Sparking children’s potential through storytelling and reading

Reading gives children the power to think critically and to imagine.
It builds empathy for others.

It is key to a child’s future because it is the foundation for learning.

Children who love reading can help change the path of our country – reading will help us to build powerful people, a strong economy and a connected society, allowing us to reduce poverty and inequality.

It starts with a story


Nal’ibali (isiXhosa for ‘here’s the story’) is a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign designed to spark children’s potential through storytelling and reading.

It was launched in 2012 by founding partners, PRAESA (the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa) and DGMT. Through its network of reading clubs and literacy mentors, training partnerships and media campaigns – as well as the development of children’s stories and other literacy resources in all 11 official languages – Nal’ibali is working to support parents, teachers, caregivers and communities to root reading and writing habits in children’s daily lives.  

“Nal’ibali’s approach brings a number of exciting options beyond traditional teacher development and material provision. It promotes reading as a communal responsibility and shows that anyone who is interested can make a significant difference in sparking and maintaining children’s love for the written word – irrespective of their own levels of education.”

Morgan Mthembu, USAID Project Development Specialist – Education

About the image: Children attentively listening to a community elder telling a story during a Nal’ibali reading club session in Amajingqui in the Eastern Cape. [Image taken on 20 May 2018 by Bart Love]


The results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)[1]PIRLS is a large-scale assessment of reading literacy in learners in Grade/Year 4. The assessment is carried out in five-year intervals, with around 50 countries now participating. PIRLS 2016 was the fourth cycle of the assessment, with the first one conducted in 2001. 2016 revealed that 78% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning. This means that while they may be able to read aloud and/or with the correct pronunciation, their reading comprehension levels remain low or non-existent.[2]Rule, P. 2017. South Africa has a reading crisis: why, and what can be done about it. The Conversation: 8 December 2017. Access here.

The ability to read for meaning and understanding
is critical because it forms the basis for learning

Reading comprehension by Grade 4 is especially important because this is when learners are expected to understand the language of instruction well enough to learn from textbooks and other material.[3]Spaull. N. 2016. Learning to read and reading to learn. A RESEP Policy Brief. University of Stellenbosch. Access here. This is also when many learners change from their mother tongue to English as their language of learning, which makes the problem even worse.[4]Ibid According to the Child Gauge 2017, 70% of children learn in an African language in Grades R to 3 then switch to English‚ with 90% of Grade 4s taught in English.[5]Jamieson L, Berry L & Lake L (eds) South African Child Gauge 2017. Cape Town, Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town.

Children who are not good readers at primary school level are therefore on a trajectory of limited educational progress. We see this in our high dropout rates, with only one in five children eventually passing Matric and enrolling in tertiary studies[6]Spaull, N. 2015. “Schooling in South Africa: How Low-quality Education Becomes a Poverty Trap. South African Child Gauge 2015. Access here. This is a tragic loss of human potential, with severe economic and social consequences. There is just not enough expertise to drive our economy. Low literacy levels cost South Africa an estimated GDP loss of R550-billion per year, and GDP per capita would be 25% higher if all South Africans were sufficiently literate to participate in the formal economy.[7]Gustafsson, M., Van der berg, S., Shepherd, D. and Burger, C. (2010). The costs of illiteracy in South Africa. University of Stellenbosch (Stellenbosch Working Papers: 14/10). Available here

Read more:

About the image: Nal’ibali Story Sparker, Somdaka Vomyisa, helps a learner to read aloud at a rural school in Amajingqui in the Eastern Cape. [Image taken on 23 May 2018 by Bart Love]


Nal’ibali is built on the logic that a well-established culture of reading can be a game-changer for education in South Africa.

