The importance of reading | Western Cape Government

The importance of reading

Primary school learner reading a book in class.

Being able to read is an integral part of a child’s development and exposing children to books at an early age assists with their vocabulary development and language skills. Sadly, thousands of learners and adults don’t have basic literacy and numeracy skills.

According to statistics, nearly 60% of households don’t own a leisure reading book with only 14% of the population active book readers. Reports suggest a mere 5% of parents read to their children. 

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016, which assesses reading comprehension of grade 4 learners, places South Africa last out of 50 countries participating in the study. The tests revealed that 78% of grade 4 learners in South Africa fell below the lowest level on the PIRLS scale.

South Africa came in just behind Egypt and Morocco. The Russian Federation came first followed by Singapore, Hong Kong and Ireland. The results of these surveys show that in reading and numeracy South Africa is performing poorly. South Africa is lagging behind other African countries such as Tanzania and Zimbabwe.   

Literacy is the foundation 

Literacy is the foundation for all learning. Improving the levels of literacy can also assist in improving numeracy.

Improving literacy and numeracy skills are crucial to a child’s ability to develop fully as an individual. These skills can help them to live a satisfying and rewarding life and to participate fully in society as they grow and mature.

The PIRLS has a set of recommends of which the strengthening of teaching of reading literacy, in the Foundation Phase (grade R to grade 3), is at the top of the list. It also recommends that extra-mural reading be encouraged and that a culture of reading cultivated. Parents and learners must increase the amount of time spent on reading.

Promoting a culture of reading 

Provincial Minister of Education, Debbie Schafer says although there aren’t any quick fixes, there certainly are slow and sure ones. This is something the Department is focusing on for some time now.

“We are acutely aware that our rates of literacy and numeracy in South Africa are concerningly low, which negatively impacts on our education system and consequently our economic growth,” she said.

Minister Schafer says promoting a culture of reading, encouraging parents to read to their children and making books accessible in schools will help improve literacy levels of learners.

"No child should leave school without having mastered these skills. In fact, no child should proceed to grade 4 without having mastered basic literacy and numeracy.”

"If the basics are not laid at an early age, the problems persist throughout the system and become a problem for every teacher after that," she added.

How can I help?

Solving South Africa’s literacy problems rSchool learner reading a book in the libraryequires innovative solutions and collective involvement.

According to Minister Schafer, one of the biggest challenges is creating a culture of reading books and educating ­parents about the importance of reading books to their children, and if they cannot read, still encouraging their children to read.

"The ability to read is something so many of us takes for granted, but the reality is that because of our unequal history, many parents today can’t read at all, or not well. This inhibits them from taking an active interest in their children’s education because they don’t feel confident enough," Minster Schafer said.

One of the ways to encourage reading in your household is to make reading a habit. Do you need tips on what you can do at home to build the reading, writing of your children? The Department of Education has some great ideas on how you can make reading fun for your children. 

Another way of improving literacy skills is by visiting local libraries - borrowing books to read in your free time and participating in the activities on offer.  Research has shown that learners become more competent readers when they have access to a school library with a good resource collection. Libraries form part of the broader strategy of the Western Cape Education Department to ensure text-rich schools in the province.

The strategy, according to the Department of Education, includes placing graded readers in every primary school classroom and providing textbooks for core subjects for every learner in the province. So far, the project team installed library infrastructure, computers, more than 325 000 books and other materials, and trained about 630 teachers as library administrators.  

A total of 1252 schools in the Western Cape have library facilities, representing about 86% of schools in the province.

Donate books and change a life

Do you have reading books you’re no longer using? Consider donating it to a local school library or one of these NPOs to help make a difference.


International Literacy DayLearners with tablets

Learners with tablets

On 8 September we celebrate International Literacy Day, in which we highlight the importance of literacy. According to United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) the international global conference on this day will be discussing “Literacy in a digital world”. The conference has 3 objectives:

  1. To deepen the understanding of what kind of literacy skills people will need to navigate in a digital world and what this means for literacy teaching and learning.
  2. Share and analyse promising practices about policies, programmes, monitoring and evaluation as well as financing that advance literacy in a digital world.
  3.  Explore how digital technologies can support progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal 4, especially Target 4.6 on youth and adult literacy.

International Literacy Day has been celebrated annually since 1946 to advocate the importance of literacy.

The content on this page was last updated on 5 September 2019