80% of Grade 4s can't read‚ literacy survey reveals

05 December 2017 - 11:37 By Dave Chambers
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A culture of reading cannot develop in a vacuum.
A culture of reading cannot develop in a vacuum.

Almost four in five Grade 4 pupils fall below the lowest internationally recognised level of reading literacy‚ and South Africa is last out of 50 countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls).

According to the 2016 report‚ released on Tuesday‚ there has been no significant progress in improving children’s reading skills since the last survey five years earlier.

“Being able to read is the key to academic and future success‚” said Celeste Combrinck‚ acting director at the University of Pretoria Centre for Evaluation and Assessment‚ which conducted the South African leg of Pirls.

“If you can’t read‚ your opportunities in school or after school will be limited‚ which is why reading should start at a very young age.”

But Combrinck said there was a glimmer of hope: between 2011 and 2016 there was an improvement in performance for five African languages (out of the 11 tested) at Grade 4 level‚ despite the fact that these were the lowest performing languages in the 2011 study.

At the end of 2015‚ Combrinck’s team tested the reading comprehension skills of 12‚810 Grade 4 pupils in all 11 official languages. More than 5‚000 Grade 5 pupils were tested in Afrikaans‚ English and isiZulu.

Professor Sarah Howie‚ the Pirls co-ordinator for South Africa‚ said the results suggested most pupils cannot read well enough to succeed in subjects across the curriculum in Grade 4 and higher grades.

Said Combrinck: “What is troubling is that this is true across all languages in South Africa‚ as less than a quarter of learners overall reached the lowest international benchmark.

“While less than half of the learners who wrote the tests in English and Afrikaans could read‚ 80% of those learning in one of the other nine official languages effectively cannot read at all.”

The Western Cape‚ Free State and Gauteng performed best‚ and reading achievement in Sepedi‚ isiXhosa‚ Setswana and Tshivenda was the weakest. Boys also performed worse than girls‚ with 84% not being able to reach the lowest benchmark‚ in comparison to 72% of girls. The gender gap is an international trend that is reflected in South Africa.

Other findings include:

• More than 90% of pupils writing in Setswana and Sepedi did not reach the lowest benchmark;

• Pupils writing in one of the nine African languages attained the worst scores‚ which were significantly lower than those writing in Afrikaans or English. Children writing in isiXhosa and Sepedi are the most at risk;

• Children who live in remote rural areas or townships have the lowest reading literacy scores;

• Class sizes are increasing. In the Grade 4 study the average class size was 45‚ compared with 24 internationally; and

• Fewer young teachers are entering the system. Most pupils are taught by older teachers‚ but there is no relationship with reading literacy scores.

“The groups most at risk are those in deep rural areas and townships‚ those learning in African languages‚ and boys‚” said Combrinck.

Howie said she hoped that the illustration of the scale of the literacy problem would inspire solutions.

“We can provide evidence and suggestions‚ but other experts now need to come on board and do the work‚” she said.

“If we can bring together like-minded people with honourable intentions who can use funds and resources for education effectively‚ there is no reason we can’t fix this‚ although it will take time and hard work.”

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