For children to learn – and love – to read, they need to understand what they are reading for it to be meaningful and fun i.e. something they want to do again and again. The PIRLS results illustrate that in South African classrooms we are not effectively teaching children to read with understanding. In fact, the effectiveness of the largest part of South Africa’s schooling system is severely compromised by poor quality teaching, lack of school leadership and inefficient school management practices. Systemic problems are exasperated by a lack of formal early childhood development (ECD) opportunities and impoverished conditions in communities, which means that many children enter school lacking the nutritional, linguistic and cognitive foundations necessary for learning (for more about the education system and state of ECD in South Africa, explore the ‘Read more’ section below).

Read more:
Learn more about the quality divide of South Africa’s basic education system here.
Learn more about the provision of ECD services in South Africa here.

The problems in our education system are daunting and complex, requiring innovative interventions and strong teacher development approaches, of which there are several examples currently being implemented.[8]Read more about the Public School Partnerships pilot project here.  Read about the Funda Wande programme which trains educators to teach reading for meaning here. Read more about the Early Grade Reading Study (ERGS) here. But there is much that caring adults can do in addition, to improve children’s ability to reap the benefits of reading for pleasure. 

 “It starts with a story…”

Hearing stories from early on develops the neural connections and brain architecture that enable children to read, write, count and learn. It exposes them to more words and grows their vocabulary. Reading books to children helps them to develop important skills like attention span, communication, grammar and vocabulary,[9]Dickinson, D.K. et al. (2012). How reading books fosters language development around the world. Child Development Research, Vol. 2012. so when they get to school, they are then able to read better because they understand more. Positive associations with stories, books and reading sets the stage for ‘reading for pleasure’ – a powerful self-reinforcing incentive cycle whereby we read and engage with books because we enjoy doing so, which in turn strengthens our reading ability, which again increases the pleasure we derive from the activity, leading us to read even more, and so the cycle repeats itself.

A significant body of research reinforces the link between reading for pleasure and better academic outcomes for children.[10]See e.g. Krashen, S. (2004). The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Libraries Unlimited. When children read for pleasure, it has a greater effect on their educational achievement than their family’s socio-economic status.[11]Kirsch, I. et al. (2002). Reading for change: Performance and engagement across countries. Results from PISA 2000. Paris, France: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development; United Kingdom. Department of Education. (2012). Research evidence for reading for pleasure. Available from:; See also Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. (2013). Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading. Economic and Social Research Council: Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS Working Paper 2013/10) Literacy skills are also a strong predictor of future academic success in all subjects.[12]Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. (2013). Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading. Economic and Social Research Council: Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS Working Paper 2013/10).

Why reading for pleasure?

Why reading for pleasure?

Read more:

Why reading for pleasure? A handy infographic. Download here.

  • Free Voluntary Reading: The most powerful tool we have in language education. Written by international literacy expert, Dr. Stephen Krashen in 2015 and published by DGMT.   
  • Why listening to stories is part of learning to read, by Executive Director of PRAESA,Carole Bloch, published by DGMT, 22 September 2015.  
  • Brain food for growing minds: Why parents and teachers should rev up the read-aloud engine with their children and pupils, by Carole Bloch, first published in the Mail & Guardian, 27 February 2015.

The seed from which reading for pleasure grows is planted early in life, and is nurtured through the love and care that children experience when parents and significant adults in their lives take the time to talk with them, tell them stories and read to them. We know that when they go to school, children whose parents read to them, perform better at reading.[13]Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Hooper, M.  2017. PIRLS 2016 International Results in Reading. Retrieved from Boston College, TIMSS & PIRLS International Study. Access it here. Unfortunately, in South Africa only 15% of adults with children at home read aloud to them more than once a week, and two-thirds do not read to their children at all.[14]South African Book Development Council. 2017. National Survey into the Reading and Book Reading Behaviour of Adult South Africans 2016. Access it here.

