Reading literacy is decisive for being a person and a nation


By Marnelda de Beer, Marié Gräbe and Jana Terblanche

According to the latest study on global reading literacy (PIRLS 2021), grade 4 learners in South Africa are among the worst readers in the world: Eight out of ten of these learners (81%) cannot read with comprehension. In addition, the PIRLS report indicates that the Department of Basic Education’s 2019 national reading plan is still struggling to get off the ground. This is worrying. After all, reading enables us to communicate, learn, think and understand, and contributes to our general development and well-being. Cooperation between parents, teachers and the education department is urgently needed to meet this challenge.

Reading is the foundation on which individuals develop their personal and social identities. This is what enables them to understand their environment. Achieving reading literacy goals therefore requires a strategic, holistic approach by both the formal education sector and parents. Such a holistic approach involves:

  • ensuring access to quality education, supported by adequate resources;
  • the training of expert and dedicated mother tongue teachers;
  • providing relevant reading material that reflects learners’ diverse circumstances and life worlds;
  • the modeling of a ‘reading culture’ by adults; and
  • the structured development and establishment of critical thinking and good writing skills.

Pre-skills and foundation phase (0 to 9 years)

Reading is an essential skill that must be learned deliberately. The process begins long before the child formally learns to read and write. In fact, the pre-skills of reading form a solid and deep-rooted foundation for children when they move on to the learning-to-read phase.

Firstly, the sensory and physical development of the child is of great importance. This involves the development of skills such as body awareness, balance, laterality, muscle tone, spatial orientation, direction and sequence, as well as auditory and visual perception.

It is also essential that the child can distinguish beginning, ending and middle sounds in words. In addition, children must have a rich vocabulary and be able to recognize and analyze sounds auditorily. Language proficiency at the age of four provides an indication of how proficient the child will be in reading and writing by grade 4.

In the foundation phase, the Solidarity School Support Center (SOS) recommends the synthetic phonics approach for reading instruction. According to this, symbols (letters) are learned individually or as a group of letters (oe, ou, aa, oo). The sounds are already established auditorily in the pre-skills phase through speaking, listening and reading aloud. This sound approach is effective for learning sound and letter relationships, and helps learners to decode words quickly and accurately.


A rich vocabulary is extremely important to give meaning to new words, and enables learners to recognize and understand the words they encounter in a text. An extensive and colorful vocabulary is the foundation of successful reading comprehension. In this way, the reader recalls existing knowledge and experiences to unlock a text.

To build a rich vocabulary, parents, educators and teachers must deliberately teach new words and give learners the opportunity to use them. Learners’ vocabulary can also be expanded through reading, conversation and other learning experiences that expose them to a variety of words and concepts.

Intermediate phase (10 to 12 years)

Many children in this stage experience reading difficulties, including:

  • problems with decoding, where the reader struggles with sound and syllable recognition and, for example, cannot pronounce words;
  • poor reading flow, where the reader follows the words and lines with the finger or even the head; and
  • delayed language development and a limited vocabulary.

Reading problems can also be due to physiological factors, including Irlen syndrome (a visual processing problem), frequent ear infections, or phonological dyslexia. It can also simply be the result of a lack of interest.

In addition, parents and teachers can contribute to poor reading skills through a lack of sufficient reading aloud and structured reading instruction.

Deficient reading skills and reading comprehension can be dealt with by creating a reading culture and positive reading environment: Learners must feel safe, even if their reading skills are weak. The early identification of reading problems also enables educators to implement the right interventions.

Sensory learning fun

It is essential to include sight, sound and touch in the reading process. The more senses are involved, the easier children learn to read. Use readings and colorful picture books, or let readers touch or smell items. In this way, they are actively involved in the reading process and it stimulates their curiosity to want to learn more.

The selection of appropriate reading material is equally important in stimulating readers’ interest. Use different types of texts, including story books, interesting magazine articles and graphic novels, to prevent boredom.

Also develop learners’ vocabulary. Although it is important to promote comprehensive reading, vocabulary must be deliberately taught to expand word knowledge.

In addition, different reading comprehension strategies should be taught, including prediction, questioning, and summarizing.

The importance of technology

Technological aids such as electronic reading programs can be of great use to children with reading difficulties. Nevertheless, it is also essential that parents participate in reading instruction and encourage their children to read rather than, for example, playing computer games. Give the necessary recognition when children’s reading skills improve, and inspire them by being an enthusiastic reader yourself.

The Internet offers children instant access to an enormous variety of reading material and information these days. This development has a major impact on children’s reading habits and exposure to different texts. In addition, the digital age offers interactive reading experiences such as online games, reading apps, digital magazines, and animation. These types of reading materials can engage children’s attention and encourage them to read longer.

However, keep in mind that the quality of the reading material on the Internet varies. Not all information is accurate, reliable or suitable for young children.

For children who struggle with the physical reading process, audiobooks may be a useful alternative. This way they can listen to the book while reading along, which can help with decoding and comprehension. However, as with any tool, it is important that the technology is used in a balanced and purposeful way.

A high level of literacy (written, visual and digital) empowers us to gain access to knowledge, contribute to the country’s economic progress, and fully participate in cultural and social life. It helps us learn the necessary skills to be efficient workers.

Moreover, a proper reading culture is an important way to maintain and preserve the country’s linguistic and cultural diversity.

“Books are the quietest and most steadfast friends, the most approachable and wise counsellors, and the most patient teachers.” – Charles W Eliot

  • Marnelda de Beer, Marié Gräbe and Jana Terblanche are subject specialists of the Solidarity School Support Center (SOS).