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Growing young readers and writers: underpinnings of the Nal’ibali National Reading-for- Enjoyment Campaign



In this paper, I contextualise the work of the Nal’ibali national reading for enjoyment campaign, by raising and discussing some major issues which affect and influence formal literacy education in South Africa. I acknowledge how a wasteful tragedy is unfolding for millions of children who cannot learn to read and write well enough to learn effectively. Building on PRAESA's two decades of work in multilingual education and literacy I discuss the campaign which we designed and initiated to help to create the conditions which support the growth of reading for pleasure in multilingual settings. I then introduce the work of Nal’ibali, which means 'here's the story' in Xhosa.
Experience Learning
1Resourceful young children
Learning Brief 75 December 2014
It starts with a story
Since 1992, PRAESA (The Project for the Study
of Alternative Education in South Africa) has
argued strongly for a focus on two interconnected
educational priorities: the need to base our
education system on the languages children and
teachers speak, think and feel in; the need for
early literacy teaching approaches to be based in
meaningful and exciting encounters with stories
and books (Bloch 1999, 2000, Bloch and Alexander
2003, Bloch 2009).
In 2006, PRAESA began working with communities
to set up and support informal reading clubs to
expose children to the desirable conditions that we
believed should be in place for all children so that
they can learn to read and write. These experiences
over two decades informed the design of the
Nal’ibali Reading for Enjoyment Campaign which
began in 2012 when we took up the challenge1
to set in motion and drive a national children’s
literacy campaign.
Nal’ibali, now in its third year, means ‘Heres the
story’ in isiXhosa. With its key message ‘It starts
with a story’, Nal’ibali aims to revive and deepen
our appreciation of stories and narrative as being
not only essential as the primary way we as human
beings remember and organise our thoughts and
conceptual worlds, but also the basis for critical
1 Nal’ibali was initiated with support from the DG Murray Trust.
thinking and a meaningful education for all
children (Krashen, 1993, Clark and Rumbold, 2006).
It does this by sparking connections between
adults and children as they tell, read and talk about
stories2 in languages they understand as well as
those they want to learn. This is a powerful way
to sew seeds of curiosity and interest for reading
and writing and the desire and motivation to
know more. In so doing, we are helping to create
the kinds of informally structured conditions for
essential, but often invisible literacy experiences
to take place regularly in communities. By overtly
(re)positioning oral and written stories as valuable
in daily life, parents and other adults have the
chance to experience for themselves how homes,
community venues and after school spaces which
2 We do not exclude other genres or texts of any kinds, and indeed encourage these. But
the core thread of Nal’ibali is about storytelling, reading and writing.
Growing young readers and writers: underpinnings of the Nal’ibali
National Reading-for-Enjoyment Campaign
Nal’ibali Reading for Enjoyment Campaign
... When someone reads aloud, they raise you to the level of the book. They give you reading as a gift.
Daniel Pennac (2006:95)
Learning Brief 75Resourceful young children
are in fact places of learning, can contribute richly
towards children’s literacy development. Their
role, even those who are not readers and writers
themselves is central for the growth of literate
Jonathan Gotschall describes human beings as
storytelling animals:
Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human
mind was young and our numbers were few, we
were telling one another stories. And now, tens
of thousands of years later… we still thrill to an
astonishing multitude of  ction on pages, on
stages and on screens…We are, as a species,
addicted to story. Even when the body goes to
sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself
stories. (Gotschall 2012: xii-xiv)
By working with this ‘story addiction’ wisely, from
early childhood onwards, as research shows, we
enhance learning capacity and output. Sensible
as this may sound, such an understanding is not
widely accepted as being central to supporting
all children’s initial literacy learning, although it
is actually taken for granted, as ‘normal’ for the
children of middle class English speakers. Here,
we contextualise the work of Nal’ibali, by raising
and discussing some major issues which a ect
and in uence formal literacy education. We then
introduce the work of Nal’ibali.