In addition to reading role models, children also need access to quality books and stories if they are to learn to read, and love to read. Children with at least 20 books at home are more likely to complete school and reach higher education.[15]Evans, M.D.R., Kelley, J., Sikora, J. and Treiman, D.J. 2010. Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. 28, 171-197. Access it here. This is not only true for privileged children;  poor children with access to books have been shown to develop better reading skills.[16]Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Libraries Unlimited: Westport. View here. In fact, research has shown that books help the most in homes where parents are not highly educated.[17]Evans, M.D.R. et al. 2010. However, the most recent national survey describing reading behaviour in South Africa, found that 60% of South Africans do not have any books at home and only 7% take out books from community libraries, while almost a quarter (22%) said there is no library near to where they live.[18]South African Book Development Council. 2017. In addition, the number of schools with functional libraries is unclear, but is generally regarded to be as little as 8%.[19]Hart, G. & Zinn, S. 2015. The Drive for School Libraries in South Africa: Intersections and Connections.  Library trends, 64, (1): 19–41. Access here. Reading materials in African languages are particularly hard to come by.

Finally, adults’ attitudes about reading is another important aspect driving reading behaviour and the effort they will invest in reading to their children. On this aspect the findings of the national reading survey are startling: only a third of South Africans agree that everyone should be able to read; only half (51%) agree that reading increases knowledge; and only 5% of parents/caregivers agree that reading to children before they can talk or read helps them to learn.[20]South African Book Development Council. 2017.

A snapshot of our reading culture in South Africa

Why reading for pleasure?

Read more:
Download a snapshot of South Africa’s reading culture here.
Access the full National Reading Survey 2016 by the South African Book Development Council here.

It is within this context that Nal’ibali has positioned itself to mobilise, inspire and support an army of adults – parents/caregivers, grandparents and other family members, teachers, as well as literacy activists from all walks of life and organisations to help children to love reading.

In its simplest form, Nal’ibali’s model entails:


Mobilising more reading role models who share books and stories with children.


Creating frequent and enjoyable opportunities for children to listen to stories and read with a supportive adult.


Improving access to quality reading material for children, in all South African languages.


Increasing knowledge and awareness of the importance of stories and reading for pleasure for children’s cognitive and literacy development.

About the image: Children reacting to a story told to them by one of the community elders during a Nal’ibali reading club session in Amajingqui in the Eastern Cape. [Image taken on 20 May 2018 by Bart Love]

To activate a national movement, Nal’ibali’s strategy is to position itself as:

  • A household name and brand that is recognised and loved across the nation;
  • A larger-than-life phenomenon that people are eager and motivated to be a part of;
  • An innovator that incubates, tests and scales new ideas to shift the needle on reading; and
  • A responsive and resourced organisation, with strong capacity to mobilise and support adults to spark children’s potential through storytelling and reading.

Read more:
We do have solutions for SA’s reading crisis, by DGMT CEO, David Harrison. First published by the Mail & Guardian on 26 January 2018.
Growing young readers and writers: underpinnings of the Nal’ibali National Reading-for-Enjoyment Campaign.  A learning brief written by Nal’ibali and published by DGMT in December 2014.

About the image: Examples of books in IsiXhosa distributed by Nal’ibali and used at a reading club session in Amajingqui in the Eastern Cape. [Image taken on 20 May 2018 by Bart Love]

Nal’ibali reaches out to and supports South Africans to read and share stories with children through the following key platforms, programmes and resources:

Bilingual Newspaper Supplements:

In partnership with Tiso Blackstar, Nal’ibali produces bilingual reading-for-enjoyment supplements that contain stories, literacy activities, as well as reading and reading club tips and support. The supplements appear every two weeks to inspire, support and guide parents, caregivers, teachers, librarians and reading clubs to make reading and storytelling enjoyable and accessible, as well as to provide a steady supply of stories in children’s home languages to sustain their love of reading. 

Tiso Blackstar distributes almost 150 000 supplements fortnightly through several of its newspaper titles in various language combinations (i.e. English-isiXhosa, English-isiZulu, English-Sepedi etc.)  A further 54 000 copies are donated and distributed direct to reading clubs, community organisations and libraries and 200 000 are distributed to rural schools in the Eastern Cape participating in the Story Powered Schools project (read more about this project below). Back copies of the supplement can be downloaded from the Nal’ibali website.

