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Why children should be encouraged to read books written in their mother tongue

by | Feb 29, 2024 | Road to Literacy

By Barbara Strydom, Publishing Manager at Oxford University Press

Every five years, South African children across the country take part in an international test that helps us see trends in how well our children are reading. It is called the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Children in Grades 4 and 6 are given mother tongue passages to read. They are asked comprehension questions based on what they have read to test whether they can read for meaning.

The results for the 2021 tests were not good.

The 2016 tests found that 78% of Grade 4 children were not able to read for meaning. The 2021 results confirmed an alarming downward trend proving that only 19% of South Africa’s 10-year-olds can read for meaning in their home language.

81% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning (PIRLS 2021

This means that 81% of our children will:

  • Never succeed academically
  • Most likely not get a matric pass
  • Will struggle to get a job
  • Never enjoy reading a book
  • Always feel frustrated when learning from a textbook or written text

There is a solution, however.

Research has shown that a child’s mother tongue is the best language for literacy and learning throughout primary school (UNESCO, 2008a).

Children who learn how to read in their mother tongue are more likely to stay and succeed in school (Kosonen, 2005); a parent is more likely to communicate with their child’s teacher because these conversations occur in their mother tongue (Benson, 2002); a child’s thinking skills will develop more quickly and be stronger if they are first taught in the language they speak at home (Nishanthi, 2020); and a child will develop a stronger personal and cultural identity and have a stronger connection to their culture (Nishanthi, 2020).

Research has shown that children acquire literacy skills more quickly and effectively if they are taught in their mother tongue. Many researchers have also proven that the literacy and comprehension skills a child learns in their mother tongue are 100% transferable to any other language they learn later. This is why the CAPS curriculum asks that schools follow an additive bilingualism approach. Additive bilingualism is when the additional language is added to a child’s first language (mother tongue) rather than replacing their home language. If a child is taught in the additional language (usually English) from Grade 1, they struggle to develop literacy skills in either language, and slowly English becomes more powerful than the mother tongue. This is called subtractive bilingualism.

If a child who speaks an African language starts school in English, their schooling is set back approximately six years (Cummins, 1981). This would mean that when this child is a Grade 6 learner their English will be at the level of a Grade 1 learner who is being taught in their mother tongue.

Reading with meaning is the gateway to all learning. So, to give a child the best start to their education they must learn how to read and write with meaning in their mother tongue. Developing English as an additional language will happen more easily if the child has their mother tongue literacy skills in place.

Children deserve a quality education. They deserve a future. But they also deserve to love reading. If reading is enjoyable, and they are given stories written in their mother tongue to read, they can see themselves and their world in these stories. This will validate them and build confidence.

The greatest gift you can give a child is the ability to read for meaning in their mother tongue. This will help develop a love for their culture and language and will give them a strong start to their education.


Benson, C. & Kosonen, K. (Eds.) 2013. Language issues in comparative education: Inclusive teaching and learning in non-dominant languages and cultures. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Benson, C. 2002. Real and potential benefits of bilingual programmes in developing countries. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 5(6): 303-317.

Nishanthi, R. 2020. Understanding of the importance of mother tongue learning. International Journal of Trend in Scientific Research and Development (IJTSRD). ISSN: 2456-6470, 5(1): 77-80.

The Common Underlying Proficiency model (Cummins, 1980a, 1981a, as cited in Baker, 2011).

Baker, C. 2011. Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism, 5th ed. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

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