The hegemony of formal literacy education
A widespread and largely unchallenged
assumption is that children need to, and will,
learn to read and write at school. However, huge
educational investment at many levels in South
Africa since 1994 has not given rise yet to the
kind of classroom environments that motivate
children to learn to read and write with meaning,
enjoyment and con dence (PRAESA 2012, Needu
2013). It is now widely accepted that there is a
crisis in literacy education in South Africa. Huge
numbers of children perform poorly in the Annual
National Assessments3 in grades 3 and 6 as well as
in the annual grade 12 National Senior Certi cate.
International comparative tests such as PIRLS 2006
(Howie et al 2007) and SACMEQ 2007 con rm that
most children cannot read at grade-appropriate
levels, and perform worse than their counterparts
in neighbouring countries in all but the ‘least poor
quintile (20%) of schools (Fleisch 2008).
What is going on?
I believe that at the level of formal schooling,
a wasteful tragedy is unfolding for millions of
children who cannot learn to read and write well
enough to learn e ectively. The dominant but
implicitly accepted view of literacy sees it as sets
of skills taught separately from context with the
intention to empower people once these skills
have been taught to them (Street 1984). This tends
to result in widespread neglect to appreciate
powerful culturally embedded aspects of reading
and writing which have major signi cance for how
to approach early (and later) literacy teaching. This
view underpins teaching methods which do not
systemically deal appropriately with early literacy
pedagogy or with the major foundation of learning:
oral language.
On social and cultural practices: An alternative
and broader view of literacy is to see it as being
embedded in people’s social practices (ibid) and
as being learned at the same time as reading and
writing happens in authentic ways. This view opens
the way for meaning-based and holistic teaching
approaches in school, but also points to the
3 In the February 2011 ANAs, the average score for Grade 3 literacy was 35% (Numeracy:
28%) and for Grade 6 Languages 28% (Mathematics: 30%) (DBE 2011:20).
December 2014 Resourceful young children
signi cance of home and community settings for
informal learning. Across South Africa and Africa,
children learn in and out of school in a range of
very diverse linguistic and socio-cultural contexts.
Barbara Rogo , an anthropologist, describes
children as cultural apprentices who learn the ways
of their families and communities by joining into
culturally valued activities. People around them
do not have to overtly signal or praise particular
activities for children to start appreciating their
value relative to other activities within their
particular setting. Rather they experience and
come to know these profoundly through the actual
meaningful activities they have in the day-to-day
rhythm of life. She explains how both individual
participation and community traditions are
dynamic, and how individuals both learn from and
shape cultural traditions as they ‘observe and pitch
in’, adapting them for use in their own lives (Rogo ,
1990, 1993). Put starkly, if people around you  nd
reading and writing useful and powerful, you will
start to engage and explore why this is so, and how
to do it for yourself. If, on the other hand they don’t,
the chances are that you won’t either.
On the prevailing language policy: The assumption
that African language speaking children need
only three years of teaching through their
mother tongue4 has disastrous implications
for a meaningful education. Nothing of the
transformative potential of a mother tongue
based bilingual system (Alexander 2004) promised
by the 1997 Language in Education Policy has
yet to be realised; after the  rst three years, the
strange reality of an unsystematic ‘abracadabra-
style’ linguistic mix prevails. In e ect, this is the
same ‘subtractive bilingualism’ system that has
been in place since apartheid days which in
the 4th year should bring about a transition to
English. To try to keep communicating and aid
understanding, many teachers continue to speak
to children in African languages. But all textbooks
are in English and reading, writing and assessment
has to happen in English. For many adults and
children, understanding, critical thinking and
making meaning are only possibilities, rather
than the central tenets of education. Research by
PRAESA and others over the years have pointed
to the educational gains for African language
speaking children of implementing mother tongue
based bilingual approaches (Ouane and Glanz
2010, PRAESA 2012). These have not, to date,
4 I am using the term mother tongue broadly – it is a familiar language or even
languages that the child understands well enough to learn meaningfully in.
been considered systematically by the National
Department of Education.
