Upon entering the classroom at Lantana Primary in Lentegeur, Read to Rise programme manager Roscoe Williams is greeted with hugs and high fives from excited Grade Two learners.
The learners had been waiting in anticipation for their interactive reading session to begin as word spread that Williams was in the building. After three years of visiting the school, his Read to Rise programme has become a favourite activity.
Read to Rise is a non-profit organisation promoting literacy and access to books in schools in under-resourced communities, founded by Williams’ brother Athol Williams – twice a Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry award winner – and his wife Taryn Lock.
“As the name indicates, we firmly believe that children need to read in order to rise in their personal development and contribution to society,” said Roscoe, who received a LeadSA Hero award in 2015 for his community work.
Included in the books the children interact with is Athol’s ‘Oaky’ series illustrated by Lock.
The organisation started its work at Meadowridge Primary in Lenteguer in 2013 and has since visited all of the 45 primary schools in Mitchell’s Plain, with Athol’s two books in his ‘Oaky’ series having been distributed to 39,108 Grades 2 and 3 learners.
Beyond Mitchell’s Plain, the organisation has visited schools in surrounding areas such as Manenburg and Bishop Lavis. “We also have a team in Soweto that has visited 20 schools,” said Roscoe.
“We aim to address the troubling reality that young children in our communities are not reading as much as they require for their educational development. Children in the foundational phase should be reading around 40 books per year. In our under-resourced communities children are reading only one to two books per year,” said Roscoe.
“A critical part of our programme is that we do not just drop books and mini-libraries off at schools. Rather, along with volunteer readers, we personally visit every classroom to which we contribute. This is central to our efforts to inspire learners to read and to create excitement about learning”.
During the fun interactive session at Lantana Primary, learners were given a lesson on ‘Oaky and the Sun’ and asked to identify the different parts of an oak tree on a brightly coloured poster. The story is an allegory of the different stages of life and narrates how an acorn, guided by the sun, develops into a sapling, into a small oak tree and then into a big oak tree.
A roar of laughter and disbelief filled the classroom as Roscoe told learners they are saplings, since they all preferred to describe themselves as “big oak trees”.
While a volunteer reads and then quizzes them on the story, learners wait in anticipation to be called upon to answer the questions, with some unable to contain their enthusiasm and shouting the answers out of turn.
“Oaky and the Sun is about all of us,” they belted out in unison. After the quiz, learners are asked to read aloud and are given their own copy of the book and a pencil to take home with them, which they “pinky promised” to take care of and read every day. The organisation mainly receives funding through donations and the Lantana Primary handover was sponsored by the Albert Wessels Trust.
Roscoe stressed the importance of learners asking questions in class and at home when they are unsure of something, just like Oaky asks questions of the Sun, who represents a teacher. “Children who love reading excel at school and go on to become constructive members of society. It all starts with reading,” he said.
“It is a really wonderful experience for our learners. [Read to Rise is] unobtrusive, they come in and do their thing and the kids enjoy that,” said Lantana Primary principal Vanessa Berry.
“Most of the learners come from disadvantaged backgrounds and would not have been able to purchase the book. Read to Rise gives learners the opportunity to get the book free of charge. It is a springboard to get started with reading,” said Berry.
“Book ownership is an important step towards children’s love of reading. Children who own books and come from homes where books are available perform much better at school,” said Roscoe. “Our programme introduces books into many homes for the first time, giving parents the opportunity to read with their children, and giving children the chance to share the magic of reading with siblings and friends,” he said.
Apart from distributing the Oaky series, Read to Rise also donates mini-libraries to each classroom they visit to help address the lack of adequately-stocked libraries, and 231 mini-libraries have been donated so far. These are brightly coloured bookshelves with 50 new, age-appropriate, English, Afrikaans and Xhosa reading books. They are managed by the teacher to ensure learners are reading the required number of books per year and to monitor their literacy progress.
A second instalment called ‘Oaky and the Happy Tree’ is distributed to Grade 3 learners in Mitchell’s Plain. The books are available to purchase at R85.
The initiative is supported by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, with department spokesperon Elijah Mhlanga stating the department would partner with any organisation working to ensure that learners embrace reading as part of their lifestyle.
“The ability to read can expose people to opportunities, that’s why as a department we will continue to urge South Africans to drop all and read for at least 30 minutes a day,” stated Mhlanga.