reading Strategy” that the government released is dated 2008. There is no national budget allocated for reading intervention currently. Only two national roll-out initiatives can be identified:  the Department of Education Workbooks and the President’s Youth Employment Initiative Educator Assistant Programme, which due to lack of appropriate selection criteria, adequate training and mentoring, is more an employment initiative than a reading intervention.

The gatehouse is crumbling: of the four 2022 Reading Panel recommendations, the South African government has made no progress at all. As a result, for all of these children the door remains shut. In light of this, I thought I would end this with an extract from Margarita Engle’s beautiful poem Tula [books are door-shaped] to remind us how important it is for all children to have this opportunity:

Books are door-shaped


carrying me

across oceans

and centuries,

helping me feel

less alone.

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