On the prevailing early literacy pedagogy: In
South Africa (and across Africa) few early literacy
experts have studied how young babies and young
children learn to read and write or experienced
for themselves the breath-taking learning
capabilities of young children. Thus, there tends
to be little appreciation of relevant international
theory and research about how literacy emerges
though informal and playful exploration and
experimentation with print. The early literacy
curriculum - molded often in large part by
policy makers, linguists and text book writers -
contributes to a disastrous capping of children’s
potential because it is based in  awed theoretical
assumptions that children are passive agents
who have to be fed knowledge, instead of seeing
them as active agents searching for meaning and
understanding as they interact with the world
around them. Many children dutifully master the
mechanics of reading but are often simply unable
to comprehend and interrogate texts, or write
Digging deeper: global forces reinforce
inadequate approaches
Keen global interests in the potentially fertile
African literacy markets enabled the USA’s DIBELS
(Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills)
to give birth to EGRA (Early Grade Reading
Assessment5) for Africa, which began in 2006,
with South African government involvement. It
is now all over (Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda,
Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, DRC, Ghana,
Liberia, Mali) and uses African languages. But that
is not enough; pedagogy counts too! The  ve
‘essential’ components of reading development
are proposed to be taught and assessed in strict
order6: 1. the alphabetic principle, 2. phonemic
awareness, 3. oral reading  uency, 4. vocabulary,
and 5. comprehension. In African settings, sadly
this reinforces many teacher’s own early personal
experiences as learners of ‘ma me mi mo mu’
and their later training which suggests that it
is quite normal for initial literacy learning to be
DIBELS has had large-scale support, but it has
been criticised and discredited by many too, for
Learning Brief 75Resourceful young children
perpetuating the (race and class) literacy gap it
is supposed to eliminate. This is because of the
di erent teaching methods arising from di erent
de nitions of literacy that are used for more and
less a uent children:
For those school/districts which are neither high
poverty nor low performing, children are less
likely to be held to this narrow view of literacy.
These children have a more balanced literacy
environment that includes viewing, writing and
other critical literacies. (Tierney and Thome
Children who are recipients of DIBELS however, get
a more restrictive curriculum, leading to the sad
Once again, the rich get richer and the poor are
left only with the most basic of basics (ibid).
The bias inherent in DIBELS arises in part because
its proponents have based their arguments on
literature concerning easily measured and fast
developing skills among young readers. It is
easier to ‘measure and quantify decoding skills
like letter knowledge, phonemic awareness,
and even ‘ uency’, than motivation, semantic
knowledgeandcomprehension among beginning
readers. However the latter matter deeply, and
are central to the beginning moments of literacy
learning in most literate homes and many ‘good’
schools; the former are of course necessary
components, but do not have to be taught  rst.
The long running ‘reading wars’7 between skills-
based and holistic views of reading development
ultimately concern control of the instructional
agenda and  nancial resources devoted to literacy
teaching textbooks. Enormous  nancial gains
are made by companies investing in ‘essential’
diagnostic tests and phonics workbooks. In the
last 20 years, ‘scienti c evidence’ has been used to
bolster methods based on the primacy of teaching
phonics (Strauss 2004). However the evidence
and the methods need to be scrutinised if we are
to make informed choices about what we o er
The evidence base
It appears that the phonics ‘approach’ has been
given a large boost via a remedial education
route that use phrenological neuroscienti c brain
imaging techniques, with dyslexia as the yardstick.
Dyslexia came to be con ated with the notion of
general reading di culty and includes all low-
performing readers, even very young ones, who
have not yet had the chance to learn (Shaywitz
2003). The claim is that normal as well as dyslexic
students learn to read fasterthrough methods that
break down words into small segments (phonics)
(Abadzi 2006). Abadzi claims that…
to attain high-level skills, learners must  rst
master component tasks in small bits. To increase
performance speed and accuracy, practice and
feed-back for error correction are necessary.
