Want to build a culture of reading that motivates and inspires children to read

PRAESA, Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, is an organisation that works to promote reading and literature for children and young people in South Africa. Seeking to help young readers discover the joy of books and storytelling, PRAESA combines the latest research with creative methods to find new ways to bring children and literature together.

PRAESA was founded in 1992 by the anti-apartheid activist and academic Neville Alexander, who was held for ten years as a political prisoner alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. From the 1980s until his death in 2012, Alexander worked to raise awareness of multilingualism as a key to personal and societal development. His objective was to offer children schooling and literature in their native tongues. As he put it: “We have to begin to use other African languages in powerful ways.”

Originally established as a research and development unit attached to Cape Town University, PRAESA today is an independent organisation based in Cape Town. In the 1990s, current director Carole Bloch and coordinator Ntombizanele Mahobe partnered with Battswood Primary School in Cape Town to develop models for teaching reading and writing in multiple languages. With this project, PRAESA became one of the first organisations in South Africa to use books in different languages to help build a culture of reading that motivates and inspires children to read.

PRAESA has three core goals: to provide children with high-quality literature in the various South African languages; to collaborate with and foster new networks among publishers and reading promotion organisations; and to initiate and carry out activities that support and sustain a culture of reading and storytelling in socially vulnerable communities. South Africa is a country of 11 official languages, with a large gap between poor schools in rural areas and townships and urban schools with stronger resources. PRAESA was an early advocate of using literature and stories in literacy instruction. It has also addressed fundamental questions of how to support school systems in vulnerable areas and how to encourage bilingual or multilingual teaching.

PRAESA wants children to have not only traditional schoolbooks, but also literature that inspires them to read. In one early project, the Little Hands book series, PRAESA distributed short books in different African languages via the Stories across Africa project. PRAESA also works closely with authors, illustrators, publishers, translators and various other organisations - notably Biblionef South Africa, which plays a key role in the production and distribution of books nationally. Such collaborations are essential for developing new literary contacts and constellations, not only inside South Africa but also among different African countries. PRAESA continuously evaluates its work and has published a number of studies and scholarly articles on children’s literature, multilingual teaching, and literacy instruction.

In 2006, PRAESA started the Vulindlela Reading Club in Langa, a township outside Cape Town. The club was quickly followed by many more, both in Cape Town and in other provinces. Club activities emphasize the importance of weaving together books and group reading with dramatization, singing games and storytelling. PRAESA strives to support children’s self-esteem and linguistic identities and activities are held both in children’s native languages and in English. The starting point is always children’s natural curiosity about stories, reading and literature.

The Vulindlela Reading Club formed the point of departure for the Nal’ibali project: a large-scale national reading promotion program begun in 2012. Nal’ibali is a network of reading clubs that uses media campaigns to encourage children to read and inspire parents, grandparents and teachers to read with them. Bloch says, “It’s not enough to produce materials. You have to get them into the right hands.” PRAESA believes in change at the grass-roots level. Reading clubs are run by local volunteers, who attend workshops and receive training and mentoring. PRAESA continuously develops its strategies and methods to support socially vulnerable areas and reach out with stories and books. Within the Nal’ibali project, PRAESA created bilingual supplements distributed via the large South African newspapers. The inserts are free to order. Each includes a writing and puzzle section along with a story in both English and one of the official South African languages. In partnership with a new research organisation, the PETS Foundation, PRAESA has also initiated a project to explore using e-tablets in schools to support student reading.

PRAESA focuses on encouraging children to read for enjoyment, building their self-esteem and helping them connect to their native language through reading and stories. For more than twenty years, PRAESA has made powerful, innovative moves to highlight literature as a key component of both personal and societal development, always grounded in the specific conditions of South African society and culture. In 2014, PRAESA received the Asahi Reading Promotion Award, a prize instituted by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). PRAESA’s work manifests fundamental values of democracy and a view on human rights inherited from its founder, Neville Alexander. It is pledged to break down language barriers and support the peaceful co-existence of languages, in partnership with others and with full faith in linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity.