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South Africa’s 10 year-olds are struggling to read – it can be fixed

A toddler in dungarees is seen walking away from the camera, carrying books on their head in what looks like a library or book store
While there’s no single solution to the crisis, a range of approaches can help to bolster children’s literacy. Kobus Louw/Getty Images

More than 80% of South Africa’s grade 4 pupils – who are on average nine or 10 years old – cannot read for meaning. That means they can’t answer basic questions about or draw inferences from a text they’re reading. This worrying statistic emerged from the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which were released by the country’s basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, on 16 May.

The Conversation Africa asked Karen Roux, a specialist in reading literacy and development of equivalent assessments, to unpack the results.

What is the purpose of the study?

It’s an international large-scale assessment which provides participating countries with comparisons across education systems. Perhaps more importantly, it also allows countries to monitor trends over time and indicators of growth in the early years of children’s education. The assessments are conducted in five-year intervals; more than 50 countries participate. Only three African countries participated in the latest cycle: South Africa, Egypt and Morocco.

One of the main objectives for South African education authorities and researchers was to compare how well grade 4 learners read, across the country’s 11 official languages and its nine provinces. This information is vital to government bodies, policy-makers, non-government organisations, and scholars – it can be used to identify strengths and weaknesses and to address curriculum or policy shortcomings.

How did South Africa fare?

The PIRLS 2021 study showed that 81% of South African grade 4 pupils, across all 11 official languages, cannot read for meaning. Five years earlier, in the 2016 study, the figure stood at 78%.

The latest results indicate that eight out of 10 grade 4 children did not reach the Low International Benchmark, where they are expected to read a piece of text and locate and retrieve explicitly stated information. For example, the text would say “octopuses sometimes even make rock ‘doors’ for their dens that can be pulled closed to keep them safe” and the question would ask “what do octopuses use to make doors for their dens?”

The texts used in these tests came from all over the world, submitted by the participating countries. Twelve were trend texts; they were used in previous PIRLS cycles. Six new tests were developed. All countries got the same tests.

What explains South Africa’s performance?

The study happened in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools all over the world had to close for a period of time. It was to be expected that school closures would cause learning losses – that is, what pupils ought to have gained over a normal year of schooling, versus what they actually learned.

Read more: COVID learning losses: what South Africa's education system must focus on to recover

In low- and middle-income countries, including South Africa, the pandemic exacerbated existing learning losses. Some scholars suggest that learning losses also include the “deterioration” of accumulated knowledge that is lost over time.

COVID disruptions weren’t unique to South Africa, so what explains its poor outcomes?

It is a (less than) perfect storm of problems. COVID was just part of it. There are also issues with how teachers are being trained to teach languages; parents not instilling a love of reading in their children from a young age, or being involved as they are taught to read at school; and inadequate school and classroom resources, especially in poorer schools.

The country’s school language policy also likely plays a role. In South Africa, the language of learning and teaching in the early grades is meant to be the language that the pupils speak at home. However, this is not always the case; classrooms, especially in urban areas, are full of pupils speaking diverse languages – not just isiXhosa or isiZulu, for instance, but these and other African languages.

Then, just as the pupils are getting the hang of the language used in the early grades, they switch to English in grade 4. The foundation is not yet laid for one language before this shift happens, so the pupils struggle with the new language (English).

Language acquisition theories suggest that before mastering a second language, the child must first have a solid foundation in their first, or home, language.

Can this crisis be turned around?

It’s been done elsewhere.

Brazil, which like South Africa is classified as an upper-middle class income country, has been working hard on improving education. One of its poorest states, Ceará, has made huge strides in boosting literacy and numeracy. In a report about the process, the World Bank writes:

It began with political leadership. Ceará’s government placed learning at the center of the education policy with a series of reforms under three categories.

These three categories were: (1) incentives for municipalities to better their education outcomes; (2) extensive support from the state’s literacy programme for municipally run schools and (3) regular results monitoring.

As this approach shows, there’s no one solution to solve any country’s reading crisis. But political will is key. So, too, is ensuring the equitable provision of reading resources to South African schools – developed in African languages and grade appropriate. African language experts and storytellers should be the key source here.

Another thing that should be considered is a revision of the current curriculum policy for the early grades, introduced in 2012. The amount of time available for the skill of reading is extremely limited. Only six hours per week are allocated for home language, but this is divided into the different skills that learners must be competent in: listening and speaking, reading and viewing, writing and presenting, as well as language structures and conventions.

That leaves pupils with about five hours in a two-week period to work on reading. This time should be extended.

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