Only with manageable tasks and feedback can
learners progress to more complex skills. (Abadzi
2006: 21)
This approach bases itself on panels of experts’
reviews of reading research, for example Preventing
Reading Di culties (Snow, Burns, & Gri n, 1998),
the Report of the National Reading Panel (2000),
and Developing Early Literacy: Report of the
National Early Literacy Panel (2008). But it may well
misinterpret the intention of these reports, and
it arguably misunderstands the reading process
because of a failure to take into account relevant
factors relating to early learning, psycholinguistic
and socio-cultural factors and so on.
Shaywitz used evidence from NICHD 2000 research,
to recommend explicit phonological awareness
and synthetic phonics training to promote
e ective dyslexia intervention and to promote
reading instruction. She was supported in this by
a remedial educationalist, Reid Lyons, advisor to
President Bush at the start of No Child Left Behind.
Her model of reading is that spoken language is
instinctive and natural – you do not have to teach
a baby to speak – but reading has to be taught, it’s
arti cial, its acquired.8
The Problem
These are false arguments: learning to speak is
not inbuilt, it is learned through the baby’s early
life experience that forms the background within
which spoken language is understood (it is much
more taught informally than formally). Learning
to read and write is not essentially di erent:
it is learned in a similar way, as a developing
understanding growing from the child’s ongoing
8 See
December 2014 Resourceful young children
experience of what reading and writing is about
and how to do it.
The underlying view of the skills based approach
is that we decode print (unnatural language)
into sounds and words (natural language), which
are then comprehended by the brain. But oral
language evolved too!
Just as money is a symbolically embodied social
institution that arose historically from previously
existing economic activities, natural language is
a symbolically embodied social institution that
arose historically from previously existing social-
communicative activities …. (Tomasello 2003)
Listening is a complex process, involving joint
attention, understanding di erent roles, speakers
intention, and talking also involves physical skills
development with relevant organs (tongue, lips,
throat, breathing and so on) (Hobson1993).
Don Holdaway says:
There seems a strong case for looking at initial
language learning as a suggestive model –
perhaps the basic model - for literacy learning.
(Holdaway, 1979:21).
This ‘special case’ of developmental learning,
appears natural and happens with ease, and the
prevailing conditions for learning are similar to
those for visual perception, learning to crawl and
walk, ride a bicycle and so on.
We believe it is indeed the appropriate model for
literacy learning, and this applies for ALL children,
not just children of the elite despite claims that
this is not so (Abadzi 2006, Heugh 2009). Readers
develop the ability to make the direct link from
written language to meaning through experiencing
this link in their lives. The aim needs to be to attain
that direct comprehension and it does not  rst
have to involve sounding out. This means we need
to enable holistic engagement from the start, one
where young learners are free to make and correct
‘mistakes’, as they did when learning to speak.
In summary, whenchildren learn to read and write,
from the beginning they use their knowledge of
spoken language, knowledge of the world and
their experiences in it to bring meaning to and
transact with texts. They use cueing systems for
reading: grapho-phonic, semantic and syntactic
cues, aided byredundancy in text and the brain’s
inclination to guess/predict:that is unless they are
discouraged or stopped from doing so, by being
given decontextualised, low level texts to read, by
being forced to decode meaningless stu , or being
made to use a language they do not understand.
Putting theory to work: Nal’ibali in a
The Nal’ibali position is simple: because all children
need similar nurturing and motivation to become
literate, we urgently need to help to create
spaces where voluntary and regular reading for
enjoyment ‘reading club’ sessions can take place.
Apart from the Nal’ibali mentors, whose task is to
ignite community interest and involvement, then
support and monitor the process, neither children
nor the adults have to be there - they come because
they choose to.
