Libro Futuro

The heart beyond the skills. Promotion of reading and development of literacy in South Africa. Mario Coffa interviews Righardt le Roux

Intervista in italiano

Righardt le Roux works as a project coordinator in Gauteng for Nal’ibal with more than 30 years of experience in the development of literacy in a multilingual environment and cultural landscape as the one South African. Manages and supervises provincial reading promotion and training programs for community volunteers, ECD practitioners, teachers, parents and library workers. Currently enrolled in the UCT, an institute that researches and investigates the role of library professionals.

Righdart, can you briefly tell us what you do? 

For many years I have been involved in helping children to grow to love books and reading. Whether it was as a teacher a librarian or someone now working in the nonprofit field for a national reading campaign. Currently I work as provincial coordinator for Nal’ibali[1], overseeing literacy development in Mpumalanga, a province in eastern South Africa. Currently I also serve as an executive member of IBBY SA (International Board on Books for Young People ~ South African division) securing backing from authors, illustrators, publishers, children, and all other stakeholders in an effort to create a bigger consciousness of reading and starting home based reading. 

In your role you are lucky enough to work with children. What effect is it, in terms of feedback, when working with them? 

I am unbelievable lucky to be able to annually work with a core group of children and in that process be able to track their progress as readers. To watch children’s interaction with stories, books, and language over a period of more than 30 years, how they took to books and become independent readers has been an amazing journey for me. To read interactively with children and by making reading a fun activity for them is for me the most important task anyone can ever do. Over this period, I have also been fortunate to see some of the reading club children develop from readers to young independent published authors/poets rendering their work even on the international stages of the world. From the collective work of children as young as 9 years old to anthologies were published with more of the children’s work accepted to be published in print or radio broadcast. To see the wonderment on a child’s face when holding a letter of acceptance or a book containing their own work is such an award for me as librarian. There is also the added spinoff that children in the reading group, because they develop their critical literacy skills, can now read with comprehension and ultimately, we see an overall scholastic improvement where the reading club children score on average 13,9% better than their peers. In one case a boy’s scholastic improvement bettered with an astonishing 25%. Some of the children kept on coming back year after year and this was also a measure of the success of the reading club, their involvement with the reading club on an ongoing basis even opened up varsity and job opportunities with some getting invited onto the YALI and Unesco Cultural Exchange Programmes. During the peak of lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic in South Africa, we saw the closure schools and public and community libraries across the country. With children no longer freely having access to reading material the inequality within our society was magnified. Through a local initiative Read for Hope stories were recorded and send out through a network via WhatsApp. As a collective we managed to reach more than 30 000 children per month. In some cases we received feedback from children and these stories kept them connected throughout this time of disruption. 

Promoting reading is one of the activities that sets you apart. In your opinion, what are the most suitable ways for it to be effective at all levels, beyond social and economic differences? 

As adult reading role models we should position reading as fun and enjoyable interactive activities for children. These reading sessions should also be about building relationships beyond mere reading with children. In one of our official languages when you greet a person it translates into “I see you,” and as adults we must see the child and hear the child’s voice come through for the child to start taking ownership of the reading session and develop into an independent reader . Children are not thoughtless; they will pick up very easily if you are simply reading with them because it is your job or whether you are truly passionate about books and interested in them as emerging readers or is it simply lip-service. 

I want to dare with this question: what does it mean for you to give a book in the hand of a child? 

It is something to witness when a child from an informal settlement starts reading and realizing alternative realities through the books you read with them, or they read themselves. I always find it interesting to have a look at the books children choose and through self-talk letting the child enlighten me as to why a specific book was selected. As a total bibliophile I am forever buying books, bringing new and diverse books to the reading club, always having prepared a favourite to share with the children and many a times children and even adults attending a reading session will try and “sneak” this book out past me. But what I find really rewarding is placing the child’s own published story in their hands! 

In all of this, you act as an intermediary with libraries. What is or what could be their role in reference to the work “in the field” that you do for example? 

Wherever I work I always make a point of involving the local public or community library. This with they eye on how expensive books are in South Africa, and the shortage of good bookstores, to get librarians to start up interactive reading sessions with children in their communities whether as offered in-house reading sessions or as part of their outreach programmes. For me the core business of libraries are still books and it is about us as librarians getting our books out of the building into the hands of our clients, children, and adults alike. If we, as librarians want to see behavioural change when it comes to reading, we should be reading in communities, something I have picked up on that not nearly enough librarians are reading or seen reading. In the past with participating libraries, we saw their circulation went up with 1000 books per month. Going from a non-reading community to a reading community, now that is something remarkable. 

Training of volunteers is an equally important aspect. What does this training consist of and how is it organized?

Nal’ibali training sessions are organized through partner organizations such as the Department of Education, Department of Arts and Culture, Early Childhood Development centres, sometimes even places of worship, incorporating literacy development into their religious instruction, and all other interested community members like parents and caregivers. Our trainings are fun, practical and experiential focus on equipping adults to engage children in literacy development through bi-multilingual storytelling and other reading for enjoyment activities. Many people involved in literacy development only focus on the reading aspect, we at Nal’ibali, place equal importance on the writing aspect as the ability to read and write goes hand when it comes to maximum literacy development. We also campaign strongly for home-based reading as more and more the family unit is seen as the true game changer for sustainable literacy development. In my own reading club we have now adopted the child-to-child model where older reading club children record themselves reading at home with younger siblings promoting reading in the family unit. Our training is offered to anyone who feels that they can or want to make a positive difference in the lives of children. My youngest participant was a 12-year old boy from a small farming community who attended the training to go and help other children, many who do not have literate parents who can help them, on the farm where he lives with his family. The oldest participant was a 82-year old lady who attended a training session in order to support reading with local children in a place of safety where through her interaction children could enjoy access to books and stories.

Righardt, you really are a brave librarian. What would you recommend to a child or a boy who would like to do your job one day?

Follow your passion ~ do your best in life with what you are given.

[1] Nal’ibali is built on the simple logic that a well-established culture of reading can be a real game-changer for education in South Africa. Literacy skills are a strong predictor of future academic success in all subjects – and children who regularly read and hear engaging stories, in languages they understand, are well equipped and motivated to learn to read and write. A significant body of research reinforces the link between reading for pleasure and improved outcomes for children.


Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa archivista e bibliotecario, laureato in Conservazione dei Beni Culturali presso l’Università degli Studi di Perugia (2005) e diplomato in Archivistica e Paleografia presso la Scuola di Archivistica dell’Archivio Segreto Vaticano (2010). Dal 2010 Lavora per CAeB (Cooperativa Archivistica e Bibliotecaria) presso le biblioteche dell’Università di Perugia come bibliotecario e come archivista presso l'Archivio Storico del Comune di Gubbio. Si occupa di Biblioteche Digitali e formazione in ambito di biblioteconomia digitale. Nel 2014 membro del Comitato Esecutivo Regionale dell’Associazione Italiana Biblioteche (AIB) sezione Umbria, membro del gruppo AIB sul portfolio professionale e nel triennio 2017-2020 Presidente eletto di AIB Umbria. Dal 2020 membro dell'Osservatorio Formazione dell'Associazione Italiana Biblioteche. Autore di diversi articoli e interviste per Insula Europea sul tema degli archivi, delle biblioteche e del digital lending.