As a little boy, I was surrounded by words, by stories. As I mentioned last month: Mom read to me; so did Dad, family friends, and relatives — introducing me to the vivid worlds of Richard Scarry, Dr Seuss, Niki Daly, and many others.
Later, in my first years of school, my favourite period was library. Once we’d chosen new books to take out, we’d sit down in front of our school librarian and she would read to us. That weekly half an hour was both a soothing sanctuary and a thrilling escape from the often bewildering world of primary school.
While not everyone who is read to as a child ends up being a writer, it’s unlikely I would’ve ended up as one if I hadn’t been. Those storybooks gave me a profound sense of the transformative power of words. They nurtured in me a sense of curiosity — a desire to get to grips with other places, people, and perspectives — that remains insatiable to this day. As we turned the pages together, I had the exhilarating sense anything was possible; that the only limits were the ones imposed by my imagination.
My childhood experience is an anomaly, however. One estimate has put the number of South African parents who read to their kids at 5%. There are many important reasons why we should be encouraging the 95% others to start doing so too.
Firstly, vocabulary. Academics reckon 15 minutes of reading a day exposes a child to 1-million written words a year. The more words they hear, the greater the headstart they have when they begin school, and the more likely they are to improve in literacy when they get there. This is something sorely needed; according to education expert Nic Spaull, 29% of grade 4 children are illiterate, while 58% cannot read for meaning.