Read more:
Nal’ibali: using newspaper supplements to inspire reading for enjoyment. A learning brief written by Nal’ibali and published by DGMT in August 2014.

Nal’ibali Radio Stories

Until June 2017 Nal’bali’s children’s stories were broadcast three times a week in 11 official languages across SABC radio stations. Radio remains the most accessible medium for both urban and rural citizens alike in South Africa, with more than 28 million adults listening to SABC stations each week. Nal’ibali hope to renew their contract with the SABC in 2019. Since 2014, Nal’ibali stories have been broadcast on community stations in four provinces. The radio stories are also available for download from the Nal’ibali website and mobisite.

About the image: Funda Leader Abongile Davani who runs the local library at Amajingqui Great Place (Eastern Cape) facilitating activities with children before a reading session at the library. [Image taken on 23 May 2018 by Bart Love]

Nal’ibali Reading Clubs

Nal’ibali currently hosts and supports reading clubs in seven provinces. Reading clubs are safe, informal spaces where children can freely engage with books and stories. These clubs are run by Nal’ibali representatives, volunteers, parents, librarians and FUNda Leaders (see below).

FUNda Leaders

The FUNda Leader Network is Nal’ibali’s ‘light touch’ model whereby anyone can join the campaign and learn how to become literacy champions. Members of the public are able to sign up online and access Nal’ibali’s Kick-off Kit, which provides links to stories, activities, rhymes and other literacy resources in a variety of South African languages. FUNda Leaders are also eligible for Nal’ibali training and assistance from Nal’ibali mentors for their activities and events.

Watch this inspiring 7-minute video showcasing
the local interventions of four FUNda Leaders.

Who are Funda Leaders?

A phone survey of 5% of Nal’ibali’s FUNda Leaders revealed that they are overwhelmingly female (79%) and young – almost 60% of them are under 35 years old, with 66% living in urban areas, and nearly half (49%) in informal settlements. They are also multilingual – just 4% of FUNda Leaders can only speak one language, and they are educated – nearly 80% of the sample had a least a Matric and 55% had some kind of post-school qualification. The average number of children reached per FUNda Leader is 24, which means that the network is potentially reading regularly to more than 92 000 children.

Read more:
Read more: “Your child is also my child” – becoming part of an “army of adults” reading to children, by Katie Huston. First published by the Sowetan on 2 June 2016.

Nal’ibali Literacy Training

Nal’ibali provides training to individuals or organisations wanting to set up their own reading clubs or incorporate reading-for-enjoyment practices into their existing programmes, libraries or schools. Nal’ibali training sessions provide practical tools and information to help participants understand the benefits of reading for enjoyment for children’s literacy development, as well as demonstrations that allow participants to experience the creative ways in which they can inspire a love of reading and writing in children within the various environments in which they work.

Story Powered Schools

Launched in 2017 with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Southern Africa, and in partnership with the Department of Basic Education’s ‘Read to Lead’ campaign, Story Powered Schools (SPS) is a three-year pilot project that aims to bring a culture of reading to 720 schools in rural KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. Through the project, Nal’ibali provides training, mother-tongue reading materials, as well as regular support from Nal’ibali Story Sparkers (local programme ambassadors) to participating schools each week to ensure teachers and reading clubs are using and enjoying Nal’ibali materials with their learners.

Awareness and advocacy campaigns

In conjunction with its engaging interpersonal programmes on the ground, Nal’ibali runs a mass-scale media campaign that makes use of celebrity role models and regular awareness events to further spread knowledge about the power of stories and reading, and to position Nal’ibali as a household name.

