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Reading Champions: scaling Room to Read’s library approach to nurture a strong culture of reading in South Africa

April 29, 2024

Skill building Program delivery Educator training and coaching Content and curriculum South Africa

When you look back on your reading journey, what stands out? Do you think of having a story read to you? Or testing out your skills reading a book aloud? Maybe you were paired with an older student, a type of reading buddy who supported you as you navigated new worlds through books? 
In every form, Room to Read knows that building and practicing reading skills is a team effort, one that is both educational and joyful for everyone involved.  
Across our program countries, Room to Read equips families and communities with the tools they need to be collaborative support networks for early readers, helping them nourish a love and habit of reading in children. In South Africa, where a Progress in International Reading Literacy Study found that an alarming 81 percent of Grade 4 students could not read for meaning in 2021, this work has taken on an exciting, innovative dimension to improve both literacy and 
youth employment rates.

Introducing: Reading Champions! 

Beginning in 2021, Reading Champions is a Presidential Employment Initiative managed by South Africa’s National Education Collaboration Trust on behalf of the national Department of Education, to employ young adults in teacher-support roles. These “Reading Champions” help primary school educators promote reading and library usage to children in the early grades. Reading Champions are encouraged to be involved in a range of literacy-promoting opportunities, such as developing age-appropriate reading activities, supporting student reading clubs and facilitating reading events in their communities. Implemented in more than 12,000 public schools across nine South African provinces, the program’s goal is to nurture a strong, positive reading culture across the country. 
Room to Read has held a leading role in the Reading Champions program since the outset. Our literacy team has supported the development of the Reading Champions program manual and is serving as the lead trainer in all provinces, equipping local leaders, who, after receiving training from Room to Read, go on to train newly hired Reading Champions. As a nationally run effort, the Reading Champions program has enabled key elements of Room to Read’s library approach to be scaled across the country, paving the way for long-term, systemic integration of practices that will support current and future generations of children across South Africa.  
To date, there have been three cohorts of Reading Champions — totaling roughly 60,000 — benefiting at least 4.6 million children. At least 100 head trainers have been trained so far to further scale Room to Read’s best practices, and nearly 30,000 previously unemployed youth are expected to be a part of the next Reading Champions cohort.

A Reading Champion head trainer (left) leads a training session with a new Reading Champion cohort in South Africa. 

"I am a student at the University of South Africa pursing a Bachelor of Education degree," said one Reading Champion in King Cetshwayo District, KwaZulu Natal. "I applied to be a Reading Champion because I love reading books and teaching young learners. At the library I do things I love, and as a Reading Champion I set high expectations in our school, encouraging students to achieve higher standards."
Another Reading Champion noted: "The best thing that has happened during the Reading Champions project in my school is that young learners are now eager to borrow books and come to the library at every chance to read, without being asked to do so."
By supporting Reading Champions, Room to Read is helping to advance literacy and employment rates across South Africa through an initiative that uniquely leverages the inherent connection between learning and positive life outcomes. 

A Room to Read Literacy Program school in South Africa. 



With your support, our programs are having system-level influence, helping to build strong reading cultures and habits, and end illiteracy — in South Africa and around the world. 


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