‘’We Started a Reading Revolution!’’ says Grassy Park principal

The recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessment is a stark reminder of just how far South Africa’s youth are lagging behind. A staggering 81 % of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language.

While low literacy rates among our youth persist, Kannemeyer Primary School in Grassy Park has taken a proactive approach. Through Principal Ridwan Samodien’s visionary leadership, the school has forged partnerships which have promoted literacy and instilled a love for reading among its learners.

Kannemeyer’s evolution to the literacy-loving school it is today, did not happened overnight. It began 13 years ago when Samodien, a self-described ‘’shy’’ leader, embarked on a unique leadership development journey with Citizen Leader Lab. This globally recognised NPO develops and strengthens the capacity of leaders in the private and public sectors. On Citizen Leader Lab’s school leadership programme, Samodien was paired with Dr Louise van Rhyn, an award-winning social entrepreneur and leadership and organisational development practitioner. This partnership with a business leader had a profound impact on Samodien’s ability to lead, and positively impacted the school’s infrastructure, its teachers and learners and the broader community.

Samodien, however, knew that his job remained unfinished.

The principal’s ‘light bulb’ moment came when in 2017, South Africans were first confronted with the sobering reality of our literacy levels. At the time, 78% of our grade 4 learners could not read for comprehension in any language. Recognising the urgency of the situation in his own school and community Samodien, a noticeably more confident leader, applied his mind to transform the literacy landscape at Kannemeyer.

In collaboration with literacy organisation, Wordworks SA, Samodien began a successful programme that empowered Kannemeyer’s parents to contribute to their children’s literacy skills. According to Wordworks SA, the initiative led to a ‘’marked increase in the annual systemic tests for literacy’’ at Kannemeyer.

Then in 2019, together with former learner, Emile Coetzee, Samodien set out to find a creative solution to encourage reading among the learners. Coetzee and his team at Epik Set Construction built book booths, reminiscent of traditional telephone booths. These booths continue to provide accessible and inviting spaces for learners to engage with books before, during and after school.

Samodien believes that the booths have eliminated bureaucratic book borrowing processes. This has fostered trust, responsibility, and a respect for literature.

He added: “We wanted to find new ways to encourage a love for reading, but more importantly to develop reading with understanding. We started a reading revolution!” said Samodien.

The 2020 edition of World Read Aloud Day presented yet another opportunity to inculcate a culture of reading at Kannemeyer.

With the help of parents and staff, the school launched a year-long reading competition to encourage a love for reading with understanding. The challenge was incentivised: Whoever read the most books by the end of the year would win R500. Learners from all grades participated.

‘’The children were paired as ‘reading buddies’, with Grade 7s reading to Grade Rs, Grade 6s to Grade 1s, Grade 5s to Grade 3s and Grade 4s to Grade 2s,’’ said Samodien.

Alumni and other stakeholders of Kannemeyer participated in a mini-billboard initiative, which featured a quote on the importance of reading from each person. These billboards still adorn the corridors of the school. Former head boy, Lester Kiewit, now CapeTalk show host and journalist, was also invited to read aloud to the learners.


School principals are key drivers of better literacy outcomes. But they can only do this when they are capacitated and supported to lead their schools. If you are a business leader who wants to play your part in tackling South Africa’s literacy crisis, join Citizen Leader Lab’s Execs Back to School programme this July. Experience a South African public school first-hand, while exploring how the private sector can help address this systemic issue. Email Info@citizenleaderlab.org to reserve your spot. Spaces are limited.