Global Perspectives on Human Language:
The South African Context

      Programmes to Increase Literacy in South Africa  

Language & Education

History & Culture

Sites & Scenery

Additional Links


Yoo-Yoo Yeh
Updated 9-19-2004

Students of the Amy Biehl Foundation's Youth Reading Role Model Program

For a more extensive background on the context of South Africa's schools, please read the essays about inequality and education policies in the "Language and Education" section of this site.

Literacy rates in South Africa are very low. Thirty percent of adults are functionally illiterate (ELRU).   One of the basic causes of this is the lack of money to fund education. Although up to 20% of the nation's budget is spent on educational programmes, resources are not sufficient to provide every learner with the opportunity to become a confident reader and writer. Inequitable funding structures, disparities in school fees, insufficient teacher training, lack of supplementary materials in indigenous African languages, absence of access to books are typically seen as the causes of low literacy rates. While these are certainly key factors, specialists also point out that South Africa does not have a "reading culture."  

The attitudes toward reading in particular are not conducive to literacy, and include:

  • Reading is not something people do during their free time;
  • Reading is not something useful outside of school;
  • Reading is often not seen as an empowering skill

A huge chunk of the population does not have books in their homes.   Drop-out rates are above 50%, with many students finding no point in continuing, or getting recruited by neighborhood gangs (Abrams).   Many parents also do not know about the resources they could offer or seek out to further their children's education (ELRU).   Differences between the language used as the educational medium and the language spoken at home add to the difficulties of building a reading culture.

To work on these issues, the South African Department of Education has help from a number of literacy-promoting non-governmental organizations (NGOs).   Each has a set vision, set programmes, and areas of operation.   Although the methods and resources these organizations use are tested and revised, and groomed for the populations they serve, they cannot guarantee complete effectiveness because of many external factors.   Also, our visits to several "needy" schools showed that the nation is by no means saturated with these programmes.   The programmes of the NGOs listed here were not well-known in the communities we visited.   Nevertheless, we hope to see the fruits of these NGOs efforts reflected in increased literacy among this upcoming generation.

The five literacy programmes this site focuses on include:

•  Centre for the Book

•  Read, Educate, Adjust, Develop   (READ)

•  The Molteno Project

•  Early Learning Resource Unit   (ELRU)     

•  Project Literacy

A few smaller programmes worth looking into include:
- Amy Biehl Foundation's "Youth Reading Role Models"
- Masifunde Sonke
- Bookeish
- Parent and School's Learning Club Project

Centre for the Book

Centre for the Book distributes free children's books, gives writing workshops, and promotes the publication of South African books in all 11 official languages. It runs five projects:

•  First Words in Print (FWIP): a mission to get books into the hands of children ages 3 to 9.   In April 2003, phase one of the project was deployed in all 11 provinces.   2,500 sets of books were distributed through Early Childhood Development Centres, libraries, and Health Services.   Each set contained four books written by South African authors in English and mother tongues.   Phase two, another set of books, is ready to be deployed in Kwazulu-Natal this year.

•  Children's Literature Network: an online forum

•  Community Publishing: an effort sponsored by NB Publishers to train small publishers in marketing, distribution, and other business issues, in hopes that books that previously would not have been looked at by big publishers will get a chance.

•  Writer Development: workshops and courses for writers

•  World Book Day: each year, on April 23rd , a youth writing competition is held in the greater Cape Peninsula area of Western Cape.   60,000 posters are distributed throughout the area and writing workshops are giving to teachers and librarians.

Of these five programmes, only the First Words in Print (FWIP) project covers schools in all the provinces of South Africa.   An evaluation of FWIP is available from the website at: .

Some highlights:

•  thousands of children owned a book for the first time

•  many children were spotted reading books on their own, for fun, some even after three months

•  caregivers need to be trained that reading can be fun , not just learning

Especially noteworthy is the effort towards giving South African books to these children.   The evaluators of FWIP discovered several preschools with only a few books, all of which were the commonly available Euro-centric literature.  

The FWIP's idea of distributing free books to encourage reading has been utilized by programmes in the United States, like "Reading is Fundamental".   A current protest in South Africa against the VAT (tax) on books points out that many people in South Africa cannot afford to buy books, meaning that free books may be the only books a child receives.

Read, Educate, Adjust, Develop (READ)

READ is one of the largest literacy programs, with 13 centres throughout South Africa and at least eight major projects.   It trains teachers, develops curriculums, and supplies schools with teaching materials. The eight projects are:

•  Pre-primary: trains Grade R teachers in a set of seven modules.   Classroom resources are provided, and follow-up visits evaluate the efficacy of the program and encourage the teacher.

