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Khayelitsha Book-Sharing Project

Book-sharing between a carer and an infant may be especially effective as a means of promoting infant cognitive and language development.

WHAT The Khayelitsha Book-sharing RCT
WHERE Khayelitsha, South Africa


Research from economically developed countries suggests that book-sharing between a carer and an infant may be especially effective as a means of promoting infant cognitive and language development. Studies carried out in such countries aimed at improving the quality of book-sharing have consistently shown that book-sharing programmes are associated with greater gains in infant language skills compared to other kinds of parent training. To date the potential of this approach has barely been explored in low and middle income countries, and, until recently, not at all in Africa. In societies where there is no or little culture of book-sharing the introduction of sensitive and reciprocal book-sharing could have a profound effect on children’s intellectual development and readiness for school. We are investigating the utility of providing book-sharing training in Africa.


We have recently completed a randomised controlled trial of a book-sharing programme we developed. The trial was conducted in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, and involved training carers (mainly mothers) in sharing books with their 14-16 month old infants. Over an eight month period (beginning in June 2012) mothers and their infants, within a defined catchment area, were invited to participate in the study. Mothers were trained in booksharing at group sessions twice a week for eight weeks. At each session there was a didactic presentation to the group, as well as one-to-one assistance in sensitive book-sharing. At the end of each session mothers were given a book to take home and were encouraged to practice sharing the book with their infant for a few minutes every day. Independent assessments were made, before the intervention and immediately following it, of maternal book-sharing techniques and infant language and attention. The findings of this study were extremely positive.

Mothers became much more sensitive and reciprocal in their book-sharing. As expected at this age, child language improved in both groups, but the magnitude of improvement was much more substantial in children whose mothers had received the book-sharing training. Notably, on a rigorous assessment of infant attention, while those in the control group showed no change over the intervention period, the infants whose mothers had received the training showed a very substantial increase in sustained attention. This is important because infant attention is the best predictor of later child intellectual ability.


This collaborative project was led by Prof. Peter Cooper and Prof. Lynne Murray (University of Reading) and Prof. Mark Tomlinson (Stellenbosch University). The project was funded by the Felix Foundation, DG Murray Trust, National Research Foundation and Constable & Robinson Publishers.