Vula Bula Graded Readers Improve Children’s Reading Skills

by Media Xpose

The latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), released on Tuesday, found that 81% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language. The country ranked lowest out of the 43 participating countries in learners’ reading skills. The previous PIRLS study in 2016 stated that 78% of children in Grade 4 in South Africa can’t read for meaning.  

Not being able to read for meaning means being unable to locate and retrieve explicitly stated information in simple and easy text. Reading is the foundation of all learning, so if children can’t read with understanding, they will struggle throughout their schooling and be less likely to pursue tertiary education, greatly increasing their risk of being trapped in poverty and unemployment.

South Africa’s reading crisis is a national crisis with consequences that reach far beyond impacting on children’s educational and working lives – it impacts their entire lives because if a child cannot read, they are unable to partake in many other activities such as getting their learner’s licence, enjoying a novel, comic or Facebook post, following directions, reading the Bible, sending and understanding emails, doing any kind of research on Internet search engines or any other platforms, benefiting from scholarships, adhering to dosage and instructions on medicine and so much more.

If children are unable to read in Grade 4, they are more likely to drop out of school and fall into lives of crime, teenage pregnancy, low self-esteem, hopelessness and frustration. They won’t be able to acquire the necessary skills to take themselves, their families and our country forward.

The Vula Bula graded readers, published by the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, are effective in teaching children to learn to read proficiently in African languages. Available for learners in Grades 1 to 3, these readers offer a range of entertaining stories for children in isiXhosa, isiZulu, isiNdebele, Sesotho, Sepedi, Setswana, Siswati, Xitsonga and Tshivenda.

In South Africa, children are taught in their mother-tongue from Grades 1 to 3 and then English is used as the medium of instruction from Grade 4. Vula Bula lays a strong foundation for reading, enabling children to learn in a language they understand, while giving them the cognitive skills they need to learn English.

Each Vula Bula African language reading series offers carefully structured graded texts for early, emergent and fluent readers in beautifully illustrated stories, serving as a mirror to the child’s inner world and South African life experiences, as well as a window to the wider world beyond.

Vula Bula is the first graded reading programme in African languages where progression from level to level is based on the phonics of each language. Short and simple, the books contain predictable text to facilitate and encourage reading for enjoyment. Simple sentence structures and familiar vocabulary enable rapid reading progress, while clear and detailed illustrations help understanding.

The graded readers can be used for shared, group, guided, paired and independent reading. Stories encourage self-reflection, critical thinking and problem-solving.

Jenny Katz, the Research and Development Manager of the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, says the series of Vula Bula African language readers are a critical Foundation Phase resource for children. “They provide children with the necessary decoding practice which is key for building reading fluency,” she says. “Phonic skills facilitate fluency which, in turn, enables reading with understanding.”

Molteno provides training to enable teachers to utilise Vula Bula most effectively within the classroom. Parents can also buy Vula Bula readers, so children can strengthen the skills they learn in school at home.

The Vula Bula series has been endorsed by the Department of Education and has been provided in a number of government schools. The Eastern Cape Department of Education issued isiXhosa Vula Bula reading anthologies to all Foundation Phase learners in 2019 and 2020. The programme was evaluated and shown to improve reading outcomes in isiXhosa for the children who received them compared to previous cohorts in the same schools who did not (Ardington & Spaull, 2022).

The Vula Bula anthologies should be made available to every Foundation Phase pupil each year. As open-source resources, printing Vula Bula readers for every child in every grade is easy and cost-effective.

In addition to having more Vula Bula books in schools, it is also necessary to implement the recommendations set out in the 2022 Reading Panel Background Report to improve the standard of reading among children in South Africa. These recommendations are implementing a universal standardised assessment of reading at the primary school level in South Africa, having meaningful budgets for reading resources and interventions with dated implementation plans, providing a standard minimum set of reading resources to all Foundation Phase classrooms (Grade R-3) including alphabet friezes, graded readers and Big Books, and auditing university pre-service teacher education programmes.

This needs to be done with utmost urgency, so our reading crisis – like loadshedding – doesn’t come to haunt us all.  

For more on Vula Bula, visit:

To access Vula Bula for a child or a school, contact the Molteno Head Office on (011) 484 6245 or email:   

To make a donation to Molteno, visit: or email: for our banking details.  

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