Creative Learners

Creative Learners
Learning Brief

Die Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans (SBA)

Replicating Zoe Reading Groups

Category: Creative Learners | Reading Promotion | 29 May, 2013 - 20:00


This learning brief describes how the Zoe Reading Project in Rawsonville, Western Cape became a resounding success and led to the expansion of a programme that now reaches over 6800 South African children. The Zoe Project is an adaptation of the creative story-telling groups started by illiterate women of the Breede River Valley in the 1960s with the purpose of orally passing on community folk stories to younger generations. The story-telling groups were eventually organised under the auspices of the Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans (SBA). The Zoe Project is now centrally managed and funded through the SBA non-profit organisation.  It currently has a full complement of 52 Reading Facilitators, a Project Manager, and two Project Assistants.

The Zoe Reading Project is a response to a need for literacy development, and a need to foster of a love for reading amongst youngsters. In the modern context, where electronic media such as television, computer games, cell phones, and the Internet dominate education and entertainment, the art of storytelling and using imagination is gradually disappearing. While technology and new media channels have greatly improved some learning initiatives, the negative impact has meant that young children have shorter attention spans and that constant visual stimulation is needed to achieve learning. Lack of imagination and interpretation skills are additional side effects that stifle children’s ability to think creatively and express themselves adequately.

Reading books and listening to stories helps children develop their creative skills, imagination and comprehension abilities. Unfortunately, in economically marginalised communities like Rawsonvile in the Western Cape of South Africa, the socio-economic situation of most households prevents the regular purchase of reading books, newspapers, or magazines. As such, many children do not have adequate access to books. Low literacy levels also discourage parents, guardians, or older siblings from spending time reading stories to younger children. Furthermore, access to well-stocked Public Libraries and appropriate reading material for children aged 4 to 9 years old is limited. In essence, children in these communities do not develop reading habits, and this perpetuate a cycle of diminishing reading, imaginative thought, and story telling.

Project implementation

From January 2011 to October 2011, the SBA piloted and refined a children’s reading program for 1025 children in two districts of the Western Cape. The practical lessons learnt from this pilot phase, combined with the impact reports and feedback from programme facilitators, schools, and parents enabled the drafting of an expanded concept proposal. The SBA successfully secured funding for this new programme, and in 2012 it extended the reading initiative to reach over 6800 children in 14 districts within the Cape Flats and Paarl area.

The SBA Project Manager individually selected Reading Facilitators who then underwent a yearlong SBA-sponsored training course in Early Childhood Development.  They were therefore appropriately equipped to assist young children in their development. Significant energy, project budget, and diversity of training materials were expended on offering essential training to these facilitators. This improved the quality and impact of the SBA reading programme implementation.

Each facilitator then started her own reading group at a covenant, safe and accessible venue in the local community. To market the concept and the Zoe brand, SBA spent time informing local churches, schools, libraries, clubs and the press of the new reading group initiative. Each reading group was provided with a library of 60 storybooks specifically selected for children aged between five and eleven years old. These reading groups act as small neighbourhood libraries and allow members to borrow three books a week to take home. 

A unique characteristic of the Zoe Reading Project is the in-built ripple effect on reading within the community.  As the target children in each reading group develop their own reading capacity and blossom a love of reading and story telling, they spread the stories and books to their homes and to their schools. The result has been that the Zoe Reading Program, which originally only planned to recruit 4000 children to its reading groups, managed to recruit over 6800 by August 2012. 

A number of parents, teachers and reading group facilitators who were a part of the Zoe reading groups were interviewed about the programme impacts. They indicated that the programme was a success because they saw improvement in children’s behaviour; progress in their reading, writing and listening skills; a positive change in the children’s capacity for narrative and comprehension of plot; a growth in their memory and imaginative ability.

