Family Literacy Project, South Africa

  • Date published:
    4 March 2016

Programme Overview

Programme Title Family Literacy Project
Implementing Organization Family Literacy Project
Language of Instruction Zulu, English
Date of Inception 2000


In South Africa it is estimated that between 7.4 and 8.5 million adults are functionally illiterate and that between 2.9 and 4.2 million people have never attended school. One million children in South Africa live in a household where no adult can read. In a recent survey, it was found that just over 50% of South African families own no books for recreational or leisure time reading. It is perhaps not very surprising, given this information, that a national evaluation carried out by the Department of Education in 2003 found that the average Reading Comprehension and Writing score for Grade 3 children was only 39%.

The Family Literacy Project (FLP) is based in the southern Drakensberg area of KwaZulu-Natal with a population of 300,000. The unemployment rate currently stands at 41% and 66% of households live on less than R 800 (equivalent to 80 US$) per month. The majority of people have no access to electricity or proper sanitation and this has serious consequences in an area where it is estimated that 30% of the population is HIV positive.


The project is aimed at families as a means of addressing the low literacy achievement of many pre- and primary school children, and the lack of confidence of parents in their ability to provide support to these children. As the parents (or those who take on the role of parents) are the first and most important educators of children, the family literacy approach supports both adults and children.

The FLP was set up in 2000 in response to findings that showed that the literacy scores of pre-school children were not improving, despite government interventions in the early childhood sector. Initially, monthly meetings were held with the parents of pre-school children to work with them to strengthen their role in early literacy development. By the end of that year, the parents were more confident in their ability to support their children whatever their own levels of literacy. These parents, and others in the area, requested that the FLP provide adult literacy tuition. Each group chose a member of their community to take part in training organised by the FLP. These women have since been trained in adult literacy (mother tongue and English as a second language), early literacy, and the participatory Reflect approach. Participation by the group members is important as the FLP believes that local knowledge is significant and relevant and that any new information must be integrated into this knowledge.

Implementation of the programme


The nine programme facilitators currently work in the following villages in Southern KwaZulu-Natal: Bethlehem, Come and See, Ncwadi (all near Bulwer), Lotheni, Stepmore, Makholweni and Mahwaqa (near Underberg), Mathendeni (near Donnybrook), Mpumlwane and Ndodeni (near Centocow). They use school classrooms, community halls, churches and community libraries for their meetings.

All the facilitators and group members are from the community in which the groups operate. The age of the group members ranges from 21 to 79, with the average age being 48. Since there is no defined end to the programme, group members do not have to leave the project until they choose to do so.


The main objectives of the programme are:

  • to transform literacy into a shared pleasure and a valuable skill shared by the whole family;
  • to help to develop a critical mass of community members of all ages who see literacy as important and enjoyable; and
  • to stress the importance of the parent/caregiver as the children’s first educator and support them in assuming this role.

Single Projects

To achieve these objectives the FLP has launched a number of individual projects.


As the Family Literacy Project is aware of the fact that literacy skills need to be used regularly in order to maintain them, group members are encouraged to contribute to the project newsletter, have pen friends, write for community notice boards and keep journals with their children:

  • Community notice boards
    These provide an opportunity for group members to display their literacy skills and share information gained from the topics covered in the sessions. One group member is responsible for organising the notice board and encouraging others to contribute to the displays.

  • Pen friends
    Each family literacy group member is encouraged to write to someone in a neighbouring group. These letters are exchanged when the facilitators meet. Pen friends meet at the end-of-year event.

  • Newsletters
    This initiative started when group members were asked to write to the FLP. Their letters were printed, followed by a few pages of news and photographs. The newsletter is now produced professionally. As it contains news from the different groups, it is very popular.

  • Journals
    The FLP supplies adults with a notebook so that they can keep a diary with a child. These journals are known as Umzali Nengane (Parent and Child) journals. The adults and children select a picture to paste into the book or draw one of their own. They then talk about these images, and the adults write down the ensuing conversation.


The problem of low levels of literacy in adults and children is exacerbated by the lack of books in the area. To address this challenge, the project established three community libraries and eight box libraries which are run by project facilitators with the assistance of group members.

  • Box libraries and book clubs
    Each group was given a box of books for women to borrow. At first, participants tended to borrow mainly children’s books; this was encouraged so that the women could read with their children or at least look at the pictures. At Stepmore, the facilitator soon noticed that the group members were discussing books together. This led to the first of the book clubs, which have now been established in every group.

  • Community libraries
    The first community library was opened in Stepmore in November 2003. Library furniture was provided by the provincial library services, books by Biblionef, Exclusive Books and other donors. Group members catalogued the books and set up the library. The library is open to anyone in Stepmore and is run by one of our group members, with support from the facilitator. The project now also has two brick libraries at Ndodeni and Mpumlwane, and a fourth library building at Lotheni is nearing completion.

The adult groups focus on building literacy skills, sharing local knowledge and introducing new information where necessary. Topics covered in the groups range from children’s rights and protection to women’s health, environmental issues, and committee and budgeting skills. The adult groups regularly discuss issues related to children, consider way of supporting their development, and have fun with them as they read or look at books together.

The groups made up of teenagers and primary school children explore a wide range of issues and relate these to the enjoyment of books and reading. Often, the topics will be the same as those covered in the adult groups, providing opportunities for families to discuss these issues together at home.


  • Family literacy groups: These groups meet twice a week to discuss a range of issues as well as to improve language and literacy skills. The average length of attendance at the end of 2005 was 3.5 years, with some members having attended since the project started in 2000.