Nal’bali has an ongoing national awareness and
advocacy campaign about the power and value of
stories and it provides guidance to an increasing
number of people in homes, schools and through
it’s network of reading clubs. We de ne a reading
club loosely as a gathering of between  ve and 50
children who meet at an agreed time and place at
least once a week, from 30 minutes to two hours,
with one or more adult volunteers. Because the
intention is communication around stories, the
adult-child ratio is preferably no greater than 1:10
(it is even better if it can be 1:5). The programme can
be as simple as ‘just telling and/or reading stories
or can be made up of a mix of songs, games, acting,
reading and writing activities. We have found that
all of these fun activities bring about bonding, a
Learning Brief 75Resourceful young children
keen sense of belonging. Everyone concerned is
a rmed by the commitment to sharing playful,
imaginative times together. Children in particular,
appreciate having their opinions and ideas listened
and responded to. We appreciate storytelling for
its role as a bridge to reading and writing, but we
also value it in and of itself to provide adults and
children with opportunities to connect with one
another as a group as they remember and share
old stories, and dream up new ones. Storytelling
invites everyone in, whether they do or do not read
and write themselves. However, some adults model
reading and writing: choosing stories they like
to read aloud to children, writing for, to and with
them, and then allow children to choose their own
books to look at, talk about and read, alone and
with friends. In some reading clubs, children are of
a similar age, in others, there are toddlers and teens
together in the same space. Di erent strategies are
worked out for dealing with opportunities and
challenges that arise from such groupings.
What does it take?
Reading material: Libraries are few and far
between, as are storybooks in African languages.
So, each week, an eight-page bilingual supplement
is created by PRAESA and is produced in partnership
with Times Media, presently in combinations of
English and Sesotho, Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans.
Each supplement is designed as a sca old for adults
to use each week for a reading club session with a
short article about any number of aspects relating
to reading and writing development in children of
all ages, stories to read aloud and to cut out and
keep, a story-star section about reading promoters
and clubs, as well as other story and book events
related information.
Knowing how: The reading clubs are establishing
themselves in many settings with a modicum of
infrastructure and comfort: homes, community
centres, schools, libraries, churches and mosques.
Some adults are teachers, librarians and crèche
workers, others are community members. Most
require an orientation to this informally structured
approach, so Nal’ibali o ers a range of mentoring
workshops on how to use the supplement and
other materials for various aspects of reading,
writing, storytelling and reading club set up and
maintenance. For many, the supplement is the only
source of reading material and guidance available
and is, for this reason, invaluable. But it has another
use too: we all become readers text by text, story
by story, and without access to a constant  ow of
material, nobody can become a discerning reader,
who knows what s/he cares to read and share.
The supplement o ers a way for many people –
both children and adults – to grow their personal
repertoires of stories.
In addition to its multilingual supplements,
Nalíbali produces radio stories across nine
di erent languages in partnership with SABC
Education, while Mxit subscribers receive
a Nal’ibali literacy tip each week on their
cell phone. All of the materials are freely
available to download on or
The way forward
A wave of enthusiasm for reading is growing in
hundreds of reading clubs9. The feedback from
participants is often extremely enthusiastic as the
quote from one father shows:
z“I’m a 37-year-old father of a 7-year-old girl.
Every Wednesday evening we read and do fun
activities instead of watching TV. I  nd your
supplement very resourceful because it teaches
her to read. I use the story theme to teach her
valuessuch as respect, discipline, love, sharing
etc. I would not know how to approach these
subjects if it wasn’t for your supplement.
Yet without concerted ongoing and far-reaching
collaborations and investment, the majority of
children will remain strangers to the joy and
power of print in their mother and other tongues.
Involvement is the key. For this reason we are
seeking supportive partnerships of all kinds to join
in, join Nal’ibali and give all children in South Africa
the chance of a meaningful, interesting and joyful
educational experience.
This learning brief was written by Carole Bloch, Director
of PRAESA. This article was  rst published in Language
Rich Africa policy dialogue - The Cape Town language
and development conference: Looking beyond 2015.
Edited by Hamish McIlwraith. A copy of the full series
of conference papers is free to download at http:// les/E291%20
December 2014 Resourceful young children
Facebook: nalibaliSA
Twitter: @nalibaliSA
The DG Murray Trust encourages its implementing partners to
share their experiences and learning in the form of a Hands-on
learning brief. Download guidelines on writing a
Hands-on brief from
For more information visit
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... As Kirkpatrick (2013, p. 14) puts it: "[i]f children are to master cognitively complex concepts, they can do this most easily by learning them in languages with which they are familiar". This claim is supported by several studies which have shown that teaching and learning in the L1 enhances the learners' cognitive learning process (Bloch, 2014;Benson, 2000;Collier & Thomas, 2004). ...
