South Africa’s queen of literacy


A lifetime dedicated to fighting one of the greatest societal ills – illiteracy – was recently rewarded when Edna Freinkel received a Continental Lifetime Achiever award as one of CEO Global’s ‘most influential women in business and government’.

Other recipients included Graca Machel, Wendy Ackerman, Carol Brown and Professor Glenda Gray.

The resident of Rand Aid’s Elphin Lodge is now in her 80s and remains not only a vocal literacy advocate, but still teaches reading to as many people as she can through Readucate, a Trust registered in 1991 to ‘make a difference between dreams and destitution’.

Readucate – a marriage between ‘read’ and ‘educate’ – works mainly in schools and prisons, thus changing the lives of both children and adults. In prisons, literate inmates are trained as instructors so that they can teach illiterate offenders, which means the project has a greater reach and is more sustainable. Both groups become rehabilitated, which is why the Department of Correctional Services would like Readucate to operate in all prisons.

The methods used impart self confidence. They teach people not just to read, but to write, spell, comprehend and memorise. People are taught to study successfully and to think courageously.

“Learning must be a joy,” says Edna, who gives life to a phrase she once heard from a former Unisa lecturer: ‘Reading is living’. This encapsulates precisely Readucate’s vision.

Even though South Africa is ranked as one of the most illiterate countries in the world, Readuate’s biggest challenge remains a desperate need for funding. Despite limited funding, Edna and her team have managed to train around 1 500 teachers and prisoners. It has been roughly estimated that about a million children and adults have become fully literate through being trained by these Readucate Instructors.  With adequate resources, Readucate could raise national literacy levels dramatically, thus helping South Africa develop its undoubted potential.

When Edna’s husband, Dr Lionel Freinkel, was alive, it was his wallet that was often opened to ensure Readucate’s doors stayed open. “If only I was as good at fundraising as I was at teaching,” laments Edna.

In 2004, Edna received the South African Presidential Award of the Order of Baobab for her lifelong dedication to the development of specialised learning methods for the learning impaired and in 2010, she was awarded the UNISA Outstanding Educator Award.

“Really, my late mother should have been the one to receive the Order of the Baobab,” says Edna.

Rebecca Ostrowiak was a literacy pioneer who developed a multi-sensory approach to learning to read and memorise. “My Mom was a teacher in the early 1920s with a special interest in the ‘lame dog’ struggling at the bottom of the class. She was light years ahead of her time in recognising the relationship between home and school performance.”

Rebecca’s successes drew attention and calls grew for her to share more widely her methods for transforming non-achievers into fluent readers. Edna, then a young adult doing secretarial work for the Israeli Consulate, was persuaded to dedicate six months of her time to helping Rebecca capture her methods into a manual. She agreed to do so because ‘my mother was such a wonderful mother’. In 1965, the ‘Teach any Child or Adult to Read’ series was published and remains highly relevant today.

Edna never went back to her former career and the years that followed were all about spreading the magic of reading and helping people deemed ‘unteachable’ to reach their potential.

“I was involved in dyslexia before it was recognised as a legitimate disability,” she says. She was the only South African to speak at the first World Congress on Dyslexia at the Mayo Clinic in 1974.  There she met Marion Welchman, a co-founder of the British Dyslexia Association (BDA). It was Marion, on a lecture tour of South Africa that Edna organised, who suggested the formation of the Readucate Trust. Edna subsequently served for many years on the Editorial Board of the BDA journal ‘Dyslexia:  An International Journal of Research and Practice’.

In 1969, Rebecca and Edna established the Rebecca Ostrowiak School of Reading in Germiston, which they ran together. After her mother’s death in 1981, Edna trained qualified teachers for the Rebecca Ostrowiak Reading Teacher Diploma Course, with the help of Professor Jackie Jordaan of the Psychology Department at UNISA.

As principal of the school, Edna not only personally taught hundreds of children and adults to read, but also gave lectures and ran workshops for teachers in South Africa and abroad. She addressed numerous national and international reading and education conferences.

Although financial pressure and time constraints saw Edna eventually selling the school, Readucate continues Rebecca’s legacy and the methods she forged all those years ago, still work their magic.

The principal of Ohlange High School in the Eastern Cape, which recently initiated a Readucate programme, acknowledges its impact: “We have undoubtedly seen a great improvement in terms of learner results. For the past three years, learners were performing badly. A 10% increase in the pass rate has now been secured, especially in the past preparatory examinations.

“This indicates the excellent role played by the introduction of such a magnificent programme of reading in our school. Surely if it weren’t there, none of the enhanced reading skills would have been achieved by our learners.”

Rebecca and Edna’s passion has been passed down to Edna’s daughter, Corinne Ossendryver. A qualified Rebecca Ostrowiak Reading Teacher, Corinne has her Masters Degree in Communication and Education through Computers and is a specialist in the use of multimedia in education. And just as Edna once helped Rebecca, in 2013, Corinne helped her mom update the ‘Teach any Child or Adult to Read’ series.

Edna lived in Germiston for four decades. At her family’s insistence that she find a safe and secure environment in which to live, Edna moved to Elphin Lodge around five years ago – initially kicking and screaming. “But I love it here,” she says. “Everyone is so friendly always with smiling greetings from the gardeners up to the  fantastic management and the upkeep is amazing.” Efficiency, beautiful surroundings and warmth are the key words to describe Elphin Lodge, says Edna.

Despite many of Elphin Lodge’s residents leisurely enjoying their golden years, Edna says she cannot retire ‘while there is still one child or one adult who cannot read’.

For further information on Readucate, email


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