  • Child-to-child groups: This programme is an important component of the FLP. About 350 primary school children meet once a week to read, draw and discuss different topics. These topics often mirror those of the family literacy groups, thus nurturing links between family members. The groups are multi-age, with Grades 3 and 4 children helping Grades R, 1 and 2 children. International research confirms that programmes like this build self-confidence in both the reader and the listeners.


  • Home visiting: The group members' desire to spread the message of early literacy gave rise to the home visiting scheme. Women take books with them to read to children; they also talk to mothers about their role in their children's healthy development. Once a term, each site supports the women by running a workshop on activities that can be done at home. These workshops focus on story telling, reading books and other games and activities designed to support the development of early literacy skills.
  • Teenage sexuality groups: These groups are divided according to gender so that boys and for girls can discuss issues of sexuality, especially those related to HIV and AIDS.
  • Health support groups: These began in 2004 as a response to the numbers of women caring for orphaned children. The facilitators are trained in the key messages of the international Integrated Management of Childhood Illnesses project strategy. This information is passed on to others as part of the home visiting scheme.


Project staff have developed learning materials and easy-to-read books that are available in both Zulu and English. The topics covered in these books include early literacy development, parenting, HIV/AIDS and resilience. The facilitators are provided with all units (lesson plans), as well as posters and leaflets where these are appropriate and available. The project supplies stationery for the adult, teenage and children’s groups.

A facilitator’s guide and learner’s workbook were developed to share the projects approach to family literacy. The project offers the Introduction to Family Literacy course to other NGOs and government departments.

Challenges and Future Plans

The main barrier to the smooth running of group sessions is posed by the members’ workload. Women will miss sessions when they have to cut thatching grass, re-thatch their homes, or rebuild/plaster walls. If a government-funded initiative requires short-term workers, FLP group members are often the first to apply and as a result will be absent from the sessions for the duration of the contract.

Another challenge is the state of the roads in this remote rural area. The roads are bad even when the weather is good, often impassable when it rains or snows. This disrupts the support that the project offers by visiting each facilitator once a month.

As NGO work is dependent largely on donor funding, donors who change their priorities can pose a real challenge to the NGO because it then has to source new donors. For example, FLP’s 2006 budget was R1, 600,000,(US $160 000), but it is not possible to extract the cost per learner from this total, as the very small staff of 3 full timers and 7 part-timers is involved not only with group work but also materials development, outreach, fundraising and management. In addition, the project contracts a health specialist and external evaluators and these costs are included in the overall budget. As donors do not make long-term commitments and some do not let organizations know in advance when they are going to change their funding criteria, this poses a major challenge to the FLP.

Meantime, as many people – convinced of the importance of the intergenerational transfer of knowledge, skills and support – are working to raise the profile of family literacy in South Africa, as in many other countries, it is possible that resources, whether financial and technical, will be forthcoming.

The FLP must maintain the focus on families as new members join the project. The first members, many of whom are still in the project, joined because they were interested in learning more about how they could help their young children and at the same time develop their own literacy skills. It is important that women who now join this well-established and recognised project realise and subscribe to its core mission and vision.


So far, the programme reaches 162 adults, 350 primary school children and 52 teenagers during group session. 500 children (under 18 years) are reached through adult members. 335 children are visited in 130 homes. Members are motivated to remain in the programme because they are treated with respect and the programme is relevant to them and their families. FLP experiences low drop-out rates and when members are absent they send apologies and give reasons.

The women who joined the project in the first years have not only become competent facilitators but are also able to speak at meetings/conferences and lead training courses outside their own area. Their confidence has grown and the main challenge now is how they are going to meet the different demands on their time.

Danisile Gladys Duma (b.1948) has been a regular member since the first family literacy meetings held in Lotheni. In 2003 she wrote (in Zulu):

“I was born in kwaNoguqa and grew up in Mpendle. I started school and went as far as Std 2. I stopped schooling because my home had nothing. I stayed at home, although I desired to learn, but I had to look after cattle. I was married when I was 15 years old … during the ninth year (of marriage), I had a baby girl …. She is the only child I have. My child grew up and went to school. I had wished that my child should be educated and not have to go through a similar experience to me, as I had a very sad experience because I was not educated. In 2001, an adult school was established, and I joined it. Now my life is interesting, and I am free. I thank this adult school.”

Monitoring and Evaluation


The project has been evaluated annually and the latest reports are available on the FLP website. The recommendations from the evaluations are taken seriously and followed up each year by the external evaluator. Different evaluation approaches have been used, including storytelling, photographs and stories, focus groups, interviews, and group members reflecting on their own practice.

Several prizes and awards underline the innovative character of the programme.

Lessons Learned


The most important lesson learned has been that children who are supported by their parents usually do well at school, and that this motivates adults to continue offering this support. The FLP has also learned that well-supported facilitators are key to the successful implementation of the programme.

Family literacy can be developed in different ways and benefit both adults and children. The FLP experience has shown that combining adult and early literacy in a participatory manner can work.

The exchange of experience is a rich source of ideas and input that helps to increase the quality and impact of the programme. It is for this reason that FLP staff have been meeting with other organizations and government departments to explore how to offer family literacy in a way most appropriate in the different contexts. To do this, FLP draws on its experience and shares the lessons learned with others.


Box 896, Underberg, 3257, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
11 Bowling Club Lane, Underberg
Office phone: 033 7011011

Pierre Horn
Tel.: +27 (0)837098900
director (at) familyliteracyproject.co.za

For citation please use

U. Hanemann (Ed.). Last update: 24 July 2017. Family Literacy Project, South Africa. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 10 December 2023, 17:05 CET)

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