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The Biggest Solvable Problem in South Africa

Kagiso Trust

By Dr. Nic Spaull

Irrespective of how tenuous or strong you believe the relationship is between education and economic growth, teaching all children to read well is a unanimously agreed upon goal in the 21st century. It is necessary for dignified living in a modern world, it is necessary for non-menial jobs, it is necessary for a functioning democracy. It also usually helps with ignorance, bigotry and a lack of empathy.

In a modern context illiteracy is a disease that is eradicable, unlike unemployment or inequality. Like polio, illiteracy practically does not exist in most wealthy or even middle income countries (defined here as basic reading). Illiteracy rates among those who have completed grade 4 are in the low single digits in wealthy countries like England (5%), the United States (2%) and Finland (1%) and less than 50% in most middle income countries such as Colombia (28%), Indonesia (34%), and Iran (24%). It’s difficult to get directly comparable estimates for the whole country but the best estimate from the recent pre-Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) surveys is about 58%. That is to say 58% of Grade 4/5 students cannot read for meaning in any language. And why is Grade 4 a critical period? The South African curriculum (like most curricula) prescribes that in the first three years of schooling children must ‘learn to read’, then from grade 4 onwards they must ‘read to learn’. The fact that almost 60% cannot learn through reading means that these children cannot really engage with the curriculum beyond grade 4. It really isn’t much more complicated than that

Reading for meaning and pleasure is, in my view, both the foundation and the pinnacle of the academic project in primary school. Receiving, interpreting, understanding, remembering, analyzing, evaluating and creating information, symbols, art, knowledge and stories encompasses pretty much all of schooling. Yet most kids in South Africa never get a firm hold on this first rung of the academic ladder. They are perpetually stumbling forward into new grades even as they fall further and further behind the curriculum.

Based on my reading of the academic literature – which may differ from others – there are three main reasons why the majority of kids don’t learn to read in lower primary school.

  • Foundation Phase teachers (grades 1-3) do not know how to teach reading in a systematic way and pre- and in-service courses teaching this topic are unsystematic, inadequate or non-existant,
  • Text-poor environments; the School Monitoring Survey showed that half of schools in quintiles 1-3 (i.e. poorest 60%) had no school or classroom library or even a book corner. (Importantly, research has shown that even when there are libraries they are frequently mismanaged, have inappropriate materials and they are not integrated into reading lessons),

(3) Wasted learning time; A number of South African studies have aimed to measure opportunity-to-learn and have frequently found that less than half of the official curriculum is being covered in the year and fewer than half of the officially scheduled lessons are actually taught. In one study in the North West teachers only taught 40% of scheduled lessons for the year (compared to 60% among schools across the border in Botswana). It is not clear what was happening on the days where there was evidence of teaching or learning.

For me the solution is simple: we need to address these three problems:

(1) decide how to teach existing and prospective teachers how to teach reading (as is done all over the world in contexts as linguistically and socioeconomically complex as our own),

(2) ensure that all primary schools have a bare minimum number of books and that these are managed effectively,

(3) monitor how often teachers are actually teaching and introduce meaningful training first and real consequences second for those teachers who are currently not teaching. 

We may not have consensus on how to create jobs or increase growth, but there is consensus on how to teach children to read: with knowledgeable teachers who have books and provide their students with enough opportunity to learn. If you want to improve matric, you need to start with reading. It’s not rocket science. 

Dr. Nic Spaull is an education researcher with affiliations at the University of Johannesburg, the University of Stellenbosch, and the OECD. His research can be found at nicspaull.com and on Twitter @NicSpaull.

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