•  Primary: a curriculum in which reading and writing are taught using the "apprenticeship method" has been developed and used.   Tries to encourage "initial literacy in the home language".

•  Readathon:  a handbook distributed to thousands of schools across the country, filled with classroom activities involving reading.

•  Rally to Read: training and books for rural schools.

•  Learning for Living: funded by R153 million from the Business Trust, this program aims to reduce the repeater rate by supplying schools with materials and training teachers.   About 900 schools have benefited and 12,000 teachers have been trained.   For more info, see

•  Banyan Tree: a project in the Warmbaths and Mahwelereng districts of Limpopo province, involving training and materials.

•  Festival of Books: held at 1500 schools, this is a competition of dramas the children are encourage to come up with, based on their favorite stories.   Winners perform at regional galas.

•  Festival of Stories: this is a one-day event for teachers to compete in story-telling abilities.

READ goes in, trains, and leaves, allowing it to touch more groups with the same staff.   Some All-Africa Conference delegates noticed a "preponderance of materials from one New Zealand publisher and the lack of South African children's literature" in READ (Sisulu).

The Molteno Project

Originally a project of Rhodes University, the Molteno Project has developed a commonly-used Mother Tongue curriculum, Breakthrough to Literacy , and a popular transition-to-English curriculum, Bridge to English .   Their project has been also implemented in Botswana and Namibia, and declared a success (Sisulu).

Impact Study:

Early Learning Resource Unit (ELRU)

ELRU is an Early Childhood Development centre whose mission includes "promoting and providing access to knowledge and skills" and "affirming and harnessing the potential of diversity".

ELRU provides programmes for training educators and community developmentors, develops materials for classroom use, and researches issues in the ECD arena.   The ELRU currently trains in over 80 towns and villages. ELRU programms include:

•  Leadership in Early Childhood Development (LECD): The ELRU offers five levels of qualifications in ECD.   These programmes have been approved by the SETA and the SAQA, and trainees can achieve a National Certificate in ECD.

•  Foundation Phase: Training teachers to be able to facilitate numeracy, literacy, and lifeskills learning programmes for students in the Foundation Phase of school (early primary).   This runs in Cape Town and parts of the Western and Eastern Cape.

•  Anti-Bias: "challenges beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and social and institutional practices which are oppressive", through workshops, courses, and ELRU-developed resources.

•  RPL: screens veteran educators who still do not have official qualifications.   Aims to provide "formal recognition of [..] lifelong learning" to educators who qualify

Also, a pilot programme for introducing parents to educational media, Takalani Sesame, has also been launched, with positive results.   The ELRU also assists with a number of separate projects not listed here.       

The ELRU supports South African books for children, in the different official languages.   The Anti-bias project influences which books the ELRU chooses, all of which are careful to advocate diversity and awareness of prejudices.

Project Literacy

This project encourages reading in the home by training the parents themselves how to read to their children.   This is supposed to help the newly literate parents "gain confidence in their abilities and also realize they can play a valuable role in their children's education." It also helps the children learn to love reading, helping to create that very-important reading culture.

This project operates in sixteen sites in the Eastern Cape, Free State, Limpopo Province and Gauteng.

Amy Biehl Foundation- Youth Reading Role Models

Older students read aloud to younger students in over 20 primary schools in the Cape Town area.   This program, for some schools, help alleviate the issue of using students' mother tongues.   If teachers are unable to speak the mother tongue, the older students can. This program helps keep some of the mother tongue in schools where teachers speak mainly English or Afrikaans, along with showing a positive side of reading through young role models for the children.

We had the privelege of seeing this program in action at one of the primary schools. Four older students read a picture book to an eager group of preschoolers, in both Xhosa and English.  


Bookeish holds the International Festival of Books on April 23 rd .   Events are mainly held in Cape Town, with a few events around the country.

Masifunde Sonke

Sponsored by the South African Department of Education.

Parent and School's Learning Club Project

 "(E)ncourages parents to share their experiences and knowledge with the schools so tht these can be incorporated into the school curriculum."   - "successful and well received by communities, but it has had to curtail its activities due to a lack of funds." (Sisulu)


References and Sources

Sisulu, Elinor.   "A Reading Family."    September 1999. Accessed on September 17, 2004.

ELRU Informational Packet & '03-'04 Annual Report Accessed on September 18, 2004. Accessed on September 17, 2004. Accessed on September 17, 2004. Accessed on September 18, 2004. Accessed on September 17, 2004. Accessed on September 17, 2004. Accessed on September 17, 2004. Accessed on September 17, 2004.