Since its inception in 2012, South African authors and celebrities such as Zolani Mahola, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sindiwe Magona and Gcina Mhlophe have supported such initiatives as Nal’ibali’s annual World Read Aloud Day drive and Story Bosso national storytelling competition. In 2014, the campaign ran its national ‘Story Power. Bring it home’ billboard campaign, with over 500 multilingual billboards erected across the country – making it one of the largest billboard campaigns to date in South Africa. Social media also serves as a powerful tool for Nal’ibali to reach its audiences; the campaign, for example, now has more than 25 000 Facebook followers. Its national profile was further raised in 2017 through 90-second promotional videos aired in English, isiZulu and isiXhosa at taxi ranks across the country through Rank TV.

About the image: Funda Leader Nophelo Mapukata together with Nal’ibali Story Sparker Somdaka Vuyiswa runs reading clubs and read to children around Amajingqui a remote rural area in the Eastern Cape [Image taken on 23 May 2018 by Bart Love]


Are more adults reading to children because of Nal’ibali? The answer is YES. The campaign’s reading network has grown exponentially since its inception in 2012 and, as a result, so has the number of children being reached. In 2018 we are starting to see early indications that Nal’ibali has the potential to generate momentum that could eventually lead to a tipping point in adult reading behaviour that impacts children.

Nal’ibali Reading Clubs:


Children being regularly read to at clubs:


People trained:


For a map of the national distribution of Nal’ibali reading clubs, click here.

Social innovation map locations

Children read to on World Read Aloud Day by South Africans:


Literacy activists/FUNda Leaders:



On average, FUNda leaders report that they regularly reach 24 children each, which means they are potentially reading regularly to 92 000 children.

Has Nal’ibali been able to increase access to children’s reading materials in South African languages?  Again, the answer is YES:

Books distributed:


Reading-for-enjoyment supplement by end 2017:


Website downloads:


Read more:
A million happy faces: Nal’ibali talks about the success of World Read Aloud Day 2018. Published by DGMT on 16 March 2018. 

Nal’ibali is able to grow and respond to demand because of investment and partnerships that have been growing year on year:

The FirstRand Empowerment Foundation came on board in 2017 as a significant funder over the next two years. A significant grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is enabling Nal’ibali to work with 720 rural schools in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal over a course of three years (read more about Story Powered Schools above).

Partnerships with the Department of Basic Education (DBE), the Department of Arts and Culture, the Community Work Programme, the SABC and others are integral to Nal’ibali’s approach of connecting with and inspiring as many adults and children as possible across the country. For example, working with the DBE allowed Nal’ibali to train 111 officials as trainers and 777 teachers in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, the Free State and Western Cape in 2017. Partnerships with provincial libraries enabled the campaign to reach 346 librarians and library assistants through training and to co-create 70 in-house active reading clubs by the end of 2017.

To further mainstream reading with children, the campaign has also partnered with well-known brands and retailers to distribute Nal’ibali stories with readers of their magazines or digital platforms. These include JetClub magazine, Ackermans magazine, PicknPay, Media 24, and All4Women. From 2018 Nal’ibali will also work in partnership with Exclusive Books and the Gauteng Department of Education to provide of 1 800 books to 100 schools respectively in the Gauteng area, together with Nal’ibali training and monthly visits.


Nal’ibali estimates that about 20% of South Africans have had contact with the campaign in some form or other. The growth in the number of adults reading to children, the increased participation in World Read Aloud Day, as well as the increased reading opportunities for children in communities shows that Nal’ibali is making an impact. What is not yet clear is the extent to which Nal’ibali is impacting attitudes about reading that would lead to behaviour change in homes and schools.       

A randomised controlled trial (RCT) of the Story Powered Schools project in partnership with USAID and NORC at the University of Chicago will fill some of the gaps in understanding Nal’ibali’s impact. This rigorous study will compare participating schools to treatment schools over a two-year period to see whether children at Story Powered Schools are more eager, habitual and skilled readers. The evaluation will also examine access to reading material and teacher attitudes and practices.

To read more about how we can get South Africa reading, browse our thematic collection on the topic here.

How we can get South Africa reading

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