Suggestions for implementing similar reading groups

The following process steps were taken to ensure project success. In replicating this project, or in serving as a case study for other implementers or policy developers, we offer these eight suggestions:

1) Employ the services of an experienced and passionate Project Manager with strong organisational and inter-personal skills

  • The Zoe Reading Program Project Manager is engaged, competent, and committed to her organisational task.
  • The Project Manager makes an effort to keep up to date on 1) the latest practices in Early Childhood Reading Development; 2) changes in the Provincial Government of the Western Cape Department of Education’s Reading and Writing program for children aged 4-9 years; and 3) the latest Department of Education prescribed reading literature for schools.
  • The Project Manager regularly attends Children’s book reviews to talk with the authors and publishers to procure new, appropriate and effective reading books to add to the existing Reading Group Libraries. 

2) Employ the services of field-based Project Assistants

  • Project Assistants are there to support the manager and operationalize the program.
  • They can give continuous real-time, on-the-ground feedback as needed, and they can implement programme changes where necessary. 

3) Recruit appropriately trained Reading Group Facilitators

  • The manager and assistants are continually identifying and recruiting suitable candidates to take on the task of Reading Group Facilitators (also known as lees-tannies).
  • All Reading Facilitators receive comprehensive, formal training on Early Childhood Development before they start their own reading groups; and they receive on-going, on-the-job-training once their group is launched. Independent, external Early Childhood Development specialists and Reading Subject Matter experts conduct all the training.
  • SBA training concentrates on childhood reading development, and complimenting what children are taught in school. The training encourages an emphasis on reading and comprehension skills including: understanding story lines, following plot, identifying words in text, and defining new words. Lees-tannies are also taught to focus on helping the children explore and develop their imagination, to enjoy creative thinking, and to delight in reading and telling stories.
  • The SBA only signs contracts with trained individuals who want to fulfil the project objectives in a dedicated manner, and who are seen as ambassadors for the cause in the various communities in which they operate. This limits dropout rates and ensures sustainable project implementation.

4) Build strong administrative capacity

  • Project Administration and finance system are in place, functional and auditable.
  • Project Manager has a project risk management and continuity plan in place.
  • All project materials and teaching aids are procured on time and are available for each implementation phase.

5) Partner with like-minded organisations

  • The Project Management Team attended 3 Workshops, arranged by PRAESA and the Nal’ibali Reading Club, to meet and collaborate with peer organizations doing similar work. This allows them to compare leaning experiences and insights, to avoid replicating mistakes, to learn implementation and management best practices from each other.
  • The SBA aims to secure community and parent buy-in, in order to ensure programme sustainability.
  • The Project Management Team sought out active support from like-minded NGOs, local churches, and schools so as to reinforce the community’s goodwill towards the project. 

6) Keep a well-stocked library of appropriate materials and resources relevant to the project

  • Continuously grow the library of appropriate training materials and books based on their suitability for the different age groups.
  • Search for newly developed effective and proven teaching aids.

7) Brand and Market the initiative

  • The “Zoe Reading Program” has established a strong brand identity, which is now associated with the SBA, the DG Murray Foundation, and the Dagbreek Trust. It has also received significant press coverage over the past few years, lending it credibility and prestige.

8) Monitor progress and evaluate impact

  • Continues process monitoring and improvement was done and ensured the project maintained high quality output, remains relevant and sustainable in the long term. 
  • Monitoring reports can be shared with project stakeholders and can be used to help secure new funding sources.
  • The SBA continually conducts formal, on-site, live assessments to monitor the quality of the reading activities and storytelling, and to insure the reading facilitators’ competence and skill levels are improving.
  • Project outcomes are measured and project effectiveness is regularly assessed.
  • The SBA employed the services of PRAESA, an independent Research Unit at the University of Cape Town to conduct an objective programme evaluation.

9) Plan for the Future

  • The SBA intends to expand the reading group throughout the Western Cape Province. The project can now be replicated and scaled-up because it has a predictable and consistent record of measured and known outcomes and impacts. This also makes it easier to lay out accurate costing and feasibility projections.
  • The SBA has already begun expansion efforts throughout the country and has launched two pilot projects: one in the Baviaans Municipal Area of rural Eastern Cape, and the other in a high density, urban area of Edenpark, in the Ekuraleni Municipality of Gauteng Province. 


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In Short

This learning brief describes how the Zoe Reading Project in the Western Cape became a resounding success and led to the expansion of a programme that now reaches over 6 800 South African children.

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