Make sure every child is ready to read and do maths by the time they go to school


Nal’ibali (isiXhosa for ‘here’s the story’) is a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign designed to spark South African 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, literacy mentors, training programme partnerships and media campaigns – as well as the development of children’s stories and other literacy resources in 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.

 Vuyiswa Somdaka, a Nal’ibali Storysparker in rural Eastern Cape leads a reading group.

The disconnect

This explains why the project exists

A startling statistic that we have become accustomed to hearing is that 78% 1 Progress in international reading literacy study of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language. This means 8 out of 10 children may be able to read aloud and/or with the correct pronunciation, but are unable to comprehend what they are reading.

Reading with meaning by Grade 4 is especially important because this is when English becomes the language of instruction in most schools. Learners are expected to understand the language well enough to learn from textbooks and other materials.

Children unable to read at primary school level are sadly on a trajectory of limited educational progress. We see this in our high school dropout rates, with 40% 2 Zero Dropout Campaign of learners dropping out of school before completing matric.

This is a tragic loss of human potential, with severe economic and social consequences. There is just not enough expertise to drive our economy. GDP per capita would be 25% higher if all South Africans were sufficiently literate to participate in the formal economy.

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% borrow books from community libraries, while almost a quarter (22%) said there is no library near to where they live. In addition, the number of schools with functional libraries is unclear but is generally regarded to be as little as 8%. Reading materials in African languages are particularly hard to come by, with the majority of materials still being published in English and Afrikaans.


The majority of South Africans are stuck in an inequality trap with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Most are stuck in intergenerational loops of exclusion with few chances to escape. Breaking this cycle requires a fundamental change in life trajectories, starting in the womb.

Think of a Möbius strip – just one twist in the circle allows you to trace a completely different pattern. Instead of being stuck on the inside of a loop, you emerge on the outside. In the same way, escaping the inequality trap requires a fundamental twist to set South Africa on a new path.

The twist in thinking

This explains how the project approaches problems

Nal’ibali’s approach brings a number of exciting options beyond traditional teacher development and material provision. For children to learn – and love – to read, they need to understand what they are reading for it to be meaningful and fun.

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 expands their vocabulary. Reading books aloud to children helps them to develop important skills like attention span, communication, grammar and vocabulary. 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 books for enjoyment, which in turn strengthens our reading ability, and so the behaviour is adopted and the cycle repeats itself.

Children also need access to quality books and stories if they are to learn to read. Children with at least 20 books at home are more likely to complete school and reach higher education. This is not only true for children from wealthier households; children in low-resource communities who have access to books have been shown to develop better reading skills.

Adults’ attitudes about reading are a crucial aspect driving reading behaviour and the effort they will invest in reading to their children. But the findings of a 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.

The trajectory change

This explains what the project is doing to make a difference

Are more adults reading to children because of Nal’ibali? The simple 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. As of 2018, we started to see 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. 

Visit the impact page on the Nal’ibali website to find out more about the difference Nal’ibali is making in homes, schools and communities around the country.

By 2024, Nal’ibali aims to have reached two-thirds of the South African population (39 million people) through mass media. In 2022, Nal’ibali reached over 22 million people (37% of the target) through radio, television and by distributing reading material. And by 2024, Nal’ibali aims to have reached 25% of children under 10 (2.8 million) through face-to-face interaction. In 2022, Nal’ibali reached over 2 million children (75% of the target) through children read to on World Read Aloud Day, children in reading clubs and via programmatic partnerships. 

In its simplest form, Nal’ibali has been able to achieve these milestones by:

  • Mobilising more adult reading role models (literacy volunteers) who share books and stories with children.
  • Creating frequent and enjoyable opportunities for children to listen to stories and read with a supportive adult through children’s reading clubs.
  • 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.


Visit the Nal’ibali website to learn more:

Trying to change life trajectories is ambitious and profound. It requires us to radically influence the lives of individuals and to be part of changing the circumstances in which they live.

Helpful Resources

Useful Links

  • Nal’ibali WhatsApp
    Stories can also be accessed for free by sending the word “stories” to 0600 44 22 54 in eight languages.
  • Bilingual newspaper supplements
    In partnership with Caxton’s Community Newspapers and the South African Post Office, Nal’ibali produces bilingual reading-for-enjoyment supplements in all 11 official language combinations. 

  • Nal’ibali radio stories
    Nal’bali’s children’s stories are broadcast weekly in 11 official languages across all regional SABC radio stations. 

  • Become a literacy volunteer
    Sign up to FUNda Leaders online.

  • Nal’ibali’s online literacy training
    Type the word “training” to 0600 44 22 54  to join the Nal’ibali WhatsApp platform.

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