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Experts not happy with SA's education

Grade 4s can't read for meaning, reveals a recent literacy report

Jeanette Chabalala Senior Reporter
An expert says there should be a national consensus on what needs to be done to improve learning in the foundation years.
An expert says there should be a national consensus on what needs to be done to improve learning in the foundation years.
Image: svl861/123RF

An education expert says it comes “as no surprise” that 81% of grade 4 pupils in SA can’t read for meaning.

Speaking to Sowetan after the release of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) report by the department of basic education on Tuesday, Prof Kobus Maree said the country’s education system was not where it should be.

In 2016, Pirls said 79% of grade 4 pupils couldn’t read for meaning, however, this number has now risen by 2%.

The latest Pirls data was collected during the Covid-19 pandemic assessing thousands of students across 57 countries.

The department said due to the pandemic, only 43 countries managed to collect data on schedule. SA is among three African countries that participate in Pirls. The country tested grades 4 and 6 from August to December 2021, in all 11 languages.

Maree, from the department of educational psychology at the University of Pretoria, said it was concerning that when such information is revealed, “there are no consequences, no word from our president telling us how deeply concerned he is”.

Maree said universities also felt the impact of pupils’ reading and writing incapacity, adding he had previously called on teachers to make it compulsory, like doctors, to teach in rural areas.

“So often the private schools, the affluent schools are doing well. It breaks my heart [and] I am concerned about the under-resourced schools, people [living] with poverty, irrespective of the colour lines.”

Education expert Mary Metcalfe.
Education expert Mary Metcalfe.
Image: Gallo images

Another education expert, Prof Mary Metcalfe, said there should be a national consensus on what needs to be done to improve learning (both literacy and numeracy) in the foundation years of schooling. “Children who cannot read confidently struggle to progress – and it is the children of the most disadvantaged social backgrounds who struggle the most,” she said. “A national investment in improving reading must focus on all children – but particularly those who [are] in the least well-resourced schools. Investing in reading improvement will deepen quality, reduce inequity and improve efficiency in the system.”

Basic education minister Angie Motshekga said as they received the Pirls 2021 results, they expected the results not to be positive “given the negative and dire consequences” of the pandemic.

She added the country’s participation in the first Pirls assessment in 2006 revealed that a significant number of children were reaching grade 5 without acquiring adequate reading comprehension skills.

“Enhancing learners’ ability to read for meaning is a top priority for this administration, aligned with the presidential mandate and the 2030 sustainable development goals, as it forms a crucial cornerstone of the government’s educational mandate,” she said.

Motshekga said they were finalising a revised national reading plan to address the gaps in their approach. “This plan will ensure the provision of a minimum Learning and Teaching Support Material package specifically designed to support reading.

“Materials will be culturally and age-appropriate, including resources like alphabet friezes, posters, flashcards, big books and, most importantly, decodable graded reading books developed in various African languages to facilitate children’s reading acquisition.”


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