Only 18% of grade 4 children can read for meaning: Report
There is a reading crisis in South Africa as only 18% of children in grade 4 can read for meaning, and it is estimated this cohort is a full year behind same age children from 2019.
This was revealed by the annual 2030 Reading Panel convened by former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on Tuesday.
The report compiled by Nic Spaull, a researcher at Stellenbosch University, found despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2019 state of the nation address statement that reading was a top 5 priority, there has been “no progress, no plan, no budget” for reading since then.
It found 50% of children in no-fee schools do not learn the letters of the alphabet by the end of grade 1 and there is no national reading plan and no national budget for reading.
“Using Western Cape learning losses as a proxy, new research suggests the percentage of grade 4 pupils who cannot read for meaning has risen from 78% (in 2016) to 82% (in 2021) as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the report.
The 2016 round of Progress in International Reading Literacy Study showed 78% of grade 4 pupils could not read for meaning in any language (all 11 official languages were assessed), and they could not reach the low international benchmark because they were unable to “locate and retrieve explicitly stated information or make straightforward inferences about events and reasons for actions”,
Children in 2023 are estimated to be a full year behind same age children from 2019. The real possibility is the pandemic has wiped out a decade of progress in reading outcomes.
In her background note for the Reading Panel, Dr Gabrielle Wills reported on the findings of the “Covid Generation” research project summarising the impacts of the pandemic on education from large studies in Mpumalanga, North West, Eastern Cape and Western Cape. She reported learning losses for children in the early grades range from 50% to 120% of a year’s worth of learning.
Put differently, the average 10-year-old in 2022 has worse reading outcomes than the average nine-year-old from 2019.
To provide one concrete example: “Pre-pandemic, grade 2s in the Eastern Cape sample would usually sound out an additional 23 letters correctly over a year. In 2020, alphabetic knowledge development during grade 2 declined to only seven additional letters correct per minute.”
If South Africa maintained the trajectory of improvement from 2016 onwards, it was estimated by 2031 about 36% of grade 4s would be able to read for meaning.
“After taking account of the Covid-19 learning losses, it is estimated that if South Africa manages to return to the pre-pandemic level of improvement from 2022 onwards, only 27% of grade 4s will be able to read by 2031. Another way of stating this is that even if South Africa manages to get onto its pre-pandemic improvement trajectory, it will only get to 2016 levels of performance again in 2026.
“There is no budget for reading. The only reference to the budget that is specifically allocated for reading is the R11m allocated to the Early Grade Reading Assessment which targets 18 schools and where reporting shows the department of basic education managed to reach nine schools.
“Note there are approximately 15,000 primary schools in South Africa. To provide one example of a governmental priority that has a budget allocated to it, one can look at the mathematics, science, and technology grant which was allocated R423m for 2022/23.” said the report.
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