... This approach to early-grade instruction is well supported by research on language and learning. The cognitive benefits of using a familiar language of instruction include easy construction of schemata for learning and the availability of prior knowledge in learning new content (Bloch 2014;Benson 2000;Collier and Thomas 2004). The opposite effects are also well observed, in which the use of a medium of instruction not understood by the learner significantly inhibits learning (e.g., Diarra 2003;Harris 2011;Motala 2013;Trudell and Piper 2014). ...
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In this article, I describe and analyse some of the literacy events and practices taking place in a selection of multilingual early childhood (Reception Class and Grade 1) classrooms in Cape Town. The work forms part of a larger multilingual education project being carried out by PRAESA. I use descriptions of my observations of classroom activities and conversations with teachers to discuss the views and understanding teachers hold about reading and writing in early childhood, and the methods they use for teaching children from different language and socio‐cultural backgrounds. My own perspectives about the literacy learning process as well as what I consider to be important research and theoretical insights in the wider early literacy debate are used to make suggestions for future developments in multilingual education in South Africa. This article was originally published internally as a PRAESA (Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa). Occasional paper.
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In this article, I provide an overview and analysis in the domain of initial literacy learning of young South African children. I first give a sense of historical background and outline some of the extreme challenges faced in this area. I discuss the importance of understanding the multilingual nature of South African society for education, and describe some of the enabling policy shifts for language and early childhood development which have been developed since the change of government in 1994. I also describe how understandings about early literacy learning in South Africa are progressing, and relate these to international trends. I discuss how despite the positive nature of the developments in policy, little has changed as yet in practice for most young children, their families and teachers, who all suffer to varying extents from shortages of appropriate resources and information. I end by describing some of the initiatives underway in the country which are working to ensure that the trajectory is one of steady and positive change.
This book explores the driving forces behind the current government-sponsored resurrection of phonics, and the arguments used to justify it. It examines the roles played by three key actors--corporate America, politicians, and state-supported reading researchers--in the formulation of what Strauss terms the neophonics political program. Essential for researchers, students, and teachers of literacy and reading, and for anyone seeking to understand what is happening in U.S. public schools today, The Linguistics, Neurology, and Politics of Phonics: Silent "E" Speaks Out: * analyzes the political nature of the alleged literacy crisis in the United States, through an investigation of the political and corporate motives behind the renewed focus on phonics, and media complicity in promoting the neophonics political program as the solution to the so-called crisis; * examines the scientific claims of neophonics, including methodology, linguistics, and neuroscience, and exposes the flaws in its reasoning and the weakness of its arguments; * addresses the scientific, empirical investigation of letter-sound relationships in English (of phonics itself), and demonstrates the complexity of the system and its associated benefits and limitations in the theory and practice of reading; * proposes actions to help make a return to politically undistorted science and to democratic classrooms a reality; and * introduces, in a postscript, a formal analysis of the letter-sound system, using empirically based rules to convert one finite set of elements, the alphabet, into another, the phonemes of the spoken language. Offering up-to-date information and an original critique, this book makes two important contributions. One is the policy analysis linking government agencies, policymakers, and corporate interests. The second is the neurological and linguistic treatment of why traditional phonics programs are not the solution and why the rhetoric developed to support their resurgence is so far off the mark. © 2005 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.
The purpose of this paper is to reflect on the origins of social understanding. Drawing upon philosophical writings, I highlight those features of affectively patterned interpersonal relations that are especially important for a very young child's growing awareness and knowledge of itself and other people as people with their own minds. If we were without our biologically based capacities for co‐ordinated emotional relatedness with others, we should lack something essential for acquiring the concept of ‘persons’ who have subjective experiences and psychological attitudes towards the world. I illustrate some implications of this thesis by reviewing the phenomena of early childhood autism.