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THE inability of South African children in schools to read and write could impact negatively on their performance at university and college and in the workplace
Teachers should be able to assess learners' literacy performance in order to target the pupils' specific needs, Paula Gains of the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy said.
Gains advocates the introduction of a system dubbed "Early grade reading assessment" to identify deficiencies in literacy levels at primary school level.
Egra was developed originally in the Unites States for low- to middle-income countries that needed a user-friendly means of assessing reading levels. The Department of Basic Education has adopted the programme, which has now been adapted to all eleven official languages.
In addition to using Egra to identify literacy problems, Molteno has piloted the use of the Systematic Method for Reading Success to raise learner performance.
According to Gains, a 2006 system evaluating Grade 3 learners found that their literacy levels were much too low.
Meanwhile, matric figures for 2009, which represents the first learners to have received their full 12 years of formal schooling through the new Outcomes Based curriculum, shows an alarming drop in standards," Gains said.
From 2003 to 2009 matric pass rates have declined from 73,3 percent to 60,6 percent. Gains said this indicated that education in South Africa was not functioning optimally.
"There is widespread concern that is translating into a search for solutions to address the problem. In a 2009 review of the national curriculum, a picture emerged of a worrying level of demotivation and confusion among teachers," she said.
Key recommendations included increased emphasis on formal testing of the literacy levels of all learners. But Gains said it has since emerged that there was bewilderment among most teachers about how to implement assessment activities.
"More than that, teachers are not sure how to apply the findings of such assessments to improve learning."
Taking the process further than merely identifying literacy challenges, Egra is being combined with an intervention strategy to make the changes necessary for improvement.
"Also in 2009 a pilot was conducted in which Egra was combined with the Systematic Method for Reading Success," Gains said.
The project took place in three provinces, 30 primary schools with 48 Grade 1 teachers, using three of the 11 official languages of South Africa - isiZulu, Sepedi and Setswana.
"There is definite potential for SMRS to make a contribution to literacy challenges in South Africa," she noted.
"Evaluation after only four months revealed that learners in the SMRS classrooms performed an astounding 2,7 times better than those who were not exposed to the method," Gains said
But despite the demonstrated effectiveness of both Egra and SMRS, the challenge to generally improve the quality of our education still remains.
"With recent restructuring in the Department of Basic Education, strategic decisions with regard to Egra and SMRS have been delayed. Even as this obstacle arose, though, further evidence of the success of these programmes has emerged with Molteno trainers visiting three pilot schools in Limpopo Province," Gains said.
She found that all three schools, despite having received no external support since May 2009, "were still implementing SMRS with noteworthy success".
Gains stressed that intervention at the earliest points of a child's education could provide a lasting boost to the learners' performance in academia and life in general.